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Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain enlist 90 writers to tell 400 years of African-American history

The co-editors of ‘Four Hundred Souls’ assembled a chorus of writers, each one taking on a five-year period

Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X Kendi, editors of "Four Hundred Souls."
Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X Kendi, editors of "Four Hundred Souls."Chioke IÕAnson, Stephen Voss

“This is our story. We must not flinch.”

So writes journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones in her contribution to Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019,” a new collection of historical pieces co-edited by Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” and Keisha N. Blain, author of “Set the World on Fire.”

The book’s scope is vast. It unites 90 writers from across cultural and intellectual sectors to evoke the longevity of Black American struggle over four centuries. The result is what Kendi describes as “a community history written by a community,” a “choral history” of Black American life.

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The cover of "Four Hundred Souls."
The cover of "Four Hundred Souls."Random House

In the book, each of the voices making up that choir — including Angela Davis, Karine Jean-Pierre, Alicia Garza, Jericho Brown, Robin D.G. Kelley, Imani Perry, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Barbara Smith, Raquel Willis, Isabel Wilkerson, Allyson Hobbs, and dozens more — addresses a single topic revealing of a diversity of Black cultural experience. In effect, “Four Hundred Souls” not only refutes misconceptions of Black communities as monolithic, but also builds on a tradition of radical Black retrospection. It continues the work of abolitionist James W.C. Pennington’s “The Origin and History of the Colored People” (1841), Toni Morrison’s “The Black Book” (1974), Kevin Young’s “The Grey Album” (2012), and “Black Futures” (2020), co-edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham.

Recently, I had a chance to speak with the two history professors, Kendi, director and founder of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, and Blain, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, about the origins and production of “Four Hundred Souls,” as well as about antiracist coalition building and Black history-making today.

Q. How did the two of you meet, and when did you decide to write a book together?

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Blain: In 2015, there was a campus protest at the University of Missouri. At that time, I was editing the blog Black Perspectives, and I wanted to bring in a scholar to contextualize protest in the long history of Black student activism. So I reached out to Ibram. Before long, we were co-editing Black Perspectives and collaborating on op-eds.

Kendi: Yes, and in 2018, the idea for “Four Hundred Souls” came. I wanted to commemorate the symbolic birthday of Black Americans and what later came to be known as the United States. But I didn’t think that writing another single-authored history book would be celebratory or innovative enough. And I realized: “What if we brought together 80 different writers to write five years of African-American history each? What if we brought together 10 poets who could write poetry based on 40 years of African-American history each? What if this community of 90 writers would end up writing the history of a community?” When that idea came to me, I knew the project was going to be massive, and that there was only one person who could help me pull it off: Keisha Blain.

Q. Once you teamed up, how did you go about selecting the writers who contributed? What challenges did the team face?

Blain: We drafted a long list of gifted writers who we thought could evoke the complexities of Black history from different disciplinary perspectives. We knew their work, and through specific, detailed prompts, we were able to ask them to write about topics that would reveal their style and expertise.

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Kendi: And assembling the group wasn’t easy. These 90 writers are all extremely busy, and most have written entire books on the topics we asked them to address — the trans-Atlantic slave trade, intersectional feminism, queer sexuality, voter suppression, Black immigration, policing and incarceration, and much more. Almost every stage in our editing process was daunting. But we always saw the light. We knew how beautiful this book could be, and that’s what we focused on as we worked.

Q. Professor Kendi, in your introduction, you write about solidarity and antiracist praxis. As I read, I found myself reflecting on this in relation to fluctuating white interest in Black life. For instance: Last summer, during the global Black Lives Matter protests, Pew polls showed that support for BLM among white Americans was at around 67 percent. But come September, it dropped to about 45 percent. With numbers like this, as well as with what we’ve seen recently with COVID-19 statistics and the deadly coup attempt on Jan. 6, why do you think white interest in Black life has waned in recent months?

Kendi: Last summer, some of the most powerful figures in this country, including President Trump and many others, misled white people into believing that the big problems were not police violence and systemic racism, but rather activist violence and BLM. This was not based in fact. One study found that between late May and late August, there were close to 8,000 demonstrations, 93 percent of which were peaceful. But by the end of June, many white Americans had been tricked into believing that the majority of these demonstrations were violent, and that these BLM activists were not seeking redress from racism and police violence, but instead trying to destroy the country.

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And so it didn’t surprise me that after the election, yet again, a number of white Americans were mass-manipulated into believing that the election had been stolen — to the point where their support for democracy itself waned, ultimately causing a group of mostly white folks to storm the Capitol. It all highlights how Americans broadly considered have been systematically misinformed about their reality and certainly about their history. And so “Four Hundred Souls” is trying to combat this by telling the truth. The truth about what the problems actually are, as well as who has been fighting those problems. Black people, that is, have been fighting for freedom since 1619.

Q. Thinking now about the release of “Four Hundred Souls”: The book is hitting shelves at the start of Black History Month. Professor Blain, what are your thoughts on this timing, and how do you think projects like this relate to broad and deep coalition building across differently racialized communities, including among Latinx, Asian-American, and Native peoples — coalitions necessary to defeat white supremacy?

Blain: The fact that this book is coming out during Black History Month is key. This is a time where we as a nation come together to reflect on the historical contributions of Black people and the hard facts of US history. And through the stories told in “Four Hundred Souls,” it’s clear that while the book centers the ideas and experiences of people of African descent, those ideas and experiences are linked to those of other people of color in the United States.

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One essay that addresses this directly is Kyle T. Mays’s “Blackness and Indigeneity.” “The dispossession of millions of Native Americans and the simultaneous genocide and enslavement of Indigenous Africans,” he writes, “remain two intertwining and parallel events that have fundamentally shaped the United States” and “continue today in the form of rampant anti-Black racism and anti-indigenous erasure from the national consciousness.” What happens, then, when we see these histories as interconnected?

As “Four Hundred Souls” charts the history of Black America, it weaves in related narratives that are part of this broader story. So I hope that everyone who picks up the book and engages with this Black history, including people of color broadly, will find the ways their experiences in the US are connected to those of the Black people documented.

Q. Looking ahead: What’s emerged from this collaboration that you’ll each carry forward into future work?

Blain: A deepened sense of community. Community was important to Ibram and me long before we created this book, but as editors, having this remarkable experience of collaborating with so many writers in and beyond academia — that’s something I’m certainly carrying forward.

Kendi: I would say the same. We’re living in an incredible time for Black creators, and I’m constantly imagining ways to bring them together and showcase their brilliance. That’s what I appreciate most about “Four Hundred Souls”: People can read in one book a sampling of today’s Black creative greatness and contextualize it across 400 years of struggle.

Jonathan Leal writes and teaches about race, media, and the arts at the University of Southern California.