Book Review

Four Hundred Souls

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019

  • Editors: Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
  • Genre: Nonfiction, History
  • Publication Date: February 2, 2021
  • Publisher: Random House Audio

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A chorus of extraordinary voices comes together to tell one of history’s great epics: the 400-year journey of African Americans from 1619 to the present – edited by Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, and Keisha N. Blain, author of Set the World on Fire.

The story begins in 1619 – a year before the Mayflower – when the White Lion disgorges “some 20-and-odd Negroes” onto the shores of Virginia, inaugurating the African presence in what would become the United States. It takes us to the present, when African Americans, descendants of those on the White Lion and 1,000 other routes to this country, continue a journey defined by inhuman oppression, visionary struggles, stunning achievements, and millions of ordinary lives passing through extraordinary history.

Four Hundred Souls is a unique one-volume “community” history of African Americans. The editors, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, have assembled 90 brilliant writers, each of whom takes on a five-year period of that 400-year span. The writers explore their periods through a variety of techniques: historical essays, short stories, personal vignettes, and fiery polemics. They approach history from various perspectives: through the eyes of towering historical icons or the untold stories of ordinary people; through places, laws, and objects. While themes of resistance and struggle, of hope and reinvention, course through the book, this collection of diverse pieces from 90 different minds, reflecting 90 different perspectives, fundamentally deconstructs the idea that Africans in America are a monolith – instead it unlocks the startling range of experiences and ideas that have always existed within the community of Blackness.

This is a history that illuminates our past and gives us new ways of thinking about our future, written by the most vital and essential voices of our present.

After reading two other books by Ibram X. Kendi, this one would have automatically been added to my TBR even if it hadn’t been so enthusiastically recommended by a friend of mine. He and Keisha N. Blain have collected a stunning array of viewpoints crossing the 400 year history of Black experience in America. It is broken down into sections, with each chapter covering a 5 year period in a unique way. The audiobook is narrated with a full cast, bringing this book to life in a whole new way. 

I really have to be invested in a nonfiction book for it to hold my attention, and this one grabbed my attention and didn’t let go until the end. Each chapter is told not just from a different perspective, but in a completely different style. Some are focused on aspects of historical events that I have some understanding of, others are dedicated to the story of individuals throughout history, while there are chapters devoted to legal and political aspects affecting the treatment of Black people in America. 

There were so many times that I was horrified and outraged to learn more about how slavery and racism was justified and legitimized. But there were also times throughout the story when I was amazed at the incredible strength and perseverance that people demonstrated, even in the face of these overwhelming odds. It was a story of pain, frustration, fear, anger, hope, inspiration, and tenacity. And I can only hope that we learn from the last 400 years, and make the positive changes that we need to for a better society — for ALL people.

9 replies »

  1. Great review, Leah! This one is on my TBR and the premise of it sounds so interesting. I also have a hard time focusing on NF but this one sounds like it’ll keep my interest with no issue! Really looking forward to check it out 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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