Four Hundred Souls

I didn’t finish Four Hundred Souls. I was a little over halfway through when it was automatically returned to the library; there were a dozen people waiting, so there was no possibility of renewing. I’ll be getting back on the list so I can finish the audiobook. It’s not the kind of book that can be skimmed; it deserves careful attention.

The premise is both simple and brilliant. Four hundred years of history, told from the perspective of Americans who were first enslaved and then marginalized and oppressed, is divided into 5-year segments beginning in 1619, the year of the first official record of a slave ship arriving in what was to become the United States. Each 5-year segment is written by a different person, and the larger divisions of the book, ten in all, each end with a poem. Ninety writers contributed to this work, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. 

Some writers concentrate on the period itself; others use an event or person to act as a starting point to make a connection to more contemporary issues. The pieces are beautiful, and maddening, and insightful, and horrifying, and more. I thought about skipping some segments so I could get through the whole book, but that would have been wrong. There are so many layers, so many stories, such richness in the history of this community that speeding through it was not an option for me.

The thing that bothers me about this book (aside from the obvious question of how we ever thought that buying and selling human beings was anything short of abhorrent) is this. I recognize many of the people referenced in the essays. Not all, or even most, but quite a few names were familiar to me. On the other hand, the names of the contributors, the essayists and poets who created this piece of work, were unfamiliar, and I recognized only a few of the readers. That is a gaping hole in my knowledge of literary culture, and the reason that gap exists is not surprising, given the central messages of this book. 

It’s clear, even though I still have half of the book still unheard, that the overwhelming majority of people who talk about “Black America” or “the Black experience in America” don’t have the first clue about the subject. This is, of course, because it isn’t a subject at all, but the stories of a culture initially defined by the limits imposed on it from outside. The fact that these limits have been and are political, religious, and cultural makes their existence and the efforts (still going on today) to maintain them in some form or another all the more damning. Within those limits a rich and varied community came into existence and grew, becoming more complex all the time. Only by painting with the broadest possible strokes can one talk about the Black Experience as a single entity, and this book paints in minute detail.

There is much I did not know about the period leading up to the mid-1800s, which is as far as I got before the audiobook disappeared. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that I’m looking forward to the rest of the story; the attitudes and actions of those who held the jailers’ keys do not bear the light of history well. I do think I need to hear the rest of it, and I can recommend the book, not as pleasure reading, but rather important and necessary. 

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A career working with teenagers on the fringes of society has made me both sensitive to and appreciative of the complexities of character and the struggles, inner and outer, that we all wrestle with in one form or another. My writing emphasizes character development over action, and, as a lifelong Southerner, the rhythms and cadence of the Southeastern United States influence both my spoken and written voice.

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