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. 

Three Rules

On Looking, by Alexandra Horowitz, is an excellent work of non-fiction with a premise that intrigued me from the first time I heard about it. 

Ms. Horowitz has written previously about dogs and how their sense of the world differs from ours, and On Looking is a natural outgrowth of that concept. In it, she takes a dozen walks, sometimes around the block where she lives, sometimes in other locations, but each time with a different person (plus once with her dog and once, at the end of the book, by herself). What each person sees is different; from her nineteen month old son to the geologist, the illustrator, the social worker and advocate for the blind who is blind herself, the president of the Project for Public Spaces, and others, she experiences her surroundings differently in every chapter.

Things she has seen but not seen, buildings she has passed a hundred times without going in or even knowing what work was being done inside, sounds pointed out by both the audio specialist and the blind social worker, the activities and clues about the presence of animal life identified by the animal behavior researcher who specializes in urban wildlife; every walk is a chance to expand her understanding of the world she moves through daily. Each unfolds at a different pace and includes unexpected pauses to examine, listen to, or feel some aspect of the environment.

The appearance of a flock of birds in flight leads to an explanation of the three rules that govern much of animal group movement, from birds to fish to insects:

Don’t bump into others.

Follow the one in front of you.

Keep up with those beside you.

Computer models programming a group of discrete points on the monitor to follow these three rules result, when the dots are set in motion, in a display that looks remarkably like birds in flight. There are interesting parallels at work in Horowitz’s book; from the rules governing the movement of animal groups to the sophisticated micro signals smoothing out the movement of people using the sidewalks of a major city, both of which function to allow large groups to move smoothly in the same specific area.

I also wondered, and still do, how much of human group behavior can be explained by the three rules, and how much conflict results when one or a group of us ignores or sabotages them. Stepping outside the rules is also how progress is often made, of course, so there’s that.

The book left me more sensitive, at least temporarily, to the nuances of the world around me and how much more there is to experience than I usually let in as I move through the day. I know the unconscious screening process we all use helps keep us both safe and sane, given the staggering amount of info there is out there. Still, it’s good to now and then be reminded of the existence of those filters so we can bypass them for a moment or two. It can surprise us and refresh the world, or at least our view of it.