FEBRUARY 22, 2021
Our birth and death are easy hours, like sleep
and food and drink. The struggle staggers us
for bread, for pride, for simple dignity.
And this is more than fighting to exist;
more than revolt and war and human odds.
— Margaret Walker, “The Struggle Staggers Us”
IN THE FALL OF 1970, when I entered high school in Chicago, I was introduced to Margaret Walker’s poetry through an anthology, Abraham Chapman’s edited collection Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature. The volume included essays, novel chapters, poetry, and short stories of a considerable pantheon — Baldwin, Brooks, Du Bois, Evans, Hayden, Hughes, Petry, Walker, and so many more. A scholar of Jewish descent had edited what seemed to us a revolutionary volume as handy as Muhammad Speaks or the Black Panther Black Community News Service.
This tome was the literary companion to Lerone Bennett Jr.’s Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America 1619–1962 originally published in 1962 by Black-owned Johnson Publishing Company. And the third member of this trinity was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings published in 1969, which gave voice to the experiences of young and older Black women who read it. These texts were so accessible that teachers passed them on to students. In my high school, they became required reading. These were books that, along with so many others, empowered what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the Negro Revolution.”
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619–2019, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, falls in this tradition: an inspiring book of historical observations, poetry, scholarship, and vignettes. What is equally inspiring is the rich rethinking of US history by Black writers and historians. This is not to say that white historians have not contributed to the retelling of US national histories that center African Americans — many have. However, it should not be forgotten that the academy has often viewed Black historians with skepticism, as not being fully objective when they wrote of the centrality of Black folk in the history of the United States.
For me, what is exciting about Four Hundred Souls are the voices of scholars who, with their own rich and diverse Black experiences, use their journalistic, literary, and scholarly muscle to inform a wider public about the continuous historical struggles of their kith and kin in shaping the United States. Surely historian Carter G. Woodson, one of the founding organizers of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, and his generational cohort are smiling down at this book.
All of the essays in Four Hundred Souls are powerful and beautifully succinct, beginning with Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay “Arrival.” These essays are intended to lead readers to learn more about the entangled histories that made and continue to make Black folk central in the United States’s democratic experiment. Singling out any one essay in this invaluable collection is difficult. Yet Ijeoma Oluo’s “Whipped for Lying with a Black Woman,” Robert Jones Jr.’s “Denmark Vesey,” Tiya Miles’s “One Black Boy: The Great Lakes and the Midwest,” Kiese Laymon’s “Cotton,” and Howard Bryant’s “Jack Johnson” stick in my mind for their narrative affect and critique of the past and the present.
If there is a deficit in this volume, it is the sparse attention given to the institutions that Black folk created to define themselves outside the purview of the dominant gaze, with a few exceptions like the Black feminist organization Combahee River Collective and the First African Baptist Church of Savannah. Our Black souls were nourished by communal institutions: Protestant and Catholic churches, mosques, temples, colleges, banks, small businesses, social clubs, and arts nonprofits, as well as the brothels, blind pigs, gambling establishments, and every other den of iniquity built upon our own underground political economy that nurtured careers in business, entertainment, and politics.
Surely a way to tell a people’s history is to tell it in all its untidy glory from the bottom up. This is why this volume’s quilting thread is its poetry, which rounds out the collection’s earnestness. Four Hundred Souls coincides with the centennial publication of Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” a poem whose historical imagination still fills the soul like a biblical psalm. The poets here offer a similar balm: their stanzas make sober historical sketches feel more James Brown “super bad,” imagining other worlds in and in spite of struggle. So begins Jericho Brown’s “Upon Arrival”:
We’d like a list of what we lost
Think of those who landed in the Atlantic
The sharkiest of waters
Bonnetheads and thrashers
Spinners and blacktips
We are made of so much water
Bodies of waters
All of the poets in the volume lift this history into song, not just the “Sorrow Songs,” as W. E. B. Du Bois once called the Black hymnody he used in The Souls of Black Folk. The other poets in this volume, Joshua Bennett, Mahogany L. Browne, Donika Kelly, Morgan Parker, Ishmael Reed, Justin Phillip Reed, Patricia Smith, and Phillip B. Williams, remind us of the spiritual resiliency of people trying to live democratically. Or as Chet’la Sebree writes in “And the Record Repeats,”
All our lives we’ve cried a rallying cry,
from the river, from the water wanting
baptism, a rebirth to an earth
This call for rebirth, always out of earshot of the more powerful, is the one sung by Baptists, bankers, capitalists, communists, freethinkers, Garveyites, Methodists, Moorish scientists, Muslims, Pentecostals, and Presbyterians, all trying to tell ordinary Black people that their living history is powerful and soulful. This superbly edited book comes right on time in this unenlightened moment in US history and serves as a reminder of a different set of democrats who have creatively turned 400 years of painful, uplifting ugliness into beautiful Blackness, inspiring histories of lifelong democratic struggle to be an unshackled people. If I were a teenager today, I would carry it in my backpack.
Randal Maurice Jelks is a professor of American studies and African and African American studies at the University of Kansas. His most recent book is Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans: Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams, Eldridge Cleaver, and Muhammad Ali.