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

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Notes From Black Reads

Eighty Black writers and 10 Black poets, 400 years of history, told in five-year increments — this is a work of counterpoint and panorama, a book wholly its own, wonderfully unique. Read it slowly and with intention, allowing the voices and histories to "speak" in conversation, author to author, author to reader. It is indeed the history of African America, but one clear takeaway is that "the true story of America begins here, in 1619. This is our story. We must not flinch."

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A chorus of extraordinary voices tells the epic story of the four-hundred-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.

FINALIST FOR THE ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Washington Post, Town & Country, Ms. magazine, BookPage, She Reads, BookRiot, Booklist • “A vital addition to [the] curriculum on race in America . . . a gateway to the solo works of all the voices in Kendi and Blain’s impressive choir.”—The Washington Post

“From journalist Hannah P. Jones on Jamestown’s first slaves to historian Annette Gordon-Reed’s portrait of Sally Hemings to the seductive cadences of poets Jericho Brown and Patricia Smith, Four Hundred Souls weaves a tapestry of unspeakable suffering and unexpected transcendence.”—O: The Oprah Magazine

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 a thousand 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 ninety brilliant writers, each of whom takes on a five-year period of that four-hundred-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 ninety different minds, reflecting ninety 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.

ISBN-13: 9780593449349

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group

Publication Date: 02-01-2022

Pages: 528

Product Dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.30(d)

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University and the founding director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. He is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a CBS News racial justice contributor. He is the host of the new action podcast Be Antiracist. Dr. Kendi is the author of many highly acclaimed books including Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, making him the youngest-ever winner of that award. He has also produced five straight #1 New York Times bestsellers, including How to Be an Antiracist, Antiracist Baby, and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, co-authored by Jason Reynolds. In 2020, Time magazine named Dr. Kendi one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He was awarded a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as the Genius Grant. Keisha N. Blain, a 2022 Guggenheim Fellow, is an award-winning historian, professor, and writer. She is the author of the multi-prize-winning book Set the World on Fire and co-editor, with Ibram X. Kendi, of the #1 New York Times bestseller Four Hundred Souls. She is a professor of Africana Studies and History at Brown University and a columnist for MSNBC. Her most recent book is Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1



Nikole Hannah-Jones

Four hundred years ago, in 1620, a cargo ship lowered its anchor on the eastern shore of North America. It had spent sixty-six grueling days on the perilous Atlantic Ocean, and its 102 passengers fell into praise as they spotted land for the first time in more than two months.

These Puritans had fled England in search of religious freedom. We know all their names, names such as James Chilton, Frances Cook, and Mary Brewster. Their descendants proudly trace their lineage back to the group that established self-governance in the “New World” (that is, among the white population—Indigenous people were already governing themselves).

They arrived on the Mayflower, a vessel that has been called “one of the most important ships in American history.” Every fall, regaled by stories of the courageous Pilgrims, elementary school children whose skin is peach, tan, and chestnut fashion black captain hats from paper to dress up like the passengers on the Mayflower. Our country has wrapped a national holiday around the Pilgrims’ story, ensuring the Mayflower’s mythical place in the American narrative.

But a year before the Mayflower, in 1619, another ship dropped anchor on the eastern shore of North America. Its name was the White Lion, and it, too, would become one of the most important ships in American history. And yet there is no ship manifest inscribed with the names of its passengers and no descendants’ society. These people’s arrival was deemed so insignificant, their humanity so inconsequential, that we do not know even how many of those packed into the White Lion’s hull came ashore, just that “some 20 and odd Negroes” disembarked and joined the British colonists in Virginia. But in his sweeping history Before the Mayflower, first published in 1962, scholar Lerone Bennett, Jr., said of the White Lion, “No one sensed how extraordinary she really was . . . ​[but] few ships, before or since, have unloaded a more momentous cargo.”

This “cargo,” this group of twenty to thirty Angolans, sold from the deck of the White Lion by criminal English marauders in exchange for food and supplies, was also foundational to the American story. But while every American child learns about the Mayflower, virtually no American child learns about the White Lion.

And yet the story of the White Lion is classically American. It is a harrowing tale—one filled with all the things that this country would rather not remember, a taint on a nation that believes above all else in its exceptionality.

The Adams and Eves of Black America did not arrive here in search of freedom or a better life. They had been captured and stolen, forced onto a ship, shackled, writhing in filth as they suffered and starved. Some 40 percent of the Angolans who boarded that ghastly vessel did not make it across the Middle Passage. They embarked not as people but as property, sold to white colonists who just were beginning to birth democracy for themselves, commencing a four-hundred-year struggle between the two opposing ideas foundational to America.

And so the White Lion has been relegated to what Bennett called the “back alley of American history.” There are no annual classroom commemorations of that moment in August 1619. No children dress up as its occupants or perform classroom skits. No holiday honors it. The White Lion and the people on that ship have been expunged from our collective memory. This omission is intentional: when we are creating a shared history, what we remember is just as revelatory as what we forget. If the Mayflower was the advent of American freedom, then the White Lion was the advent of American slavery. And so while arriving just a year apart, one ship and its people have been immortalized, the other completely erased.

W.E.B. Du Bois called such erasure the propaganda of history. “It is propaganda like this that has led men in the past to insist that history is ‘lies agreed upon’; and to point out the danger in such misinformation,” he wrote in his influential treatise Black Reconstruction (1935). Du Bois argued that America had falsified the fact of its history “because the nation was ashamed.” But he warned, “It is indeed extremely doubtful if any permanent benefit comes to the world through such action.”

Because what is clear is that while we can erase the memory of the White Lion, we cannot erase its impact. Together these two ships, the White Lion and the Mayflower, bridging the three continents that made America, would constitute this nation’s most quintessential and perplexing elements, underpinning the grave contradictions that we have failed to overcome.

These elemental contradictions led founder Thomas Jefferson, some 150 years later, to draft the majestic words declaring the inalienable and universal rights of men for a new country that would hold one-fifth of its population—the literal and figurative descendants of the White Lion—in absolute bondage. They would lead Frederick Douglass—one of the founders of American democracy—to issue in 1852 these fiery words commemorating an American Revolution that liberated white people while ensuring another century of subjugation for Black people:

This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom.

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.

The contradictions between these two founding arrivals—the Mayflower and the White Lion—would lead to the deadliest war in American history, fought over how much of our nation would be enslaved and how much would be free. They would lead us to spend a century seeking to expand democracy abroad, beckoning other lands to “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” while violently suppressing democracy at home for the descendants of those involuntary immigrants who arrived on ships like the White Lion. They would lead to the elections—back-to-back—of the first Black president and then of a white nationalist one.

The erasure of August 1619 has served as part of a centuries-long effort to hide the crime. But it has also, as Du Bois explained in The Souls of Black Folk, robbed Black Americans of our lineage.

Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. . . . ​Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation,—we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving?

Would America have been America without her Negro people?

We cannot fathom it. Black Americans, by definition, are an amalgamated people. Our bodies form the genetic code—we are African, Native, and European—that made America and Americans. We are the living manifestation of the physical, cultural, and ideological merger of the peoples who landed on those ships but a year apart, and of those people who were already here at arrival. Despite the way we have been taught these histories, these stories do not march side by side or in parallel but are inherently intertwined, inseparable. The time for subordinating one of these histories to another has long passed. We must remember the White Lion along with the Mayflower, and the Powhatan along with the English at Jamestown. As Du Bois implores, “Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?”

The true story of America begins here, in 1619. This is our story. We must not flinch.

Table of Contents

A Community of Souls: An Introduction Ibram X. Kendi xiii

Part 1

1619-1624: Arrival Nikole Hannah-Jones 3

1624-1629: Africa Molefi Kete Asante 8

1629-1634: Whipped for Lying with a Black Woman Ijeoma Oluo 11

1634-1639: Tobacco Damaris B. Hill 15

1639-1644: Black Women's Labor Brenda E. Stevenson 18

1644-1649: Anthony Johnson, Colony of Virginia Maurice Carlos Ruffin 22

1649-1654: The Black Family Heather Andrea Williams 26

1654-1659: Unfree Labor Nakia D. Parker 30

Poem: "Upon Arrival" Jericho Brown 34

Part 2

1659-1664: Elizabeth Keye Jennifer L. Morgan 39

1664-1669: The Virginia Law on Baptism Jemar Tisby 43

1669-1674: The Royal African Company David A. Love 47

1674-1679: Bacon's Rebellion Heather C. McGhee 51

1679-1684: The Virginia Law that Forbade Bearing Arms; or the Virginia Law that Forbade Armed Self-Defense Kellie Carter Jackson 55

1684-1689: The Code Noir Laurence Ralph 57

1689-1694: The Germantown Petition against Slavery Christopher J. Lebron 62

1694-1699: The Middle Passage Mary E. Hicks 65

Poem: "Mama, Where You Keep Your Gun?" Phillip B. Williams 68

Part 3

1699-1704: The Selling of Joseph Brandon R. Byrd 73

1704-1709: The Virginia Slave Codes Kai Wright 77

1709-1714: The Revolt in New York Herb Boyd 82

1714-1719: The Slave Market Sasha Turner 85

1719-1724: Maroons and Marronage Sylviane A. Diouf 89

1724-1729: The Spirituals Corey D. B. Walker 93

1729-1734: African Identities Walter C. Rucker 96

1734-1739: From Fort Mose to Soul City Brentin Mock 101

Poem: "Before Revolution" Morgan Parker 105

Part 4

1739-1744: The Stono Rebellion Wesley Lowery 111

1744-1749: Lucy Terry Prince Nafissa Thompson-Spires 115

I749-1754: Race and the Enlightenment Dorothy E. Roberts 119

1754-1759: Blackness and Indigeneity Kyle T. Mays 123

1759-1764: One Black Boy: The Great Lakes and the Midwest Tiya Miles 126

1764-1769: Phillis Wheatley Alexis Pauline Gumbs 130

1769-1774: David George William J. Barber II 135

1774-1779: The American Revolution Martha S. Jones 139

Poem: "Not Without Some Instances of Uncommon Cruelty" Justin Phillip Reed 143

Part 5

1779-1784: Savannah, Georgia Daina Ramey Berry 149

1784-1789: The U.S. Constitution Donna Brazile 153

1789-1794: Sally Hemings Annette Gordon-Reed 158

1794-1799: The Fugitive Slave Act Deirdre Cooper Owens 162

1799-1804: Higher Education Craig Steven Wilder 166

1804-1809: Cotton Kiese Laymon 169

1809-1814: The Louisiana Rebellion Clint Smith 173

1814-1819: Queer Sexuality Raquel Willis 177

Poem: "Remembering the Albany 3" Ishmael Reed 181

Part 6

1819-1824: Denmark Vesey Robert Jones, Jr. 187

1824-1829: Freedom's Journal Pamela Newkirk 191

1829-1834: Maria Stewart Kathryn Sophia Belle 195

1834-1839: The National Negro Conventions Eugene Scott 198

1839-1844: Racial Passing Allyson Hobbs 201

1844-1849: James McCune Smith, M.D. Harriet A. Washington 205

1849-1854: Oregon Mitchell S. Jackson 209

1854-1859: Or Ed Scott John A. Powell 214

Poem: "Compromise" Donika Kelly 218

Part 7

1859-1864: Frederick Douglass Adam Serwer 225

1864-1869: The Civil War Jamelle Bouie 230

1869-1874: Reconstruction Michael Harriot 234

1874-1879: Atlanta Tera W. Hunter 239

1879-1884: John Wayne Niles William A. Darity, Jr. 244

1884-1889: Philadelphia Kali Nicole Gross 249

1889-1894: Lynching Crystal N. Feimster 254

1894-1899: Plessy V. Ferguson Blair L. M. Kelley 258

Poem: "John Wayne Niles … . .-…- -.- …/---- Ermias Joseph Asghedom" Mahogany L. Browne 262

Part 8

1899-1904: Booker T. Washington Derrick Alridge 267

1904-1909: Jack Johnson Howard Bryant 271

1909-1914: The Black Public Intellectual Beverly Guy-Sheftall 274

1914-1919: The Great Migration Isabel Wilkerson 278

1919-1924: Red Summer Michelle Duster 283

1924-1929: The Harlem Renaissance Farah Jasmine Griffin 287

1929-1934: The Great Depression Robin D. G. Kelley 292

1934-1939: Zora Neale Hurston Bernice L. McFadden 297

Poem: "Coiled And Unleashed" Patricia Smith 301

Part 9

1939-1944: The Black Soldier Chad Williams 307

1944-1949: The Black Left Russell Rickford 312

1949-1954: The Road to Brown v. Board of Education Sherrilyn Ifill 317

1954-1959: Black Arts Imani Perry 321

1959-1964: The Civil Rights Movement Charles E. Cobb, Jr. 325

1964-1969: Black Power Peniel Joseph 330

1969-1974: Property Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor 335

1974-1979: Combahee River Collective Barbara Smith 340

Poem: "And the Record Repeats" Chet'la Sebree 344

Part 10

1979-1984: The War on Drugs James Forman, Jr. 351

1984-1989: The Hip-Hop Generation Bakari Kitwana 355

1989-1994: Anita Hill Salamishah Tillet 359

1994-1999: The Crime Bill Angela Y. Davis 366

1999-2004: The Black Immigrant Esther Armah 370

2004-2009: Hurricane Katrina Deborah Douglas 374

2009-2014: The Shelby Ruling Karine Jean-Pierre 378

2014-2019: Black Lives Matter Alicia Garza 382

Poem: "American Abecedarian" Joshua Bennett 387

Conclusion: Our Ancestors' Wildest Dreams Keisha N. Blain 389

Acknowledgments 393

Notes 397

Contributors 443

Permissions 471

Index 473