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“Four Hundred Souls”: Ibram X. Kendi & Keisha Blain on History of African America from 1619 to Now

StoryFebruary 10, 2021
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As the U.S. deals with the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, we speak with Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha Blain, co-editors of a new book that situates the white supremacists who rallied around Trump in the longer arc of U.S. history. “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019” brings together prominent Black writers to collaborate on what they call a “choral history” of Black American life in 80 short essays, including by the renowned scholar and activist Angela Davis, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and others. “We wanted to bring together so many different voices from so many different backgrounds within the Black community to really share the history of this incredibly diverse and complex community,” says Kendi, director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. Blain, associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, says despite the mammoth undertaking in the midst of the pandemic, all the contributors were excited to take part. “They shared our enthusiasm,” she says. “They recognized the significance of this project as a work of history — being history in and of itself.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We’re speaking with two of this country’s leading historians. They’ve just edited a book that puts the white supremacists who rallied around President Trump and the uprising against racism and police brutality that we saw last year into the longer arc of U.S. history. The book is titled Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019. It brings together prominent Black writers to collaborate on what they call a “choral history” of Black American life in 80 short essays by people like the renowned scholar and activist Angela Davis, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who writes in the opening chapter, quote, “This is our story. We must not flinch.”

Keisha Blain is associate professor of history at University of Pittsburgh, also the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, just got a new contract to write a new book. And congratulations on that.

And Ibram X. Kendi is the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research and the Andrew W. Mellon professor in the humanities, also the author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Professor Kendi is also the author of How to Be an Antiracist and, most recently, the children’s book Antiracist Baby.

Professor Kendi, lay out the thesis of this book. And then we went to go back and forth between both of you to talk about some of the stories and the chronology that you lay out about what we should know about our own country.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I think the underlying thesis of this book is that if you’re writing a history of a community, it’s best to have a community to write that history. And I think that’s what really sort of springs from this text. We were able to bring together 80 Black writers, each of whom wrote five — wrote pieces on five years of African American history, very short pieces. And we also brought together 90 — I should say, 10 poets, who each wrote poems on 40 years of African American history. And so, in many ways, we wanted to bring together so many different voices from so many different backgrounds within the Black community to really share the history of this incredibly diverse and complex community. And we’re excited that we were able to put it together.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the book, of course, starts with Nikole Hannah-Jones’s piece of — she of The New York Times 1619 Project. And she writes, “But while every American child learns about the Mayflower, virtually no American child learns about the White Lion.” Why was it so important to start with that, Professor Blain?

KEISHA BLAIN: [inaudible] story, because it helps us understand how much history is political, and even in the way that we write history, the way that we tell the history, because what Nikole is pointing out here is that, ultimately, from the very beginning, we tell this history of the United States, and by not focusing on the White Lion, what we do is automatically erase the presence of Black people in the United States. And by focusing on the Mayflower, the narrative is ultimately moving forward telling a story of America through a perspective of a particular group of people and, in so doing, marginalizing and ignoring and erasing other voices.

And so, it was important to point out to people, “Listen, you may have received an education, certainly, but now this is a moment where you have to go through a reeducation.” And I think our book, Four Hundred Souls, provides an important tool for that, for educators to help students understand that the history is far more complex, far richer and far more diverse, which is the point here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Kendi, you chose Pam Newkirk, an old colleague of mine, a journalist and now a journalism professor, to write about Freedom’s Journal, the first Black newspaper in the world, John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish writing in that lead editorial in 1827, “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.” The importance of the press by people of color in terms of a counternarrative throughout American history?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Oh, I am so happy that Pamela Newkirk was able to write that essay, being a pioneering and incredible journalist herself, because, indeed, in the 19th century, it was newspapers that held up the banner of anti-slavery, of antiracism, and especially at a moment when people were imagining that Black people should be enslaved, that Native people should not be here, especially at a time when people were imagining that white people were superior, and that was the consistent and common message from the main and the leading periodicals. And so, indeed, Freedom’s Journal was the first at least Black newspaper to offer that counternarrative.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to ask Professor Keisha Blain, one, for people who don’t know what the White Lion is — we learn about the Mayflower, but not the White Lion — if you could explain? And then talk about Maria Stewart and why it is important to know her story.

KEISHA BLAIN: So, the first thing that we emphasize, and we make this clear in the book, is that certainly Black people were present on what becomes the United States long before 1619. So we make this clear. And, of course, we even emphasize a group of Africans who were present around 1520s, but they ultimately fled. And the reason that we focus on 1619 is that, one, it is a symbolic birthdate of Black America, but also because this is when the first group of captive Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, via the White Lion. And so, this is why we start where we do in this book.

Now, if you fast-forward to the 1830s, here’s where you meet Maria Stewart in the city of Boston. And what is so important about Maria Stewart is that this is an abolitionist, a Black feminist, someone who spoke boldly about Black rights and freedom at a moment where millions of Black people were still enslaved, particularly in the U.S. South. And her story helps us see the prominence of Black women’s leadership, and certainly Black women’s activism in the U.S. And we can draw the links from Maria Stewart to the Black Lives Matter movement and the courageous Black women who founded that movement. And so, I think all of these narratives together help us not only understand the history, but they help us contextualize this present moment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I have a question about the mechanics of this book. Writers are notoriously difficult in meeting deadlines. How the heck did you get 80 people to agree to work together on a project and deliver their essays in time to be anywhere near the 400th anniversary of the Black presence in the United States?

KEISHA BLAIN: Well, it was difficult.

IBRAM X. KENDI: So, I — please.

KEISHA BLAIN: It was very difficult. And, you know, I think, as Ibram will attest, it required a lot of organization, a lot of prodding. But what is important, I think, is to emphasize that all of the writers were excited about this project. They shared our enthusiasm. They recognized the significance of this project as a work of history — being history in and of itself. And so, that was helpful, because it meant that even as people were missing deadlines or struggling to keep up, especially with all the challenges that they were dealing with in their individual lives, as well as the challenges we were dealing with as a nation, they were mindful of the importance of the project, and ultimately delivered and wonderfully came together to produce this beautiful book.

AMY GOODMAN: Ibram Kendi, as we looked at the insurrection and the people raiding the Statuary Hall with their Confederate flags and T-shirts that said “Camp Auschwitz,” I couldn’t help but think of Statuary Hall and what they were raiding. Was it so inappropriate for them to be holding a Confederate flag in a hall of statues that for so long has commemorated and honored white supremacists and racists? And I was wondering your thoughts about that, and if you could bring in the story of Denmark Vesey, one of the people you write about, that’s in the book, that you talked about last night at the Schomburg Center, and then put it in the context — put him in the context of Black History Month and who Black History Month is for.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah. So, Denmark Vesey helped organize and spearheaded in the late 1810s and early 1820s, some reports, upwards of 9,000 enslaved people in and around Charleston, South Carolina. At the last moment, his — which would have been an urban — his slave rebellion was essentially undermined because one person told about the plans. But it could have become one of the — it could have toppled sort of slavery, especially its size and scale and organizational prowess. And so, that didn’t happen in the early 1820s, and so slavery lived on.

And it took the Civil War for slavery to end, of course a civil war that was between the Union and the Confederate States of America. In the Confederate States of America, the vice president of the Confederates was, of course, Alexander Stephens, who, last I checked, has a statue in [Statuary] Hall. And Alexander Stephens, I believe in 1862, said that this Confederacy is founded on the “great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man,” and “slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” And I don’t think Americans know that a Confederate white supremacist, who was pro-slavery through and through, is still being honored, from Georgia to Washington, D.C.

And I think we don’t know because we don’t know African American history. We don’t know American history. And that’s why this month, Black History Month, is so crucial, because Black American history is American history. And that’s why it was so crucial for us, Keisha Blain and I, to put together Four Hundred Souls, because we wanted to put together an accessible, single-volume history of Black America so people could learn the nation that they’re living in.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d also like to ask — we have about a minute left. And, Professor Blain, there’s a chapter on the Black family by Heather Andrea Williams from 1649 to 1654. The significance of this chapter? And what did you want to convey?

KEISHA BLAIN: Well, we thought it was important to help people understand not only the challenges and the complexities, the difficulties of, really, the Black family in American history, but specifically within the context of slavery, to demonstrate how Black families were able to endure, how they were able to withstand just a host of challenges externally. And, of course, asking Heather Williams made a whole lot of sense, given the fact that this is just a remarkable expert on the period of slavery in particular.

So, this was, again, thinking about the current moment. We were really thinking about how do we connect past to the present. And that essay helps us contextualize the history and to see some of the challenges that remain even to this day, to see how it connects to the period of slavery, which, of course, Heather Williams explains in this text.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both so much for being with us. We haven’t even talked about the audio version of this book, which is a magnificent extravaganza of a multitude of voices. Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha Blain’s new book, they are co-editors of, Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019.

And that does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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