Slavery is fundamental to the story of the US, argues the 1619 Project (an initiative from the New York Times Magazine to reframe the country’s history by placing at its centre the contributions of African Americans), illuminating a legacy that has incensed conservatives. During the Black Lives Matter protests last year, President Trump weighed in on what he called a discredited attempt to “rewrite American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom”.
The truth, as asserted by Ibram X Kendi, the co-editor of Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019, is that the US is a paradox, founded on both freedom and slavery. In recent years, Kendi, an admired public intellectual, has emerged as an able navigator of race relations. Here, along with the academic Keisha N Blain, he has assembled 90 writers in an anthology that further challenges the myths of America’s past.
The opening essay, Arrival by Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, interrogates the official silence over the arrival in Virginia in 1619 – a year before the Mayflower – of the White Lion, with its “cargo” comprising “30 Angolans, sold from the deck ... by criminal English marauders in exchange for food and supplies”. Their shameful erasure marks “the propaganda of history”, argues Hannah-Jones, and it’s imperative that the tale of both ships is recognised as “inherently intertwined, inseparable”.
At its heart, Four Hundred Souls addresses the question: whose story is it anyway?
What follows, as the book’s subtitle makes clear, is a whistle-stop tour of 400 years, in a series of crisply written three- or four-page essays, short stories and personal reflections. It’s a fresh and engaging voyage that includes confounding accounts of the 1676 Rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon, in which enslaved Africans and indentured whites united to overthrow colonial rule in Virginia; ruminations on the 18th-century “sacred sound of freedom” heard in Afro-Brazilian religions; and the contemporary resonance of a 19th-century manifesto for self-sufficiency in Freedom’s Journal, the first African American-owned newspaper.
At its heart, Four Hundred Souls addresses the question: whose story is it anyway? This is a people’s history mediated by impassioned professionals. Perhaps the most fertile passages are those on the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s, when “the Negro was in vogue”. This cultural movement included such luminaries as the poet Langston Hughes and the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who, while travelling through America’s south, packed a pistol and a pen.
In her posthumously published book Barracoon, Hurston recorded the memories of Kossula, the last enslaved person abducted from Africa. Her empathy contrasted with the narrative of slavery, often told from the slave owner’s perspective, with diaries and bills of sale. “All these words from the seller,” lamented Hurston, “but not one word from the sold.”
A century on from Kossula’s recollections, the democratising approach of Four Hundred Souls feels like the culmination of the corrective endeavours of Hurston’s and others’ persuasive blend of writing and activism.
Barracoon was dependent on Kossula’s voice. But how do you convey African American history in the absence of sources? This anthology offers a number of innovative creative reimaginings, exemplified by Kiese Laymon in Cotton, whose narrator depicts cotton as a character and blames it for her family’s woes, for their broken black bodies. “I go to sleep every night ... with a bulb of cotton on the dresser ... not because I want to remember. But [because] the cotton helps me imagine.”
The determination not just to remember but to act informs the penultimate essay Black Lives Matter, in which the movement’s co-founder Alicia Garza presents the protests over the killings of black people and America’s structural inequalities as a black renaissance, pouring scorn on the panic of Donald Trump: “The backlash is an indicator that the change is so powerful that the opposing forces resist that change with everything they have.”
The word “community” in the subtitle is key to this book’s accomplishment. Historians do not write history; they curate it. And Four Hundred Souls is all the richer for its plurality of perspectives. Its ethos chimes with JB Russwurm, a pioneering black journalist who, in a 1827 editorial for Freedom’s Journal, argued: “Too long have others spoken for us [such that] our vices and our degradation are ever arrayed against us, but our virtues are passed by unnoticed.”
Amen to that.
• Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019 by Ibram X Kendi and Keisha N Blain is published by Bodley Head (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply