Published earlier this year, Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019, edited by Professors Keisha N Blain and Kendi, draws together 80 African American contributors. Each chapter, written by a different author, covers a five-year period from 1619 – when slavery began in the US – to 2019. “It’s a way to commemorate this historic moment,” says Kendi of the 400-year anniversary. “Often, history is written by a single person, usually a man. Why not bring together a community?”
Alicia Garza, Donna Brazile and Robin Kelley all contribute chapters, along with some of the highest-profile writers, historians, journalists, lawyers, poets and activists working in the US today. One thing that kept everyone committed to the project was that Four Hundred Souls is as much about the present as it is about the past.
“We’re talking about race today in a way that we may not have 10 years ago,” argues Kendi. He highlights the attack on the US Capitol as a wake-up call for many who are now “wrestling with the reality that white supremacists are the greatest domestic terrorist threat of our time”. The racial terror that was a foundational building block of the US is highlighted throughout the book, from slavery, through lynching, to the videos of police violence that have recently become a routine feature of everyday life.
Both authors are keen to emphasise the diversity of voices in the book. “Oftentimes when we talk about black people there is a tendency to lump people all together, Blain explains, but blackness “is not a monolith”; Kendi outlines how they have presented “80 different ways to understand the contemporary moment through the lens of history. We have people from different ethnic backgrounds, women and men, queer and straight, older and younger, journalists and scholars, writers and activists. It shows the expansiveness of the black community.”
Professor Dorothy Roberts’s chapter on Race and the Enlightenment shares many themes with my own book, The New Age of Empire, exploring the importance of racist ideas to scientific concepts of reason. Kendi’s 2017 book, Stamped from the Beginning, meanwhile, offered a detailed analysis of the history of racist ideas that were produced in the academy and he acknowledges that, as three black professors, our presence in these institutions “feels like a contradiction”. But, he argues, “this is the factory where knowledge is produced. Over the last 60 years black scholars have essentially rewritten almost every discipline. We have done incredible work rewriting this history even as academia continues to produce racist ideas.”
Given the success of black studies courses in the US it is easy to romanticise the country as a place of equality in higher education. But only four per cent of those with full professor status are black in a nation that is more than 13% black. In the UK, black academics are even more dramatically underrepresented in the senior ranks. Blain sees our positions as “an important opportunity to be able to challenge these ideas from within the institution”.
There is a heavy resistance from a large part of the academy to embracing these revisionist texts, but it is our duty to keep creating such work. That was certainly my intention when I wrote The New Age of Empire – to tell a side of the story of the emergence of the west that is usually edited out. Genocide, slavery and colonialism were equally important in building the modern world as science, industry and politics.
Understanding the American experience is important for making sense of racism in the UK, say Kendi and Blain. In the early sections of the book, many of the contributions to Four Hundred Souls explore the relationship between England and the colonies. “For instance, there’s a chapter on the Royal African Company (1669-1674) by David Love and one on the French Code Noir in Louisiana,” says Kendi. “You can’t really tell the story of American slavery without talking about what was happening in England and western Europe more broadly”.
The main difference between the US and Europe is that while the former seats of empire offshored their colonial violence, Americans lived side by side with the targets of their brutality. The racial terror that is a hallmark of US society was not necessary in Britain when the enslaved and colonised lived thousands of miles away in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. But after post-second world war migration, we too saw the race riots, segregation, racial inequality and police abuse that have been a feature of US race relations. In many ways the US is a more distilled version of white supremacy, a land where Europeans were free to act out racist barbarity to build a nation state. It is not a coincidence that the US inherited the throne in the new age of empire, nor that it remains a society where we can see extremes of racist violence play out so clearly.
This is a moment of possibility, as painful as the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others were
Keisha N Blain
While it is vital to remember the “African” in “African American”, the importance of the Caribbean in shaping blackness in the US is also undeniable. The Garveys, Claudia Jones and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) are just some of those in Four Hundred Souls who were born in the Caribbean. Not to mention that Louise Little, the mother of my own intellectual inspiration Malcolm X, was from the island of Grenada. Blain has “spoken about my own experience as someone from the Caribbean, and the legacies of slavery and colonialism to emphasise the point”.
Four Hundred Souls provides a major corrective to the standard representation of history by showing black people as key agents in our own stories. There are no passive victims here; instead we read stories of resistance and rebellion, including Sylviane Diouf’s chapter on the enslaved who found their freedom in Maroon communities of runaways throughout the entire period of enslavement. “As Diouf explains,” says Blain, “Maroon autonomy shattered the racist view of the black people as incapable of taking care of themselves. Their very existence underlined the limits of the terror system used to control the enslaved population … black people were too smart for white people to catch them.” Such “diverse, complex and rich” stories of black life, Blain believes, “help us to step away from the kinds of generalisations and frameworks that people express about black people.”
Our writing in The New Age of Empire and Four Hundred Souls demands that we account for the past to understand how to create a better future. It is thanks to mobilisations at the ground level that we have the space to do that work. Blain captures the sentiment perfectly when she says that “this is a moment of possibility, as painful as the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others were. The uprisings last summer galvanised people across the globe [and showed how powerful movements for racial justice are]. This is something we should never forget, and it should always inspire us in our work.”
This content was originally published here.