Keisha Blain helping tell 400-year history of African America


Keisha N. Blain, Pitt associate professor of History, has collaborated with anti-racism scholar Ibram X. Kendi to edit a collection of writings that aims to capture the diverse experiences of Black Americans over 400 years.

Cover of "Four Hundred Souls" bookBlain and Kendi co-edited “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019,” which was released on Feb. 2. The book collects historical essays, short stories and more from 90 writers who each take on five years of that 400-year span.

Kendi, a professor in the Boston University’s Department of History and author of the New York Times bestselling book “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” most recently was the keynote speaker for the 2020 Pitt Diversity Forum.

The University Times spoke to Blain, who is also the author of “Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom,” about the themes of the book and her experience collaborating with the writers. The conversation has been edited for conciseness.

What type of impact do you want “Four Hundred Souls” to have on conversations and movements surrounding anti-racism and anti-blackness?

My hope is that “Four Hundred Souls” provides context for contemporary efforts to end anti-Black racism in American society. The 400-year history told within the collection is filled with stories of how Black people fought to assert their dignity and humanity, and how they vigorously fought against practices and policies — both legal and extralegal — to secure civil and human rights. The narratives in the book also chart the many efforts, on local, state and national levels, to impede Black people’s ability to thrive and enjoy the full benefits of citizenship.

We cannot understand our present moment without reckoning with the Black experience in America, starting in 1619 with the arrival of the White Lion ship in Jamestown, Va. I want readers of “Four Hundred Souls” to grapple with the full extent of racism in American history — and also understand how Black Americans have persisted in their efforts to challenge it.

In addition, the book sets out to challenge the notion of the monolithic Black community. Through 90 Black writers, “Four Hundred Souls” brings together what my collaborator Ibram X. Kendi has described as a “choir.” Together, the 90 Black writers in “Four Hundred Souls” create a communal history and capture the richness of Black America. 

How and when did the collaboration for this book start, and what has been your experience working with Dr. Kendi and the other contributors?

Ibram and I have been collaborating on a variety of projects since 2016. At one point, we edited the popular Black Perspectives blog (published by the African American Intellectual History Society) and even won an award from the American Historical Association for our editing. Because we have collaborated on various projects over the years, we work well together. I think we know what to expect from each other, and we have worked out a good rhythm in terms of editing and, more importantly, communication.

In 2018, Ibram approached me with a new project idea. He asked if I would collaborate with him on a book to commemorate the 400-year mark of captive Africans who arrived in Jamestown, Va., in 1619. Although I was worried about how we would pull it off with so many writers, I immediately agreed because I shared Ibram’s belief in the importance of this moment in history. As one can imagine, it was no easy task to bring together so many writers, and we encountered many challenges along the way. However, we were both encouraged by the enthusiasm of the writers and we recognized the urgency of the project. In the end, it was a magical experience.  

I’ve seen in descriptions about this book that 90 writers were selected to “consider the 400-year journey of African Americans from 1619 to the present.” Why this specific period of history, and what is the significance of beginning the journey from the year 1619?

1619 is the symbolic birthdate of Black America. I emphasize the word “symbolic” because as we explain in the book, people of African descent were present in the territory that would become the United States long before 1619. Historians have recounted the experiences of a group of a hundred enslaved Africans in what is now Georgetown, S.C., during the 1520s. This group of Africans revolted and escaped their enslavement shortly after their arrival in 1526.

Their story is certainly significant, but we decided to focus on 1619 because this is the year that an estimated 20 captive Africans arrived in Jamestown, Va., on the White Lion ship (one year before the arrival of the Mayflower). This group of Africans in Jamestown played a significant role in the building of the colony and indeed, the building of the nation. By following this story from 1619 to the present, we can see the development of slavery in what would become the United States and understand how it has fundamentally shaped American life and culture. It is impossible to understand how race and racism function in American society without knowing this history. 

I’ve also seen this book referred to as a one-volume “community” history of African Americans. What does community history mean in this context, and why the focus on “community” as opposed to focusing on a single individual’s experiences?

Community history is fundamentally about allowing members of the community to drive the narrative. As editors and accomplished writers, we could have decided to simply write a book about the history of Black America — and I think we could have pulled it off quite well. However, that model would not have represented the spirit of community we envisioned. In order to truly tell a community history, we needed to weave in as many voices as possible, and from as many perspectives as possible. We firmly believe that this is one of the most effective ways to capture the richness and diversity of African American history.

Does this book include voices from black women and the LGBTQIA+ community, who have been historically excluded from narratives about the Black experience in this country? Why is it important to include these voices?

“Four Hundred Souls” features contributions from 90 Black writers — over half of whom are women, queer and/or transgender. This was not by happenstance but an intentional decision on our part as editors. We wanted to challenge the way many of us have encountered Black history — often told by one writer, especially a man. “Four Hundred Souls” takes a different approach as a communal history and specifically centers the writings of black women and the LGBTQIA+ community — voices that have been historically excluded and overlooked. 

How were participants in this book selected? What were you looking for in potential contributors?

We carefully selected contributors from a wide range of disciplines to tell this communal history — historians, journalists, activists and novelists, with 10 Black poets providing lyrical interludes that capture the unifying themes of each section. All of the writers were individuals we identified as compelling storytellers and gifted intellectuals who would be able to explore their respective periods through historical essays, short stories, personal vignettes and fiery polemics.

With all of these goals in mind, we simply built a list of potential writers — starting with the ones we both admired and those we both agreed were gifted writers and thinkers who would enrich the project in varied ways. We also tried to make sure we had a balance of writers —well-known Black intellectuals but also the next generation of talented up-and-coming writers. After much discussion, we were able to finalize our list and began reaching out to authors to encourage them to contribute pieces. 

Why is this book relevant and important when it comes to addressing the ongoing topics surrounding racism and anti-racism?

Fighting racism and building an anti-racist society requires a deep knowledge of history — a recognition of how we arrived at this point. “Four Hundred Souls” is a step toward building that awareness. It can act as a primer of sorts — we hope that readers will be enticed by what they read and then they’ll seek out the various books and articles from the contributors that offer more in-depth insights on the topics.

Are there any plans for any Pitt-related events to this book?

Yes, I have plans to discuss “Four Hundred Souls” with the Pitt community in March to coincide with Women’s History Month. The event is being organized by John Wallace, vice provost for faculty diversity and development, and will be co-sponsored by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. More details should be available soon. 

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


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