'I Was Just Consistently Blown Away': The Root Presents: It's Lit! Honors Four Hundred Souls With Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain

Image for article titled 'I Was Just Consistently Blown Away': The Root Presents: It's Lit! Honors Four Hundred Souls With Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
Illustration: Angelica Alzona, Photo: Penguin Random House

It’s been just over 400 years since the unintentional founding of Black America—when “20 or so odd Negroes” in captivity were delivered to the shores of Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. In the intervening centuries, much—and yet, not enough—has changed. This much-needed conversation was only brought into its full historical context at the national (and even global) level with 2019's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project for the New York Times; but just like the arrival of those enslaved Africans, that was only the beginning.

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Accordingly, the recently published Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619 - 2019 is a welcome next chapter in chronicling the history and legacy of Black Americans—and what is owed. Sitting down with Four Hundred Souls’ editors, Drs. Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, for this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!, we learned how this instant New York Times’ bestseller came into being—and why its editors chose this unique and unprecedented approach to American history.

“I think part of our idea was not just to write this history with a community, but also for these 90 writers in total to make history,” Dr. Kendi explained, “meaning 100 years from now, 300 years from now, when people are asking the question: ‘What were Black folks thinking? How were they remembering when they turned 400 years old?’ They can sort of pick up this book and see a sampling of what Black folks, many different types of Black folks—men and women, gay and straight, cis and trans, and people from different ethnic backgrounds and older and younger folks that in many ways represent—or I should say, is a sampling of the Black community.”

Image for article titled 'I Was Just Consistently Blown Away': The Root Presents: It's Lit! Honors Four Hundred Souls With Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
Image: Penguin Random House

“We decided very early that it was important to make sure that every single essay essentially grappled with a specific topic or perhaps explored a particular historical figure and did so equally,” Dr. Blain added. “We were really thinking about how each piece would represent a sort of equal interrogation of a particular idea. So that meant making sure that every author grappled with the same number of years...bringing it up equally in five years sort of forced authors to in some ways be creative,” she continued, “because they were really trying to work within a limited period of time, but an equal period of time. And so I think as you see from essay to essay, there’s a sense of uniformity even as each piece is unique. And that structure, I think, made that possible.”

The result is a groundbreaking, epic, and deeply innovative exploration of how Black America as we now know it began—including an essay from The Root’s own Michael Harriot—as well as a love story to its descendants.

“I think for me, one of the beauties of Four Hundred Souls is that we showcase and lift up so many ordinary African-Americans who were able to just do incredible or extraordinary things,” said Dr. Kendi, later adding, “[T]here are so many stories like that within Four Hundred Souls, which was just beautiful for me...I was just consistently blown away.”

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Hear more from the incredible Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha Blaine on Episode 21 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!: Drs. Keisha N. Blaine and Ibram X. Kendi Talk 400 Years and 400 Souls, now available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public. Also available is a transcript of this week’s episode.

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