ALA Virtual Midwinter 2021

A Choir Singing About African American History at #ALAMW21

As a youth specialist, I don’t always prioritize reading adult books, particularly doorstopper nonfiction history books. But I’m making an exception for Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619 – 2019 edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, our ALA Midwinter opening speakers.

Editors and historians Keisha N. Blain (top) and Ibram X. Kendi (bottom)

For far too long, African American history has been written about by people living outside the African American experience. In this groundbreaking book, historians Kendi and Blain collect 90 African American authors to tell 400 years of history. The authors chosen write in a variety of genres and styles and come from different backgrounds. An intergenerational conversation arises within the text as 80 prose authors each tackle a chunk of 5 years. They work together as a choir to sing a rich song of history, stronger than if one or two authors set out to write all the stories themselves. And throughout the book, 10 poets tie in themes covered in a handful of decades, rising up like soloists in the piece. Editors Kendi and Blain spoke about their book in such musical terms that it really sounds like a must-read and a book that your patrons will be hearing about and talking about.

There is something so magical to me about hearing authors speak about their own works. Something I love about ALA conferences is that the speakers chosen are often folks that, if I was keeping inside my youth services box, I might miss out on. The way that Kendi and Blain described this book as not only writing about history, but becoming a piece of history itself, made me want to seek out this book and dive in. This is a book that future historians will consider as they look back to see how African American life and history was perceived during our current tumultuous era, on the eve of the COVID19 pandemic. A 500+-page history book is not normally something I would gravitate towards, but I am really intrigued to see what this book is all about and to learn.

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