Four Hundred Souls Themes

The main themes in Four Hundred Souls are the legacy of oppression, the Black community, and injustice and justifications.

  • The Legacy of Oppression: The book shows how the problems that have troubled the African American community throughout history remain pressing today.
  • The Black Community: The authors stress the importance of solidarity and collective resilience within the Black community.
  • Injustice and Justifications: The authors consider the various ways oppression has been falsely justified.

Themes

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Last Updated on August 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788

The Legacy of Oppression

Many of the essays in Four Hundred Souls come to the conclusion that matters and attitudes have changed little since the historical periods discussed. Since many of the authors are writing about slavery and segregation, this may seem a surprising conclusion. But many of the book’s authors show how enduring the legacy of racist oppression has proven to be and how difficult it is to eradicate racism from American law and culture.

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Sometimes this legacy appears within an individual life, as well as between generations and over hundreds of years. In this sense, the life of Frederick Douglass is representative. Adam Serwer points out that more than twenty years after Douglass first escaped from slavery, he had to go on the run again and escape to Britain in order to avoid being implicated in a plot he had actually attempted to discourage. Douglass’s story is that of many former slaves: they were never entirely free or safe. 

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However, more typical manifestations of the legacy of oppression lie in the psychological and economic consequences of long-term injustice. In “Property,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor discusses why the majority of African Americans have been excluded from participating in the nation’s prosperity, which is based largely on homeownership. In “The Shelby Ruling,” Karine Jean-Pierre looks at how voter suppression continues to diminish Black political involvement to this day. These are just two of the many ways in which historical injustice continues to be perpetuated, preventing, as Keisha N. Blain remarks, today’s African Americans from realizing the dreams of their ancestors.

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The Black Community

In his introduction to Four Hundred Souls, Ibram X. Kendi stresses the idea of community, a theme which arises not only in the subject matter of the book but also in its mode of composition. Throughout the book, a sense of African American community and solidarity is continually emphasized. As Walter C. Rucker points out in his essay on African identities, this community was by no means fated to form. The first enslaved people who were brought from Africa to America did not regard themselves as Black or African but as a member of a particular nation or tribe. Samba Bambara in the early eighteenth century wanted to liberate members of the Bambara tribe but felt no obligation to any other Africans.

The Black community, therefore, is something which was made in America, where enslaved Africans forged bonds through the suffering they endured. This informed the thinking of early Black feminists like Maria Stewart and would later become essential to the idea of intersectionality. White observers have often failed or refused to notice the strong sense of community which pervades African American neighborhoods, as Tera W. Hunter remarks in her essay “Atlanta.” Hunter comments on a white journalist’s observation of the Black neighborhood of Shermantown in 1879. Shermantown was aesthetically displeasing because it was poor, which meant the buildings were shoddy and the streets were dirty. What fastidious outsiders failed to notice, however, was the cohesiveness and vibrancy of the community.

Injustice and Justifications

Four Hundred Souls considers both the injustices of racist institutions and the hollow justifications used by those institutions’ proponents. The first two parts of  the book make it clear that some of the most common justifications for slavery could not have been taken seriously even in the seventeenth century. One justification was that Africans were at a lower level than Europeans and that it was therefore appropriate to treat them in much the same way as animals. Another was that slavery was vital to the American economy and therefore a necessary evil. Such justifications do not reflect the disorganized, ad hoc manner in which American slavery came about. The first enslaved Africans who arrived in Virginia were originally bound for Mexico and their status was a matter of uncertainty for decades. Colonists in the early seventeenth century employed a combination of African and European indentured servants, and no one was legally declared to be a slave until John Casor was held to be the property of Anthony Johnson, another Black man, in 1655.

The book also underscores the hypocrisy of these justifications. In her essay on lynching, Crystal N. Feimster refers to Philip Alexander Bruce’s theory that slavery was a civilizing influence and that freed slaves reverted to savagery. Here, one injustice, lynching, was justified by extolling the virtues of another injustice, slavery. This was done in order to address the largely imaginary problem of attacks on white women by Black men. At the same time, Feimster points out, Black women really were under attack, but no one demanded justice on their behalf. Thus, the book shows how the false rhetoric used to defend oppression can inflict further damage.

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