AJC Bookshelf: 3 must-read books for Black History Month

Slavery and its pernicious legacy, the church and a failed economic experiment are the topics of three fascinating new historical accounts of the African American experience published this month.

“Four Hundred Souls” (Penguin Random House, $32) is a breathtakingly ambitious anthology featuring new work by 90 writers, all descendants of enslaved people. It chronicles the 400-year history of African Americans in five-year increments from the arrival in Jamestown, Virginia, of enslaved “20 and odd Negroes” in 1619 to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2019.

Edited by National Book Award winner Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Antiracist” and Keisha N. Blain, author of “Set the World on Fire,” the book is divided into 10 chronological sections. Kendi explains in his introduction that “each piece revolves around a person, place, thing, idea or event,” and the writers represent a wide variety of interests. Among them are historians, theologians, educators, political analysts and cultural critics.

In “Cotton” (1804-1809), Kiese Laymon, author of the memoir “Heavy,” tells a personal story about his great grandfather and the price he and his family paid for a life spent picking cotton to survive. “Why don’t he talk to us?” Laymon asks his grandmother. “All that cotton,” she replies.

Robert Jones Jr., author New York Times bestseller “The Prophets,” writes about a thwarted slave uprising in Charleston, South Carolina, in his chapter “Denmark Vesey” (1819-1824).

Writing about “The Great Migration” (1914-1919), Isabel Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Caste,” elegantly observes, “a silent pilgrimage took its first tentative steps… The nation’s servant class was now breaking free of the South, in quiet rivulets at first and then in a sea…”

A poem follows each section, reflecting on the history encompassed within. In “Upon Arrival,” Atlanta poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Jericho Brown considers “the history of the wound” and strives to humanize the enslaved. He writes, “Though I know who caught them, sold them, bought them, / I’d rather focus on their faces, their names.”

In “Soul City: Race, Equality and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia” (Metropolitan Books, $29.99), author Thomas Healy chronicles the ’70s-era efforts to transform a former plantation in North Carolina into a brand-new, self-sustainable town called Soul City. There would be tree-lined neighborhoods, schools, a hospital, a factory, churches, shopping centers and maybe even a light-rail system. It would be open to anyone who wanted to live there, but its primary purpose would be to give Blacks a place to live and work and thrive without prejudice.

North Carolina native and Morehouse man Floyd McKissick spearheaded the effort, receiving a $14 million loan guarantee from the Nixon administration, part of a national program to develop new cities across the country. A lawyer by trade, McKissick did a lot of things right to get his dream off the ground, but the town never realized its potential.

Healy examines the many facets of McKissick’s utopian endeavor and the myriad reasons it went bust. There’s plenty of blame to go around, says Healy. The federal government failed to provide sufficient resources. Greater scrutiny and higher standards were placed on the project because the developers were Black.McKissick’s own ambitions got in the way. And the project proved divisive among African Americans: Some favored the concept of a separatist community while those who had been fighting for integration perceived it as a step backward.

Healy, a professor at Seton Hall Law School and the author of “The Great Dissent” about the history of free speech, also faults his former employer, the Raleigh News & Observer, which “played a significant role in fostering (the) misperception” that Soul City was meant to be all Black.

Healy’s evocative descriptions of Soul City today ― its broken streets, boarded up shopping center, abandoned cul-de-sacs and a factory transformed into a federal prison ― paints a haunting picture of a broken dream and the loss of what might have been.

More academic than the other titles, “The Black Church” (Penguin Random House, $30) by Henry Louis Gates Jr. takes a historical look at the role the church has played in the lives of African Americans, not only as a place of worship and spiritual development, but as a source of strength and resilience, an incubator for Black culture, and a force of resistance against oppression.

“The miracle of African American survival can be traced directly to the miraculous ways that our ancestors… reinvented the religion that their ‘masters’ thought would keep them subservient,” writes Gates.

The book is dedicated to the late Congressman John Lewis and begins with a quote from his 1998 book, “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement”: “We pray because we believe that praying can make what we believe, our dreams and our visions, come true.”

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. svanatten@ajc.com.