In the monumental audiobook of Four Hundred Souls (14 hours), edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, essays and poems chronicling 400 years of Black American history are read by a vast chorus of 87 narrators. Editors Kendi and Blain discuss the transformation of their groundbreaking book into audio, and they’re joined by Penguin Random House Audio producers Sarah Jaffe, Amber Beard and Molly Lo Re, who offer a peek into the production process.
How early in your conception of the book did you begin to plan for the specific challenges and opportunities of the audiobook?
Ibram X. Kendi: The plans for the audiobook came much later in the process, after the book was finished. We really wanted to actualize what I wrote about in the introduction, that this community of writers was like a choir.
Keisha N. Blain: Like Ibram, I thought the diversity of thought in the book would be best represented with a large cast of narrators. Using a full cast really captures the different voices at play in collecting the experiences of 90 contributors.
“There are few powers more important than the power to tell your own story.”
What’s one benefit of listening to the audiobook of Four Hundred Souls that you don’t get from reading the print book?
Blain: The contributors we gathered for Four Hundred Souls are all outstanding writers. And while that talent is apparent on the page, hearing those same passages read out loud and performed is a revelatory and moving experience.
Considering how much language has been used to control Black lives for hundreds of years, how does a choral audiobook like this one reclaim Black power?
Kendi: There are few powers more important than the power to tell your own story. Black people have been fighting for this power for centuries, and we claimed this power for Four Hundred Souls.
Blain: The attempts to silence Black people—and especially Black women—are a defining feature of American history. The audiobook of Four Hundred Souls aims a direct challenge to those efforts by giving voice to a communal history written and narrated by Black people.
Some of the book’s essays are read by their authors, others by actors. Tell us about the process of matching essays with narrators.
Sarah Jaffe, Executive Producer: We wanted to assemble a cast that felt true to the project of the book, and to do that we knew we needed a plurality and a diversity of narrators. A combination of authors and actors, with a few celebrities among them, felt like the best way to do that, blending familiar and famous voices with fresher ones, and even some who had never done this before, juxtaposing different vocal textures.
We identified a few authors who would be particularly good fits to read their own work: those renowned for their work in the audio world; poets who are skilled performers; an array of legendary activists and public speakers; and professors who perform at the front of a classroom every day and know how to make their words sink in and sing in a different way.
When it came time to pair actors with the rest of the pieces, we wanted to be really thoughtful about how we did that. I’m a firm believer that while actors can do anything, everyone (actor or not) does their best work when they’re working on something they’re passionate about. And since this book is largely about how Black America is not a monolith, we wanted to give our cast the chance to choose the pieces that resonated most with them. So instead of just assigning pieces, we gave actors the option to choose what they wanted to read.
Amber Beard, Associate Producer: If they felt a personal connection to a particular essay or story, then that would only make the reading that more poignant.
Molly Lo Re, Associate Producer: It meant a lot of puzzle-piecing behind the scenes, but I think you can tell with each narrator that they have a strong connection to the subject matter. That extra investment is key in making this audiobook really special.
“I’m a firm believer that while actors can do anything, everyone (actor or not) does their best work when they’re working on something they’re passionate about.”
Was there any essay or piece that was particularly difficult to pair with a narrator, or perhaps one that stuck out in your mind as especially important to get right?
Jaffe: They were all important to get right! Honestly, one of the best parts about handling casting the way we did is that it allowed us to learn a lot more about the actors we worked with. We paired actors with pieces that they chose because they were about their hometowns or mirrored their personal histories, or were by or about people they had a connection to, or as at least one actor told me, spoke to their souls. I’m so grateful. The more I know about each actor and what interests them, the more it helps me to be a better producer and pair them with future projects that I know they’ll be excited about.
Beard: I’m a longtime admirer of Phylicia Rashad’s work, so I can’t help but get excited to hear her eloquent voice. In general, we wanted to try to stay true to each piece’s point of view, so we did try to pair each with a narrator who reflected an aspect of what was being written about. But as this is a shared community experience, we didn’t make that a hard and fast rule.
Lo Re: What I personally love about the finished product is that the performances are simultaneously intertwined yet separate strands. The audiobook is undoubtedly a collective endeavor, with voices coming together to share 400 years of the African American experience. But at the same time, each essay is given voice by a different reader with their own perspective, performance style, vocal tone. For me, it was less about getting individual pairings “right” and more about making sure we got the overall experience of listening to the book right. This meant casting as wide a net as possible when looking for readers.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Discover more of the year’s best full-cast audiobooks.
Are there any other audiobooks with a big cast that you drew inspiration from for this production?
Jaffe: George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo has a famously large cast and is one of the most ambitious audiobooks I’ve ever listened to, and that’s probably the book that came up most often in thinking about how to approach Four Hundred Souls. I don’t think it’s an accident that both books are about a reckoning with American history, the unreliability of conventional historical narratives and the ways in which both remarkable and everyday people make and are enmeshed in history. Both books try to make the human details that shape a nation’s character visible, and both make it clear that in order to truly reckon with our past and present, we need to hear a plurality of voices telling their stories. Dr. Kendi and Dr. Blain’s idea for a community history is genius and groundbreaking in this way.
Beard: This was my first time casting an audiobook with a cast this large. I think it was a great opportunity to work with narrators that we’ve always wanted to and also discover new ones that we’ll definitely want to continue to work with in the future.
Lo Re: Honestly, because of the added complications of the coronavirus, this one felt like a completely different beast. We recorded in December 2020 and January 2021, under the looming shadow of rising COVID-19 cases. The vast majority of people read from home studio setups, and we approached every aspect of the production with the question, How can we do this in the safest way possible?
Is there any particular performance from this collection that stuck with you after you heard it?
Kendi: I loved Danai Gurira’s performance [of Martha S. Jones’ “1774–1779 The American Revolution”], and Professor Blain’s closing oration was powerful.
Blain: I loved Phylicia Rashad’s performance of Bernice McFadden’s essay on Zora Neale Hurston.
Jaffe: All of the poetry gave me goosebumps, especially J.D. Jackson reading Jericho Brown’s “Upon Arrival,” and Patricia Smith reading her poem “Coiled and Unleashed.” But the choral transitions between pieces might be my favorite part of this production. We wanted to underscore the community nature of this book, and so throughout the program, our editor mixed a variety of voices announcing the title of each piece and each five-year range. As you’re listening, it really does feel like a cohesive history told to you by a community, with each member taking their turn to speak.
Beard: I am a longtime poetry nerd, so I’m always thrilled to get a chance to bring poems to life via audio. I was particularly drawn to Mahogany L. Browne’s poem, “Morse: John Wayne Niles . __. . Ermias Joseph Asghedom.” The opening lines, “Gunshot wound / is a violent way to say gone missing,” are so potent and resonant with what happens in our world today. Also the use of Morse code added a unique element.
Lo Re: One thing that we did with this audiobook that I’d like to bring to other audiobooks is having everyone say their own name for the credits. I absolutely loved the way it gave contributors a tad more ownership over the final product, like a curtain-call moment.
“It becomes intimate and multifaceted and overtly personal in a way history often isn’t. That’s powerful. This is a powerful book.”
Is there anything that surprised you once you heard the final audiobook?
Kendi: I framed the 90 contributors to Four Hundred Souls as a choir in the introduction, but hearing the choir through the audiobook surprised me, pleasantly.
Blain: Hearing the different performances amazed me. I knew Four Hundred Souls was an ambitious project, and co-editing it further revealed how unique it was to have so many contributors across so many fields and genres. However, the audiobook revealed how truly impressive the book is—and I am proud to be a part of this wonderful project.
Jaffe: We always say this about audiobooks, but it really does bring the text to life—maybe more so in this book than almost any other I’ve listened to. You hear these layers of history and experience speaking to you in chorus, filtered through this powerful writing and these beautiful performances, and occasionally as you’re immersed in what you’re listening to, you recognize a voice, which gives you that feeling of, “Hey, I know this person!” Maybe they’re telling you something you never knew before or never thought about that way before, or just something you really needed to hear someone say out loud and name as true. It becomes intimate and multifaceted and overtly personal in a way history often isn’t. That’s powerful. This is a powerful book.
Beard: So many of these stories are unknown. To put real, human voices to them helps give them life and power. These are stories that need to be heard and shared. I thought it was such a beautiful thing to have this literal chorus of voices speaking the truth of the African American experience.
Lo Re: The thing that probably most surprised me was how effective the layered voices sounded throughout. While we had planned on incorporating collective lines in the audiobook from very early in the process, I didn’t really know what the final version would sound like. I imagined the lines would be read as one voice—but the way that the final version pulls out individual voices and the voices appear to be coming from different physical spaces is so much richer and completely bowled me over. The brilliant editors at Tim Bader Audio deserve so much credit for how delicately they mixed together these sections.
Kendi photo by Stephen Voss. Blain photo by Chioke l’Anson.