Illuminating the Whole American Idea

This article was published online on February 9, 2021.

In 1862, an abolitionist from Philadelphia named Charlotte Forten decided to go south to the Sea Islands of South Carolina. She was taking up an important mission: teaching Black children, newly liberated by the Union Army, how to read. Two years later, she would describe for readers of The Atlantic the exhilaration she felt as she traveled to her post.

Charlotte Forten
Charlotte Forten (Interim Archives / Getty)

“We thought how easy it would be for a band of guerrillas, had they chanced that way, to seize and hang us,” she wrote in our May 1864 issue, “but we were in that excited, jubilant state of mind which makes fear impossible, and sang ‘John Brown’ with a will, as we drove through the pines and palmettos. Oh, it was good to sing that song in the very heart of Rebeldom!”

Forten’s writing is vivid and modern and beautifully descriptive. She takes her readers to a remote and brutal stretch of the Confederacy, and she renders her subjects—the persecuted, resilient people of South Carolina’s rice and cotton plantations—­fully human. (Forten, in fact, was one of the first to call the melancholic state of mind that she discovered among the formerly enslaved “the blues.”)

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For us, Forten is notable not only for her moral urgency but because she was the first Black woman to write in our pages. In the first decade of The Atlantic’s existence (the magazine was founded in 1857), it was the abolitionist Brahmins—Emerson, Lowell, Stowe, Holmes, Longfellow—who were most publicly exalted. And then, of course, came the giant, Frederick Douglass, who did immortal writing for The Atlantic. But Charlotte Forten, a Black woman who deserves to be remembered, has been mainly forgotten.

She came to my mind, though, during a conversation with Gillian B. White, one of our managing editors. Gillian was describing to me an idea, a way to use The Atlantic to fill in the blank pages of Black history. One of the questions that arose was Are we doing enough? Historically, this magazine has made many contributions on matters of race: Not only Douglass but W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington found a home for their writing here. When Martin Luther King Jr. sought a national audience for a letter he wrote while held prisoner in the Birmingham jail, he turned to The Atlantic. And The Atlantic featured on its cover the most influential article published in America in the past decade, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.” But if we are to live up to this legacy, we have more to do. Gillian’s idea was to revive what we began to call “lost Black history.”

“For so many Black Americans, history is a dead end,” she told me recently. “I look at my daughter and my niece and my nephew and wish I had more of their history to share with them. I really want them to see themselves represented in the story of this country and to know that America has always been ours, too. And yet Black people are left out of so many commonly shared American histories.”

Out of these conversations, and conversations across our staff, The Atlantic’s “Inheritance” project was born. The articles in this issue of the magazine represent the first fruits of this continuing effort, which you will see manifest itself in print, on our website, and everywhere The Atlantic makes journalism.

We open this issue with a legend (and an Atlantic contributing writer), Anna Deavere Smith, who recounts her own coming to consciousness on a sheltered, mostly white college campus in the 1960s. Danielle Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard and a regular Atlantic contributor, revives the memory of one of the nation’s earliest and most dogged abolitionists. Clint Smith, one of our newest staff writers, and the author of a forth­coming book, How the Word Is Passed, offers a close study of the ways in which America reckons with slavery, and guides us through the archives of a New Deal–era initiative focused on preserving the memories of the formerly enslaved. And our senior editor Vann R. Newkirk II writes movingly about the history of the Voting Rights Act through the prism of his mother’s own experience of American democracy. These stories, and other stories being published on our website, are part of an ambitious, never-ending effort to fulfill The Atlantic’s mission: to illuminate the American idea, and to help build, through our writing, a more perfect union.


Vann Newkirk’s mother died in November at the too-young age of 56, as Vann was working on the article that appears in these pages. Vann’s colleagues and friends are honored to dedicate this issue of The Atlantic, one devoted to the importance of memory, to the memory of Marylin Thurman Newkirk.


This article appears in the March 2021 print edition with the headline “The Atlantic and Black History.”