The Commons

photo of the print magazine open to "We Mourn for All We Do Not Know"
Katie Martin

We Mourn for All We Do Not Know

The Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives provide a rare window into Black American heritage, Clint Smith wrote in March.


I am a 63-year-old white woman. Having read some of the Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives in college, I have known about them my entire adult life. And yet I was brought up short by a statistic in Clint Smith’s article: At the time the narratives were compiled, in the mid-1930s, there were more than 100,000 living Americans who had been born into slavery. My mother, born in 1934, is healthy and active at 86. The realization that her life overlapped even briefly with the lives of so many formerly enslaved people underscores Smith’s observation that, “in the scope of human history, slavery was just a few moments ago.” I thank him for the important reminder.

Kathy A. Rogers
Whitefish Bay, Wis.


My father, Benjamin A. Botkin, worked for the Federal Writers’ Project as the national folklore editor from 1938 until 1939 and as the chief editor of the writers’ unit from 1939 until 1941, during which time he was highly involved with the slave narratives. In 1942, Dad left the Federal Writers’ Project to become chief of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. At home, in the evenings and on weekends, he worked on a collection of the slave narratives that would become a book called Lay My Burden Down.

Recommended Reading

In fact, it was something of a family project. By 1942, the slave narratives were on microfilm at the Library of Congress, and Dad would select the stories he wanted to include in his book and bring the film and a film reader home. My mother, who had some secretarial training, would spend her free time during the day typing the stories Dad had selected. I was 8 years old, and my brother was 5. After Mother put us to bed, Dad would ask her to help him proofread her typed manuscript. Mother would read the film aloud, including punctuation, and Dad would check her typed copy for errors. So my brother and I would fall asleep listening to these tales, punctuation and all. One of the proudest moments of my life was a few years later, on an evening when Mother was too busy to proofread with Dad and he asked me to do the reading.

Thank you for your excellent article.

Dorothy B. Rosenthal
Amherst, Mass.


Clint Smith replies:

My response to the narratives was similar to Kathy A. Rogers’s when I looked at my two living grandparents, who are 90 and 81 years old. It is remarkable to consider how many people still alive today are only a generation or two removed from this horrific institution. The realization is also clarifying, as it helps give us a better sense of the origins of the racial inequality that we see today. Part of what I am always thinking about is how we convey this sense of proximity to a wider public, so that more people understand the current manifestations of racial disparities as originating from an institution that some say is no longer relevant. I think a new Federal Writers’ Project, as I argued for at the end of the article, would go a long way toward doing that.


The Dark Secrets of the Earth’s Deep Past

The ancient climates in the geologic record suggest that something catastrophic could await us in the future, Peter Brannen wrote in March.


Peter Brannen’s dystopian romp in your March issue is an exciting roller-coaster ride through geologic time. But it goes back only about 50 million years, and it may be too optimistic. Since the start of the Paleozoic era, more than 500 million years ago, excess carbon dioxide is thought to have triggered at least four of the Earth’s mass extinctions. At humanity’s present rate, we could poison the atmosphere in this way as soon as the 22nd century. Then we all would be on the verge of extinction.

I spent most of my career at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Since 1970, the EPA’s turbulent political history has mirrored the wild geologic history retold by Brannen, if on a far shorter timeline. As much as any other part of our national government, EPA rides a roller coaster up and down and around in circles. Following Inauguration Day 2021, the federal fun cars seem poised to climb again; the EPA’s excellent professionals appear to have a mandate to resume and expand their work to prevent climate chaos. But given the stakes, there can be no more political cycling. America and its global partners must address climate change with constancy and continuous improvement. It is probably baked in that we must eventually abandon our port cities and coastal areas as the sea rises. Worse outcomes can still be avoided.

Richard W. Emory Jr., J.D.
Boynton Beach, Fla.


A Year of Remote Magazine Making

The May 2020 Atlantic was the last issue our staff started working on in person, and the first we finished remotely. (Appropriately, the cover story was about anxiety.) An eventful year has passed, one we’ve tried our best to cover with depth and clarity. For now, we continue to produce the magazine from our respective homes and see copies for the first time when they arrive in our mailboxes. (To me, at least, they feel like presents.) We hope you enjoy the May 2021 issue, and that you’ve found the magazine to be a useful guide to the past year—and sometimes a distraction from it.

Don Peck, Magazine Editor


The Facts

What we learned fact-checking this issue

In her essay on female directors who are reimagining the Western, Jordan Kisner writes about High Noon (1952), in which a town marshal (Gary Cooper) tries and fails to rally locals to help him confront an outlaw. Now considered a classic, the film drew criticism in Hollywood. John Wayne pressured Cooper to cut ties with its screenwriter, who had been under congressional investigation for Communist affiliation. Wayne later called the film “un-American.”

Howard Hawks made the movie Rio Bravo (1959) as a direct response to High Noon, casting Wayne as a stoic male lead who has to have help thrust upon him. But High Noon was the real hit; it earned four Oscars, including one for Best Actor. Ironically, Wayne accepted the award on Cooper’s behalf (Cooper was filming another feature). Wayne joked that he should find his agent and business manager and “run my 1930s Chevrolet into one of their big black new Cadillacs” for failing to get him the role.

Stephanie Hayes, Deputy Research Chief


Behind the Art

For David Treuer’s cover story, “Return the National Parks to the Tribes,” Katy Grannan photographed 37 members of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. Grannan spent 10 days shooting on the Blackfeet Reservation, which abuts Glacier National Park. She traveled in a four-wheel-drive Ford van along icy roads, through snowbanks, mud, and wind. The park, and the policies that created it, play a huge role in the everyday lives of tribal members.

Luise Stauss, Director of Photography
Christine Walsh, Contributing Photo Editor

TK
Grannan’s assistant Skylar Economy encounters a rare white bison on a reservation ranch. (Katy Grannan)

Corrections

Because of an error in exhibition materials, “Creativity in Confinement” (March) originally said that Ojore Lutalo had access to a photocopier while in solitary confinement. In fact, Lutalo had access to photocopied documents. Because of an editing error, “The Internet Doesn’t Have to Be Awful” (April) stated that a quotation from Tristan Harris was from an interview with the authors. In fact, Harris wrote it in a recent essay. That article also stated that the Volksempfänger radio was transistor-based. In fact, it was tube-based.