Race and the American Idea

Some colleagues and I have just finished compiling a massive (290,000 words, which is probably about 750 book pages—and is 2,000 (!) iBook pages) e-book anthology called Race and the American Idea: 155 years of writing from The Atlantic. That's a big book—and a good deal, at $9.99 on Amazon—but we actually left out far more than we included. If we'd included all the pieces we considered the collection could easily have have reached a million words.

Working on this project brought home something I already sort of knew, but with renewed force, which is how central the problem of race has been to American history across hundreds of years. As I wrote it in the introduction, America's “greatest and most enduring challenge” has been:

What Atlantic authors have, over the decades, variously called “the problem of the color line” (W. E. B. Du Bois, 1900), “The Heart of the Race Problem” (Quincy Ewing, 1909), and, in an editorial by John Quincy Adams’s grandson calling for an end to “The Reign of King Cotton,” “what is coarsely, but expressively, described in the political slang of this country as ‘The Everlasting Nigger-Question’” (Charles Francis Adams Jr., 1861).

The history of America contains many jangling dissonances. On the one hand the “Shining City Upon a Hill”; on the other the rapacious conquest of the frontier. On the one hand the progressive expansion of liberty and democracy; on the other the persistent subordination of certain groups to second-class citizenship or worse. On the one hand the economic and political benefits of capitalism; on the other its sometimes brutal costs and inequities. But no dissonance is more emblematic of the nation’s struggle to realize itself than the one between the noble rhetoric and liberty-touting ideals of our founding documents and the reality of life for its African American citizens—each of whom, at the country’s inception, was officially not a full citizen but only three-fifths of one. This dissonance gives rise to the chasm between, say, Abraham Lincoln declaring America, in a message to Congress on December 1, 1862, a month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation, to be “the last best hope of earth” and Malcolm X telling an audience hosted by a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality just over a century later, “We don’t see any American dream. We’ve experienced only the American nightmare.”

In America’s reckoning with race is the story of the country’s quest to overcome its “past and live up to its founding principles, the struggle to leave behind brutal oppression and systematic racial discrimination to become a version of itself that exemplifies the ideals it venerates. The Atlantic’s writers recognized this early on. As Edmund Quincy wrote in the second issue, in a fiery essay arguing for the urgency of abolition, “The ideal of a true republic, of a government of laws made and executed by the people, of which bards have sung and prophets dreamed, and for which martyrs have suffered and heroes died, may yet be possible to us, and the great experiment of this Western World be indeed a Model, instead of a Warning to the nations.”

To be a model instead of a warning. That struggle has persisted past slavery and Reconstruction, through Jim Crow and housing discrimination and segregation, through the civil-rights movement and black nationalism and on into the modern age of mass incarceration. The essays and articles in this volume convey the outlines, and some of the particulars, of that struggle, and show how The Atlantic, across many generations, has tried to help readers make sense of it, and to help chart a route away from a warning and toward a model.

The collection runs from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass through W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T. Washington to Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates. If you're interested in the history of the country, and its struggle to live up to the ideals it established for itself at the moment of its founding, I hope you'll consider browsing through this book.