The Atlantic introduces “Inheritance”: A project about American history, Black life, and the resilience of memory

Multiyear reporting project debuts on the cover of the March issue with essays from Vann R. Newkirk II, Clint Smith, Anna Deavere Smith, Jemele Hill, Danielle Allen, and Anna Holmes

Inheritance, a project about American history, Black life, and the resilience of memory

Too much knowledge has been lost, too many stories distorted, too many people forgotten. We mourn for all we do not know. Yet the vision and resilience of Black America are shaping this nation. Our future demands that we unbury the past.

Beginning today, The Atlantic is launching “Inheritance,” a multiyear journalism and tech project that will endeavor to fill the blank pages of Black history: to piece together, through reporting and data, the crucial events and conversations that have been intentionally left out of America’s narrative. Chapter 1 debuts today online and on the cover of The Atlantic’s March issue, with reporting, essays, and poetry publishing throughout the week from Danielle Allen, Cynthia Greenlee, contributing writer Jemele Hill, Anna Holmes, senior editor Vann R. Newkirk II, Joy Priest, and staff writer Clint Smith.

“Inheritance” also marks the Atlantic writing debut of the playwright, author, and actor Anna Deavere Smith, who with this issue becomes an Atlantic contributing writer. In this role, Deavere will contribute on topics across history, art, and culture.

Since 1857, when this publication was founded, in part, to further the cause of abolition, The Atlantic has explored the question of how the American narrative reflects the story of Black people. Telling the stories of everyday Black people—the all-but-forgotten ones—was an important goal when bringing “Inheritance” to life, as was honoring the many different Black identities and perspectives. In an editor’s note to lead the project, editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg recalls a conversation he had with managing editor Gillian White, the visionary for this project, in which White told him: “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.”

Chapter 1 begins today with the following pieces:

  • In “We Were the Last of the Nice Negro Girls,” Anna Deavere Smith writes about her experience as one of seven Black women in her college class in the late 1960s––which forged their Black identity and empowered their defiance. “We were an experience,” one of Smith’s classmates tells her. “They were giving us an opportunity to be the experience for these white girls. So that then they could be more comfortable going out into the world where people were talking about being Black and proud.” In our current moment, Smith writes that we cannot afford to go forward without looking back. “We must excavate history to assess how we learned to restore human dignity that had been ripped away by plunder and slavery. How did we get this far? Not by being nice.”

  • In “The Stories I DIdn't Learn in School,” the staff writer Clint Smith analyzes the work of the Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives, the largest archive of testimony from formerly enslaved people. The resulting oral histories––stories of suffering, but also of love, joy, wonder, and survival––have provided a crucial window into the heritage of the United States, and for descendants to read the words of people they thought were lost to history. What would a Federal Writers’ Project look like now, Smith asks, if we were to document the lives of people who lived through Jim Crow or America’s southern apartheid? “Their stories exist in our living rooms, on our front porches, and on the lips of people we know and love,” Smith writes. “But these stories also remain untold, in many cases because no one has asked.” He also speaks with the descendants of enslaved people about what they know—and don’t know—of their family history.

  • Cynthia Greenlee, a historian and senior editor at The Counter, tells the story of Cheyney University and its archivist, Keith Bingham, who is desperately trying to save the school’s valuable collection of papers that document the news of Black America from 1847 to 1906. Money and the pandemic have complicated Bingham’s and the school’s ability to properly store and digitize the fragile notebooks, and Bingham worries that priceless history may be lost if they’re not properly preserved.

  • And the poet and essayist Joy Priest contributes “Ghosts in Schools,” an original poem for the project.  

Publishing this week and throughout the month: the senior editor Vann Newkirk writes about what he believes to be the coming death of the Voting Rights Act, and discusses the story on The Experiment podcast on February 11; Danielle Allen, a political philosopher and the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard, explains the impact and the legacy of Prince Hall, a Black man who pushed the Founding Fathers to wrestle with slavery in the Declaration of Independence; the contributing writer Jemele Hill writes about Curt Flood and his role in developing the concept of free agency in sports; the editor, writer, and executive producer Anna Holmes explains the importance of the children’s magazine that W. E. B. Du Bois published for African American kids; and the staff writer Adam Harris writes about a massacre that happened in Eutaw, Alabama, during Reconstruction—and how the event continues to suppress Black participation in the democratic process.

With this project, The Atlantic is announcing a partnership with Salesforce, which is also the exclusive launch sponsor of “Inheritance.” In the coming months, Salesforce technology will power a platform that will put data about Black ancestry into the hands of the public. The intention of this tech project, which is still being developed, is to make the formal and informal artifacts of Black history and ancestry—such as family trees and oral histories—widely accessible. “Inheritance” is the first major initiative from Atlantic Ventures, a new group at The Atlantic that works to develop unconventional projects of consequence.

Future chapters of “Inheritance” will be published throughout the year. Sign up here to receive newsletter alerts on this project.