Today The Atlantic is publishing a collection of stories, poetry, and photography that serves as a recognition, a celebration, and a reclamation of the Black body. “What the Body Holds” is the third chapter of “Inheritance,” The Atlantic’s ongoing reporting project 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 story. The installment launching today offers stories on how Black Americans think about presenting themselves to the outside world, the inequities in how bodies are assigned value, and the quest for dignity in a society that might otherwise seek to strip it away.
“Over the course of our work we were drawn again and again to questions of what it means for Black people to reclaim spaces and narratives, to feel seen, to express joy, to experience autonomy,” writes contributing writer Gillian White in an introduction to Chapter 3, published today. “‘What the Body Holds’ is a reflection on the ways in which bodies are central to our memory and how we experience the world.”
Stories, essays, and poetry in Chapter 3 include writer Latria Graham on the use and commercialization of deceased Black people's images in the name of education or entertainment; writer Julian Randall’s exploration of gold teeth as a symbol of Black agency; a personal essay by fashion designer Charles Harbison about what fashion owes working-class Black women, whose influence has been ignored; The Atlantic staff writer Hannah Giorgis on the societal pressures that drive women of color to seek out elective surgeries to augment or change their appearance; and writer Shalene Gupta’s report on the double marginalization of Black Americans with disabilities. In a poem for the chapter, Tiana Clark writes of celebrating Black lives, pleasure, and love amid a seemingly constant stream of Black suffering.
Original artwork by Black artists accompanies each piece, some of which will be exhibited at an “Inheritance” display at the outdoor art festival Photoville, running September 18 through December 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City.
“Inheritance” is underwritten by Salesforce.org. In support for this monumental journalism project, Salesforce.org will use its technology to power a platform for stories about Black history and ancestry in new and novel ways.
The Atlantic Festival will also feature an “Inheritance” event on September 28 at 10 a.m. ET, bringing to conversation Atlantic journalists about their work on the project, including staff writers Hannah Giorgis, Adam Harris, Adam Serwer, and Clint Smith, and senior editors Vann R. Newkirk II, Jenisha Watts, and Lauren Williams. Audience registration is here.
Stories in the chapter publishing today and tomorrow include the following:
In a personal essay, fashion designer Charles Harbison writes that fashion needs working-class Black women, who are his consummate muses and have long been ignored by the industry. Harbison draws his design inspiration from his mother and grandmother, both factory workers, who used clothes to avoid being boxed in by their blue-collar jobs. As he writes: “We have an opportunity to change the narrative; we no longer should require these women to appeal to anyone but themselves. The industry should view them as muses. They are ingenious purveyors of fashion, and the market deserves products that are inspired by their tenacity, mutability, and power.”
Writer Latria Graham explores the question “When Can the Black Body Rest?” as told through a current legal battle of one woman to reclaim photographic images of enslaved people who she says are her ancestors. Tamara Lanier grew up hearing stories about her great-great-great-grandfather “Papa Renty,” who was born in Africa before being sold into slavery. Lanier’s research led her to photographs of Renty and his daughter, Delia, both of which are owned by Harvard University. In 2019, Lanier filed a lawsuit against Harvard, asserting that the images belong to her and requesting the university pay her punitive and emotional damages. This case gets at the ethically fraught conversation about Black bodies, ancestry, and ownership. As Graham writes: “There is a direct line between historical exploitation and the ongoing commercialization of and profiting from images of dead Black people, over which their descendants often have little control, few claims, and few rights.”
Staff writer Hannah Giorgis reports on the societal pressures that drive women—and especially Black women—to seek out elective surgeries to conform to a specific standard; these pressures have never been as hard to escape as they are now. Giorgis covers how women of color are often targeted by clinics that perform gluteal fat grafting (commonly known as the Brazilian butt lift) under hazardous conditions. Her piece is a reflection on the ways that Black women’s bodies have historically been positioned in this country and how Black women think about the expectations for their own bodies.
“Inheritance” launched in February and has included reporting from staff writers Clint Smith and Adam Harris; senior editor Vann R. Newkirk II; contributing writer Jemele Hill; playwright and contributing writer Anna Deavere Smith; political philosopher and author Danielle Allen; and author Annette Gordon-Reed, who is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard. Past chapters have asked readers to interrogate the stories we tell ourselves about our country and the importance of place as a powerful catalyst for remembrance. Sign up here to receive newsletter alerts about future stories in this series.
Anna Bross and Fernando Sanchez, The Atlantic