The Atlantic’s ‘Inheritance’ Looks at American History, Black Life and Resilience of Memory

The project’s managing editor Gillian B. White and Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith talk about filling in the pages of Black history with stories that have gone unknown for too long.

With the recognition of Black History Month, many organizations are focusing on Black stories. The Atlantic’s Inheritance project is a more permanent dedication to Black history, reaching beyond just the month of February. The multi-year project will piece together suppressed Black narratives and use them to better understand America’s history and future.  

“We’re not just focusing on history in the rearview…we are talking about the ways that Black people have affected history and affected change in ways that are evident now and will impact the future.” — Gillian B. White, The Atlantic 

Listen: Two journalists from The Atlantic share their work on The Atlantic’s “Inheritance.”


Gillian B. White is Managing Editor of The Atlantic. She says even though Black people worked to create the foundation of the United States, their experiences are absent from the history books. “Everything has been filtered through the lens of white people… and white supremacy,” she says. The Atlantic’s Inheritance project will work to highlight overlooked Black stories. “We’re not just focusing on history in the rearview… we are talking about the ways that Black people have affected history and affected change in ways that are evident now and will impact the future.” 

White reflects on the abolitionist history of The Atlantic, and how the magazine was founded on a fierce opposition to slavery. “We have a responsibility to live up to that,” she says. Inheritance will create a more complex narrative of Black history, which has been oversimplified for too long. “The truth, complex and ugly as it may be sometimes, is the best thing (Black people) can inherit.” 

Clint Smith is a staff writer for The Atlantic. He recently authored an article featured in The Atlantic’s March 2021 print edition titled, “We Mourn for All We Do Not Know” as part of Inheritance. He says one of the most important resources for the project comes from the 1936-1938 Federal Writers’ Project when the WPA interviewed 2,300 formerly enslaved people. “So often stories we hear around slavery are about exceptional remarkable people… who escaped slavery. But part of what I argue is that these Federal Writers’ Project stories are so important because they tell the stories of ordinary people.” 

Smith says the Federal Writers’ Project, featured in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, “created an archive of stories of people living through exceptional times in history… it was also meant to be a jobs program.” For Inheritance, Smith seeks to remind people that “the history that we tell ourselves was a long time ago was not that long ago at all.”

Web story written by Nora Rhein. 

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