The Atlantic is releasing in full “To Reconstruct The Nation,” a special issue that, as editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg writes today, is “meant to examine the enduring consequences of Reconstruction’s tragic fall at a moment—yet another moment—when the cause of racial progress faces sustained pressure.”
The centerpiece of the issue, which is led by senior editor Vann R. Newkirk II, is a new feature-length play by the actor, playwright, and Atlantic contributing writer Anna Deavere Smith, which appears along with essays by writers, historians, and scholars including Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie G. Bunch III, Jordan Virtue, Peniel E. Joseph, Drew Gilpin Faust, Eric Foner, and The Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk II, Adam Harris, and Yoni Appelbaum.
The issue arrives 157 years after The Atlantic published Frederick Douglass’s famed essay on “Reconstruction,” and explores the fleeting time after the Civil War when the country undertook a radical transformation in an effort to become a true democracy. But the backlash against Reconstruction, and its effective end in 1877, prevented its proponents from achieving their aspirations. This issue addresses how the intense battles currently being waged in our politics and culture—over voting rights, access to education, criminal justice, and what it means to have equal protection under the law—can all trace their roots to the unfinished business of Reconstruction.
Anna Deavere Smith’s play, This Ghost of Slavery, runs across 32 pages and is the first play The Atlantic has published in nearly a century. Set in Baltimore and Annapolis in the 1850s-60s and the present, the play explores the power of historical trauma to persist for generations. It interrogates the contemporary failures of our juvenile justice system, (“How did we get here?” one character repeatedly asks), finding the origins of the problem in the aftermath of emancipation, when former slaveowners in Maryland used the state’s “Black Code” to immediately re-indenture children under the guise of “apprenticeship.” This functionally extended slavery for adolescents. As with much of Deavere Smith’s work, the play draws from her own contemporary interviews with activists, social-justice workers, and young people whose lives have been affected by the carceral system.
For This Ghost of Slavery, she supplemented these interviews with primary-source historical materials, mining 19th-century archives, transcripts, and diaries, and has woven dialogue from these historical sources into the play, which features historical figures such as President Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, General Lew Wallace, and Elizabeth Turner, whose court case brought by her mother against her enslaver turned out to be a hinge on which history turned.
The result is a searing drama of great emotional and historical complexity set in two time periods. The play brings history vividly (and at times painfully) to life, makes plain the injustices meted out to Black Americans across centuries, and allows readers to see anew the connections between past and present.
“To Reconstruct the Nation” includes the following pieces, all online today:
Lonnie G. Bunch III: “The Archive of Emancipation”
In the papers of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Lonnie G. Bunch III, the secretary of the Smithsonian, found the hopes and disappointments of a people on the cusp of freedom—including his own family’s. Bunch explores a public transcription and digitization project that is making much of the Freedmen’s Bureau documents available widely for the first time, and what it tells us about the lives of enslaved people, especially after freedom.
Vann R. Newkirk II: “The Years of Jubilee”
In 1871, the choir of the struggling Fisk University engaged in a gambit to save the school: It decided to go on a singing tour of America. Senior editor Vann R. Newkirk II writes about how the choir achieved more than its members could have imagined.
David W. Blight: “The Annotated Frederick Douglass”
In 1866, at the dawn of Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass published an essay in The Atlantic wrestling with the promise of the moment and the shortcomings he could already anticipate. Reprinted in full for the December issue, the essay is newly annotated by Douglass’s biographer David W. Blight.
Jordan Virtue: “Kennedy and the Lost Cause”
In his 1956 book, Profiles in Courage, future president John F. Kennedy promoted the southern mythology of Reconstruction, praising a racist, slave-holding senator while tarnishing the reputation and legacy of his political rival, Adelbart Ames, an ardent supporter of Black suffrage and Mississippi’s governor during Reconstruction. Virtue writes about the efforts of Ames’s daughter throughout her life to correct the historical record and clear her father’s name. Profiles in Courage remains, as of now, uncorrected.
Adam Harris: “The Black Roots of American Education”
Staff writer Adam Harris writes about how freedpeople and their advocates persuaded the nation to embrace public schooling for all.
Yoni Applebaum: “The Atlantic and Reconstruction”
Deputy editor Yoni Applebaum writes about what The Atlantic got wrong in 1901, when the magazine last reckoned with Reconstruction in a sustained way.
Drew Gilpin Faust: “The Men Who Started the War”
John Brown and the Secret Six—the abolitionists who funded the raid on Harpers Ferry—confronted a question as old as America: When is violence justified?
Peniel E. Joseph: “The Revolution Never Ended”
The federal government abandoned Reconstruction in 1877, but, Peniel Joseph writes, Black people didn’t give up on the moment’s promise.
Eric Foner: “A Traitor to the Traitors”
The Reconstruction scholar Eric Foner writes about how—and why—the Confederate general James Longstreet became a champion of Reconstruction.
The Atlantic’s December issue is published today at TheAtlantic.com. Please reach out with any questions or requests to interview the issue’s contributors.
Anna Bross and Paul Jackson | The Atlantic