What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Encounters

When the World Came to My South L.A. Door

Amazon Is Nothing New, in the 1930s and ‘40s Salesmen Delivered Everything From Fresh Doughnuts to Steel Guitars

Rodriguez on delivery LEAD

By Manuel H. Rodriguez
July 7, 2016

I remember most clearly the things that aren’t here anymore, the things that I saw as a child in our neighborhood in South Los Angeles.

In 1937, when I was seven, we lived in a white, wood frame house on East 61st Street. It had a front lawn and a big backyard with an alley behind it. Main Street was a few feet west, with a print shop I visited because the owner gave away writing tablets and the Princess …

Read More >

How the Lowly Mosquito Helped America Win Independence

The Blood-Sucking Insect Has Played a Leading Role in the Rise and Fall of Empires Throughout History

FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2016, file photo, an Aedes aegypti mosquito is photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. A new study suggests the worrisome Zika virus apparently has been in Brazil at least a year longer than experts previously thought.  Some experts have speculated the virus first came to the Americas sometime in 2014. But the new study, led by Brazilian researchers, concludes Zika landed in Brazil a year earlier.  (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

By John R. McNeill
June 14, 2016

In recent months, millions of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes have been at work spreading the Zika virus in South and Central America. This summer, millions more, all capable of conveying the virus, will flit and bite throughout the southern U.S. Congress just approved funding to battle its spread. This is not the first time a mosquito-borne virus has broken loose in the Americas and it will not likely be the last. Indeed, mosquitoes and viruses have shaped the history of our …

Read More >

Why We Keep Rediscovering the Flamboyant Godmother of Rock

Sister Rosetta Tharpe Was Buried in an Unmarked Grave, But Now She’s a YouTube Sensation

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, guitar-playing American gospel singer, gives an inpromptu performance in a lounge at London Airport, following her arrival from New York on November 21, 1957. (AP Photo)

By Gayle Wald
February 5, 2016

More than 40 years after her burial in an unmarked Philadelphia grave, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, gospel’s first superstar and its most celebrated crossover figure, is enjoying a burst of Internet celebrity. A video of her playing one of her signature tunes, “Didn’t It Rain,” from a 1964 TV special filmed for British television has been racking up more than 10 million views on YouTube and Facebook. Old and new fans the world over, dazzled by Tharpe’s powerful singing and wildly …

Read More >

The Native Americans Who Drew the French and British Into War

The Anishinaabeg Played an Outsized Role in World Affairs

McDonnell-LEAD-image

By Michael A. McDonnell
January 5, 2016

When a young George Washington approached the forks of the Ohio River in the spring of 1754, he was nervous. The previous year, as he scouted the area that would become Pittsburgh to contest French claims to the region, he came across seven scalped settlers. His escorts told him it was the work of a group of Indians allied with the French. Returning to the area a year later, he heard that hundreds of those same Native Americans were on …

Read More >

When Louisiana Creoles Arrived in Texas, Were They Black or White?

Mixed-Race Migrants Came to Houston for Jobs and Ended Up Challenging Definitions of Race

Steptoe on Creole Identity ART 2

By Tyina Steptoe
December 15, 2015

Actor Taye Diggs recently raised eyebrows by declaring that he hopes his young son—who has a white mother of Portuguese descent—identifies as “mixed” instead of black. Diggs, who is African-American, also included President Barack Obama in his statement. “Everybody refers to him as the first black president. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just saying that it’s interesting. It would be great if it didn’t matter and that people could call him mixed. We’re still choosing to make that decision, …

Read More >

What’s More American Than Skydiving?

Encounters with Freedom, Optimism, and Exploration at 10,000 Feet

What’s More American Than Skydiving?

By Taya Weiss
March 31, 2015

When I quit my first real job, I didn’t have a plan. I just walked out with the recklessness of a Harvard graduate who had come of age during the Clinton era Internet bubble. I was barely out the door when reality set in, and elation gave way to doubts about the wobbling post-Y2K economy. What if I had doomed myself to poverty? I wanted catharsis. That’s when I got the idea to jump out of an airplane.

Soon after, …

Read More >

Inside the Coney Island ‘Freak Show’

Why Were Early-20th-Century Americans So Enthralled by Human Zoos?

Igorrotes, Claire Prentice, freak show, Coney Island

By Claire Prentice
December 19, 2014

A day trip to Coney Island, once the largest amusement park in the United States, led me to the photograph. In the black-and-white image, a group of tribesmen, women, and children squats around a campfire. They’re barefoot and dressed in G-strings and tribal blankets. Several are looking at the camera and laughing. One man is pointing. Another is holding up a rock, as if he is about to throw it.

The photo could have been torn straight from the pages of …

Read More >

The United States of Ribs

I Didn’t Just Want to Live in America, I Wanted to Eat It

barbecue, 4th of July, Simon Majumdar

By Simon Majumdar
December 12, 2014

It was all about the food. To be honest, it always has been, and probably always will be.

It was all about the food when I was growing up in a small mining town in the north of England, distracting myself from my grimy surroundings with the smells of Bengali food that wafted from the large kitchen in our family home. And, it was all about the food 40 years later as the death of my beloved mother and the pressures …

Read More >

Creating a Mexican-Afro-Cuban-American Beat

The Rhythms I Play and Dance Collided on the American Continent—Then I Made Them My Own

shoes, Martha Gonzalez, Quetzal, fandango, tarima, zapateado, stomp box

By Martha Gonzalez
December 5, 2014

The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival was in full bloom on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in late June. Audiences flocked to different stages and exhibits that shared the finest music cultures in the world. As I approached the workers’ trailer, I knew it was the last time I would hold my tarima (stomp box) and old zapateado shoes. I’d participated with my band Quetzal in a moving tribute concert to legendary folk singer Pete Seeger the previous evening, and …

Read More >

Home Is Where the Border Is

Living in the Space Between Two Countries Forces You to Rethink Your Definition of Community

palm trees

By Felipe Hinojosa
November 21, 2014

As soon as I spot the rows of palm trees lining Highway 77, I know I’ve arrived home. That’s the point where I roll down my windows to feel the humid and hot winds of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. When I did just that on a recent trip from College Station, where I live now, my 9-year-old son asked loudly from the back seat, “Papi, why does it smell like steak?” My response was swift: “Because Friday night lights, …

Read More >