What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Encounters

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 …

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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 …

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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, …

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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, …

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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 …

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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 …

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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 …

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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, …

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Finding Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Thrift Store

My Chance Encounter with Arizona’s Civil Rights History

Martin Luther King Jr., Arizona State University

By Mary Scanlon
November 14, 2014

I have always been a picker. When I was a kid, this meant searching the desert near my home in Douglas, Arizona, for old bottles and interesting rocks. Later in life, after I moved to Phoenix, my collecting interest turned to record albums. My husband had gotten me interested in jazz, and I began haunting local thrift stores in search of old LPs featuring icons like John Coltrane, Mary Lou Williams, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, and Dave Brubeck.

I was on …

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I Discovered America Through Japanese Eyes

What Happened When a Kid From Chicago Became an L.A. Correspondent for Japan’s Largest Newspaper

Scarlett Johansson

By Ari Ratner
October 28, 2014

“Scarlett, Scarlett!” I waved pleadingly. Across the red carpet she sauntered, her eyes invitingly meeting mine. There I stood—a 24-year-old Jewish kid from Chicago decked out for the 77th Annual Academy Awards with my overgrown eyebrows and a cheap rented tux—face-to-face with America’s luscious girl-next-door, Scarlett Johansson.

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