What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Identities

The Enslaved Chefs Who Invented Southern Hospitality

Black Cooks Created the Feasts that Gave the South Its Reputation for Gracious Living 

By Kelley Fanto Deetz
July 19, 2018

“We need to forget about this so we can heal,” said an elderly white woman, as she left my lecture on the history of enslaved cooks and their influence on American cuisine.  Something I said, or perhaps everything I said, upset her.

My presentation covered 300 years of American history that started with the forced enslavement of millions of Africans, and which still echoes in our culture today, from the myth of the “happy servant” (think Aunt Jemima on the syrup …

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How Attending Elite Universities Helped Mormons Enter the Mainstream

Through Higher Education, Latter-day Saints Joined the U.S. Meritocracy and Transformed Their Own Identity

By Thomas W. Simpson
July 9, 2018

The history of Mormon “Americanization” has long puzzled those who try to understand it.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, Mormons, under immense pressure from local and federal authorities, jettisoned their utopian separatism in favor of monogamy, market capitalism, public schools, national political parties, and military service. The question is, how can any human institution—much less a religion that historian Martin Marty has called the 19th century’s “most despised large group”—change so much so quickly?

The answer lies in understanding …

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How the NFL and American Politicians Politicized (and Helped Merchandise) Pro Football

In the '60s and '70s, Gridiron Fans Like Richard Nixon and Bobby Kennedy Embraced the Sport That Wanted Their Attention

By Jesse Berrett
July 5, 2018

In January 1942, as the United States committed itself fully to World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt decided that baseball, then the national pastime, should sustain civilian morale during the lengthy struggle ahead. He implored its commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to make sure the games went on, despite worldwide armed conflict. And so they did. Professional baseball players, Roosevelt argued, “are a definite recreational asset.”

Roosevelt did not extend that consideration to professional football players, whose sport did not register …

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How the Pickup Truck Carried the American South Into the Future

From 'Rusty Rattletraps' to 'Big Black Jacked-Up' Rides, the Iconic Vehicles Symbolize Blue-Collar Identity While Flaunting Bourgeois Prosperity

By James C. Cobb
July 2, 2018

The pickup truck’s rise from its crude, makeshift origins to the almost luxury-item status it enjoys today amounts to a Horatio Alger tale with a technological twist, providing a striking allegory of cherished national legends of progress and upward mobility.

In the early 20th century, a number of Americans, seeking a more expeditious means of hauling material that could not be crammed into or strapped atop the traditional motorcar, took their tinsnips to the family flivver, affixing a large box …

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The Real-Life Adventuress Who Turned Nancy Drew Into a Modern Heroine

Mildred Wirt Benson Helped Invent the Fictional Teen Sleuth Who Became a Generational Role Model

By Jennifer Fisher
June 25, 2018

Nancy Drew struggled this way and that. She twisted and squirmed. She kicked and clawed. But she was powerless in the grip of the man.

‘Little wildcat! You won’t do any more scratching when I get through with you!’

‘Let me go!’ Nancy cried, struggling harder. The man half-carried, half-dragged her across the room. Opening the closet door, he flung her roughly inside. Nancy heard a key turn in the lock. The sliding of a bolt into place followed.

‘Now …

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How Anti-Spanish Bias Justified 19th-Century American Expansionism

Poet-Politician Joel Barlow Personified an Ideology Borne of Religious Antipathy and Economic Rivalry

By John C. Havard
June 22, 2018

No sooner had the U.S. Revolution ended than U.S. expansionists began looking south and southwest toward lands controlled by Spain.

The personification of this complicated project was the American poet-politician Joel Barlow. As a poet, he worked on creating public sentiment to annex Spanish lands, and, wearing his political hat, he pursued that agenda. Barlow is largely a forgotten figure today, but the myths he helped create remain with us.

Barlow was the likely author of the 1792 manuscript “Plan …

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The ‘Ambassador of Aloha’ Who Showcased Hawai‘i’s Splendors to the World

Duke Kahanamoku Broke Records, Integrated Swimming Pools and Beaches, and Personified the Islands' Gracious Spirit

By David Davis
June 18, 2018

On the morning of June 14, 1925, Duke Kahanamoku was camping out on the beach in the seaside village of Corona del Mar, about 50 miles south of Los Angeles, getting ready to do some surfing with friends, when he noticed a fishing boat named The Thelma heading out to sea.

Kahanamoku was at a crossroads in his life. He was about to turn 35 years old and his days of winning Olympic gold medals for swimming were over. …

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The ’70s Pop Idol Who Was a ‘Safe’ Sex Symbol for Girls

The Partridge Family's David Cassidy Had an Androgynous Sweetness That Made Him Part Older Brother, Part Girlfriend

By Carol Dyhouse
June 14, 2018

When David Cassidy died, aged 67, in November 2017, reports in the press suggested that legions of middle-aged women were plunged into mourning. Cassidy, whose career was kick-started with the role of Keith Partridge in the 1970s musical-sitcom The Partridge Family, enjoyed explosive success during that decade as a singer, songwriter, and musician, but most sensationally, as the love interest of swathes of adoring teenage girls across North America, Europe, and many other parts of the world.

These days we are …

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The ‘Black Catholic Movement’ That Reinvigorated American Catholicism

In the Industrial North, African Americans Witnessed a Flourishing of Liturgical Innovation, New Preaching Styles, and Activist Scholarship

By Matthew J. Cressler
June 7, 2018

The story of how Roman Catholics “became American” is very well-known. Beginning in the 19th century, Catholics were a feared and despised immigrant population that Protestants imagined to be inimical to, even incompatible with, everything America was meant to be. American mobs burned Catholic convents and churches. By the early 20th century, the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan was running rampant.

But this changed after the Second World War. Military service, educational achievement, economic advancement, and suburbanization combined to make Catholics virtually …

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Is Ketchup the Perfect Complement to the American Diet?

More Than Just a Condiment, It Helped Revolutionize How Food Is Grown, Processed, and Regulated

By Amy Bentley
June 4, 2018

Ketchup is arguably the United States’ most ubiquitous condiment. 97 percent of Americans have a ketchup bottle in the fridge, usually Heinz, and we buy some 10 billion ounces of the red stuff annually—almost three bottles per person per year. We purportedly spend more money on salsa, but in terms of sheer volume ketchup comes out on top.

Bright red in color, tangy, sweet, salty, and replete with a “meaty,” tomato-ey umami hit, ketchup provides accents of color and flavoring, …

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