What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Identities

How Norway Taught Me to Balance My Hyphenated-Americanness

A Minnesotan Grapples With Identity in His Scandinavian "Homeland"

The author borrowed a Norwegian sweater, knickers, and a bunad to stage this photo in front of a quaint hytta to show everyone back in the Midwest that his family was fitting right in in Trondheim. Photo courtesy of Arild Juul.

By Eric Dregni
November 20, 2017

During the year I spent studying at the university in Trondheim, Norway, I sometimes learned more about my own country than Norway. One day, in my immigration studies class, my professor David Mauk, who hailed from Ohio, asked, “What does it mean to be American?”

I braced myself to hear the usual stereotypes from the news from the Norwegian students in my class. Then the professor clarified, “What to you is truly good about America?”

Even though I’m an American, I …

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The Southern Writers Who Defined America

How William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison Explained the South—and Taught Northerners About Themselves

Ralph Ellison, the Oklahoma-born author of the 1952 classic Invisible Man, as a witness at a U.S. Senate Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C. on race and the problems confronting U.S. cities. Photo courtesy of Associated Press.

By James C. Cobb
November 13, 2017

Tell about the South. What’s it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?
           —Shreve McCannon, to Quentin Compson

Struggling in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! to field these questions, flung at him by his Harvard roommate on a snowy evening in 1910, the young Mississippian Quentin Compson plunges into the history of his own Southern community. Drawing on the accounts of his family and fellow citizens of …

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The “Crying Indian” Ad That Fooled the Environmental Movement

Behind the '70s Anti-Pollution Icon Was an Italian-American Actor—and the Beverage Industry

Iron Eyes Cody presents President Jimmy Carter with a Native American headdress in the Oval Office in Washington on April 21, 1978. Cody also gave Carter a Native American name, Wamblee Ska, which he said means “great white eagle.” Photo courtesy of Peter Bregg/Associated Press.

By Finis Dunaway
November 9, 2017

It’s probably the most famous tear in American history: Iron Eyes Cody, an actor in Native American garb, paddles a birch bark canoe on water that seems, at first, tranquil and pristine, but that becomes increasingly polluted along his journey. He pulls his boat ashore and walks toward a bustling freeway. As the lone Indian ponders the polluted landscape, a passenger hurls a paper bag out a car window. The bag bursts on the ground, scattering fast-food wrappers all over …

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How Americans Can Stop Fighting the Civil War

Acknowledging Tragic Loss on All Sides Could Begin a Process of Reconciliation

Civil War re-enactors pose in their Union battle regalia at a historic marker. Photo courtesy of Sgt. Stephanie Hargett/U.S. Army Reserve.

By David Goldfield
October 30, 2017

It began as a loving effort to heal the South’s wounds, to properly mourn the young men who gave their lives for a lost cause, and to extract dignity from the humiliation of defeat.

Immediately after the Civil War ended, the white women of the South went to work. They tended graves, erected modest monuments, and followed former president Jefferson Davis’ plea to “keep the memory of our heroes green.” The South had lost one-third of its white male …

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When Halloween Mischief Turned to Mayhem

Nineteenth-Century Urbanization Unleashed the Nation's Anarchic Spirits

A 1908 postcard depicts Halloween mischief.
Image courtesy of  The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

By Lesley Bannatyne
October 26, 2017

Imagine. Pre-electricity, no moon. It’s late October, and the people whisper: This is the season for witchery, the night the spirits of the dead rise from their graves and hover behind the hedges.

The wind kicks up, and branches click like skeletal finger bones. You make it home, run inside, wedge a chair against the door, and strain to listen. There’s a sharp rap at the window and when you turn, terrified, it’s there leering at you—a glowing, disembodied head …

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It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Positive Symbol of American Power!

Rarely an Agent of the Government, Superman Defended the 'American Way' Through Simple Decency and Acts of Charity

The Man of Steel has served as ambassador of America's idealistic promise to the world. Image courtesy of Flickr.

By Ian Gordon
October 23, 2017

I can’t really remember when I first encountered Superman. It might have been through the 1950s television series The Adventures of Superman, or it might have been in a Superman comic book—not an American comic book, but a black and white reprint, by the Australian publisher K. G. Murray.

Growing up in Australia, I learned the basic stories of American history from the pages of these Superman comics. I read about the Boston Tea Party; Nathan Hale’s patriotism; Washington crossing …

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When Black Texans Gathered Under “Thursday Night Lights”

Why the Lone Star State Has Forgotten Its Proud Tradition of African-American High School Football

Austin Anderson's football team finished its 1961 season with a 20-13 state championship win at Jeppesen Stadium. Photo by Leroy Bookman.

By Michael Hurd
October 19, 2017

I had only been in and out of Houston since leaving our Sunnyside neighborhood on the city’s southeast side, in 1968, to begin eight years of Air Force service. Whenever I returned, I made only casual note of neighborhood and city changes, such as the sad state of the mom-and-pop “candy store” where we used to hang out after school, now boarded up, or a new skyscraper for a Houston skyline dotted with cranes, or another congested freeway opened to …

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Why Sheep Started So Many Wars in the American West

Each Year, an Idaho Festival Honors the Shepherds Who Sought to Keep the Peace

Tending sheep on the Navajo Reservation, May 1972. Photo by Terry Eiler/Wikimedia Commons.

By Adam M. Sowards
October 5, 2017

In early October, when the leaves turn golden and the shadows of the Sawtooth Mountains lengthen, the annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival moves through south central Idaho. The festival, complete with a sheep parade, sheepdog trials, and a wool fest, celebrates the long relationship between sheep and their human companions. 

Sun Valley, Idaho, is synonymous with New West wealth, but it sits in the Wood River Valley, where more humble ranchers and farmers have long made their living. In the …

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Our Revelatory Culinary Road Trip Through the New South

What Chorizo, Hummus, and Chiles Rellenos Say About a Changing Region

Staples at Weaver D's, Athens, Georgia. Photo by Wendy Atkins-Sayre.

By By Ashli Q. Stokes and Wendy Atkins-Sayre
October 2, 2017

It was New Year’s Day in Charlotte, North Carolina, and seemingly half of Mecklenburg County had come to the K&W Cafeteria for black-eyed peas, greens, and hog jowls—foods to bring good luck for the year ahead. The Formica tables were packed with local ladies in their fancy hats, college kids, tired families, and business folks in suits, all snaking slowly through a winding line to order.

We were at the K&W reflecting on a year-long mission to understand how Southern …

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How Bullwinkle Helped Us Laugh Off Nuclear Annihilation

The Dim-Witted Moose and His Squirrelly Sidekick Calmed Our Cold War Fears with Subversive Humor

Cornball Cartoon Cold Warriors: Rocky (with aviator cap) and Bullwinkle (in white gloves) kept kids entertained by regularly thwarting the Soviet-eseque “Pottsylvanian” spies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. Image courtesy of JD Hancock/Flickr.

By Beth Daniels
September 25, 2017

“Mr. Chairman, I am against all foreign aid, especially to places like Hawaii and Alaska,” says Senator Fussmussen from the floor of a cartoon Senate in 1962. In the visitors’ gallery, Russian agents Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale are deciding whether to use their secret “Goof Gas” gun to turn the Congress stupid, as they did to all the rocket scientists and professors in the last episode of Bullwinkle.

Another senator wants to raise taxes on everyone under the age …

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