What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Identities

America’s First ‘Indian’ TV Star Was a Black Man from Missouri

Stymied by Hollywood Racism, Korla Pandit Reinvented Himself as a Mystical Brahmin Pianist

Korla piano and organ WIMTBA

By John Turner
April 26, 2016

Turning on the TV in Los Angeles in 1949, you might have come face-to-face with a young man in a jeweled turban with a dreamy gaze accentuated by dark eye shadow. Dressed in a fashionable coat and tie, Korla Pandit played the piano and the organ—sometimes both at once—creating music that was both familiar and exotic.

According to press releases from the time, Pandit was born in New Delhi, India, the son of a Brahmin government worker and a French …

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The Lawyer Who Beat Back a Racist Law, One Loophole at a Time

Y.C. Hong Helped Chinese Immigrants Stay in America by Gaming a System Designed to Deport Them

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By Li Wei Yang
April 5, 2016

Recent politics is full of debates about erecting walls on the U.S.-Mexican border or barring Muslims from entering the U.S. But excluding groups of immigrants based on a particular background is nothing new—though the targets may change. It was in 1882 that Congress, for the first time in the history of the United States, passed legislation to prevent a specific ethnic group from entering the country. In effect from 1882 to 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act forbade Chinese residents from …

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Running for President Takes a Stiff—and Clean-Shaven—Upper Lip

As Thomas Dewey Learned in His Race Against Harry Truman, You Can Lose by a Whisker

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By Christopher Oldstone-Moore
January 26, 2016

In 1948, Emilie Spencer Deer, a solidly Republican woman from Ohio, announced to her family that she would vote for President Truman instead of the Republican candidate Thomas Dewey because she could not vote for a man with a mustache. She was neither foolish nor alone in her opinion. Educated and conscientious, she was, like other women of her day, simply reading the signs of what a good man looked like at the time. A clean-shaven man was team player, …

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When Two ‘Little Rascals’ Crossed the Color Line

The Friendship Between These Young Hollywood Actors—One Black, One White—Was Ahead of Its Time, but Also an Illusion

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By Julia Lee
January 19, 2016

When I was a kid, I used to watch episodes of The Little Rascals on TV in our living room in Los Angeles. My parents were Korean immigrants who had moved to the city in the 1970s, the first in a wave of Korean immigrants who would transform the city’s racial makeup. I had no idea the series had been filmed 50 years earlier, that most of the stars were dead, and that it was once unusual for black and …

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What the First First Couple Bequeathed America

George and Martha Washington’s Close Partnership Helped Them Through Rebellion, War, and Even the Presidency

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By Flora Fraser
January 12, 2016

One of the most revealing spaces at Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington’s home in Virginia, is a bare attic bedroom. Martha retreated here after George’s death in 1799. Without him, she would not occupy the elegant bedchamber they had so long shared. Grief made this tough, capable woman give up her will to live. She died, still in that attic retreat, a few years later.

Standing at the threshold of that little room, 10 years ago, I wondered at the …

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How One of Nixon’s Greatest Critics Changed Journalism

Mary McGrory Opened the Door for Women in the Political Newsroom—and Angered Plenty of People in the Process

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By John Norris
December 8, 2015

In 1973, when the Watergate hearings were at full pitch, word leaked to reporters that Richard Nixon’s White House counsel was going to release the president’s now-infamous “Enemies List”—an index of his 20 greatest political opponents.

Barry Kalb, who was covering the hearings for the Washington Star, contacted the lawyer representing the White House counsel. “I will never tell anybody where I got it,” Kalb pestered, “Have we got anybody on the list?”

The lawyer’s response was brief: “Mary McGrory.” Her name …

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Why Abolitionist Frederick Douglass Loved the Photograph

He Considered It the Most Democratic of Arts and a Crucial Aid in the Quest to End Slavery and Achieve Civil Rights

Lead Image for Homepage Stauffer

By John Stauffer
December 4, 2015

Suddenly, it seems, the camera has become a potent weapon in what many see as the beginning of a new civil rights movement. It’s become a familiar tale: Increasingly, blacks won’t leave home without a camera, and, according to F.B.I. Director James B. Comey, more police officers are thinking twice about questioning minorities, for fear of having the resulting film footage go viral.

But the link between photography (or film) and civil rights dates back to Frederick Douglass, the famous …

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The KKK’s Failed Comeback

We Shouldn't Forget How the Social Club/Terrorist Organization Regained Popularity, or That Diversity Proved Good for America

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By Jon Grinspan
November 24, 2015

One hundred years ago, on November 25, 15 men climbed atop Stone Mountain, just outside Atlanta, touched a lit match to a kerosene-soaked cross, and resurrected a terror from America’s past.

The Ku Klux Klan, dead for some 40 years, was back.

Their mission? To defend white, Protestant, native-born America from “illegal foreigners” and religious minorities. Faced with unprecedented ethnic and cultural change, at least 3 million Americans—South and North—responded by joining a violent, secretive movement, vowing to keep America from becoming …

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The Woman Who Built the Waldorf of the Catskills

Despite Her Humble Origins, Jennie Grossinger Learned to Play the Role of Hostess

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By Stephen M. Silverman
October 22, 2015

Just as in Casablanca everybody came to Rick’s, so in the Catskill Mountains of New York everybody aspired to go to Jennie’s.

In its storied 1914-to-1986 existence, Jennie Grossinger’s family boarding house was called Longbrook House (the original name when the Galician Jews first started to rent out the spare bedrooms of their rundown farmhouse), Grossinger’s Terrace Hill House, Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel (which built upon the original framework of the Terrace Hill House), and then finally, at the peak of …

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By Deirdre Clemente
August 7, 2015

I study one of the most profound cultural changes of the 20th century: the rise of casual dress. I study casual dress as it evolved on the beaches of Miami. I study casual dress as worn by the Black Panthers and by Princeton undergraduates. As a professor, I teach seminars on material culture and direct graduate students as they research and curate costume exhibitions, but my bread-and-butter as a scholar is the “why” and “when” our sartorial standards went from …

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