What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Identities

How Baseball Got Its Groove Back in the Turbulent 1960s

New Franchises, Colorful Characters, and the Miracle Mets Gave Life to a Sport Grown Stodgy

By Paul Hensler
March 29, 2018

When examining American history of the late 1960s, one is often tempted to gravitate toward the foreign and domestic strife fostered by the war in Vietnam, the ongoing struggle for civil rights, or the frenetic cultural shifts in a country swept up by a tide of youthful rebellion. But we shouldn’t forget baseball, as it endured its own radical transformation during the end of that tumultuous decade.

Disrupted by the reverberations of the Tet Offensive, assassins’ bullets, and race riots, the …

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The Runner Who Helped Irish Americans Lose Their Hyphen

My Ancestor, "Bricklayer Bill" Kennedy, Won the 1917 Boston Marathon Wrapped in the U.S. Flag

By Patrick L. Kennedy
March 26, 2018

When I was a kid, my Dad would take me to Heartbreak Hill, rain or shine, to watch the Boston Marathon. For our family, the race held special meaning, because our “Uncle Bill”—William J. Kennedy, my paternal grandfather’s uncle—had won the event in 1917.

Though he had been dead for eight years by the time I was born, we still cherished the legend of “Bricklayer Bill,” as he was known. The Kennedys had plied the mason’s trade since at least …

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Why “Real Men” Wear Davy Crockett Caps

Even as White Frontiersmen Battled Native Americans, They Adopted Their Symbols of Masculinity

By Jimmy L. Bryan Jr.
March 12, 2018

In recent years, fashion leaders have provoked criticism for incorporating Native American imagery in their designs. In 2011, Urban Outfitters introduced a line of Navajo-themed clothing and accessories that included the “Vintage Woolrich Navajo Jacket,” the “Ecote Navajo Wool Tote Bag,” and the “Navajo Hipster Panty.”

The Navajo Nation sued the company for copyright infringement of its name and, after a five-year court battle, the two sides settled. At a 2012 Victoria’s Secret fashion show in New York, model Karlie …

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What Benjamin Franklin Ate When He Was Homesick

Living Abroad, the Founder From Philadelphia Saw America's Essence in Turkeys, Succotash, and Cranberries

By Rae Katherine Eighmey
February 19, 2018

In the midst of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin envisioned the turkey as an exemplar of the ideal American citizen. In a 1783 letter home to his daughter Sally, written while Franklin was serving as chief diplomat to France, he wrote about the “ribbons and medals” presented to the French by grateful Americans in thanks for significant military and financial support. The tokens bore an image of an eagle—but, Franklin explained, some recipients complained that the workmanship was not up …

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The Civil War Art of Using Words to Assuage Fear and Convey Love

Soldiers and Their Families, Sometimes Barely Literate, Turned to Letters to Stay Close

By Christopher Hager
January 15, 2018

Sarepta Revis was a 17-year-old newlywed when her husband left their North Carolina home to fight in the Confederate States Army. Neither had much schooling, and writing did not come easily to them. Still, they exchanged letters with some regularity, telling each other how they were doing, expressing their love and longing. Once, after Daniel had been away for more than six months, Sarepta told him in a letter that she was “as fat as a pig.” This may not …

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The Cookbook That Declared America’s Culinary Independence

An 18th-Century Kitchen Guide Taught Americans How to Eat Simply but Sumptuously

By Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald
January 11, 2018

American Cookery, published by the “orphan” Amelia Simmons in 1796, was the first cookbook by an American to be published in the United States. Its 47 pages (in the first edition) contained fine recipes for roasts—stuffed goose, stuffed leg of veal, roast lamb. There were stews, too, and all manner of pies. But the cakes expressed best what this first cookbook had to say about its country. It was a place that acknowledged its British heritage, to be sure—but was …

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The Reporter Who Helped Persuade FDR to Tell the Truth About War

After Witnessing the Bloody Struggle with Japan, Robert Sherrod Thought the Public Should Face the 'Cruel' Facts

By Ray E. Boomhower
January 8, 2018

Betio, part of the Tarawa Atoll, is a small, bird-shaped island along the equator in the central Pacific. Early in the morning on November 20, 1943, elements of the Second Marine Division boarded tracked landing vehicles (“amtracs”) and headed for Betio’s beaches. As part of an operation codenamed Galvanic, the Marines hoped to clear the heavily defended island of Japanese forces under the command of Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki and capture its vital airfield. The Japanese commander had boasted to …

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The Alabama Recording Studios Where Music Was Never Segregated

How the Muscle Shoals Sound Made a Rich Brew out of Rock, Country, and R&B

By Carla Jean Whitley
January 4, 2018

Rod Stewart wasn’t pleased.

It was 1975, and the British rocker had traveled to Sheffield, Alabama, with a specific mission in mind: He wanted to record at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio with the musicians who created Aretha Franklin’s unforgettable, hit-making sound. Before she made the pilgrimage down South, Franklin was a Detroit gospel singer beginning to find success as a pop singer. She recorded her album “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” in Alabama.

Stewart was seeking the …

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Why We French Canadians Are Neither French nor Canadian

An Intimate Family History of New England's Franco-Americans

By Robert B. Perreault
December 7, 2017

Whenever my family visits Québec, people other than our relatives are surprised to hear Americans—even our grandchildren, ages five and six—speak fluent French. They’re amazed to learn that French is our mother tongue and that we also speak English without a French accent. Likewise, if we leave our native New Hampshire to travel elsewhere in the United States, we get blank stares upon mentioning that we’re Franco-Americans from New England.

“Franco-American, as in canned spaghetti?” some ask.

I roll my eyes and …

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When Burlap Underwear Was Fashionable

From the Mid-1800s Onward, an Ethic of Thrift and Ingenuity Was Woven Into American Clothing

By Joy Spanabel Emery
December 4, 2017

In 1928, when President Calvin Coolidge visited Chicago, the ladies of a Presbyterian church presented him with a set of pajamas made from flour sacks dyed lavender and finished with silk frogs and pearl buttons in appreciation of his program on economy and thrift.

It seems surprising now, but once the use of cloth feed bags for clothing and household items was a part of mainstream rural American culture—related to a long practice of utilizing all resources that is deeply …

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