What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Identities

The Dichotomy of ‘The Duke’

Onscreen, John Wayne Embodied the American Man at His Best and Worst

John wayne WIMTBA

By Scott Eyman
May 29, 2015

First, the backstory, which happens to be true.

In 1972, I was 21 years old, living in my native Ohio, and had come to the conclusion that if I wanted to write about the movies I probably should begin talking to people that actually made them.

I started at the top: I wrote a letter to John Wayne asking for an interview. Mary St. John, Wayne’s secretary of nearly 30 years, wrote back to inform me that should I come to California, …

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Baltimore’s Refusal to Be Silent Was an American Triumph

Like the Youth of the 1960s Free Speech Movement, the Citizens Who Took to the Streets in April 2015 Roared Against Unfairness

People gather at city hall in Baltimore, Maryland May 2, 2015. A jubilant Baltimore headed into a weekend of rallies after six police officers were criminally charged over the arrest of 25-year-old black man Freddie Gray whose death led to rioting earlier in the week. REUTERS/Eric Thayer      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX1B9JL

By Tracy K. Smith
May 15, 2015

Four days after protests in Baltimore turned violent, I found myself looking into every black face I saw as I made my way through Pittsburgh International Airport, wanting to say something huge-hearted and restorative. My eyes were wet, my chest full but also empty, as if a balloon were lodged there and about to pop. I looked at all the white faces, too, thinking, Don’t you know me? Don’t we mean something to each another?

My emotional state surprised me, …

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When Life Hands You Lemons, Make Cinco de Mayo

In One California Town, a Holiday Co-Opted by Beer Companies Has Roots in a Celebrated Citrus Crop

Cinco de Mayo, holiday, parade

By José M. Alamillo
May 5, 2015

What’s with Cinco de Mayo, anyways?

Corporate advertisers treat it as the de facto Mexican Day, if not Latino Day, in this country. In 1998, the United States Post Office issued a Cinco de Mayo stamp featuring two folklórico dancers. In 2005, Congress passed a resolution making Cinco de Mayo an official national holiday to celebrate Mexican-American heritage. And it’s customary for presidents to celebrate Cinco de Mayo on the White House lawn with margaritas flowing, mariachi music playing, and dancers …

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My American Languages

I First Learned English, Then Spanish, to Navigate My Identity in This Big Country

Don Quijote

By Manuel H. Rodriguez
April 24, 2015

Sister Paula, our eighth grade teacher at Holy Cross Elementary School in South Los Angeles informed us one morning in 1944 that Fridays would be devoted to public speaking. Which meant that each of us, standing in front of the class, had to recite something we had memorized. She said we could recite anything we wanted. Most boys opted to tell jokes.

When my name was called, I stifled an inner groan (I was very shy), walked to the front of …

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The Quirky Heartbeat of Middle America

Photographer Alec Soth Dropped in on Moose Lodges, Local Dances, and Megachurches—and Was Relieved to Find We’re All a Bit Strange

MAIN_Soth_Prom_Cleveland_Ohio

March 20, 2015

In 2012, photographer Alec Soth decided he wanted to study the way that Americans gather. So, like a community newspaper photographer, he dropped in on Loyal Order of the Moose lodges, local dances, family reunions, and megachurches across America. He even visited a convention of independent horror moviemakers outside of Cleveland. The three-year project turned into the coffee-table book Songbook, with related exhibitions at San Francisco and Minneapolis art galleries.

Making Songbook, Soth said, reaffirmed his affection for Americans’ regional quirks.

“If …

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How America Invented St. Patrick’s Day

Immigration and Nativism Transformed a Quiet Religious Celebration into a Day of Raucous Parades and Shamrock Shakes

parade, St. Patrick's Day, holiday

By Mike Cronin
March 17, 2015

When I was growing up in Britain in the 1970s, St. Patrick’s Day didn’t exist. The conflict in Northern Ireland was at its bloodiest, and it was not a time when British cities would open their civic spaces for a celebration of things Irish. My sense of what St. Patrick’s Day looked like was informed by the odd news story about celebrations in the U.S. The day appeared as something that was more about Irish America than it was about …

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1776’s Other Declaration of Independence

Half a Continent West of the 13 Colonies, the Lakota Sioux Were Founding a Nation of Their Own

Black Hills, North Dakota, Native Americans

By Claudio Saunt
March 10, 2015

1776 was a pivotal year whose legacy continues to this day to shape the politics of the nation and the lives of its citizens.

I am writing, of course, about the Lakota Nation.

In that year of transformative events, the Lakotas, according to one traditional account, discovered the Black Hills and founded the modern Lakota Nation. (The Lakotas are the westernmost of the three Sioux political divisions.)

The significance of 1776 to both Lakota and U.S. history is a trenchant reminder that North …

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In Atlanta, Every Day Was MLK Day

If You Grow Up Black in King’s Hometown, You Can’t Help But See His Story Intertwine with Your Own

MLK tomb

By Errin Whack
January 19, 2015

To grow up in Atlanta is to be always aware of the story of Martin Luther King, Jr., and to see it intertwine with your own fate.

I was born there in 1978, less than a mile from the house where King grew up. As a schoolchild, I like others, visited Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue—the street where King was born, worked, died, and is honored. To see King’s neighborhood, and the home he was born in, humanized him for us children, letting …

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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Persian Food

My Iranian Mother Wanted Me to Cook Recipes from the Motherland. I Wanted to Be Independent.

Advieh, spices, Iranian spices, Persian cooking

By Orly Minazad
January 6, 2015

My cavalier cooking practices have been a cause for shame and concern for my Iranian mother. To me, eating is just something you do to stay alive; for her and her legion of friends and family that grew up in the Motherland, cooking is a rite of passage to womanhood, the foundation of family and all things good in the world.

You know, everything a ready-made, heart attack-inducing Doritos Locos Taco is not.

So it comes as no surprise to find my …

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Prayers, Glittering Parties, and the Sudden Taste of Freedom

The Emancipation Proclamation Inspired New Year’s Celebrations That Endure to This Day

watch night

By Christopher Wilson
December 30, 2014

For young Ed McCree, enslaved on a thousand-acre Georgia cotton plantation, Christmas and New Year’s Day 150 years ago were like no other he had ever known. This child and the other men and women in bondage had always cherished Christmas. There was a week off from the unrelenting and ruthless work in the fields and barnyards; young pigs and cattle were slaughtered; and peaches and melons, still sweet from the summer, were pulled from the wheat straw and cottonseed …

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