What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Identities

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

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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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A Stranger in Africa

Surrounded By Faces Like Mine, I Connected Not with My Long-Ago Ancestors But with My American Home

Janice Littlejohn, Ghana

By Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn
December 1, 2014

As I stood in the humid, dank cell, I found myself hesitating a bit, peering down into the cavernous doorways of the male slave dungeon of Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle. It was April 2001, more than a decade before President Obama would visit there. The worn brick-lined corridors told eerie tales of thousands of African captives held in cramped spaces, sometimes for months, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in their own excrement. That excrement, after 200 years, had hardened and raised the floor …

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The Hidden Life of Japanese-American Teenagers

Facing Exclusion and Internment in the World War II Era, Boys and Girls From Seattle to San Diego Created Social Clubs Where They Could Dance, Play, and Belong

JuniorMisses

By Valerie J. Matsumoto
November 18, 2014

Fumiko Fukuyama Ide always loved to dance. Being a member of the Tartanettes, a club for Nisei (U.S.-born children of Japanese immigrants) girls in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, kept her dance card full in the 1930s. Ide grew up during the Great Depression, sewing her own clothes, darning her socks to make them last longer, and helping out in her father’s Little Tokyo hardware store. She was active in school clubs and edited the Belmont High School newspaper, but much …

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Caught Between Gefilte Fish and Campbell’s Soup

I Loved My Jewish Mother’s Cooking, But I Also Longed for PB&Js and Mallomars

gefilte fish, food, Jewish food, Passover

By Hasia Diner
November 7, 2014

When I first gravitated toward writing about food and immigration to the United States as an ostensibly serious academic, colleagues asked me—and, frankly, I asked myself—the obvious question. Why food? Food perhaps lacked the gravitas and significance of subjects like political, labor or immigration history.

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What Color Should a Quarterback Be?

How James Harris Changed the NFL’s Marquee Role

What Color Should a Quarterback Be

By Samuel G. Freedman
September 22, 2014

An hour or two before kickoff on the night of August 15, 1969, a rookie quarterback named James Harris noticed a well-dressed man about a foot shorter than him approaching through the tunnel beneath Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. His 5-foot-4 height notwithstanding, the man was a former NFL running back named Buddy Young. More to the point of this encounter, Young was now the first black executive in the league’s front office.

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