What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Identities

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

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

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

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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Atticus Finch Confronted What the South Couldn’t

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee Recognized the Way White Southerners Face Harsh Truths. In Go Set a Watchman, She Did Not

By W. Ralph Eubanks
July 17, 2015

While there are many noble characters in the pantheon of Southern fiction, few have the iconic standing of Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch. Since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird more than 50 years ago, this fictional character has become profoundly real to many Southerners, and not just because of the way Gregory Peck brought him to life on film. For former United Nations ambassador and Georgia native Andrew Young, Atticus represented “a generation of intelligent white lawyers who eventually, …

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When the Hunger for Freedom Becomes Self-Destructive

My Bostonian Ancestor Fought the Red Coats. I Fought a Heroin Addiction. Both of Us Are Soldiers.

By Lisa Whittemore
July 14, 2015

On April 17, 1775, Samuel Whittemore was toiling in the fields of his Arlington, Massachusetts farm when he spied the British militia returning to Boston from the Battle at Lexington and Concord. He was no stranger to fighting: Whittemore had fought on behalf of the British as a captain in His Majesty’s Dragoons battling the French in the mid-1700s. However, on this particular day, Whittemore took up arms against the British in the name of independence. A historical society article …

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Chinese Immigrants Now Make Up the Largest Group of New Arrivals to the U.S.

Once Excluded and Now Admired, Their Families Could See a Newfound Status in America Complicated by China's Rise

By Erika Lee
July 7, 2015

Once singled out for exclusion by law from the United States, Chinese immigrants now make up the largest single group of arrivals a year into this country. A recent report by the Census Bureau reported that China replaced Mexico as the top country of origin for immigrants to the U.S. in 2013, and another report has found that China sends more students to the U.S. than any other country. What’s equally improbable, given the history, is that Chinese immigrants are …

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The Civil War Was Won By Immigrant Soldiers

Fully One in Four Union Fighters Was Foreign-Born

By Don H. Doyle
June 30, 2015

In the summer of 1861, an American diplomat in Turin, then the capital of Italy, looked out the window of the U.S. legation to see hundreds of young men forming a sprawling line outside the building. Some wore red shirts, emblematic of the Garibaldini who had fought the previous year with Giuseppe Garibaldi and, during their campaign in southern Italy to unite the country, were known for pointing one finger in the air and shouting l’Italia Unità! (Italy United!). Now …

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Jackie Robinson’s Life Was No Home Run for Racial Progress

America Loved the Baseball Star on the Field, Not Off It

By Jason Sokol
June 23, 2015

Jackie Robinson’s story brings together two American obsessions: sports and freedom. This is why we never tire of his tale. Yet in the way that the story has been handed down, it masks as much about our national identity as it illuminates.

The story of Robinson’s breakthrough often comes in the language and rhythms of baseball—the stuff of hits and runs, stolen bases and brushback pitches. He wrought havoc on the basepaths, demolished a racial barrier, and opened up our …

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I Heart N.J.

Call It Smelly. Call It Sleazy. Call It the Armpit of America. To Me, It's Home.

By Carly Okyle
June 19, 2015

I’m sitting in a circle during the second week of my freshman year of college, listening to everyone perform the introductions that have become comically commonplace: name, hometown, dorm. It’s routine until someone farther down the circle, some five bodies away, says he’s from New Jersey. I break into a smile, then catch his eye. I do the only thing I can think to do to commemorate this moment of commonality—I lean across two people to my right, raising my …

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