What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Journeys

Why Americans Invented the RV

In 1915, New Creature Comforts Created by Technology Merged with the Back to Nature Movement

By Terence Young
September 4, 2018

On August 21, 1915, the Conklin family departed Huntington, New York on a cross-country camping trip in a vehicle called the “Gypsy Van.” Visually arresting and cleverly designed, the 25-foot, 8-ton conveyance had been custom-built by Roland Conklin’s Gas-Electric Motor Bus Company to provide a maximum of comfort while roughing it on the road to San Francisco. The New York Times gushed that had the “Commander of the Faithful” ordered the “Jinns… to produce out of thin air… a vehicle …

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The Black-Owned Alabama Plantation That Taught Me the Value of Home

After Emancipation, Ex-Slaves Took Over the Cotton Fields. Today Their Descendants Still Cherish the Land.

By Sydney Nathans
February 8, 2018

By the time I was eight years old, in 1948, my parents, my sister, and I had lived in five different states and had moved more often than that. My grandparents had emigrated from Europe to America early in the 20th century. Somehow I took it for granted that staying in one place for a long time was, if not un-American, at least unusual.

When I became a historian in the 1960s, I gravitated to a man on the move …

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The North Carolina Trucker Who Brought the World to America in a Box

How Malcom McLean's Shipping Containers Conquered the Global Economy by Land and Sea

By Marc Levinson
June 15, 2017

On April 26, 1956, a crane lifted 58 aluminum truck bodies onto the deck of an aging tanker ship moored in Newark, New Jersey. Five days later, the Ideal-X sailed into Houston, Texas, where waiting trucks collected the containers for delivery to local factories and warehouses. From that modest beginning, the shipping container would become such a familiar part of the landscape that Americans would not think twice when they passed one on the highway, or saw one at the …

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With Crocheting Needles, My Immigrant Grandmother Wove a New Life in America

A 16th-Century Folk Art Was Her Passport from Sicily to Upstate New York

By Kathleen Garrett
June 8, 2017

The winter rains had subsided for the moment, but the coastal night air remained chilly and damp. My rent-controlled apartment, with its lack of insulation, mirrored the outside evening temperature, as I sat at my desk struggling to meet a self-imposed deadline. Shoes aren’t allowed in my home, not even for me, and with porous window seals in this old building and its wooden floors, my cold feet needed something warm to cover them.

I’d been away from Santa Monica …

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How My Parents’ Wartime Gamble on Greyhounds Paid Off

The Sentimental Journey of My WWII Childhood Mixed Dog Racing with an Idyllic Life on the Road

By Claudette Sutherland
February 27, 2017

The greyhound racing tracks were like big shiny carnivals, but I could only see them from the outside. Kids weren’t allowed in where people were gambling. Sometimes mother took me with her and I got to watch from the lot where the dog men parked their rigs. They all knew my name and gave me bubble gum and candy. On my tip toes I could see over the fence. There were hundreds of people in the grandstand. Bright lights lit …

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For Refugee Children in Baltimore and Their Teacher, Art Is a Safe Zone

Picturing a Home Away From Home That Is Free and Secure

By Ben Hamburger
February 1, 2017

I am an artist and educator pursuing an MFA in Community Arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Last year, as part of my Master’s studies, I began teaching art to young refugees. The students were participants in the Baltimore City Community College Refugee Youth Project (RYP), a grant-funded organization that provides after-school programming for relocated kids. They were just a few of the thousands of refugees who had resettled in Maryland in recent years, and they had endured …

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In Hawaii, an Immigrant Family that Bridged Japanese and American Worlds

How Siblings Torn Between Two Sides of the Pacific Forged Identities in the Aftermath of War

By Bernice Kiyo Glenn
October 6, 2016

I still remember them at the dining table after dinner each night in our Honolulu home. Three elegant sisters, styled out of Vogue magazine, their jet black hair in neat chignons and pixie haircuts, each savoring a cigarette and lingering over a glass of bourbon. Their laughter rang, but did not always conceal the dark ironies and black humor of memories they laced together of our Japanese-American Hawaii family torn apart by war.

“Do you remember when we left Hawaii after …

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In My Family’s American Dream, Bootstraps Met Blocks of Government Cheese

After an Arduous Journey Emigrating from Vietnam in the ‘70s, the Author Benefitted from Both Personal Resilience and Public Assistance

By Kim Luu
August 23, 2016

I spoke my first words on a boat: “milk,” “cockroach,” and “itchy.” An unusual toddler vocabulary perhaps, but not surprising considering that I spent the second year of my life on a freighter with thousands of other people, a floating petri dish of equal parts vomit, diarrhea, desperation, and hope. Every inch of that boat teemed with refugees: the cargo hull, hallways, and deck. Even the captain’s steering room had ceased to be a sanctuary.

I am an immigrant from …

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The Japanese-American Officer Who Helped Take Down and Then Rebuild Japan

Born in Seattle in 1920, Harry Fukuhara Was Fully Bicultural, Bilingual, and Binational

By Pamela Rotner Sakamoto
January 28, 2016

When I first met Harry Fukuhara, in 1994, he was orchestrating a Tokyo press conference for Japanese Foreign Ministry officials, former Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, and veterans of the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The groups were there to commemorate the separate threads connecting them to the Holocaust. The Foreign Ministry officials were belatedly acknowledging a renegade consul, Chiune Sugihara, who had issued approximately two thousand transit visas to desperate Jewish refugees in Kaunas, Lithuania, when he was stationed …

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How a Refugee from the Nazis Became the Father of Video Games

Ralph Baer's Life Is a Classic Tale of Scrappiness and Perseverance

By Arthur Molella
December 11, 2015

It’s perhaps fitting that the man recognized as the father of the video game, that quintessential American invention, was a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, whose personal story converged with America’s at a critical time in the nation’s history.

“I had the misfortune of being born in a horrendous situation,” Ralph Baer told the Computer History Museum, of his birth to Jewish parents in 1922 in southwestern Germany. When the Nazis came to power, Baer was still a young child. They …

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