What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

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Identities

What Kind of an American Am I?

From Witches to Baptist Ministers to Native Americans, My Family Heritage Holds Many Stories. But I'm Not Sure Which Ones Are Mine.

By Isaac Windes
August 23, 2018

I am American. That much I know—but my life’s experience has never taken me beyond that in any way, up until this point. While many Americans embrace their ancestry as part of their national identity, I never have parsed my own beyond simply being, well, American. And white.

I certainly have stories of my family’s past, shaped by witches, warfare, and the Wild West. But with every generation, an ancestral tradition has been shed, a cultural touchstone tweaked, through choice …

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Encounters

An L.A. Woman Embraces Her Ancestral New Orleans Home

How Family Reunions Revealed That My Grandparents’ Stories Are My Own

By Lynell George
July 27, 2017

Zigzagging through the crush of rush-hour commuters at L.A.’s Union Station, I’m hoping to make up for lost time. Suddenly, out of the edges of my vision, a man crosses in front of me, planting himself directly in my path. In a broad-brimmed Panama hat, cream-colored slacks and shoes to match, he’s a vision of not just another place, but another era.

“Where you from?” he asks.

I hold him in my gaze just long enough to assess the question:  …

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Artifacts

A Photograph That Speaks Volumes About Pre-War Innocence and Post-War Hope

My Parents’ 75-Year-Old Wedding Portrait Captures Our Family Just Before WWII Changed Everything

By Jim Shultz
September 15, 2016

It’s the only photograph we have of them all together.

My mother beams with the smile of an 18-year-old married only minutes before to the man who would be her husband for 49 years. My father is 21 and elegant in a gray double-breasted suit and matching fedora. To their right stands my mother’s mother, a widow who raised two children alone in the Great Depression. To their left stand my father’s parents, a pair of short and stout …

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Artifacts

When Human Hair Could Braid Two Hearts Together

Before Chocolates Reigned on Valentine’s Day, a Tuft of Your Beloved’s Tresses Was the Most Fashionable Sign of Affection

By Helen Sheumaker
February 8, 2016

In 2016, Americans will spend more than $18 billion on Valentine’s Day, according to the National Retail Federation. We’ll show our love and affection by buying heart-shaped chocolate boxes, sparkling wine, flowers, cards, and jewelry. Nowhere on the list is hair.

Imagine getting a keepsake made of hair from someone’s head! It would seem morbid. But through the 1800s, Americans showed their feelings with hair. At home, hair was sewn into notebooks, put under glass in lockets, and sent through …

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Journeys

From Okinawa to Hawaii and Back Again

A Painter Follows the Currents of Her Family History

By Laura Kina
August 31, 2015

I am a hapa, yonsei Uchinanchu (a mixed-race, 4th-generation Okinawan-American) who was born in Riverside, California, in 1973 and raised in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state. My mom’s roots stem from Spanish-Basque migrants in California and white southerners in Tennessee. My father is Okinawan from Hawaii. Because I don’t look quite white, people frequently ask, “What are you?” From an early age, even though Hawaii and Japan were enigmas to me, I have had to explain …

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Ideas

The Tenacious Woman Who Helped Deliver Mother’s Day to the U.S.

For Anna Jarvis, a Holiday Devoted to Moms Was Not Sentimental Fluff, But a Practical Exercise in Patriotism

Anna Jarvis, Mother's Day founder

By Katharine Lane Antolini
May 8, 2015

One hundred years ago last May, President Woodrow Wilson signed the first congressional resolution and presidential proclamation calling upon all citizens to display the national flag in honor of American mothers on the second Sunday in May. But the credit for Mother’s Day’s popularity belongs to Anna Jarvis, who organized the first official Mother’s Day services on the morning of May 10, 1908, in her hometown of Grafton, West Virginia, and later in the afternoon in her adopted hometown of …

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Identities

My American Languages

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

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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Places

A Family Saloon Serving Stiff Drinks and Second Chances

Generations of Immigrants Sought Refuge in Grand Rapids, Michigan Taverns. So Did We.

A. Wolfe, Mike Konkle, bar

By A. Wolfe
March 24, 2015

I grew up in my family’s dive bar in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a city now affectionately and appropriately called Beer City, U.S.A. I was surrounded by a makeshift family of beer-swilling, goodhearted customers with crooked jaws and scars across their cheeks, people who hopped up on their stools at 6 a.m. and stayed until the afternoon girl counted in her till.

I thought Cheers was a family sitcom. I saw the know-it-all postman, the work-averse accountant, and the salty server in …

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Journeys

Chasing Holocaust Ghosts Down Route 66

Coping with Survival, My Father Took the Family for the Ride of Our Lives on America’s Mother Road

By Marc Littman
February 24, 2015

When I was 9 my father, Jacob, uprooted me from my magical boyhood in Detroit to chase ghosts down historic Route 66. We were bound for L.A.

Like Dust Bowl Okies, the entire family—my parents, two sisters, and I—piled into a hapless 1960 American Motors Rambler crammed to the gills with our ragged possessions. The quest took us a month because the car kept breaking down. I spent a lot of time by the side of the road on Route 66, …

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Artifacts

Your Chinese Menu Is Really a Time Machine

Sweet and Sour Pork and Chop Suey Aren’t Just Delicious; They Also Tell Stories of Waves of Immigration from China

Cedric Yeh, pig, Chinese New Year, Chinese food, Chinese restaurant

By Cedric Yeh
February 19, 2015

I grew up in a Chinese restaurant called the Peking Restaurant in rural New England during the 1970s and ’80s. I was that kid you saw running around the tables and through the waiters’ legs, and playing with whatever I could get my hands on. I had access to some cool things—pupu platters for my birthdays, all the fortune cookies I could eat, the pleasure of celebrating two different new year’s days every year with treats like a roasted pig …

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