What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Explore : race

Identities

The ‘Black Catholic Movement’ That Reinvigorated American Catholicism

In the Industrial North, African Americans Witnessed a Flourishing of Liturgical Innovation, New Preaching Styles, and Activist Scholarship

By Matthew J. Cressler
June 7, 2018

The story of how Roman Catholics “became American” is very well-known. Beginning in the 19th century, Catholics were a feared and despised immigrant population that Protestants imagined to be inimical to, even incompatible with, everything America was meant to be. American mobs burned Catholic convents and churches. By the early 20th century, the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan was running rampant.

But this changed after the Second World War. Military service, educational achievement, economic advancement, and suburbanization combined to make Catholics virtually …

Read More >

Identities

The Black Nurses Who Were Forced to Care for German Prisoners of War

Prohibited From Tending to White GIs, the Women Felt Betrayed by the Country They Sought to Serve

By Alexis Clark
May 14, 2018

On the summer afternoon in 1944 that 23-year-old Elinor Powell walked into the Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Phoenix, it never occurred to her that she would be refused service. She was, after all, an officer in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, serving her country during wartime, and she had grown up in a predominantly white, upwardly mobile Boston suburb that didn’t subject her family to discrimination.

But the waiter who turned Elinor away wasn’t moved by her patriotism. …

Read More >

Identities

How Jack Benny Revolutionized Radio by Being the Butt of His Own Jokes

The Lovable Schlemiel Forged an Intimate Bond With Audiences While Creating a Template for Situational Comedy

By Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley
May 7, 2018

Of all the 20th century’s great comics and clowns, none did more than Jack Benny to update vaudevillian shtick into a far more intimate and lucrative media form: broadcast radio comedy. Today’s podcasters, and even some strains of stand-up comedy, owe a debt to this mass-communication comic master.

Born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago, on Valentine’s Day, 1894, Benny was the son of Polish-Lithuanian immigrant parents who dreamed that their child would become a concert violinist. Benny had other ideas. After launching …

Read More >

Ideas

The Golden State’s Unpopular Pro-Slavery Governor

The First American Executive of California Was a Pioneering Man of the West—and the South

By R. Gregory Nokes
April 19, 2018

Peter Hardeman Burnett had probably the most impressive list of achievements of any leader in the early American West. He served on the supreme court of the Oregon Territory and became the first governor of California.

So why has he been forgotten?

Because sometimes history gets things right. Burnett’s stellar resume could not offset his blatant racism and inept leadership, which have denied him a prominent place in the region’s history.

Burnett is best remembered, if he is remembered at all, for his …

Read More >

Identities

Why an American Woman Who Killed Indians Became Memorialized as the First Female Public Statue

Hannah Duston Was Used as a National Symbol of Innocence, Valor, and Patriotism to Justify Westward Expansion

By Barbara Cutter
April 9, 2018

On a small island north of Concord, New Hampshire, stands a 25-foot-tall granite statue of Hannah Duston, an English colonist taken captive by Native Americans in 1697, during King William’s War. Erected in 1874, the statue bears close resemblance to contemporary depictions of Columbia, the popular “goddess of liberty” and female allegorical symbol of the nation, except for what she holds in her hands: in one, a tomahawk; in the other, a fistful of human scalps.

Though she’s all but forgotten …

Read More >

Identities

How the U.S. Military Brought Soul Food to the World

After Serving Overseas, Black Servicemen Opened Joints That Dished up Chitlins, Cornbread, and Fried Chicken

By Adrian Miller
April 2, 2018

Soul food ambassadors: probably not who comes to mind when you think of the African Americans who have served overseas in the U.S. armed forces. Yet no other group of people—neither athletes, nor entertainers—are more responsible for spreading the complex flavors of soul food.

As the United States flexed its military muscles during the 20th century, black G.I.s were thrust into contact with epicureans abroad. And so they taught the world about delicacies like American-style barbecue, chitterlings, and fried chicken. …

Read More >

Identities

The Runner Who Helped Irish Americans Lose Their Hyphen

My Ancestor, "Bricklayer Bill" Kennedy, Won the 1917 Boston Marathon Wrapped in the U.S. Flag

By Patrick L. Kennedy
March 26, 2018

When I was a kid, my Dad would take me to Heartbreak Hill, rain or shine, to watch the Boston Marathon. For our family, the race held special meaning, because our “Uncle Bill”—William J. Kennedy, my paternal grandfather’s uncle—had won the event in 1917.

Though he had been dead for eight years by the time I was born, we still cherished the legend of “Bricklayer Bill,” as he was known. The Kennedys had plied the mason’s trade since at least …

Read More >

Identities

How Americans Can Stop Fighting the Civil War

Acknowledging Tragic Loss on All Sides Could Begin a Process of Reconciliation

By David Goldfield
October 30, 2017

It began as a loving effort to heal the South’s wounds, to properly mourn the young men who gave their lives for a lost cause, and to extract dignity from the humiliation of defeat.

Immediately after the Civil War ended, the white women of the South went to work. They tended graves, erected modest monuments, and followed former president Jefferson Davis’ plea to “keep the memory of our heroes green.” The South had lost one-third of its white male …

Read More >

Identities

What Grandaddy Taught Me About Race in America

From Little Rock to L.A., Learning to See Colors Beyond Black and White

By Myah Genung
July 13, 2017

I lived most of my childhood convinced that my grandfather, Calvin Muldrow, was Superman. On summer evenings, I’d perch atop his knee as we sat on the creaky back porch of his red brick house in North Little Rock. He’d weave elaborate tall tales about his magical excursions gliding over the jungle canopies of Sierra Leone, or wrestling boa constrictors, or floating aloft past my bedroom window at night to check up on me.

Grandaddy had a way of blending …

Read More >

Identities

In Atlanta, Honoring Two Civil War Generals Opens a Discussion on Race and History

Restoring Twin Monuments to the Blue and Gray Unites a Changing Neighborhood

By Henry Bryant
March 3, 2017

One hundred and fifty years ago, my colorful East Atlanta neighborhood sat two miles outside of the city limits. By July 22, 1864, Union troops had set up their front lines along a trail that later became our main street. When the Confederates decided to bring the fight to their enemy, these quiet woods became the location of the devastating Battle of Atlanta, where some 12,000 men were killed—including, rather unusually, two opposing generals.

Today, a short walk from my house, …

Read More >