What It Means to Be American
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Identities

How Americans Can Stop Fighting the Civil War

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

Civil War re-enactors pose in their Union battle regalia at a historic marker. Photo courtesy of Sgt. Stephanie Hargett/U.S. Army Reserve.

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 …

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Identities

What Grandaddy Taught Me About Race in America

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

From left to right: The author's grandfather; sister, Faith, age 15; mother, Karen; the author, age 14; and grandmother, Lucy. Photo courtesy of Myah Genung.

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 …

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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

The McPerson Monument in East Atlanta, as rendered on an German-made 1880s postcard. Image courtesy of Henry Bryant and Katina Van Cronkhite.

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, …

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Ideas

American Segregation Started Long Before the Civil War

How the Founders' Revolutionary Ideology Laid the Groundwork

Guyatt on race LEAD

By Nicholas Guyatt
September 12, 2016

Segregation remains an intractable force in American life, more than 60 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawed racial separation in America’s schools. The Government Accountability Office recently estimated that more than 20 million students of color attend public schools that are racially or socioeconomically isolated. This figure has increased in recent decades, despite a raft of federal and state initiatives.

Major cities like New York and Chicago struggle with high levels of residential segregation, …

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Identities

When Two ‘Little Rascals’ Crossed the Color Line

The Friendship Between These Young Hollywood Actors—One Black, One White—Was Ahead of Its Time, but Also an Illusion

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By Julia Lee
January 19, 2016

When I was a kid, I used to watch episodes of The Little Rascals on TV in our living room in Los Angeles. My parents were Korean immigrants who had moved to the city in the 1970s, the first in a wave of Korean immigrants who would transform the city’s racial makeup. I had no idea the series had been filmed 50 years earlier, that most of the stars were dead, and that it was once unusual for black and …

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Encounters

When Louisiana Creoles Arrived in Texas, Were They Black or White?

Mixed-Race Migrants Came to Houston for Jobs and Ended Up Challenging Definitions of Race

Steptoe on Creole Identity ART 2

By Tyina Steptoe
December 15, 2015

Actor Taye Diggs recently raised eyebrows by declaring that he hopes his young son—who has a white mother of Portuguese descent—identifies as “mixed” instead of black. Diggs, who is African-American, also included President Barack Obama in his statement. “Everybody refers to him as the first black president. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just saying that it’s interesting. It would be great if it didn’t matter and that people could call him mixed. We’re still choosing to make that decision, …

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Identities

Baltimore’s Refusal to Be Silent Was an American Triumph

Like the Youth of the 1960s Free Speech Movement, the Citizens Who Took to the Streets in April 2015 Roared Against Unfairness

People gather at city hall in Baltimore, Maryland May 2, 2015. A jubilant Baltimore headed into a weekend of rallies after six police officers were criminally charged over the arrest of 25-year-old black man Freddie Gray whose death led to rioting earlier in the week. REUTERS/Eric Thayer      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX1B9JL

By Tracy K. Smith
May 15, 2015

Four days after protests in Baltimore turned violent, I found myself looking into every black face I saw as I made my way through Pittsburgh International Airport, wanting to say something huge-hearted and restorative. My eyes were wet, my chest full but also empty, as if a balloon were lodged there and about to pop. I looked at all the white faces, too, thinking, Don’t you know me? Don’t we mean something to each another?

My emotional state surprised me, …

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Ideas

The Serious Business of Pulp Fiction

How Paperbacks Helped Forge Our Modern Ideas about Sex, Race, and War

pulp fiction_WIMTBA

By Paula Rabinowitz
April 7, 2015

Cheap paperback books are like sex: They claim attention, elicit memories good and bad, and get talked about endlessly. The mid-20th century was the era of pulp, which landed in America in 1939.

You could pick up these paper-bound books at the corner drugstore or bus station for a quarter. They had juicy covers featuring original (and sometimes provocative) art, blurring the lines between canonical literature (Emily Brontë and Honoré de Balzac) and the low genres of crime, romance, and Westerns. …

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Identities

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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Identities

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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