What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

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Ideas

How New Mexico’s “Peons” Became Enslaved to Debt

A System Inherited From Colonial Spain Kept Americans in Servitude Even After the Civil War

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By William S. Kiser
November 2, 2017

Imagine a time and place where a small debt—even just a few dollars—could translate into a lifetime of servitude not only for the debtor, but also for his or her children. For much of the 19th century, the American Southwest was just such a place. There, a system commonly called debt peonage relegated thousands of men, women, and children to years of bondage to a master.

This system of unfree labor came into existence in the 1700s, when the region was …

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Identities

When Halloween Mischief Turned to Mayhem

Nineteenth-Century Urbanization Unleashed the Nation's Anarchic Spirits

A 1908 postcard depicts Halloween mischief.
Image courtesy of  The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

By Lesley Bannatyne
October 26, 2017

Imagine. Pre-electricity, no moon. It’s late October, and the people whisper: This is the season for witchery, the night the spirits of the dead rise from their graves and hover behind the hedges.

The wind kicks up, and branches click like skeletal finger bones. You make it home, run inside, wedge a chair against the door, and strain to listen. There’s a sharp rap at the window and when you turn, terrified, it’s there leering at you—a glowing, disembodied head …

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Identities

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Positive Symbol of American Power!

Rarely an Agent of the Government, Superman Defended the 'American Way' Through Simple Decency and Acts of Charity

The Man of Steel has served as ambassador of America's idealistic promise to the world. Image courtesy of Flickr.

By Ian Gordon
October 23, 2017

I can’t really remember when I first encountered Superman. It might have been through the 1950s television series The Adventures of Superman, or it might have been in a Superman comic book—not an American comic book, but a black and white reprint, by the Australian publisher K. G. Murray.

Growing up in Australia, I learned the basic stories of American history from the pages of these Superman comics. I read about the Boston Tea Party; Nathan Hale’s patriotism; Washington crossing …

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Identities

When Black Texans Gathered Under “Thursday Night Lights”

Why the Lone Star State Has Forgotten Its Proud Tradition of African-American High School Football

Austin Anderson's football team finished its 1961 season with a 20-13 state championship win at Jeppesen Stadium. Photo by Leroy Bookman.

By Michael Hurd
October 19, 2017

I had only been in and out of Houston since leaving our Sunnyside neighborhood on the city’s southeast side, in 1968, to begin eight years of Air Force service. Whenever I returned, I made only casual note of neighborhood and city changes, such as the sad state of the mom-and-pop “candy store” where we used to hang out after school, now boarded up, or a new skyscraper for a Houston skyline dotted with cranes, or another congested freeway opened to …

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Ideas

A Short History of the Idea of ‘Main Street’ in America

From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Disneyland, the Concept Has Represented Both the Experimental and the Conventional

Disneyland exported its own Main Street USA to its Hong Kong theme park. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Miles Orvell
October 16, 2017

In the United States, Main Street has always been two things—a place and an idea. As both, Main Street has embodied the contradictions of the country itself.

It is the self-consciousness of the idea of Main Street—from its origins in a Nathaniel Hawthorne sketch of New England, to Walt Disney’s construction of a Main Street USA, to the establishment of ersatz Main Streets in today’s urban malls—that makes it so essentially American. Main Street has been used in myriad …

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Identities

When the Idea of Home Was Key to American Identity

From Log Cabins to Gilded Age Mansions, How You Lived Determined Whether You Belonged

Parlor scene of G. Burk, Warwick, New York. 3D stereoscopic photos of house interiors in New York in the 1800's.

By Richard White
September 11, 2017

Like viewers using an old-fashioned stereoscope, historians look at the past from two slightly different angles—then and now. The past is its own country, different from today. But we can only see that past world from our own present. And, as in a stereoscope, the two views merge.

I have been living in America’s second Gilded Age—our current era that began in the 1980s and took off in the 1990s—while writing about the first, which began in the 1870s and continued …

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Ideas

How Universities Migrated into Cities and Democratized Higher Education

Colleges Once Thought the Countryside Bred Character. Now They Use Cities for "Hands-On Learning"

The dedication of the City College of New York campus in 1908. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Steven J. Diner
August 31, 2017

Since the end of World War II, most American college students have attended schools in cities and metropolitan areas. Mirroring the rapid urbanization of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this trend reflects the democratization of college access and the enormous growth in the numbers of commuter students who live at home while attending college.

Going to college in the city seems so normal now that it’s difficult to comprehend that it once represented a …

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Encounters

What Riding Trains Taught Me About Americans

Rail Travel Induces a Reverie and Intimacy Among Its Diverse Passengers

The Southwest Chief in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By James McCommons
August 17, 2017

Amos, a one-legged Amish man, was having trouble with his new prosthesis. He left the leg in his sleeping compartment and came to the diner on crutches—a hazardous ambulation on a moving train.

Because Amish do not buy health insurance nor take Medicare or Social Security, he rode The Southwest Chief from Chicago to California and went to Mexico to see a doctor. He paid cash for the leg in Tijuana.

“A van picked us up at border and took us to …

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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

The author’s grandfather, Frank (left); New Orleans charm bracelet, a gift from the author’s grandfather (right). Images courtesy of Lynell George.

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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Ideas

How Sears Industrialized, Suburbanized, and Fractured the American Economy

The Iconic Retail Giant Turned Thrift into Profit, But Couldn’t Keep Pace with Modern Consumer Culture

A Sears Outlet Store in Downers Grove, Illinois shuttered its doors in September, 1993. Photo by Charles Bennett/Associated Press.

By Vicki Howard
July 20, 2017

The lifetime of Sears has spanned, and embodied, the rise of modern American consumer culture. The 130-year-old mass merchandiser that was once the largest retailer in the United States is part of the fabric of American society.

From its start as a 19th-century mail-order firm, to its heyday on Main Street and in suburban malls, and from its late 20th-century reorientation toward credit and financial products to its attempted return to its original retail identity, Sears has mirrored the ups …

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