What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Encounters

Handle Your Presidential Debates With Care

The Institution of Multiple Meetings Between Presidential Nominees Might Seem Old and Tired, But Such Gatherings Are a New—and Fragile—Phenomenon

By Joel Fox
October 10, 2016

Today, presidential debates between candidates are considered fixtures of our political scene. Though they generate the occasional dust-up—like Donald Trump complaining that some of this year’s debates conflict with high-profile sporting events, or third-party candidates demanding places on the stage—it’s hard to imagine election season without them.

But I can attest from personal experience that not long ago our presidential debates were fragile. During the 1988 presidential campaign I had a close-up view of the near-cancellation and 11th-hour rescue of a …

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Hawaii’s Pacific Centuries

For America's Pacific Outpost, Asian Influence is Nothing New

By Sumner La Croix
October 6, 2016

Long before Hawaii was a U.S. state, it was a Pacific nation.

Though the U.S. has only recently embraced a shift from emphasizing its relationships across the Atlantic to those across its western shores—see the rise of China, the Pivot to Asia, the idea of a “Pacific Century”—it’s worth remembering that America’s 50th state has had close connections in the Asia-Pacific region for centuries. This long history of trans-Pacific partnerships has profoundly shaped, and continues to shape, the islands’ economy, …

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Garage Parties in Hawaii Aren’t Just Any Party

Plantation Day Roots Are The Origins For Present-Day Gatherings with Plenty of Beer, a Pig on a Spit, and Community

By Keala Francis
October 6, 2016

Growing up in Hawaii in the 1970s, my family and our neighbors spent New Year’s Eve roasting a pig in our driveway. We set up the spit and used corrugated tin metal sheets to block the wind and contain the fire. The ancient Hawaiians prepared much of their cooked foods in an imu, or underground oven, but we lived on one of the ridgelines overlooking Diamond Head where all the garages fronted the street and none of us wanted to …

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Recovering the Stolen Histories of American Slaves

The Tragedy of Treating People as Property Has Left Only Scattered Scraps to Hint at Their Cultures and Communities

By Sean Kelley
August 18, 2016

For the past eight years I’ve been living with 72 people. These 28 men, 25 women, 12 girls, and seven boys are long dead—they were Africans sold into captivity and shipped to America in the mid-1700s. It’s generally accepted that a factual account of their experience—like almost all Africans enslaved in America—is beyond recovery. Even Roots blended fact and fiction into something its author referred to as “faction.”

But thanks to laborious archival research and the linking of two rare and …

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In Choosing to Be Cherokee, She Was Forced to Renounce the U.S.

Until 1930, American Women Like Harriett Gold Lost Their Citizenship When They Married Foreign Nationals, Even If Those “Foreigners” Were Native Americans

By Ann McGrath
July 28, 2016

Mixed couples in the United States—those who crossed boundaries between Indian Nations and the European newcomers—left permanent legacies well beyond the families they created. They also shaped the meaning of nation and citizenship.

Historically, U.S. policymakers were troubled by such marriages not only on the grounds of race, but also because they created conflicting loyalties within the American nation. The questions of consent and coercion are at the essence of contests over sovereignty. And consent is a central tenet of …

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When the World Came to My South L.A. Door

Amazon Is Nothing New, in the 1930s and ‘40s Salesmen Delivered Everything From Fresh Doughnuts to Steel Guitars

By Manuel H. Rodriguez
July 7, 2016

I remember most clearly the things that aren’t here anymore, the things that I saw as a child in our neighborhood in South Los Angeles.

In 1937, when I was seven, we lived in a white, wood frame house on East 61st Street. It had a front lawn and a big backyard with an alley behind it. Main Street was a few feet west, with a print shop I visited because the owner gave away writing tablets and the Princess …

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How the Lowly Mosquito Helped America Win Independence

The Blood-Sucking Insect Has Played a Leading Role in the Rise and Fall of Empires Throughout History

By John R. McNeill
June 14, 2016

In recent months, millions of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes have been at work spreading the Zika virus in South and Central America. This summer, millions more, all capable of conveying the virus, will flit and bite throughout the southern U.S. Congress just approved funding to battle its spread. This is not the first time a mosquito-borne virus has broken loose in the Americas and it will not likely be the last. Indeed, mosquitoes and viruses have shaped the history of our …

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Why We Keep Rediscovering the Flamboyant Godmother of Rock

Sister Rosetta Tharpe Was Buried in an Unmarked Grave, But Now She’s a YouTube Sensation

By Gayle Wald
February 5, 2016

More than 40 years after her burial in an unmarked Philadelphia grave, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, gospel’s first superstar and its most celebrated crossover figure, is enjoying a burst of Internet celebrity. A video of her playing one of her signature tunes, “Didn’t It Rain,” from a 1964 TV special filmed for British television has been racking up more than 10 million views on YouTube and Facebook. Old and new fans the world over, dazzled by Tharpe’s powerful singing and wildly …

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The Native Americans Who Drew the French and British Into War

The Anishinaabeg Played an Outsized Role in World Affairs

By Michael A. McDonnell
January 5, 2016

When a young George Washington approached the forks of the Ohio River in the spring of 1754, he was nervous. The previous year, as he scouted the area that would become Pittsburgh to contest French claims to the region, he came across seven scalped settlers. His escorts told him it was the work of a group of Indians allied with the French. Returning to the area a year later, he heard that hundreds of those same Native Americans were on …

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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

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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