Segment from The Melting Pot

Multi Culti USA

Brian, Joanne, and Nathan ask — what does it take to become American today?

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JOANNE: And now, back to the show.

NATHAN: So that mention by Chad Williams about Du Bois and the idea of America is extraordinarily powerful. I mean, Du Bois was part of a group of African Americans who actually left the United States and went to Ghana to help with a number of nation-building projects there in the late ’50s and early ’60s. And like Du Bois, many of them actually felt more American abroad than in the United States.

Because they had this identity, that Chad points to, of being American but also a kind of freedom of movement, a freedom from state surveillance, in some cases a freedom of suspicion that they enjoyed while in West Africa that made them feel fully American, a kind of citizenship that they simply did not enjoy. And so this has to resonate with some of the present immigration questions, I would imagine.

BRIAN: Nathan, I think it resonates directly with a very current debate that’s going on right now. That’s what to do about the DACA program–

NATHAN: Right, the Dream Act.

BRIAN: The Dream Act. And these are the Dreamers. Many of these kids couldn’t be more American. They’re serving in the military. They’re employed. They’re paying taxes.

They’re going to college. Some are even defending their dissertations. What could be more American than that? That’s in tension with their status in America, being the children of people who violated the immigration laws. They arrived in the United States illegally.

JOANNE: So here’s the perverse question that that makes me want to ask. Is there such a thing as assimilation? If someone like Du Bois gets to the point where he needs to leave to fulfill that idea of potential or possibility, then what is assimilation?

Is it invisibility? Is it merging? Is it adapting? Is it total erasure? I mean, what does it mean? And depending on those meanings, is that something that anyone really wants?

NATHAN: Right. I mean, yeah, I think there is a really clear sense that people are after a really full bundle of rights– the right to own their own home, potentially, the right to be able to move, to send their kids to a good school, to, like you say, invest in a future. And you know, you think about someone like Du Bois, or now, these young people looking over their shoulders worrying about deportation– there’s the constant fear about the state potentially coming and taking people away, the dividing of families happening without their choice.

I mean, there’s a great deal of anxiety that’s now shot through the experience of these Americans that is very much an echo of an earlier kind of anxiety from the 19th and 20th century around something like Jim Crow. And so I think, you know, very much to your question, assimilation really does mean a kind of peace of mind.

JOANNE: But what about the other half of that equation, the people who are the ultimate judges of who assimilates and who doesn’t, the majority population? I mean, there’s two halves of the equation of assimilation, I guess, is part of what I’m saying.

NATHAN: Sure, sure.

BRIAN: It all comes back to being able to not be the perfect American and not have to worry about being called un-American.

NATHAN: Right, I mean, misbehave, to politically dissent, to be an everyday, rule-breaking or simply self-actualizing American. I mean, again, just to round out the circle, you know, Du Bois was somebody that went out of his way to learn foreign languages, to aspire to Victorian values, wear suits. And it didn’t make a lick of difference, right?

And so many of these Dreamers, with their college degrees and their military service under their belt, are now being considered, somehow, to be suspect. And that stuff should, actually, at least matter, in terms of getting people a measure of respect in the country. And now, that’s an open question.

JOANNE: Well, that leads me back to my original question, though, which is, is there such a thing as assimilation?

NATHAN: So Joanne, I think the idea of assimilation as the obliteration of one’s culture or one’s language or one’s history is not a real thing. I think that most people are on some kind of path or a part of a process. You know, so for people of African descent or indigenous descent or people who happen to speak Spanish, those kinds of variables can, oftentimes, be called up at a moment’s notice to make a person suspect.

And so part of what assimilation is really about, frankly, is about the whole society, more so than about the individual, right? To what extent are we allowed to simply be our full, complete selves and not worry about an object or part of our identity being criminalized at a moment’s notice?

BRIAN: And I think it’s exactly when a group feels, and is, sufficiently accepted when that group is actually much freer to rediscover and embrace all kinds of racial and ethnic histories that can be built back into this mosaic of difference.

JOANNE: That’s going to do it for today. But you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your burning history questions.

You’ll find us at Or send an email to We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at BackStory Radio, and feel free to review the new show in the iTunes store. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

BRIAN: This episode of BackStory was produced by Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Emily Gadek, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Millner is our technical director, Diana Williams is our digital editor, and J. Thompson is our researcher.

NATHAN: Additional help came from Robin Blue, Angelique Bishash, Sequoia Carrillo, Emma Greg, Courtney Spagna and Aaron Thelie. Our theme song was written by Nick Thorburn.

Other music in this episode came from Ketsa, Podington Bear, and Jahzzar.

BRIAN: Special thanks to James Scales and, as always, to the Johns Hopkins University’s studio in Baltimore.

JOANNE: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. We’re a proud member of the Panoply Podcast Network. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Provost’s Office of the University of Virginia, Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis foundation.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton Professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond.

Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.