Quotes from

Americans in Conversation

An Arcadia Pictures Production


I think history is inextricably linked to identity. If you don't know your history, if you don't know your family, who are you?

-- Mary Pipher, psychologist and author, Reviving Ophelia

History is really made in community. History is a communal enterprise, and the best way to capture that history is through the stories that people themselves tell.

-- Tomás Atencio, sociologist

I think we have glorified that notion of the self-reliant rugged individual and mythologized it. Because we prize freedom so highly in this country, we have pushed it to its outer limits and made of the citizens of this country, I think, some profoundly isolated people.

-- Rosemary Bray, journalist and author of the forthcoming memoir, Unafraid of the Dark

Precisely because we are not a people held together by blood, no one knows what an American is except by what they believe. It's important that we do know our history, because our history is the source of our Americanism. And so history is crucial to us if we're to be a single people.

-- Gordon Wood, historian

1492: Columbus arrives. He's not looking for this continent, he's looking for somewhere else -- the imagined Indies, the fabled Orient. The silks, the spices, the goods. And he finds indigenous peoples that he calls "Indians"; and he asks, "Where is Chicapangu? Where is Japan?" He interprets what they say as, "It's the next island over." There is, from the very first meeting, a confounding of cultures -- of the imaginary, of the real -- zones being created where people are crossing and cultures are crossing.

-- John Kuo Wei Tchen, historian and cultural activist

There is a kind of impermanence about being an American. It is an act of improvisation and always has been.

-- John Mack Faragher, historian

We're settled by wanderers. And the jeopardy of being born to a tribe of wanderers is that whenever you hit a snag, or lose a job, or run into trouble you move. You move, you move, you move. They come from Ireland, they settle on the East Coast. They go to Ohio. They go to Iowa. That's not working out. They wind up in California --

-- Allan Gurganus, author, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All

Americans are just about the most mobile people in the world. "Pardon my dust," as they say. In fact, Frederick Jackson Turner said that this was "the really American part of our history" -- the mobile part.

-- John Mack Faragher, historian


Let's see, my people -- which of my people? I'm in several groups. I'm in the group of the piano players. I'm in the group of the listeners. I'm in the group of people who have a general appreciation of music. I'm in the group of those who aspire to be dilettantes. I'm in the group of -- what? Oh yeah, those who appreciate Beaujolais.

-- Duke Ellington, musician and composer

My father's father was a farmer. I have no idea how many years that goes back. And my mother's family were all farmers and I married a farmer 13 miles down the road and he had the same heritage. Now, one of his nieces is married to a Lebanese doctor, one is married to a young Jewish man, I have a niece who has adopted a little black child, so we have a beautiful nephew that we love. So there are a lot of cultures in our lives that when we grew up we didn't have.

-- Joyce Morrison, Illinois farmer and Christian outreach worker

In terms of extended family, I feel like I'm related to half the country. My folks are Irish and Swiss. Peg's family is different because one of her ancestors fell off the Mayflower. He was saved by a Divine Providence. It's in that movie that Spencer Tracy was in. [Plymouth Adventure]

-- John Knoepfle, poet and teacher

Each generation, our family moves away from where we started. I really don't practice any of the Italian customs. I really couldn't tell you what any of them are. So really, the melting pot is a bad idea.

-- Greg Vadala, New Jersey high school student


This phrase from the Constitution which is so magical "toward a more perfect Union." I mean, it's so beautiful. It's matrimonial. Not a perfect Union that's not the promise. But toward, perpetually, in our national lives and in our personal lives, toward the possibility of perfection.

-- Allan Gurganus

When people wrote "All men are created equal," they really meant men. But they didn't mean any other men except white men who owned land. That's what they meant. But because the ideas are powerful, there's no way that they could get away with holding to that.

-- Rosemary Bray

Well, going back to Lincoln, one of the quotes you always hear from him most often, is "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people." But these days, where are the people? You're talking about the leader -- well, aren't the people supposed to be the leader in a democracy?

-- Paul Harty, Jr., Illinois farmer

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