Series Blog

Pilgrim Ancestors: Something to be Proud of Even 13 Generations Later

So, how important is Mayflower ancestry, really? To me, it’s a point of pride and reflection. Someone had the courage to make the equivalent of what would be a Mars mission today – and how many of you have signed up for that? Yet, they had a lot less information about their destination and the natives they would encounter.


Coming in January 2016

In January 2016, American Experience has two new documentaries premiering on PBS. "Mine Wars" will kick off the new season on January 12 at 9/8c, followed by the premiere of "Bonnie and Clyde" on January 19 at 9/8c. Watch this synopsis with commentary from Executive Producer Mark Samels, and check out indivudal film descriptions below.
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Two Conversations with Rebel Soldiers

On a visit to Cuba in early 2001, I was told William Morgan’s name and something of his story. I had no idea then that this passing moment would lead me on my own quest to track down an Ohio man’s remarkable life. A short time later, however, I began an investigation that took me into a murky world of contested history where I met scholars committed to uncovering facts, bureaucrats whose jobs seemed to be to keep secrets, and aging Cuban Rebel soldiers attempting, after all these years, to make sense of their own lives.

Published here on the American Experience website, the excerpt from my book, The Americano: Fighting with Castro for Cuba’s Freedom, tells the story of two of my conversations with Rebel soldiers. One, Roger Redondo, is featured in the American Experience documentary "American Comandante," left Cuba in 1961. The other, Raul Nieves, stayed in Cuba, loyal to Fidel Castro until his death in 2003. What’s interesting to me about this juxtaposition is the way in which ideological forces in both Cuba and the U.S. have conspired to keep true history from being told. These vignettes offer a glimpse of those ideological forces, their power, and the courage it takes to defy them. Ultimately, these are the same forces that got William Morgan killed on a dark night in March, 1961.

A lot of changes have taken place since I the book was published in 2007. Fidel Castro is no longer on TV every day in Cuba. Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, Morgan’s great friend and political mentor, returned to Cuba as a dissident and died there in 2012. And, most dramatically, the U.S. and Cuba are experiencing a moment of detente, as the two countries do the complicated work of reestablishing relations. As this happens, I hope that more true stories will be released from behind the propaganda firewalls that have defined dialogue on both sides of the Straits of Florida.

The people who made it possible to write Morgan’s story were the women and men, like Roger Redondo, who were with him in Cuba during those dramatic years between 1958 and 1961, particularly the members of the Second National Front of the Escambray (SNFE). Like so many Cubans on all sides, they have lived with the painful results of decades of Cold War: lost homes, broken families, and the distorting anger and distrust that have stunted lives and divided people more deeply than 90 miles of water ever could. As anti-communist revolutionaries, they were squeezed between Fidel Castro on one side and the interests -- both Cuban and American -- invested in Cuba’s pre-revolution status quo on the other. However, the relative ideological independence of the SNFE men and women allowed them to ask questions and give answers that few others would or could. For this reason, I believe that Morgan’s story and those of the other members of the SNFE still offer a particularly clear lens through which we can begin to understand aspects of the Cuban Revolution.


Aran Shetterly is a writer, independent editor, and writing coach. He splits his time between Mexico and the United States and can be reached through his website:

The Secret Feminism of "Bewitched"

I have never experienced Boston before this summer, when I moved to the city for an internship with American Experience. While living in Boston has been amazing, I am very intrigued by what more Massachusetts has to offer. A few weeks ago, I made the trek to Salem, MA -- the famous "witch town," the location of the infamous Witch Trials of the early 1690s.

Walking down the streets of Salem, I was amazed at how much of the town was devoted to its history. Many of the shops in the downtown district were devoted to selling witch-related memorabilia, some even offering year-round haunted house tours.

I stumbled across a very interesting addition to this collection of devotees to Salem's witch history: a statue commemorating the 1960s television show Bewitched. It depicts the show's main character, witch Samantha Stephens (played by Elizabeth Montgomery), riding a broomstick near a moon in its crescent phase. The statue pays tribute to the show that filmed several episodes on location in Salem.

Growing up, I would watch Bewitched re-runs occasionally, and I liked it well enough – it was an enjoyable (albeit kitschy) sitcom from a time long-gone, about a modern-day witch who married a mortal and their subsequent marital conflicts and shenanigans. Seeing the statue at a much older age, however, made me re-evaluate my conceptions of the show's underlying themes and wonder if there was more to a show that seemed to exist merely as mindless, relatable fluff on television. Intrigued, I decided to go back in time and re-watch several episodes of Bewitched.

The year was 1964, and American society was changing. In Berkeley, CA, students were protesting for freedom of expression, while Cassius Clay, the new heavyweight champion of the world, decided to change his name to Muhammad Ali and his religion to Islam, saying, "I don't have to be what you want me to be. I am free to be who I want." And most importantly – at least in the case of Bewitched – the previous year Betty Friedan released The Feminine Mystique, a book that sparked the feminist revolution, inspiring middle-class women to embrace new identities and to become more independent, the reverberations of which were still being felt in 1964. The general theme of 1964 was progression toward acceptance of individuality.

1964 was also the year of the premiere of Bewitched. At first glance, the TV show doesn't seem to fit in with the nation's climate; in the very first episode, Samantha's mortal husband Darrin (played by Dick York) commands her not to use her magic, and, despite the fact that being a witch is an important part of her identity, she happily agrees. "Darling, it sounds wonderful – and soon we'll be a normal, happy couple with no problems! Just like everybody else," Samantha quips. For the first part of the episode, it seems as if Bewitched would subtly campaign for a return to 1950s normalcy.

As the episode continues, though, it is clear that Samantha will not suppress her magic just for the sake of her husband's wishes. When confronted by Darrin's conniving ex-girlfriend, Samantha speaks up to defend herself against passive put-downs and decides to assert her status as his wife by using magic to embarrass his former girlfriend. Although Darrin will later scold his wife for twitching her nose to cast spells once they get home, Samantha brushes him off again when confronted with a dirty kitchen. She wiggles her nose – and voila! – the kitchen is clean. By using magic, Samantha not only defies her husband, establishing her independence, but she also demonstrates that in this household, the woman has more power than the man. Furthermore, the show suggests that men like Darrin should reconsider their fearful attitude towards women like Samantha using their powers – magical or non-magical. In Samantha's case, for instance, her magical assistance with housewifely duties would only improve life for both Darrin and herself.

Other episodes continue to deliver this soft version of feminism to viewers. In Season 1 Episode 5, when Darrin refuses to believe that Samantha could think creatively for herself without the use of magic, she is highly offended. She even goes so far as to pack her bags and leave the house for the night; it is only when Darrin apologizes that she returns. In doing so, she defines herself as her own person and, like many women at the time, shows that she isn't going to lie down flat at her husband's feet to function solely as his servant. In this way, Bewitched would match the aims of the developing feminist movement of the '60s.

However, sometimes Bewitched does not fully embrace feminist notions. For instance, in this episode, Darrin is only convinced he is wrong to assert that Samantha cannot synthesize creative ideas without magical help when his client decides her ideas are no good. Although today we may view this as flawed and insulting, Darrin's logic relies on the thinking that only a powerful man perceiving her ideas as dreadful can validate Samantha truthfulness about coming up with an original idea. (The modern viewer will be pleased to know that Samantha calls him out on his misogynist attitude.) Despite somewhat catering to outdated ideals of gender roles, Bewitched's Samantha ultimately proves Darrin wrong and stands up for herself in several, non-magical ways in this episode.

In Season 1 Episode 7, Darrin receives a commission to draw a Halloween advertisement filled with witches, or "ugly, old crones," for a client, so Samantha leads an effort to fight this negative depiction of witches - a minority group, she calls it. "How would you like it if you were always being represented as something different?" she asks. She and several other witches plan a nonviolent protest and create signs reading, "We Demand a New Image" and "Witches are People, Too!" Through negotiation, they convince the client to alter his advertisement's portrayal of witches so that the witches look less stereotypical and more like "real" witches. By portraying strong, confident women striving to uphold their own standards and views, Bewitched indicated the growing power of women in not only the home but also in larger society in the 1960s. Samantha's television protest also mirrored the many protests that 1964 saw, ranging from protests for civil rights to the Berkeley student protests. And, later in the decade, he show's attention to minorities struggling for adequate representation paralleled the creation of Miss Black America, which originally began as a subtle demonstration against the lack of black women in the popular Miss America pageant.

The idea that a husband can and should control his wife is beginning to become outdated by 1964, and Bewitched is one of the first efforts in television to (slowly) usher the new social standards to viewers. Bewitched illustrates a woman's right to choose her own life path, a very basic facet of feminism – even if a woman, like Samantha, chooses to follow a more traditional route and become a homemaker. Like Muhammad Ali, Samantha Stephens was free to be who she wanted to be. Ultimately, the trite but relatable suburban problems, magical gimmicks, the tinny laugh track, and light, musical score balance out the show's feminist undertones in a way that at first glance might make it appear as if the show had no underlying feminist leanings at all.

Ultimately, Bewitched presented a version of the modern all-American couple that could solve their problems through a loving combination of mutual respect and consideration, delivering soft feminism along the way.

The statue, standing on the corner of Essex and Washington Streets in Salem, thus commemorates not only a television show but also a social movement. Television shows shape the popular national consciousness, and Bewitched, airing during the feminist movement throughout the 1960s, was no exception, delivering the new ideas into the typical American household.

Leaving the monument, I looked back over my shoulder and could have sworn I saw Samantha's nose twitch.


Maria Massad is a summer intern at American Experience, where she enjoys contributing to the official Tumblr page and researching and writing for the show's website. She will graduate in 2016 with a double major in history and biology from Wesleyan University. In her spare time, Maria likes to choreograph dances, create content for YouTube, and learn about American and British cultural history.

Why We Made "Walt Disney"

Mark Samels, Executive Producer of American Experience, has wanted to make a biographical documentary of Walt Disney for many years. As Samels says, the iconic animator's pervasive influence on American culture made him "a perfect subject for American Experience."