Ancestry, Identity, and What It Means to Be American, Part 1


How ancestry defines identity and what it means to be American are two inextricably linked and fundamental questions for most Americans. By extension, they have become the focal concerns of many academics across a number of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

We think of those issues as especially pressing and complex for immigrants and newly naturalized citizens—those for whom multiculturalism is an especially immediate and visceral reality. The issues would, however, seem just as complicated, if perhaps less immediate, for most of us whose families have been in the U.S. for several generations or more if we actually were knowledgeable about the complexities in our own ancestries. But, for most of us now in the latter stages of our careers, the passing of several generations of our immediate ancestors, along with sparse public records here and in particular in the “old country,” have smoothed away those complexities in…

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