What it means to be an American: Artists, musicians and activists speak

Boy waves flag
A boy helps his father carry an American flag with pride, Tuesday, August 9, 2016.
Chris Juhn for MPR News

Influential thinkers from around the country reflected on the American identity in the modern age.

MPR News Host Kerri Miller asked Naaima Khan, Pakou Hang and Brian Rosenberg to reflect on the series so far and add their own perspective on what it means to be an American.

The collected reflections of the guests are below.

"Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed."

That's from Langston Hughes's poem, "Let America Be America Again."

Every conversation in the series kicked off with this iconic line, and expanded in new directions.

Jose Santos

Anthropologist Jose Santos joined the program to reflect on what past participants had shared.

Eddie Glaude Jr.

"There's something about the South that is so fundamentally American. Right? That the soil is soaked with the blood of our contradiction. That the region is haunted. And it's haunted by its past and present. And so you have this amazing civility. The smile. Southern hospitality is real. Once you cross over into my home state people are smiling."

"I went to Bozos, this wonderful seafood place, Kerri, when I was home for my homecoming recently. I usually go home to take my mama to the fair. And I came home a week early and I was going to get me this wonderful 12-inch seafood po' boy. And I walk into this place, and this real grisly, stereotypical southern white man says, 'Hey, don't I see you on television?' And I said yes. And he said, 'Boy, you look as good in person as you do on television.' And then he said, "I don't agree with much of what you say, but keep saying it." -Eddie Glaude Jr.

Glaude grew up in Mississippi. He is now a Professor of Religion at Princeton where he chairs the Department of African American Studies. His newest book is "Democracy in Black."

A writer that influenced him: James Baldwin

Julissa Arce

"I had this idea that if I could just become really financially and professionally successful, it wouldn't matter that I was undocumented. I could prove to people who didn't think I should be here that I did belong here because I earned my way. I worked so hard and look how much I've achieved. And maybe that would make me worthy of being an American. That's where my dream of going to work on Wall Street began." -Julissa Arce

Julissa Arce achieved what some might think is impossible. She climbed the corporate ladder as an undocumented immigrant. She is now an executive at Goldman Sachs and author of the book, "My Underground American Dream." She is also a speaker and advocate for immigration rights.

America in a song: Las Cafeteras' rendition of "This Land is Your Land"

Claudia Rankine

"People have this idea that we live with the ability to be objective, but we don't. We are incredibly subjective and we are walking around with all kinds of prejudice in our heads. And those things are motivating what we do. And if you have a culture that is in collusion with the devaluing of black people then the imagination is going to support the killing of black people." -Claudia Rankine

Rankine is a renowned poet and playwright who has penned five books of poetry. Her latest, "Citizen: An American Lyric," uses prose to explore daily racism. It has won multiple awards including the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry.

On the role of social media in activism: "The upside of our present times is that people are finally seeing that these things are systemic and not tied to any single individual."

Gyasi Ross

"The one thing that we can agree on is that at one time America was aspirational. And those aspirations, they might have been right or they might have been wrong. They might have been not fully inclusive, but they were aspirational. They were willing to consider evolution." -Gyasi Ross

Ross, an author and attorney (and speaker and father) comes from the Blackfeet Nation. He is the author of "Don't Know Much About Indians (but I wrote a book about us anyways)" and more recently, "How to Say I Love You in Indian."

America, a work in progress: "If it hadn't been for revolution, if it hadn't been for disruptors, if it hadn't been for interrupters, we wouldn't be here. And so, that's constantly been the struggle. I feel like we all have an obligation to be a part of the revolutionary process. Thomas Jefferson said, 'I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just. That his justice cannot sleep forever.' And, if in fact there is a judgement, and if in fact there is a god ... I think we have an obligation to try to make the nation a more just place. And, that doesn't come easily."

Luis Urrea

"The slightest inclusion, the slightest taste of the American dream — which I believe, in spite of propaganda, is still active and powerful — transforms people." -Luis Urrea

Urrea, a Mexican-American writer, works in many forms: poetry, fiction and nonfiction. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame. His newest book, "The Water Museum," is a collection of short stories. NPR hailed him as a "master storyteller with a rock and roll heart."

America in literature: "So many people have this spirit of possibility, of hope," Urrea said of American authors. His favorites include Willa Cather, Walt Whitman, Ray Bradbury, Jack Kerouac, Piri Thomas and Juan Felipe Herrera.

Rosanne Cash

Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, the daughter of music legend Johnny Cash, emphasized the importance of the arts to the American identity.

"I really believe if there was more value placed on art and music in America that we could see ourselves better," Cash said.

America in song: What song speaks to you about the American identity? For Cash, it's "A Feather's Not a Bird."

• Share your view: What does it mean to be an American?

The series continues through Oct. 28.

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