Philadelphia Reflects On Who Is An American Tourists to and residents of Philadelphia answer the question "Who is an American?" Their replies may shed light on some divisions in American life. The city is a magnet for tourists who come from all over the world to see the Liberty Bell.
NPR logo

Philadelphia Reflects On Who Is An American

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Philadelphia Reflects On Who Is An American

Philadelphia Reflects On Who Is An American

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith. All month long, we've been asking a provocative question, "Who is an American?" at different periods in our nation's history. And we've been focusing on one of its oldest cities, Philadelphia. If you visit Philly today, you'll see Americans of Vietnamese, Chinese, Puerto Rican, and Mexican backgrounds. You'll also note that only 0.3 percent of the population there is Native American.

Mr. CHET BROOKS (Member, Lenape Tribe): There was about 40 years of interaction between our people and the people that colonized the Philadelphia area before land conflicts.

SMITH: Coming up. What happened to the original settlers of Philadelphia, the Lenni-Lenape tribe. But first, the City of Brotherly Love is a magnet for tourists who come from far and wide to see its history up close. We sent reporter Joel Rose to put the question "Who is an American?" to visitors and to locals.

JOEL ROSE: The answers I heard were as varied as the faces of the people waiting in line to see the Liberty Bell.

Who is an American?

Ms. TERRY KNIGHT (Tourist from Little Rock, Arkansas): I would say an American is a person who believes in rights and liberty and justice for all mankind, not just certain people.

Mr. LEONARD TAYLOR (Tourist from Springfield, Illinois): An American is an individual that tries to take care of his family and try to do the right thing.

Ms. RUTH TAYLOR (Tourist from Springfield, Illinois): Who is an American? Anyone who's living in this great land.

ROSE: Is there any particular ideas that you think Americans have in common?

Ms. JENNIFER MCGANNY (Tourist from Willow Grove, Pennsylvania): I think that freedom is definitely one that we all believe in and we all think that people should have, regardless of whether it's - that women and men can work in the workplace, that religions can work together, races work together, any kind of freedom like that.

ROSE: Jennifer McGanny of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, Leonard and Ruth Taylor of Springfield, Illinois, and Terry Knight of Little Rock, Arkansas. Last year, about two million visitors came to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, making historical tourism a fast-growing industry.

Unidentified Woman: Jimmy, you want strawberry milk?

Unidentified Child: Yes!

ROSE: Tourism helps support local vendors, like Philadelphia native Chad Wayne (ph), who runs a hot-dog stand not far from Independence Hall.

Who is an American?

Mr. CHAD WAYNE (Philadelphia Resident; Hot Dog Vendor): Who is an American? I think just somebody who basically wakes up and goes to work every day, 9 to 5, doesn't commit any crimes, you know, pays their taxes, and that's about it. That's my opinion anyway.

ROSE: Wayne goes to work here everyday. So does Dan Batiste(ph) who sells tickets for a company that gives bus tours of the city.

Mr. DAN BATISTE (Philadelphia Resident; Ticket Seller, Bus Tour Company): I work here. I see cars drive by every day. And you always see that one guy who has more American flags on his vehicle than the entire city of Philadelphia does. You got those few guys who overdo it, but that's not everybody.

ROSE: It's pretty common to see the American flag around here, not just on cars but also on bags, hats, pins, and especially shirts. Across the street from the Liberty Bell, I spot three guys in matching red, white, and blue polo shirts.

So you guys are all wearing matching shirts here. Can you describe the shirts?

Mr. SEAN TUCKER(ph) (School Nutritionist): They've got a furling flag on them, superimposed on top of the Declaration of Independence.

ROSE: Sean Tucker explains that the shirts are part of the uniform they're wearing to a convention of school nutritionists. When I asked who is an American, his friend Ed Bezik doesn't hesitate. Bezik says an American is someone who speaks English.

Mr. ED BEZIK (School Nutritionist): When you're in this country, you should speak this country's language. We should not have to change to accommodate you. We let you in, you came over, that's all good. But get used to the ways over here. Don't make us change to what you wear back home. If it was so good back home, go back home. This is the U.S.

ROSE: Not everyone I ask has such a ready answer.

Mr. CLIFFORD WOMACK (Philadelphia Resident; Maintenance Supervisor, Independence National Historical Park): I'm a little stuck on your questions. I would have to give that a little more thought.

ROSE: Clifford Womack is a maintenance supervisor at Independence National Historical Park. Womack grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in the tough part of North Philadelphia. His father was from Virginia and his mother from Trinidad. He's proud of his work at the park, where he's been for 32 years.

Mr. WOMACK: I've been here with the moving of the Liberty Bell from all three buildings to the new building where it stands there now. My whole life has basically been in the National Park Service. I tell people I have a very short resume.

ROSE: Womack also works as a firefighter, a job that's allowed him to travel all over the country. He's fought fires in Washington State and Idaho where he met Native Americans for the first time. He's also helped with recovery efforts in New Orleans, right after Hurricane Katrina. And he's troubled by some of what he's seen.

Mr. WOMACK: You can look around and you can see - still see the poverty that's there, and I question why things could not be better. To make this country as great as it is, it took a lot of different ethnic groups, it took a lot of people, a lot of sweat, a lot of tears, a lot of blood. So I find that question really hard. How do you nail it down to who is an American? That question is kind of - it's going to haunt me the rest of the day here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROSE: Womack isn't the only person who takes issue with the question itself.

Mr. JOHN GASKIN (Philadelphia Resident): I guess what is an American may be the better question.

ROSE: John Gaskin was born in Trinidad, though he's lived in West Philadelphia for the last 13 years. He thinks what is an American is a better question because it gets at what a person really thinks.

Mr. GASKIN: What would constitute values and ideologies and all that sort of stuff. 'Cause it is, I guess, to me it'd be physical. Physically, that's another story, and Americans are made up of all different colors, races, peoples. It's a conglomerate of the world really.

ROSE: OK. So what is an American?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GASKIN: That's a good question. Someone who has high standards, who believes in liberty, freedom, and justice, and who tends to look on themselves as being the savior to the world.

ROSE: Even, Gaskin says, when others might not agree. Independence Park Ranger Tom Degnen concedes that America doesn't always live up to its own ideals. But he says an American is someone who keeps trying anyway.

Mr. TOM DEGNEN (Philadelphia Resident; Ranger, Independence National Historical Park): I think it's someone who really takes to heart some of the language that has been put down in our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence. All man are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. The nation is founded on these principles. We had a hard time living up to them fully. But there has been that effort. And I think an American in the best sense is conscious of that.

ROSE: Except for Independence Hall and a small number of other buildings, there isn't a whole lot left of the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed more than 230 years ago. But Philadelphians, and for that matter, Americans, are still trying to live up to its promises. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.