Illustration by Hank Yang
What started as a travel blog by a Medill professor and his students turned into a book about American identity.
Genus Americanus: In Search of America’s Identity Along the Way, by former Medill Dean Loren Ghiglione and alumni Alyssa Karas (Medill ’11) and Dan Tham (Medill ’13) was released on October 25th.
In 2011, Ghiglione decided to give Medill students the opportunity to tour America with him in the fall quarter. The team followed the steps of the writer Mark Twain on the journeys he made through the country in the 1850s and 1860s, interviewing Americans about their identities in the process.
“I’ve always loved the romance of adventure and the sense of travel that comes with it,” said Ghiglione. “I’ve always believed that travel has the potential to be a transformative educational experience.”
Karas was nearing her senior year when she received an email from the Medill List Service announcing the opportunity. Although she expected to graduate before traveling, she applied nonetheless.
Karas is now Associate Director of Audience Development at Vanity Fair and spent the summer on a scholarship at the Indianapolis Star before embarking on the three-month trip in the fall.
“Loren was definitely just asking about students … and I definitely wanted to postpone real life as much as possible,” Karas said. “But I just thought it was great and I’m grateful every day.”
Tham, now a producer for CNN International, had just returned to the US after studying abroad in India when he received the email. He said the opportunity was “too tempting to resist”.
The trip was an opportunity for Tham to discover not only the identities of other Americans but his own as well, he said.
“I’m Vietnamese-American, I’m gay, I was raised Buddhist,” said Tham. “In the context in which I grew up – mostly white, Mormon, straight – I became … I guess what we would call an ‘other’,” Tham said.
The implications of Tham’s identity were not lacking on the road trip. When the group members reached Marion, Indiana, where a historic lynching took place in the 1930s, they met a historian at a Japanese restaurant.
Tham, the only Asian American in the group, was the only one the all-white staff gave chopsticks to.
“I felt uncomfortable,” said Tham. “It felt like I was being marked as someone other than my travel companion.”
Learning to better understand one’s own identity was primarily why Ghiglione pursued the road trip. For Ghiglione, who is of Italian descent, he wanted to reconnect with distant family members and learn more about the experiences of Italian-American immigrants.
Ghiglione also developed an interest in the indigenous communities of America, which was marked by years of colonization, and worked on the Task Force on Public Affairs and Native American Inclusion. The group also wrote about various immigrant communities, their struggles, and their importance to the fabric of America.
“Another (takeaway) was the lingering power of racism … it doesn’t seem to be going away,” said Ghiglione. “For the same reason, I think America is an idea of a country trying to get better … and future generations will be better equipped to solve race-related problems.”
Together the group came into contact with different identities and uncovered forgotten stories. The group examined many dark forces in America’s past, many of which still have an impact on American politics today.
“It’s always better to know what happened and to lessen our ignorance because I think it could be dangerous if we forget,” said Tham.
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