Media Resource

BackStory: To Be a Citizen? The History of Becoming American

Stereo card depicting a woman in an apron and skirt preparing a meal. The original caption reads, "Citizenship Lessons: no. 17 - Mother Packing Father's Lunch."
Photo caption

Stereo cards, like this one from Keystone View Company, were marketed to schools and teachers as a way to introduce more visual content into the classroom. Not much is known about this card, but its label reads "Citizenship Lessons: no. 17 - Mother Packing Father's Lunch."

The meaning of U.S. citizenship, as symbol and lived experience, has changed over time. Consider the picture on this page, which is part of a stereo card produced by the Keystone View Company around 1929. We don't know much about this card other than its caption and catalog information. The caption reads, “Citizenship Lessons: no. 17 - Mother Packing Father's Lunch.” The old caption card for the image says, “Photog. I.; Aliens; Adult education; Citizenship; Shelf.” Based on this information, what might you infer about this card and how it was used? What ideals of and assumptions about citizenship does it communicate?

In "To Be a Citizen? The History of Becoming American," listeners will learn more about how citizenship has been expanded, limited, challenged, and revoked in the United States. You'll hear about what happens when borders cross bodies, drawing new territory and people into the United States in what was often a violent and contested process; how Chinese immigrants and their American-born children challenged the boundaries of whiteness and citizenship in the late 19th century; how women have been stripped of their citizenship after marrying a non-citizen; and how African Americans after World War I fought for the unfulfilled promises of citizenship.

A full transcript of this episode can be found at the BackStory website.

The Clash of Cultures in "The Cart War" (00:40-7:00)

Comprehension Questions

  • What impact did the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo have for people living in Texas?
  • How did white Americans rationalize the violence they committed against cart men?
  • Why did the killing of Antonio Delgado draw greater attention to the attacks on cart men?
  • According to Larry Knight, how does the definition of citizenship change in San Antonio, Texas between 1848-1861?
In the Shadow of Chinese Exclusion (7:00-23:00)

Comprehension Questions

  • What was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882?
  • How does Mary Lui contextualize debates about the exclusion of Chinese people from U.S. citizenship?
  • What was the significance of Ah Yup's unsuccessful attempt to obtain citizenship?
  • How did the experience of the Tape family foreshadow the "separate but equal" doctrine established in 1896?
  • What role did the federal government play in the acts of violence committed against Chinese workers? How did the exclusion of Chinese people from citizenship contribute to this violence?
  • Why do historians continue to debate about the nature of the citizenship accessible to American-born children of Chinese immigrant parents?
  • According to Lui, what do the battles about the meaning and extent of citizenship indicate about race and citizenship in the United States?

EDSITEment Resources

Learn more about immigration history and the laws that have shaped the legal inclusion and exclusion of immigrants with the Closer Readings Commentary Everything Your Students Need to Know About Immigration History. The lesson plan Asian American & Pacific Islander Perspectives within Humanities Education (grades 6-12) addresses the exclusion of Asian immigrants from citizenship and the experiences of Asian American and Pacific Islander individuals as expressed in literature and art.

Gain a Husband, Lose a Country (23:44-35:45)

Comprehension Questions

  • Why was the Expatriation Act created in 1907, according to Linda Kerber?
  • How did the 19th amendment change the way women were able to challenge the Expatriation Act?
  • What legacies of the Expatriation Act does Kerber see?

EDSITEment Resources

At the time the Expatriation Act was passed, women did not have the right to vote at the federal level (some states had passed laws extending the right to vote to women). As this episode highlights, disenfranchisement was just one way that women's legal status in the United States was less secure than that of men. Learn more about the women's suffrage and equality movements with the following EDSITEment resources:

Red Summer (35:50-55:29)

Comprehension Questions

  • What opportunity did many African Americans see in World War I?
  • How did Jim Crow's reach extend beyond U.S. borders?
  • How did African Americans' experiences during the war affect the civil rights movement? How did they affect the Red Summer in 1919?
  • Why did Johnson run for Congress in 1940?
  • How did moments like independence and Reconstruction cause shifts in the ways people thought about and legislated citizenship?
  • How has citizenship for some people and groups been conditional, partial, or insecure?

EDSITEment Resources

Learn more about the ways African Americans interfaced with the state, as well as the early civil rights movement, with the following resources: 

About BackStory

Founded in 2008, BackStory is a weekly podcast that explores the historical roots of current events. Hosted by a team of historians of the United States, the show features interviews with other scholars and public historians, seeking to bring U.S. history to life.Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the show do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Learn more at the BackStory website.