Media Resource

BackStory: The Melting Pot: Americans & Assimilation

Illustration of many people walking into a pot over a fire, with the Statue of Liberty in the background
Photo caption

Cover of 1916 theater program for Israel Zangwill's 1908 play The Melting Pot.

This episode of NEH-funded BackStory explores the idea of assimilation in the United States. Featuring interviews with several historians, it covers history from the eighteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, with connections to current events. In "The Melting Pot: Americans & Assimilation," you’ll learn about:

  • President Theodore Roosevelt’s views on “hyphenated Americanism”
  • Jewish playwright Israel Zangwill and the “melting pot” metaphor
  • Assimilation in Early America and the impact of the Louisiana Purchase
  • Forced assimilation in Native American boarding schools
  • Japanese Americans in Chicago after World War II
  • W.E.B. Du Bois’s thoughts on what assimilation meant for African Americans

Audio file

Below, find comprehension questions and EDSITEment resources, all grouped by segment. A full transcript of the episode is available at the BackStory site.

Note: This episode discusses white supremacist and xenophobic ideas. It also discusses anti-Indigenous violence and anti-Black violence, including lynching. The segment “100% American” includes an anti-Japanese slur.

Hyphen-Nation (0:35-7:50)

Comprehension Questions

  • What did Theodore Roosevelt mean when he said, “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism”? How did events and trends of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century shape his perspective?
  • What were nativists? What were their views on U.S. citizenship and identity?
  • How did nativist views differ from Roosevelt’s “civic notion of American identity”?

EDSITEment Resources

The closer readings commentary Everything Your Students Need to Know About Immigration History introduces resources for teaching about immigration and nativism.

Further explore the contested meaning of U.S. citizenship with the BackStory episode “To Be a Citizen? The History of Becoming American.”

A Man and a Metaphor (7:50-19:00)

Comprehension Questions

  • How do you interpret the “melting pot” metaphor for American society? How would you compare it to the “salad bowl” metaphor?
  • From Israel Zangwill’s perspective, how did others misinterpret and misuse the melting pot metaphor?
  • How did Zangwill’s British Jewish identity shape his writing and political views?
  • How did the real America of the early twentieth century compare to the ideal America of Zangwill’s play?

EDSITEment Resources

Gain a fuller understanding of Jewish American history with the lesson plan Pearl S. Buck: "On Discovering America" (grades 9-12) and the media resource Jewish American Keywords for Chronicling America.

The Statue of Liberty features in The Melting Pot. Consider the history and symbolism of the Statue of Liberty in the lesson plans The Statue of Liberty: The Meaning and Use of a National Symbol (grades K-5) and The Statue of Liberty: Bringing “The New Colossus” to America (grades 6-8).

Borderline (19:50-26:15)

Comprehension Questions

  • What did eighteenth-century German Americans appreciate about living in Pennsylvania?
  • How did German Americans feel about assimilation? In what ways did they maintain their distinct identity?
  • What were Thomas Jefferson’s views on Native American assimilation?
  • What does historian Joanne Freeman mean by saying that the border crossed places and people? How did this occur and who did this affect?
  • What was the symbolic meaning of the “Mexican bandit” stock character in Western dime novels? How did the character type represent a supposed danger to American society?

EDSITEment Resources

The following lesson plans can help contextualize identity and assimilation in the eighteenth century:

Learn more about nineteenth-century U.S. territorial expansion and the impact of the Louisiana Purchase with the lesson plans On This Day With Lewis and Clark (grades 6-8) and Who Belongs on the Frontier: Cherokee Removal (grades 6-12). The page Lewis and Clark: Exploring Uncharted Territory links to additional lesson plans and resources.

Kill the Indian, Save the Man (26:30-35:25)

Comprehension Questions

  • What were the main goals of federal Indian schools like Carlisle and Chilocco? What methods did they use to achieve these goals?
  • How does the student experience of Chilocco Indian School compare and contrast with your school experiences?
  • Why did scholar Tsianina Lomawaima’s father run away from Chilocco?
  • When her book on Chilocco was first published, why did Lomawaima feel that she never should have written it?
  • Why did U.S. assimilation policies seek to separate Native families?
  • Why is it important to share and understand painful histories?

EDSITEment Resources

Explore the diversity of Native American cultures with the following resources:

100% American (35:35-45:50)

Comprehension Questions

  • Why did the U.S. government incarcerate Japanese Americans in internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor?
  • Why did the U.S. government forcibly relocate 20,000 Japanese Americans to Chicago during World War II? What were the government’s goals with relocation?
  • Why did Japanese Americans in the postwar era seek to be “100% American”? What do you think were the risks of not conforming and assimilating?
  • How have Japanese Americans in Chicago established a sense of community? What challenges have they faced?

EDSITEment Resources

Contextualize the history of Japanese American internment camps with the lesson plan Japanese American Internment Camps during WWII (grades 6-12) and the media resources I Remember: Japanese Incarceration During WWII and Why Here?: Heart Mountain, Wyoming and Japanese Incarceration.

Broaden understanding of Asian American history with the lesson plan Asian American & Pacific Islander Perspectives within Humanities Education (grades 6-12) and the media resource Asian American and Pacific Islander Keywords for Chronicling America.

Can I Be Both? (45:55-54:50)

Comprehension Questions

  • What was “scientific racism”?
  • What does it mean that race is socially constructed?
  • What was W.E.B. Du Bois’s argument in his 1934 article “Segregation”? Why did this article lead to Du Bois leaving the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)?
  • How do you think W.E.B. Du Bois would have answered his own question, “Am I an American, or am I a Negro? Can I be both?”

EDSITEment Resources

Further explore the ideas and writing of Du Bois with the media resource W.E.B. Du Bois Papers.

Learn more about the NAACP’s activism against anti-Black violence with the following resources:

Multi Culti USA (55:05-59:05)

Comprehension Questions

  • After listening to the episode, how would you define assimilation?
  • Do you think there is such a thing as assimilation?

EDSITEment Resources

Use the closer readings commentaries What Does It Mean to Be American? and Connecting the Past and Present with the Immigrant Stories Project to promote reflection on immigrant experiences and what it means to be an American.

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.