Finding Our American Roots

Growing up—and even now—people would ask me, “where is your family from?”  They wanted to know about my ancestry.

My reply was always:  “America.”

America never satisfied people’s curiosity.  America, so it seemed, didn’t qualify as a place where anyone could be from; my ancestors couldn’t possibly be Americans.

However, I feel I am as American as apple pie, white picket fences and abandoned rubber factories.  Some great, great, great somebody of mine supposedly signed the Declaration of Independence.  Another great, great somebody was Native American.  The rest of my family, as far as I know, quietly immigrated from England.  My family survived the Great Depression and growing up in the south.  By design or by distance, I don’t know my family’s history before our American citizenship.

This need to dig past our American roots to find something deeper could exist because we are such a young country.  It could also exist due to the “melting pot” syndrome.  It could exist for a multitude of reasons, but I think it is symptomatic of a bigger question.

What does it mean to be an American?

Many young Americans, including myself, feel disconnected from the traditional culture of our ancestors.  We feel there is no culture in America beyond fast food chains, Disneyland adventures and the vast consumer driven wasteland of strip malls.  Those of us who want to discover “our” culture feel the need to leave American soil to get it.

What we discover when we get to our particular elsewhere is much akin to wearing somebody else’s clothes.  They may look great and fit well on the owner, but there’s something not quite right when you try them on.  No matter how right they may feel or how badly we want to adopt these cultures and traditions as our own: they’re not ours.  It would take years of immersion before we could ever fully become part of one.

But without understanding where we came from, how can we understand where we are going?

Instead of trying to find culture through channels that no longer provide access to our past, I wonder what we would discover if we were able to go beyond the surface of “Americanization” and connect to those things that make us profoundly American.

I started by asking questions.  What is uniquely American?  What are our American roots?  Who are our American ancestors?  What ideas were central to the founding of our country?

I found myself being drawn to certain material—specifically two books which, for years, had been orbiting through the periphery of my vision.  Though I had never read either one, I instinctively knew both books were deeply rooted in America and would open a doorway to the “American Experience.”

After reading these books, I claim their authors as my forefathers.  Their writings were incredibly influential in the American landscape.  They shaped generations.  Their writings help me define my place in the world and what it means to be an American.  They’ve also led me to other writers, art and music that are creating a richer understanding of my traditions and culture.

As an American, my traditions are drawn from the counter-culture movements of our history—beginning with our founding.  Columbus went against the prevailing knowledge of his time and discovered America.  Then the majority of our country was established by a group of people who wanted to get away from the mainstream (and oppressive) government of England.  In more recent times, counter-culture ideals came from the beat poets of the 50’s and hippies of the 60’s.

Heads Up is considered counter-culture from choice of material to our working method and our ideology.  (We had people walk out of our last audition because “that’s not how it’s supposed to be done.”)

With the political upheaval that is happening in Wisconsin, throughout the country and across the world, it seems imperative that the American people quickly discover their roots.  Our roots provide the foundation for how we will decide to proceed from this era to the next.

-Benjamin Rexroad
Artistic Director



  1. OK, what were the two books? I’m always curious about what triggers new thoughts in other people.


  1. […] that have come before” in a different way.  As I’ve written about in a previous essay entitled Finding Our American Roots, one way I am looking to my past is by exploring my American […]


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