Making two Americas one

Ghiglione and friends talk about who we are, and unifying ourselves, on Monday.

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Loren Ghiglione interviewing Connie Ritter, the first person interviewed during the trip. She was a guide at the Mark Twain Birthplace Museum in Stoutsville, Mo. — Alyssa Karas

So last week President-elect Biden tasked Americans with a project: Unify ourselves.

The goal involves talking and interacting with Americans who aren’t like us, who don’t believe what we believe, between camps polarized left and right of center.

The trick is to figure out how to do that in the time of pandemic, and in a place where both tribes stay in their own village and speak only with each other, often in messaging with meanings that are muffled by the constraints of social media.

But we always seem to get what we need. And we have a primer of sorts available next weekend to help us on the scary journey of bonding and rebonding, courtesy of Island resident Loren Ghiglione, a longtime New England journalist and publisher, and a journalism school professor at both grassroots and high-end American colleges and universities.

On Monday, Nov. 16 at 6:30 pm, the West Tisbury library will host an online book talk with Ghiglione and co-authors Alyssa Karas and Dan Tham about their newly released book, “Genus Americanus: Hitting the Road in Search of America’s Identity.” The live event will meet on Zoom. Send an email to wt_mail@clamsnet.org for the invitation to join the discussion.

“Genus Americanus” is the result of an eight-year project begun in 2011, when Ghiglione and two of his Northwestern University journalism students trekked across America to find out how Americans define themselves. Ghiglione followed up for the next five years, and revisited people and places his team met in 2011.

Their book is a primer on how to talk with people who aren’t like you, and how direct communication builds relationships between people. To be clear, that wasn’t what they intended, but it’s a welcome byproduct of an extraordinarily well-written book on how Americans identify themselves.

Ghiglione, Karas, and Tham embarked on a three-month, 29-state, 14,063-mile road trip in search of America’s identity, interviewing 150 Americans on a journey similar to a Mark Twain trip across America on the same mission in the 19th century.

Their book provides fact and substance on a variety of issues, often in stunning contrast to what we’ve been told: For example, those immigrants sucking up our national treasure and aid programs? Turns out that between 2007 and 2017, legal and undocumented immigrants generated $63 billion more for our national treasury than they took from it. “Genus Americanus” is chock-full of this stuff.

We asked Ghiglione last weekend about the book, and the state of our ability to communicate right now.

A pre-trip question was whether Americans are alike, or are we different from one another. What did you all find?

While we intentionally sought out people who were different — a Catholic woman priest, a gay Jewish doctor, an African American “mayor” of a majority-white homeless camp — I hope our interviews captured the individuals’ common humanity. I like to believe that the millennial generation of my co-authors, and even younger generations of Americans, are more willing and better equipped to embrace difference, see America’s diversity as a strength, and to attack racism.

Has our ability to talk one-on-one been deteriorated by electronic communication and by the cultural polarity surfacing over the past five years? 

While one should never undervalue what can be learned via cellphones and laptops from the internet, the current discussion about the failings of political polling reminds me of the value of old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting — of spending time listening closely, in person, to what people say by their words, silences, body movements, and facial expressions. But some journalism students, I fear, prefer communicating in this order: 1. Email (or other electronic screen means); 2. phone; and, 3. in-person as a last resort.

Did you intend “Genus Americanus” to serve as a primer for how to talk to folks who are not like you?

I hadn’t thought about it that way. I hope the book encourages readers to try, as the three of us tried, to diminish their ignorance about the diversity of America — to realize that those who are often portrayed as outliers and the Other are just as American, if not more so, than those who are portrayed as “real Americans.” But in trying to learn by moving outside their comfort zone,

they can expect discussions about race, sexual orientation, and other sensitive identity issues to lead to some difficult conversations that definitely don’t feel like “Kumbaya” moments.

What’s the societal environment today, versus 5 or 10 years ago?

The polarization of America, after four years of the Trump administration, seems more extreme than ever. And some recent events — for example, the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd — have forced us to think even harder about issues of racism and social justice. Racial discrimination, for example, is not just a feature of housing and education, it pervades our healthcare system, our justice system, from arrest to sentencing, to imprisonment, and every other realm of our society. We have to think that in our society today, people are being moved in different, more intense ways.

Today, 11 years later, Tham is moving up the ladder at CNN, with producer credits to his name, and Alyssa Karas today is a digital whiz at Vanity Fair magazine. Eleven years ago, before her research trip, Karas said her single outstanding question at the time was, “Are Americans all the same, or are they different?”

Last Sunday, Karas told The Times she found her answer on the trip. “I’ve thought about that a lot. I have my answer. We are all essentially the same, but we have had different experiences, which create differences between us,” she said, noting that communication in light of those experiences vary according to the nature and impact of life experience, “and sometimes simply whether or not you’ve had breakfast yet,” she said.

Karas said that learning to listen — “to really listen, without judgment” — was a key benefit of her three months on the road interviewing Americans. “Credit Loren with that. He taught us that,” she said.

“Genus Americanus: Hitting the Road in Search of America’s Identity,” by Loren Ghiglione with Alyssa Karas and Dan Tham, University of Georgia Press, $32.95. Available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore, Main Street, Vineyard Haven, Edgartown Books, Main Street, Edgartown, online, and at Island libraries.