Fryer Fascinated by How We View Ourselves as Americans

Fryer Fascinated by How We View Ourselves as Americans

Heather Fryer, PhD, director of the American Studies Program and the Fr. Henry W. Casper, SJ Professor of History, joined Creighton in 2004 after finishing her PhD and a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Boston College.

As a specialist in 20th century U.S. social and cultural history, Fryer offers courses on migration, labor, gender, social identity and community, collective memory and conceptions of what it means to be “American” in the post-Reconstruction era.

Fryer discussed her research and background with Creighton University Magazine.

How did you get interested in history, and specifically, immigration?

It was a long and unusual road to history for me that took a little longer to get to than it does for many people. My undergraduate degree was in political science, and when I defended my thesis, the committee gave me high praise for my work with just one significant problem: It was really a work of history in terms of its concern for identifying patterns across time embedded within an array of historical evidence.

I responded to this identity crisis by taking six years to work for a women’s crisis hotline and later in a community mental health clinic for people with multiple medical, social, economic and political vulnerabilities. The vast majority had extended experiences of incarceration and/or homelessness.

On the weekends, I volunteered at the state historical society archives and, in providing research assistance for people, I was struck by the similarities in the ways that people talked about social and economic inequality in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the ways that we continued to talk about them at the social service agencies where I worked.

I started taking night classes in United States social history after my clinic shifts and became fascinated with histories of immigrants. I found myself writing a lot of papers about the ways in which immigrants changed certain aspects of their lives, adapted others and preserved and transplanted others from their home countries. This seemed to be the place where one could most easily see how people understood what being “American” could mean and how people fashioned their American identities.

How long have you been researching the melting pot versus foreign invasion topic?

I became interested in response patterns to perceived and actual national security threats while studying the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The general consensus was that race-based incarceration of a group considered an “immigrant population” (despite most being U.S.-born) was an aberration, but I uncovered a pattern in which a perceived threat leads to invasion rhetoric and then to systems of control that violate the human or constitutional rights of the targeted group in ways that are ultimately harmful to the entire fabric of American society and its ideals. I looked at various towns that were created to contain specific groups and developed this into my book Perimeters of Democracy: Inverse Utopias and the Wartime Social Landscape in the American West.

My research is not on immigration, per se, but on what happens when groups of Americans who have lived as “others” are in circumstances that force them to form communities. Because Americans’ sense of identity has historically directed from dynamic, lived understandings of “us” and “other,” these encounters have tremendous implications for how Americans view “American-ness,” how they respond to one another, how they create spaces and what they demand from their government.  

All of these encounters, the community-building, place-making and policymaking, occur between two countervailing forces in tension: a great pride in America’s heritage as the “Great Melting Pot” and a great fear that America, as a free nation, was rendered vulnerable by its very openness.