Panel of authors discusses the “American experience”

What does the American experience look like? These days, it’s not the same for everyone -- as the 2016 election showed, there are parts of the country and demographic groups whose experiences are wildly different.

To take a look at those experiences, CBS’ “Face the Nation” spoke with authors who have written about their experiences growing up in America -- and what they might mean for others.

For J.D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” a memoir about growing up in the Rust Belt, the American Dream was complicated: even after moving away and getting what he’d hoped for, there was always a pull toward home.

“You don’t just all of a sudden get maybe money or a nice credential and all of a sudden everything that you learned, every habit you acquired, every familiar relationship that you had just sort of goes away,” he said. “Because both the people that upward mobility brings you in contact with, whether it’s professors or new social circle -- circles, but also the people who you moved away from in some ways, they continue to pull and push in different ways.”

Diane Guerrero, the author of the memoir “In the Country We Love,” saw the American dream as something simple: remaining together with her family. Guerrero is the child of undocumented immigrants who were deported when she was a teenager.

“A path for citizenship. Immigration reform. I always hoped that my parents could find that so that we could stay together,” she said. “And I always hoped that we wouldn’t be separated.”

Asked if that was her definition of the American Dream, Guerrero replied: “ It was just staying together. Sometimes it’s as basic as that.”

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the author of “Muslim Girl” and the website, said her family left the United States because of Islamophobia after 9/11 but returned several years later. It was the differences she saw when she returned, after living in Jordan, that gave her the idea for her project.

“That experience really opened my eyes to the stark contrast between reality in the Middle East, how things were on the ground, as compared to how they are being misrepresented in Western media,” she said. “And upon my return, that was kind of my personal goal. Was, ‘Oh my god. I have to open people’s eyes to this.’”

Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of “The Warmth of Other Suns,” has written extensively about the great migration of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North in the 20th century. Those people, she said, were in many ways immigrants themselves -- despite moving within their own country.

“This is the only group of Americans that had to act like immigrants in order to be recognized as citizens,” she said. “And their dreams and their goals and-- and what they were leaving for and what they were hoping for is the same thing that any American that’s ever lived on this soil has wanted.”

Wilkerson said the country today needs to recognize its “shared humanity.”

“I think we’re very aware of the things that make us different,” she said. “I don’t think we realize enough what makes us the same and what makes us-- our hearts beat the same and the things that we want are so similar.”

  • Emily Schultheis

    Emily Schultheis is a reporter/editor for CBS News Digital.