What does it mean to be an American Hero?

Notions of American heroism have dominated our mindset from the very beginning of the nation.  Heroism comes with the ideals of American exceptionalism. While it is easy for most Americans to use the word in conversation, what does it actually mean to be an American hero?  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a hero is “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities” or “the central figure in an event, period, or movement.” (“Hero”)

Beyond present-day dictionary definitions, much of the writing on American heroes dates back to the 1950s and the 1990s.  In 1954, scholar Marshall William Fishwick, wrote American Heroes: Myth and Reality. This book is a painful version of explaining an image of an American Hero that is solely white and male.  While this was written over sixty years ago, most high school history textbooks are reflective of this white-centric definition of hero.

The 1990s brought a less white-centric definition of hero when the Los Angeles Times published a piece on the Qualities that Make an American Hero.  A sociology scholar stated, “An American hero is someone who has made a major impact on the country, with lasting cultural implications.” This is a more open definition of hero, but could still very well encompass only the political leaders of the country.  A representative from DC comics asserted that heroes often put the needs of their community before their own personal gains. (Olivo, “The Qualities that make an American Hero.”)

In contemporary scholarship, there has been very little discussion of what it means to be an American Hero. In 2009, Salem Press released a three volume series on American Heroes.  This project defines hero as “a person who has placed others above self, who has invoked courage to undertake difficult and risky endeavors in order to better the world for others, who has breached the minimum of what is expected to reach for what can be.” (Editors of the Salem Press, American Heroes).

Similar to the American Heroes series, this project seeks to bring the notion of an American Hero back into discussion by recognizing that not all heroes have to be white and male.  It recognizes that there are many people who have made a difference throughout history, who remain invisible from the national and educational landscape. This project defines an American Hero as someone who puts others needs before their own and has had a lasting cultural and social impact on the lives of Americans.  While this could include the many white politicians who made a difference on the foreign and domestic policies over the years, it focuses more on the everyday Americans who fought directly and faithfully for the justice of their community and society.

Project Mission

History Needs New Heroes seeks to reveal who gets presented as a “hero” in high school American history textbooks from 1945 to the present. Through close reading and content analysis of three recently published textbooks, this project identifies missing voices.  As a result, this project will write new narratives on American heroes that can inspire students to find stories that they can relate to in the present day

Project Audience

Our current culture and societal expectations in the United States today deemphasizes the need for education in the humanities. To that end, we see a more ignorant society in terms of understanding both the past and the present. This issue begins during one’s education in school. The research and results that emerge from this project are intended to help educators and students alike realize the discrepancies in people represented in textbooks. Further, this project aims for students to find Americans from the past that inspire them through the blog that will continue to write and rewrite the narratives of history’s heroes.


I am grateful for the feedback and support from Julia Flanders, Moya Bailey, Marty Blatt, Sarah Connell, and my peers in the Digital Humanities Certificate program and History Department at Northeastern University.

About the Author

Megan Barney is a recent graduate from Northeastern University with a Master’s Degree in Public History and a Certificate in Digital Humanites.

Megan is from Northern New York, and she graduated from Elmira College with Bachelor of Arts in History and American Studies. Throughout graduate school, she worked closely with digital exhibits at Northeastern University and as an educator at a historic site.