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Amon Carter Asks: What’s It Mean To Be American?

As we celebrate Independence Day this week, we also celebrate our American identity. But what does it mean to be an American? That’s a question posed by a new exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. And the answers vary wildly. [Video by Willow Blythe]

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The exhibition is called “We the People: Picturing American Identity.” It uses paintings, sculpture, photographs and other pieces from the Carter’s collection to see how artists have captured the country’s changing face.

In the oldest works – from the late 18th Century – it’s mostly white men with their powdered wigs. But by the late 20th Century, women and immigrants have a place at the table, too.

“What’s wonderful in the exhibition is that you have more than 200 years of American artmaking,” says  Margi Conrads, the Carter’s deputy director of art and research. “And through all of those images and across media … you can see not just who during different time periods was considered American, but also, who might have been left out.”

Wind your way through the four galleries that house the exhibition and you end up at a small work station. Your task: Define what it means to be an American.

The walls around the station are filled with dozens and dozens of white notecards hung on tiny hooks. And on each card, visitors old and young have written about being an American.

A common theme is liberty.

“I wrote a comment from Lord Acton,” says Travis Hester of Justin, who was visiting the exhibition with his family. “‘Liberty is not the freedom to do what we want but the right to do what we ought.’ … It’s not that we all have to agree, but we have a standard by which we treat each other when we don’t. I think you see a full range of those comments on the wall right here.”

Which was true of the cards on display last week. Some people used their cards to debate with other visitors’ cards about things like the role of government in our lives. In a time when online comments sections for news stories devolve into name-calling and flame wars, the comment cards at the Carter remained surprisingly civil.

“It means struggle,” says Payton Anderson of Fort Worth. “Always fighting for something. Freedom, equality, no matter who you are. Race, gender, class – that’s what America is.”

Anderson was visiting the Carter a few days after the Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Her friend, Vittoria Arnold, who’s African American, says the news affected the way she looked at the images on display.

“It would be so different if this was last week, but obviously just because that’s fresh, that’s the first thing on my mind.”

Which Arnold reflected in what she wrote on her notecard.

“I said to ‘always remember the past to improve the present’.”

Not all of the comment cards were filled with such deep thoughts. One said being American meant, “Being stubborn and a little overweight.” On another, someone had drawn pictures of dinosaurs and aliens – whatever that means.

And one referenced a series of photos near the end of the exhibition. They were taken at Woodstock and capture Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix among other performers.

So what does it mean to be an American?

On the card was simply written, “Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeamin guitars!”

Finally something we can all agree on.