American Identity – What Does It Mean to Be American?
American Identity – What Does It Mean to Be American?

David Anthony Geary’s mural, American Identity, currently on view at the Keller Center, is a visual story of the immigration journey to the US, annotated with Geary’s reflections on the aspirations and risks, assimilation and transformation that define the journey.

By choice or by force
They came for
Opportunity
Love
Work
Sanctuary
Freedom
Education
Curiosity
A chance at something different
By choice or by force
They became
Us

As Geary notes, immigrants do not always define themselves, first, as Americans. Many immigrants and their descendants continue to reference their nation of origin when they describe themselves. They are Irish Americans, Italian or Mexican Americans, Iranian, Indian or Chinese Americans. Cultural rituals and memories that immigrants bring, such as foodways, survive geographic distance and take root in new surroundings, and enable newcomers to retain a connection with their origins. In a country created solely by people from other places—since indigenous peoples of North America define themselves as a distinct, separate nation—becoming ‘American’ is always evolving in ways re-defined by the newcomers, the others.  Immigrants step into a dance with native-born Americans, an ongoing cycle of “them” becoming “us.” 

From "American Identity"

Drawn on repurposed black chalkboard with liquid chalk, American Identity has the feel, not of a didactic lesson, or a permanent record, but an exercise in charting a course, a narrative equation continually being presented with new elements, that will have to be erased and replaced with the next idea or problem to be worked out; a process, ideally, that has no end point.

The first chalkboard mural Geary created for the Keller Center, for its opening in May 2019, was titled Great Migration, about the journey of nearly six million African Americans from the second decade of the 20th century to the early 1970s, who left the American South for urban centers in the North, Midwest, and West. The piece was a companion to his Great Migration series of portraits, several of which currently line the facing wall of the Center. Midway through the year, Harris COO Misho Ceko asked Geary to create a new mural for the wall, with the theme “American Identity.” 

The Adventurer
"The Adventurer," part of the Great Migration series.

“I love problem solving,” Geary says. He sees his work as a political, and deeply personal process, and strives, not to entertain, but to engage his viewers in a thoughtful exercise that reveals new understanding—in this case, of how we see and define ourselves. “I researched American identity. Waves of immigration. Why and how people come here. First people came in boats; then airplanes… More than half of what, today, is the US, was Mexico. Borders are imaginary lines created to separate ourselves from others… American identity is really more a state of mind than a piece of land or shared history.”

What is the identity of a place composed entirely of people whose ancestors arrived from other places? American identity, Geary offers, is the process of becoming an American, becoming part of this striving, pioneering force; of defining oneself by one’s journey, one’s struggles to adapt, maintain, integrate and assimilate—or not.

The Free Spirit
"The Free Spirit," part of the Great Migration series.

The eight Great Migration portraits on the facing wall, painted on Philippine mahogany doors, create a companion story of the search for a new identity. As described by Isabel Wilkerson in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,the Great Migration was “the first mass act of independence by a people who were in bondage in this country far longer than they have been free.” When he initiated the project in 2017, it presented a different challenge for Geary.

“The Great Migration project was my first historical project. The question I had to ask was how to do historical images because this was my first time doing third-hand storytelling—storytelling about people I had not met.” 

The figures in the portraits are representations of photographs Geary collected, mostly from family and friends. They document the emergence of an era, when Brownie cameras became affordable and available to working people, and families began to chronicle, and celebrate, their own histories. Using a digital projector, Geary traced the outlines of individuals in the photographs onto the doors. After carefully studying their expressions and poses, he named them as archetypal figures who redefined the country, not by external influence, but from within: a history of injustice that needed, and still needs, to be reckoned with and righted. The materials give the pieces context and contrast; the wood gives them warmth and a sense of familiarity; the sepia-colored acrylic paint has the feel of being etched into place with heat—the fire of experience that lends authority to each archetypal image. Geary used the doors because they were available and inexpensive, but they have come to take on their own symbolism of an opening to new place and new possibilities.

The figures memorialized by Geary—the Airman, a Tuskegee Airman; the Healer, a WWI nurse; and the Adventurer, Dreamer, Free Spirit, Scholar, Protector, and Quiet One—are ranged as a panoply of heroes who, as they defined themselves, redefined America. Each is accompanied by the presence of a bird—a blackbird, raven, or crow, animal totems that heighten the power of their universal quest for freedom through flight.

 As a people forcibly brought to this country, whose identity and individuality were violently suppressed when they were cast as chattel during centuries of legal slavery, and then rigidly defined and controlled by the South’s Jim Crow caste system in the century following the Emancipation Proclamation, the figures portrayed in the portraits wrested and claimed these identities for themselves in an act of profound personal and political liberation—a very American ideal. 

In the current political climate, American stories celebrating courageous seekers of liberty and opportunity, who leave home and comfort to establish new lives of freedom and dignity, have been turned inside out, Geary notes, into tales fueled by fear of invaders—dangerous, unworthy opportunists who, “are either coming to take our jobs or coming to freeload.”

The Statue of Liberty depicted in American Identity, who holds the welcoming lamp, symbolizes the illumination of guidance toward one’s destination. There is a parallel, internal illumination of inner awakening to who we are and how we define ourselves. Geary’s work highlights the importance of keeping that lamp, that flame, alive.