The American Creed of Diverse Americans As Expressed Through Art

This essay is about how diverse Americans and Americans whose demographic have a history of oppression understand the American Creed. I investigated this question specifically by looking at pieces of art that were created by and on the topic of diverse Americans.

By Zoe R. from Royal Oak High School in Michigan

Art has always been a voice for those who are passionate in what they believe in. The Boston Massacre painting by Paul Revere (Image 1), political cartoons of Boss Tweed, symbolic monuments in Washington DC; these are all examples the utilization of art to express political beliefs or values. This genre of art can especially be seen among artists of diverse backgrounds. Murals and paintings of people fighting against or being oppressed by racism, sexism, homophobia, Anti Semitism, etc, can be seen in museums or graffiti-ed on brick walls all over the country. These art pieces express how these groups of people view America, and acknowledge the way those in America views them in return. They give a voice to those who have been silenced, ignored, and oppressed. Through art, these people are able to express their American Creed.

Although there may be many definitions of American Creed depending on the person, what is frequently understood as the “American Creed” are the freedoms that are available in the United States, the opportunities that are accessible to Americans, and how citizens of the US interpret these rights. There is a pattern that can be seen clearly among these works of art regarding this topic. One that is peculiar and confusing, but often overlooked. This pattern will do well to answer the question, "How do diverse Americans understand the American Creed?"

The first painting I analyzed and noticed this pattern in was the painting, "Shimomura Crossing the Delaware" (Image 2). This self-portrait of the Japanese artist, Roger Shimomura, is a re-creation of the famous painting, "Washington Crossing the Delaware" (Image 3), which features General George Washington crossing the Delaware River to ambush German Hessian soldiers during the Battle of Trenton. Washington is portrayed as a hero, his stance rigid and powerful as he stands on the edge of the boat. His inspiring pose makes Washington look like he is taking one step closer to freedom, and he radiates hope as a figure who promises to deliver that the American people. A ray of light peaks outs past the stormy clouds and lands on Washington and his men, illuminating them among the frozen and murky Delaware River. Although not noticeable at first, the painting also highlights how the American Revolution was a group effort by including African Americans, Scotsmen, and Native Americans in the boats alongside Washington. 

Roger Shimomura’s self-portrait is meant to express what the artist feels as an Asian-American. As someone who has been discriminated in the past, Shimomura is no stranger to racism. As a Japanese American, Shimomura was sent to internment camps during World War II along with millions of other innocent Japanese Americans. Interments camps are known for being one of the darkest times in history of Japanese discrimination in America, some even calling it hypocritical of America considering the war was against Nazi Germany. With this in mind, it is important to note how Shimomura portrays himself in the self-portrait. Despite his experiences in America, Shimomura is clearly proud to be an American from the painting. 

This is in sharp contrast to pieces of art such as “América Tropical” (Image 4), a series of murals by​ Mexican muralist and political activist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Siqueiros' murals emphasized the oppression that Mexican Americans faced in America, so explicitly so that they were painted over by the angry white community. America, represented by an eagle, is clearly being villainized in the mural.

​Roger Shimomura's self portrait addresses his oppression differently though. The waves that crash against Shimomura's boat could represent the racism he has faced in America, and he overcomes these challenges, his stance rigid and powerful just like Washington's.​ Instead of keeping the painting as solely Asian influence, Shimomura is not only portraying an American icon, but he is also holding an American, not Japanese, flag. Despite all the discrimination he has faced, the artist still proudly sees himself as an American. Perhaps Shimomura is portraying himself as Washington to show that he is a living example of a diverse American who has risen up against discrimination, and is a role model for Asian Americans as an artist worthy of the walls of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

In addition to this, even though this painting is heavily inspired by the original "Washington Crossing the Delaware", it is significant to note that their is also influence from old Japanese paintings in the way not only the water, but the people are drawn. The style is reminiscent of the well-known painting “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” (Image 5), which was painted in Japan in the Edo Period. This proves that even though the artist is patriotic, he has not been assimilated into Western culture. As my U.S. History teacher always said, America is a mixed salad, not a melting pot, and Shimomura points this out by not completely ridding the painting of his Asian roots and influence.

"Shimomura Crossing the Delaware" is not the only work of art that is a re-creation. Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur recreated Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” (Image 6), paintings made during the Great Depression based off of a speech made by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Congress. FDR’s speech was meant to convince the American people to provide more support to Great Britain as they faced World War II alone in Europe, with Germany’s fascist regime continuing to expand and conquer. This speech was given at a time when the policy of isolationism was in place in the United States, a policy in which supported miniscule participation in European wars and international conflicts in general. With this in mind, President Roosevelt urged Americans to support involvement in international politics in order to ensure what he believed to be the basic principles of American democracy everywhere, that being freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Although iconic and recognizable, it is quite obvious that these famous images do not completely reflect America as it lacks the diversity of American society. That’s where artists Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur step in. As Thomas said to TIME magazine, “‘[Rockwell] was one of the people who really shaped the iconography of America and our visual culture...There are a lot of people who are missing in those images,’” and so Shur and Thomas sought out to create a “varied cast [which] included Native Americans, trans people, immigrants, activists and many others, as they strove to find representatives of as many meanings of ‘American’ as possible.”

These re-creations (Images 7-10) reveal how diverse Americans value the same things as those who were represented in the original “Four Freedoms”. Like Roger Shimomura, despite being discriminated in the past, as the demographics who were largely included in the re-creations have at least some history of oppression in America, they’re still proud to be American because at the core of America lie these values. The Four Freedoms are praised among Americans because in a country that faces much political gridlock, differing views, and varying opinions, these basic human rights are one thing we as Americans can agree on. It doesn’t matter if you are white, African American, Asian, Middle Eastern or Hispanic. Everyone is entitled to freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear because they are rights we are ensured as humans, and this notion is the foundation of the American Creed.

Again I noticed this pattern of works of art that are recreated to include diverse people. These pieces, instead of holding an anger towards America and its dark past of discrimination, instead embrace American principles rather than resent those who wrongly warped these principles to apply only to straight white men. The values stemming from the Enlightenment Period of equality and political representation, including John Locke’s rights to life, liberty, and property, (or pursuit of happiness if you’re Thomas Jefferson), shaped our country into existence and sparked motivation in the patriots as they fought in the Revolution. The beautiful thing about America is that these principles were a part of America since its founding with the Declaration of Independence then Bill of Rights, and although they were originally limited to rich white plantation owners, American politics didn’t allow for that for long.

A fine example of this can be seen in the fight for suffrage. First starting with the women’s suffrage movement (Image 11) resulting in the 19th Amendment, then the McCarran-Walter Act granting suffrage for Asian Americans, then the Voting Rights Act of 1965, then the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 so those who fought in Vietnam had a vote, and so on. A right that was once reserved only for a few elites is now available to the majority of the US population as it should be. It is due to these underlying American values that the full extent of these rights were able to be applied to the rest of the American population.

The last paintings I analyzed were "Souvenir I" and “Souvenir II” by Kerry James Marshall (Image 12-13). These paintings are a memorial to those who were assassinated during the Civil Rights Movement and includes iconic African American activists such as Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X but what I found fascinating was that the painting included white activists as well.

Alongside the portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. are portraits of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. In addition to them, in the clouds one of the angels depicts Viola Liuzzo, who was shot by Ku Klux Klan while making her way home after participating in the Selma to Montgomery marches, and to this day is recognized as the only white woman killed during the Civil Rights Movement. Other white activists depicted in the clouds include Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

The fact that these Caucasian activists are recognized in this memorial is not what caught my eye. Of course these innocent people who were doing what they could to end segregation and racism are more than worthy of being honored for the work they did in their unfortunately short lifetimes. What I noticed is that these white activists are being depicted alongside African Americans in a way that makes them equal. Often there is a level of resentment towards white people in paintings that deal with racial discrimination, such as “América Tropical”, but in these paintings (including the ones I analyzed earlier in this essay) the artists don’t do that.

During the civil rights movement, some activists resented white people because of how there were supposedly the ones who were racist and worked to prevent the civil rights movement. They generalized white people and resented them because they could not understand the pain and struggle that African Americans had to go through living in America. Instead of resentment, Kerry James Marshall understands and promotes the need to work together. This painting recognizes the necessity and significance of white activists during the Civil Rights Movement. By putting people like Martin Luther King and the Kennedys on the same painting on equal levels show how they inadvertently worked together and died trying to reach the same goal of racial equality despite the Kennedy’s not facing that inequality themselves. This painting shows a perspective of diversity in America that doesn't put white people in a bad light and doesn't express white resentment similar to the other works of art by Shimomura, Thomas, and Shur.

How do diverse Americans understand the American Creed? It’s clear that diverse Americans recognize the dark past of America. Racial discrimination and segregation have left scars on our country that still continue to bleed to this day. As a diverse American myself, and the daughter of an immigrant, I remember every day that my life could have been without the American principles that allow me to live how I wish if I had grown up in the Philippines or if I had grown up in a different time. Nonetheless, I also remember that this country and its people have allowed justice to come forth and for equality and representation to be applied to all of its citizens, no matter the race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality. Personally, that’s one of the reasons I love American history, even if for most of it people who looked just like me were facing struggles that would be unimaginable to me now in this day and age. I imagine that’s why the diverse cast of the musical, “Hamilton”, play the characters they do even though in the past they were all white and some even slave owners.

The point is that diverse Americans understand that America is not perfect, nor has it ever been. What does shine through though are the ideals that have been the foundation of the American Creed; liberty, equality, individualism, political representation, the Four Freedoms etc. History has proven that America is capable of making progress to apply these rights to all of its citizens and that justice will prevail. We now look forward into the future to make even more progress in healing the long lasting scars that our nation’s history have left upon our country, yet never forgetting their existence. America's history is one rich in discrimination, but it is also one that is also plentiful in revolution and its citizens standing up for what is right and deserved. The trust of diverse people has been won by this very fact, and it is the reason why they stand today as people who are proud to call themselves American.

Royal Oak High School

AP Lang 2019

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