Sunday, 11 September 2016


Yesterday was Ruby Bridges' 62nd birthday. In 1960, when she was six years old, Ruby Bridges, escorted by US Marshals to protect her from angry and violent crowds of protesters, integrated her local elementary school in New Orleans. Her courage, and that of her parents, and their desire to get her a better education, the education she deserved, not the second-rate 'separate but equal' variety, stands still as an abject lesson to us all. And don't forget when this took place it was already six years after the US Supreme Court's decision in 'Brown vs Board of Education, Topeka Kansas' had made segregation officially a violation of the US Constitution.

There was a very nice article about Bridges on the facebook page A Mighty Girl (you can link to it here) which told the story well, and provided numerous links for more information, as it is designed as an educational tool for young people. Following just a few of those links would provide a real lesson for anyone who doesn't know of or indeed remember those events of almost 60 years ago. And it sheds some harsh light on the present day, and our lingering inability to inhabit a world of equality.

But I was struck by the fact that there was no mention in the Mighty Girl piece of Norman Rockwell's painting, titled 'The Problem We All Live With', which was done as a centerfold for Look Magazine in 1964, almost four years after Bridges' first day at school. I can't think of why there wasn't, because the painting conveys visually some important truths about that moment, a moment powerful enough to shock and shame an older white artist, considered to be the essence of middle American sensibility, up there in western Massachusetts. Look gave Rockwell certain freedoms he didn't have at the Saturday Evening Post; I remember noticing that at a retrospective at the Dulwich Picture Gallery a few years ago, and Rockwell used that freedom.

In the picture, Ruby is the only person whose face you see, she looks resolute and innocent, and is walking naturally, as a child would walk to school. The four marshals are walking stiffly, with determination and in step with each other. But they are out of step with Ruby, and it is her stride which defines the painting, not theirs. On the wall behind her is scrawled 'nigger': perhaps this is why Mighty Girl avoided the painting, but it's important to see that because it puts the horrific context of that day's events, and the world from which they grew, into its chilling context. There is also a stain on the wall from a tomato thrown at Ruby; the stain partially obliterates the letters KKK on the wall.

The writing on the wall, indeed the tomato, are most likely Rockwell's creations. He also makes a couple of changes: adding a fourth marshal, probably for the symmetry, and changing the school satchel which Ruby was holding with such a natural, off to school attitude into a more old-fashioned notebook and ruler, which emphasizes her preparation for learning, and seems to make simpler the whole idea of heading to school, like a one-room school house rather than a big school where parents refused to let their children sit in the same classes with Ruby.

It's a painting that looks awkward on the surface, but I believe that is deliberate, because Rockwell is trying to emphasize the awkwardness, the unnaturalness, of the situation: that US marshals should have to be there to allow a young girl to do what should be the most natural part of any young girl's life: going to school in her community and being educated for the best the world has to offer. It's a brilliant piece of art, worthy of the exceptional bravery of a six-year old girl in Louisiana, 1960.


james b chester said...

Interesting post. I agree with your take on the painting overall. For a generation it was as iconic as the photographs of Ruby Bridges. I did not know that it was painted four years later.

I guess it should be said that Look chose to have a white artist do this spread when there were many black American artists working at the time who could have done something just as good. That may be part of why it was left out of the commemorations. I don't know. There was no graffiti on the school walls in any of the photographs I have seen, though words were surely spoken.

There is a fascinating interview with the people involved, including Ruby Bridges that you can get from the BBC Witness program if you google their site. It's just 11 minutes or so. It's still quite a story.

Michael Carlson said...

There may have been many artists, black (I think of the Dillons) and white, you might have dont something 'just as good'. None of them would have had the impact of a Norman Rockwell in Look magazine. Rockwell painting the image of America Americans believed they saw: thus they could not ignore this...that Rockwell added the graffiti merely shows how much impact he sought.

Anonymous said...

Off topic Mike but are you doing the Friday Morning Tight End column this season ?

Michael Carlson said...