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"The Problem We All Live With": Thoughts About Rockwell's Painting

The Problem We All Live With done by Norman Perceval Rockwell is arguably the single most important image ever done of an African-American in illustration history. This piece is the most requested work at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. What makes this piece so monumental? Why is this piece so popular and even controversial? First and foremost, it was done by Rockwell, the pitchman for conservative imagery for almost fifty years.

“A painting like this depicting this subject matter, done by somebody who is embraced by the most conservative elements in our country would make these people stop and think that maybe there is a problem. And the problem is racism. Purely and simply.”-Murray Tinkelman, Chairman of the Hall of Fame Committee, Society of Illustrators

No other artist was as well known by the masses as Rockwell for forty-six years people looked forward to Rockwell’s perfect small town scenarios on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. All had grown to love Rockwell, as well as his art. He received mail by the bagfuls from adoring fans. "What a shock it must have been to open up Look Magazine and see a double-page spread with the words Norman Rockwell paints “The Problem We All Live With.” "The public, as well as the critics, must have been floored." Maureen Hart Hennessey points out with the Norman Rockwell Museum.

“What a shock it must of been for the Post as well.”

The African-American, for the first time in Rockwell's career, did not take a back seat in order to keep advertisers in a magazine. Norman Rockwell was released from the unwritten law that no blacks should be shown unless in subservient roles and the chains of artistic freedom where taken off in this piece. Norman Rockwell’s beloved and controversial painting will be the focus of this thesis.

My first introduction to this piece came in the early 1980s. Although as a small boy I had no clue what historical significance this piece held, my mother would take me to the public library to visit my favorite book, Norman Rockwell Artist and Illustrator by Thomas Buechner. This book, which proudly sits on my shelf today, contained a complete three-page fold out of this painting. Each time I saw this piece, I vividly remembered feeling sorry for this little girl. My mother, Linda Laird, told me recently while discussing this painting:

“ I could not look at this book without flipping through to see Rockwell’s painting of the little black girl getting tomatoes thrown at her. It is such a heart-provoking piece”

Much debate goes on regarding this most famous Rockwell image. Was the piece inspired by reported story of Ruby Bridges, or directly illustrated based on the words of John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley? In Ruby Bridges’ own book, Through My Eyes, several indicators lead me to believe Rockwell was all too familiar with this incident that took place at Franz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana. If this is the case then the wild notion by some in the academic community that Rockwell was actually saying the problem we all live with is the little girl or black people are the problem can be tossed out a window. Even the crazy idea that the white dress held some racist symbology will be dissolved upon this research.

If one educates himself about the historical events of 1960 the assumption could easily be made that Rockwell was simply illustrating a story, as he so powerfully did throughout his career. The main difference is the story illustrated here is bitterly hard-hitting and raw. It was not Rockwell’s all so familiar perfect America, but rather a one hundred and eighty-degree departure, as he depicts segregation and prejudice in its ugliest form. This reality is more provoking because he uses a harmless, innocent African-American child that just so happens to be wearing a white starched dress that most all children wore in the early 1960s.

On November 15, 1960, The New York Times reported: “Some 150 white, mostly housewives and teenage youths, clustered along the sidewalks across from the William Franz School when pupils marched in at 8:40 am. One youth chanted “Two, Four, Six, Eight, we don’t want to segregate; eight, six, four, two, we don’t want a chigeroo.”

“Forty minutes later, four deputy marshals arrived with a little Negro girl and her mother. They walked hurriedly up the steps and into the yellow brick building while onlookers jeered and shouted taunts.”

“The girl, dressed in a stiffly starched white dress with a ribbon in her hair, gripping her mother’s hand tightly and glancing apprehensively toward the crowd.”

Ruby Bridges in her award-winning children's book Through My Eyes writes: “The author John Steinbeck was driving through New Orleans with his dog, Charley, when he heard about the racist crowds that gathered outside the Franz school each morning to protest its integration. He decided to go see what was happening.”

“He especially wanted to see a group of women who came to scream at me and at the few white children who crossed the picket lines and went to school. (At this time, I didn’t know that there were other children in the building. We were kept apart.) The women were known as the Cheerleaders, and their foul language even shocked a man as worldly as Steinbeck.”

“I never met John Steinbeck, but he seemed to sympathize with what I was going through. He wrote about me in a book called Travels With Charley. Steinbeck left his dog and his truck in a parking lot. He didn’t want to take them to Franz, where his dog could get hurt or his car could get damaged. Instead, he took a cab. Fearing that protesters would wreck his car, the driver didn’t take Steinbeck all the way to the school, but left him a few blocks away.”

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“Steinbeck never knew my name. My name and the names of the girls at the McDonough school were never mentioned on television or in the newspapers. The press tried to protect us.”

John Steinbeck wrote: “The show opened on time. Sound the sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest negro girl you ever saw, dressed in shining starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white.”

“The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd, but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was, even more, a mite because the men were so big. Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first step, the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.” -Travels With Charley

One must wonder if Rockwell was influenced by these recorded incidents. He must have been. It would be hard to believe that the elements he shows are just coincidence. It also would be totally out of ignorance not to factor in this story of Ruby Bridges either from print or television, as inspiration.

Rockwell’s piece includes four marshals, a yellowish colored building, a little black child in a starched white dress, and the final detail of the bow in her hair. It would be fair, however, to say that Rockwell took artistic license and was able to take the given historical elements and mold them, into his own interpretation.

Just as Howard Pyle, who had in “the golden age” depicted historical events, Rockwell was America’s favorite storyteller and as show, his earliest concept was to depict the incident as it had happened with the little girl in a white dress and he never changed this. Why are the suits of the marshals not black or dark grey as they were at this time? Rockwell had to take the darkness away from them not only for effect but to pull off a good painting. It is obvious that Rockwell wants the emphasis to be on this little black girl and her story, not on the marshals. He uses an old trick used by his contemporaries to solve the problem. Murray Tinkelman states:

“The cropping of the marshals’ heads I think is inspired. These guys become symbols of all law enforcement and how law enforcement stands above racism.”

Norman Rockwell does not name the little girl, nor does he use a model that is a mirror image of Ruby Bridges, so yes, he was not one hundred percent accurate. I do, however, feel that he used Ruby Bridges story as his inspiration with no doubt in my mind. Rockwell might have died not even knowing the child’s name because it is said that they kept Ruby Bridges name out of there media to protect her. Travels With Charley cannot be found in the Rockwell library, so one may discredit the notion that he used this novel as inspiration. I conclude that he might have heard of the story on the news or read about the incident through the earlier excerpt from The New York Times.

Walter Cronkite reported the incident in 1960 for the evening news so the national coverage gave the American people, including Rockwell, all the horrible details. Including eggs being thrown by segregationalist housewives, words that were so bad that the sensors had to muffle the crowd noise and blot these hurtful, horrible words out of their coverage.

“No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted. It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene: On television the soundtrack was made to blur or had crown noises cut to occur. But, I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate." -John Steinbeck. Travels With Charley

To be so dead set on believing that Rockwell meant anything other than showing the terrible problem of racism in America in 1964 would mean you could not believe the story of Ruby Bridges and her plight four years earlier. Rockwell’s painting is probably the mostly widely used image in school books today as Mareen Hart Hennessay quoted earlier.

“One should note that it is not—necessarily—Norman Rockwell’s politics or religious views that are so often attacked or disdained. He was what in any milieu one would have to call ‘a decent man,’ and in many instances, courageous. His painting, The Problem We All Live With appeared on the cover of Look magazine on January 14, 1964. It infuriated some, heartened the hopes of others, shamed many, and was met with indifference or scorn by the Art Establishment. The Problem We All Live With strikes directly at the heart and exemplifies Rockwell’s hallmark approach: strong horizontals, close foreground, and, especially, telling details which draw the viewer into concluding a narrative, one orchestrated to move him. The perceptive viewer notes not only the confident posture and countenance of the young girl- her escorts are cropped and anonymous agents of the law -but the writ in the pocket of the advancing guard, the contrast of schoolbooks with the graffiti on the wall, the smashed tomato (the least of projectiles launched in those times). It is an approach common to centuries of fine art, emblematic and immediate. But Rockwell’s concern at this date is not doctrine, or delight: he stirs a decent empathy, a quietly powerful outrage.”

“Further, none in the Art echelons particularly condemn art when it scrapes the ‘political,’ at least, not if it supports their brand; nor are artists generally disdained for being ‘apolitical,’ which, in many senses, Rockwell was not. He was most assuredly a Constitutionalist, certainly by sentiment. (That latter term is important.).” -From The Norman Rockwell Museum Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People

I will conclude by again sighting these words by Dr. Manning Marable:

“It would be better to feel ourselves unsettled by the full truth of these historical horrors before we commend ourselves for having buried the past. As we peer into the unmarked graves of the ghosts that haunt America still, perhaps the path to peace lies not only in dreaming a better future for black children but in awakening white Americans to their own history . . . .” -“Along the Color Lines, White Supremacy in Dixie,” February 2000

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2009 Ken Laird Studios

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