Essays

Rescuing Norman Rockwell’s Progressive Legacy from a Right-Wing Cartoonist

The artist was no reactionary. He was a staunch liberal and a strong believer in an inclusive country.

Over the past few days, a lot of attention has been paid to a recent cartoon that compares Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, to Ruby Bridges, the little girl who, in the face of a sustained campaign of violent threats, integrated a New Orleans grade school in 1960.

Drawn by a right-wing cartoonist named Glenn McCoy, the image is a parody of Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With” (1963). It depicts DeVos as Bridges and replaces a scrawled racial slur in the original with the word “conservative,” and “KKK” with “NEA” (for the National Education Association).

The absurdity of comparing a 59-year-old billionaire who was briefly inconvenienced on her way to a photo op with a six-year-old child whom racists threatened with death for the sin of attending kindergarten requires no explanation. But there’s another element of the story that’s a bit less obvious: the cartoon’s appropriation of Norman Rockwell.

President Barack Obama, Ruby Bridges, and representatives of the Norman Rockwell Museum view Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” hanging in a West Wing hallway near the Oval Office, July 15, 2011. Bridges is the girl portrayed in the painting. (official White House photo by Pete Souza, via Flickr)

Rockwell is mostly remembered as a sunny chronicler of small-town Americana. His Saturday Evening Post covers hang on the walls of countless old-timey diners and mid-market pediatricians’ offices. It’s this flat, nostalgic version of Rockwell — a #MAGA Rockwell — that McCoy is co-opting into his smug, cramped vision.

But Rockwell was no us-against-them reactionary. He was a staunch liberal and a strong believer in a progressive, inclusive America. His art was often far more pointed and challenging than is recalled today.

Rockwell’s most emotionally stark painting may be “Murder in Mississippi,” his evocation of the 1964 murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. Commissioned by Look magazine in 1965, it’s a nearly monochromatic rendering of a young man’s bravery and defiance in the face of death. But while “Mississippi” was a departure for Rockwell both aesthetically and topically, it brought forward threads that had been present in his work throughout his career.

Consider his series Four Freedoms, painted to accompany a set of 1943 Saturday Evening Post essays on the four freedoms — of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear — that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had identified in his 1941 State of the Union address as fundamental to human happiness and dignity.

The four freedoms. How appropriate for this weekend and the upcoming presidential swearing in.

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In Rockwell’s hands, “Freedom of Speech” is personified as a working man speaking his mind at a town meeting. “Freedom of Worship” depicts eight believers of different faiths in prayer, “each according to the dictates of his own conscience,” as the painting’s caption puts it. “Freedom from Fear” shows two parents putting their young children to bed, a moment of fragile peace in the shadow of a world at war.

The last of the Four Freedoms paintings is perhaps Rockwell’s most famous, portraying a gray-haired matriarch serving a turkey to her smiling, extended family at a long Thanksgiving table. Stripped of context, it reads as stereotypical Rockwell pablum, but its title, “Freedom from Want,” reminds us that the pull of such a scene is universal, while its reality is denied to far too many.

Rockwell understood that the idyllic America he depicted was fragile, and that its embrace didn’t extend to everyone. Later in his career he made that point with growing explicitness, as in the 1961 “Golden Rule,” which depicts people of a wide variety of ages, religions, and nationalities — everyone in the Four Freedoms series is a white American — standing shoulder to shoulder behind the phrase “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

That painting includes a young black girl, carrying schoolbooks and — unlike most of the work’s subjects — staring directly at the viewer. Rockwell was increasingly using race as a lens through which to sharpen his vision of America. In 1967’s “New Kids in the Neighborhood,” a classic Rockwell theme — the cautious but expectant meeting of two families’ children, simultaneously strangers and neighbors — is given an unmistakable racial charge.

In “New Kids,” it’s understood that the two black children are integrating a white neighborhood, and their fears — as well as their parents’ — lie just beneath the surface. The black girl’s pet cat squirms in her arms, ready to bolt at the sight of the white kids’ puppy. But small details — baseball gloves, pink bows, matching white sneakers — suggest that, despite the oldest children’s skepticism, friendships may be incubating.

“New Kids” is not a particularly subtle work, and it’s certainly vulnerable to charges of kitschiness. (It’s entirely fitting that Steven Spielberg, an artist with similar soft spots, is one of Rockwell’s most prominent collectors.) But the project of the piece isn’t to send a heavy-handed message so much as to explore Rockwell’s lifelong themes of community and interpersonal connection in a new context.

A striking fact of Rockwell’s civil rights paintings is their absence of villains. The racial attitudes of the white parents in “New Kids” must be inferred. The murderers of “Murder in Mississippi” are seen only as shadows cast by a car’s headlights. And Ruby Bridges’s antagonists in “The Problem We All Live With” appear only in the form of ugly graffiti and a thrown tomato sliding down a wall.

If Rockwell’s paintings depict America at its best, then the absence of racists from his explicitly “racial” work can be understood as a deliberate casting out, a banishment. Ruby Bridges is America, Rockwell is saying. Young men dying in each other’s arms for racial justice are America. These kids are America. What are you?

This question is particularly pointed in “The Problem,” which shows Ruby surrounded, front and back, by four white men: the federal marshals who are escorting her to school. The men, whose heads are purposefully cut off by the painting’s framing, are marching in lockstep, left foot forward, left hand back. Ruby’s feet aren’t in sync with theirs — she’s a little kid, after all, just walking to school — but if you look closely you can see that her right arm is, like theirs, bent slightly at the elbow, her right hand curled, like theirs, into a loose fist.

…never forget

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Ruby’s face is carefully blank. She’s not scared; she’s brave. Poised. She’s marching with the marshals, and they’re marching with her. They’re protecting her and helping her be brave.

But notice where Rockwell places us: we’re here outside the frame, standing where Ruby’s tormenters would be. The tomato on the wall could have been thrown by any of us. And so Rockwell asks the question: are you with Ruby? And if you’re not with Ruby, he wants you to know that he knows what you are.

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