“The Problem We All Live With” (1964) is arguably the best Norman Rockwell painting ever. It shows Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old black girl, walking to school – with four guards. It is 1960 in New Orleans. It is the first time a black child is going to an all-white grade school in the American South.
John Steinbeck was there. He wrote about it in “Travels with Charley in Search of America” (1962):
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.
But Ruby Bridges was not the main attraction:
The papers had printed that the jibes and jeers were cruel and sometimes obscene, and so they were, but this was not the big show. The crowd was waiting for the white man who dared to bring his white child to school.
When the white man and the white child arrived:
A shrill, grating voice rang out. The yelling was not in chorus. Each took a turn and at the end of each the crowd broke into howls and roars and whistles of applause. This is what they had come to see and hear.
No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted. It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene. On television the sound track was made to blur or had crowd noises cut in to cover. But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate. In a long and unprotected life I have seen and heard the vomitings of demoniac humans before. Why then did these screams fill me with a shocked and sickened sorrow?
The painting is about racism: Rockwell calls it “The Problem We All Live With”. Yet racism remains faceless. We do not see the faces of the white women shouting indelicate things. And neither Steinbeck nor the newspapers nor the television stations would let us know what they were.
While both Steinbeck and Rockwell clearly condemn racism, it is the racism of open hatred, the Klan-and-n-word sort of racism. Rockwell even has “KKK” and “nigger” written on the wall. Untouched is the racism common back north where they lived, the racism that created white flight, bad schools and high crime rates.
All the same, for Rockwell this picture was a huge step. It was like Nixon going to China or Walter Cronkite condemning the Vietnam War: Rockwell was so famous for painting whitewashed pictures of Apple-pie America, almost to the point of parody, that it made this picture that much more powerful. He even painted it in a more true-to-life style, yet it is still clearly Rockwellian.
The picture, currently in 2011, hangs in the White House, just outside President Obama’s office.
- Elizabeth Eckford – who went through the same thing as Ruby Bridges when high schools in the South desegregated three years before. Not painted by Norman Rockwell.
- Apple-pie America
- white flight
- Jim Crow racism
- colour-blind racism
- Twilight Zone: Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder – which first appeared on television three days before the scene in the painting took place