Tag Archives: American Indians

Like a Norman Rockwell Painting: Freedom, Justice, and Children’s Literature

This week, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that has always been about more than a harvest feast or festival.  Both in its root (and somewhat mythic) origins as a celebratory meal between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people at Plymouth Plantation, and in its nationalization as a federal holiday during the Civil War, Thanksgiving in the US is meant to encourage Americans to think about unity.  There are two main images Americans conjure up during this time of year.  The first is a picture of the “first Thanksgiving” showing happy pilgrim women carrying historically unlikely food and serving equally happy Wampanoag people.  It is an image which, in my own childhood, led to many a school “feast” of dry cornbread and koolaid consumed while wearing paper pilgrim “hats” or construction paper-feather headdresses.  (I’m told they don’t do this anymore, and yet a quick internet check shows several “teacher” websites touting the “fun” of wearing feather headdresses.  One even suggests adding gold sparkles, perhaps to recall the reason that Columbus and his men led a genocide of native Caribbeans.)


Where’s my construction paper pilgrim hat? Charles Schulz’s version of the first Thanksgiving, with smiles all around and historical inaccuracies aplenty.

The other popular image of Thanksgiving, however, is more modern.  It comes from the painter Norman Rockwell, and was a part of a series that Rockwell did for The Saturday Evening Post in 1943 based on a speech by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The speech, and the paintings, are called the “Four Freedoms” because they illustrate freedoms that Roosevelt hoped a post-war world would embrace: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  The “Thanksgiving” image is Rockwell’s depiction of Freedom from Want, set in his very white American Vermont town.


This image captured white Americans dream of Thanksgiving unity during wartime.

In fact, all of Rockwell’s freedoms paintings depict white Americans, because these were his neighbors—but also, perhaps, because of where he published. According to a special exhibition on Google Arts and Culture produced in coordination with the Norman Rockwell Museum, “In an interview later in his life, Rockwell recalled having been directed to paint out a black person out of a group picture because ‘Saturday Evening Post’ policy at that time allowed showing black people only in service industry jobs” (https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/ogKyOs7llcWMIg). Rockwell did go on to paint three important Civil Rights Era paintings, most notably “The Problem We All Live With” based on Ruby Bridges’ integration of a New Orleans elementary school. But his lasting image of Thanksgiving continues to remind us of who had access to freedom in 1943.


But Rockwell knew that not all Americans had the freedoms white Americans took for granted, even twenty years after his Four Freedoms paintings. This depiction of Ruby Bridges was published in Look magazine in 1964.

This past March, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Rockwell “Four Freedoms,” Smithsonian magazine had four artists reimagine the paintings for today’s America.  I was particularly interested in the revisioning of Freedom from Fear.  In the original painting, the parents of two small children watch them sleep.  The father is holding a folded newspaper with the words “bombing” and “horror” visible, but no immediate visible threat faces the family.  The revision shows a migrant family in a detention camp, posed exactly as Rockwell’s family is, but with the very clear visible threat of a barred window and guards with guns and dogs.  Rodriguez wanted to use his painting to push Americans to consider their view of migrants and refugees, an idea one reader, a retired immigration officer, called, “despicable” (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/magazine/apr_col-discussion-180968411/).


Images from Smithsonian magazine’s re-visioning of Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear (on the left) by Edel Rodriguez (right), once a Cuban refugee himself.

But Rodriguez is a migrant himself, having come from Cuba on the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 at the age of nine.  He and his family came to the US with nothing but the clothes on their backs, the rest having been confiscated by the Cuban government.  Although Rodriguez says he was “warmly welcomed” upon their arrival in the US, he spent time in a Cuban detention camp before their departure.  And when he looks at America now, he says, “I’ve sometimes strained to differentiate my adoptive country from the dictatorship I fled. Violence at political rallies, friends watching what they say (and noting who is in the room when they say it) and a leader who picks on society’s weakest — this has felt all too familiar. I began making art about what I saw, to bear witness” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/opinions/2017/08/25/i-fled-despotism-in-cuba-now-im-fighting-it-in-america/?utm_term=.892f5588276f).  His controversial magazine covers depicting Donald Trump (in one, beheading the Statue of Liberty) have gained him notoriety.


Like Rockwell’s and Rodriguez’s depictions of Freedom from Fear, Rodriguez’s illustration of Sonia Sotomayor as a child shows her sleeping. She has a smile on her face because she knows her mother, though poor and a migrant, can still offer her opportunity in America.

While Rodriguez’s art is designed to bear witness to the America he believes in, not all of it is controversial.  He also illustrates children’s books, and one in particular that I want to highlight combines his passion for social justice with his depiction of the immigrant struggle in America.  Jonah Winter’s Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx (Atheneum 2009) has a title which recalls Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—another immigrant family story published in 1943, the same year as Norman Rockwell’s paintings.  Winter’s story tells of a girl born in New York who did not have the same freedoms as those people in the Norman Rockwell paintings.  Winter talks about Sotomayor’s childhood economic poverty, but Rodriguez balances what could be a gloomy text with illustrations that show a little girl secure in the love of her mother.  Sonia looks more like the Norman Rockwell children in Freedom from Fear than the children in Rodriguez’s revision.  Sotomayor’s background of poverty made her a compassionate judge: “She had seen things most other judges had not.  People she’d grown up with had gone to jail.  People she’d grown up with were poor” (n.p.).  But she never would have become the passionate judge she became without her mother protecting her and working to ensure her freedom to be anything she wanted to be.  Just as Norman Rockwell’s Freedoms paintings contrasted America as it should be with his later Civil Rights paintings of America at its worst, Edel Rodriguez’s Rockwell revision and depiction of Sonia Sotomayor’s childhood shows the fear and promise of the American immigrant experience.  Both artists are asking Americans to choose the America that they want to embrace, and hoping that they choose love over fear.

Let’s Find out About Indians—or not, as the case may be

In the past week, several Navajo actors walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s film, commissioned by Netflix, “The Ridiculous Six.” The film, meant to be a parody of cowboy movies such as “The Magnificent Seven,” contains characters named “Beaver Breath” and “Wears no Bra” and takes broad liberties with costumes and traditions of the Native people who, in the film, are supposed to be Apache. The Native actors were told that the film would not be racist, but when they complained, they were told that it was a comedy and that “If you are overly sensitive about it, then you should probably leave” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3058283/New-footage-shows-producer-Adam-Sandler-comedy-tell-Native-American-actors-leave-movie-set-overly-sensitive-racist-jokes.html). The actors did leave, not because they were “overly sensitive” but because they were tired, as one actor put it, of being treated like “Hollywood Indians” again.

It is not news to hear that Hollywood depicts Indians in a racist manner. They have been doing so since Hollywood was Hollywood. But (perhaps naively), I was surprised that it was someone from my generation (Sandler is a couple of years older than me) who still thought that having any Indian smoking a peace pipe (whether urinating while doing it or not) was funny . . . and not racist. Sandler makes many of the same choices that earlier directors do—conflating different tribes, using stereotypical images, and belittling Native women. What’s funny about Indians, according to Sandler, is their inherent drunkenness, ridiculous customs and hair styles, and their inability to communicate with white people.

The fact that Indians in Sandler’s film are being seen through the eyes of white Americans, however, is the very crux of the problem. It is why Sandler does not see his film as racist, because he is starting with the “norm” or “status quo” as a white male and highlighting and exaggerating the differences between the “normal” culture and that of Indians. This is comedy—but it is also popular culture, or at least it certainly was during the time period that Sandler and I were growing up. In the 1970s, the only time I encountered living Indians was at the state fair or in a commercial about pollution which was replayed constantly during afternoon cartoons. We knew it as the One-Tear Indian commercial. (You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7OHG7tHrNM.) Children’s books about Indians were similarly not for Indians, but for white readers. Some were “informational” and some were fiction (always historical fiction, never contemporary), but almost all replayed the stereotypes of Hollywood movies, even when trying to be sincere. Two books, both published within ten years of Sandler’s birth, can showcase the attitudes toward Indians in children’s books of the time.

The first is an informational book for beginning readers, Let’s Find Out About Indians (1962), part of the “Let’s Find Out” series by Martha and Charles Shapp which used limited vocabularies to introduce various nonfiction topics to children. Just the title of this book tells a lot about attitudes toward Indians at the time. Other books in the series talked about scientific topics, such as the sun or electricity; if they focused on people, it was in terms of their jobs, such as Let’s Find out About Policemen (1962) or because they were famous, as in Let’s Find out About Christopher Columbus (1964). “Indians” fit into neither of these “people” categories; they are not individualized, and nor is it a profession to be an Indian. They are therefore, presumably, to be classed in the nature of scientific topic. Reading the book confirms this, as it is an anthropological look at the generalized “Indian” of the past. Although the Shapps’ text does suggest that “There were many different Indian tribes” (4) and note some of the different customs and traditions of a few (difference in housing styles, for example), no individual tribes are named. The book does attempt not to entirely exoticize the Indian by showing similarities between the reader and the Indian (“Indian girls played with dolls”), but the fact that the intended reader is a white, middle-class child is emphasized by the book’s final pages. “No matter where you live,” the text suggests, “Indians lived there before you” (40). The illustration accompanying the page, by Peter Constanza, shows two children standing hand-in-hand in front of a picket fence, behind which is a suburban house and the outline of an Indian woman with her baby in front of a tipi. The children appear somewhat startled, but they should be reassured by the fading outline of the Indian and her home: Indians are part of the past.

Have no fear, kids--your forefathers did the ethnic cleansing for you.

Have no fear, kids–your forefathers did the ethnic cleansing for you.

Most if not all fiction of the time about Indians was historical fiction, and generally was set not only in the past, but in a specific past: the period of Euro-American westward expansion. In other words, like the informational books, it was really about white perceptions of Indians rather than about or for Indians. These books were not just published, but promoted to (white) children as examples of good ways to learn about history. In 1975, for example, the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club made a story by Evelyn Sibley Lampman a club selection. The author’s note for the book stresses that Lampman grew up around Indians, and that her father “was very sympathetic with the Indians and their problems, a rare thing in those days” (133). But the title and cover for the book tell a very different story:

A good history lesson?

A good history lesson?

Lampman may have been taught sympathy for the Indians and their “problems,” but the focus of her book is the terror of “innocent” white girls and the brutal violence they face among the Apaches and later Mohaves who capture and “enslave” them. The book is based on the diary of one of the captives, though Lampman changed events to suit her narrative. When Olive Oatman’s family first encounters the Indians, there is not even a discussion (as there is in the Little House books, for example) about who owns the land. “‘They must be Apaches,’ said Lorenzo. ‘Shall I get the gun?’” (White Captives 10).

As long as we teach children that Indians are historical subjects to be studied rather than individuals who live now—maybe somewhere near you!—then there will continue to be Adam Sandlers who do not see it as offensive to belittle them. Let’s find out about Indians—but let’s do it in a way that respects them.

Missteps: The Truth about Racing Together

Last week, two attempts to “start a discussion about race” failed miserably. In the United States, the country’s best-known premium coffee chain, Starbucks, asked its baristas to initiate discussions about race with customers by writing “Race Together” on coffee cups and asking the customers to talk about their experiences. And in the UK, former head of the Commission for Racial Equality under Tony Blair and well-known Black British broadcaster Trevor Phillips presented a documentary entitled “Things We Won’t say about Race—That are True” on Channel 4. Both caused media firestorms. Starbucks was ridiculed on social media (with, for example, the Twitter hashtag “Black Coffee Matters”), and criticized for putting pressure on mostly young, mostly white baristas to initiate these “conversations.” Phillips has been excoriated by members of the Black British community (and embraced by the Daily Mail) for presenting truths such as “most black murder victims in Britain are killed by other black people” without adding “as are most white murder victims killed by white people,” or for his assertion that “Pakistanis were responsible for the systematic abuse of teenage girls in Rotherham” without saying “white people in power looked the other way while Jimmy Savile sexually abused hundreds of children over decades.”

The problem with both these efforts was not that they wanted to talk about something which has clearly become a central issue for many people in both the US and the UK. Frank and open discussion about problems is indeed the only way for people, communities, and nations to move forward without violence. The problem was that both Starbucks and Trevor Phillips wanted to talk about “race” as a uniquely definable entity, as something that “causes” you to act a certain way or feel left out of a conversation. Identities are complicated by all kinds of issues, racial and ethnic and gender and religious and sexual and familial and generational and economic issues, just to name a few. Simplifying the conversation to a single one of these concepts may put a spotlight on that issue, but it can also lead to misunderstanding and trivializing of people and their concerns.

Can elephants teach us about racism?

This kind of oversimplification happens all the time in children’s literature, since writing about complex ideas in a few short words is a near-impossible task. It is also complicated when the group in power is writing about ways to solve the problem.  Darren Chetty, a critical race philosopher at the Institute of Education in London, has written about how David McKee’s texts Tusk, Tusk and Elmer have been recommended as good starting points for discussing racism with children—but which (by virtue of distance from real people and their histories and issues) often reinforce the status quo and preference certain voices and solutions to problems over others (http://www.academia.edu/7945738/THE_ELEPHANT_IN_THE_ROOM_PICTUREBOOKS_PHILOSOPHY_FOR_CHILDREN_AND_RACISM).

Similarly, a book like Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace argues that its main character, Grace, can be anything she wants to be despite her gender and race. Struggle (against economic difficulties, against institutional opposition, for example) is not really a part of the story. Grace, like a neighbor’s daughter from Trinidad who has become a prima ballerina, succeeds in an artistic production designed and initiated by Europeans, and everyone applauds her ability to integrate. Initially, she is told by her classmates that she can’t be Peter Pan because she is black and female. Grace does not protest the selection of the story for a multiracial classroom (no mention is made of who will play Tiger Lily in the production, thus avoiding the difficult racial issues that are actually inherent in Barrie’s classic). In fact, she works hard to earn her place in it. And yet, why should she protest the choice of play? Grace spends her life pretending to be characters in stories—characters from European tradition, such as Dick Whittington, or characters interpreted through European eyes, such as Hiawatha or Mowgli. Although she also pretends to be Anansi, most of her story characters in this and other Grace books are European. When she goes to visit her father in Boundless Grace, for example, she takes only a book of (European) fairy tales with her to Africa, and complains that her own family has not turned out like the endings of fairy tales. She has been brought up believing in a world of white privilege, and it is unsurprising that she wants her life to match what she reads in her stories. Grace’s teacher values and supports literature approved as “classic”; although she welcomes new faces, she does not seek out new voices. Grace must adapt herself to the world in which she finds herself; it will not adapt itself to her.

Grace adapts herself to the approved way of “going native.” Illustration by Caroline Binch.

As long as we keep trying to present human divisions through simple narratives that tell a single-focused side of a story, we will fail. Hoffman’s and McKee’s books are not bad picture books—in fact, they are award-winning and satisfying stories. I like them, and have read them to my children’s literature students and to my own child. But because of their simplified focus and easy solutions, they are as unlikely to change attitudes about racial issues as Starbucks or Trevor Phillips. Kids need multiple examples of the kinds of conflict that people face; we need books, in addition to the Hoffman and the McKee stories, which question the status quo. These don’t have to be books about racism (or sexism, or any other kind of ism). The real truth about ‘race’ that we don’t want to talk about is that although race is an arbitrary construction (we could be focused on all number of things—blue eyes versus brown, or height, or blood type), the history behind racial division on our planet is real and continues to have consequences in the daily lives of people everywhere. We cannot forget that long and painful history—nor reduce people to a single aspect of their existence. We cannot race together until we take a lot of baby steps first.