Tag Archives: Civil Rights

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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/).

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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.

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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.

The Old African(-American): In Memory of Julius Lester

Julius Lester came to children’s literature via Harlem, folksinging, and the Civil Rights Movement.  Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1939, by the early 1960s he was in New York City, singing songs of lynching (“See How the Rain Falls”) at rallies for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).  “I wasn’t big for going on demonstrations and being thrown in jail and this-that-and the other, but music was . . . a gift that I had to offer” he says, in a PBS documentary about him (https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=julius+lester+folk+singer&&view=detail&mid=668197C7D071911BC204668197C7D071911BC204&rvsmid=07E8F3E12C66EFF8984207E8F3E12C66EFF89842&FORM=VDQVAP).  In 1964, he took his songs to the south (his “freedom songs,” he called them).  In 1965, he returned to look for old blues singers on behalf of the Newport Folk Foundation.  But he didn’t think the photographer who came with him understood what to look for, and Lester began taking his own photographs.

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SNCC asked him to document civil rights movements in the south, and Lester did—although I wonder if SNCC got what they expected.  Lester’s photographs focus on the reality of life in the south, and the people who had to live those realities.  Whereas photographs of sit-ins and marches may have gotten all the attention, I find myself drawn to a photograph Lester took in Selma, Alabama in 1966.  The photograph shows an African-American woman walking past a white Chevrolet with a bumper sticker proclaiming the single word, “WALLACE”.  The bumper sticker, whether purposefully or accidentally, has a rip in it.  (You can see the photograph here: http://www.profotos.com/pros/index.cfm?member=565). Lester wanted people to hear the words and see the lives of African-Americans clearly.

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Lester’s versions of the Brer Rabbit stories used a mix of African-American dialects to give voice to these trickster tales originating from enslaved Americans.

His early work led to him wanting to write about Black History for children, to tell the stories and give voice to the people he met and sang about.  While his first book, To Be A Slave (1968) was historical, he turned to telling the stories he had heard growing up.  But he quickly realized that many of the stories he remembered had been mediated in print through white authors, such as Joel Chandler Harris.  The invented dialect that authors like Harris used to represent African-Americans often made the characters seem uneducated; but more than that, Lester knew that these characters did not speak like African-Americans—not the ones he knew in the south or the north.  So he reclaimed the stories, by retelling them.  He put in jokes that modernized the stories (talking about washing machines) or familiarized them to a new generation.  In “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby,” when Brer Fox is going to barbecue Brer Rabbit, Brer Rabbit takes the time to opine, “If you got to go, go in a barbecue sauce.  That’s what I always say.  How much lemon juice and brown sugar you put in yours?” (15).

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In Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, the titular character is frightened and gives away his clothes to save his skin.

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But in Lester’s version, Sam is always in charge of the situation–even when he gives away his possessions, the reader knows he will get the upper hand in the end.

Lester performed similar reclamations with other stories that had been seen as racist texts that caricatured children of African descent.  Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (1900) is a folktale-like story in which Sambo is terrified by tigers who take his clothes; he only regains power (and his clothes) when the tigers are too busy to notice him.  Lester rewrote the story as Sam and the Tigers, with pictures by Jerry Pinkney. Although the basic plot is the same, Lester does not depict his protagonist as cowering or weak.  When a tiger threatens to eat him, Sam counters, “If you do, it’ll send your cholesterol way up . .  . You could be the first Tiger smart enough to carry an umbrella” (Sam and the Tigers n.p.).  Although both stories are called trickster tales, only Lester’s version has a true trickster character, one who uses his brain to talk the tiger into something different than what he wanted.

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Bob Lemmons was something of a wild horse himself, living alone and free. But he was one of the best Mustang-tamers in the west because of his persistence.

In addition to folktales, Lester produced (also with his friend Jerry Pinkney) stories of legendary African-Americans (such as that steel-driving man, John Henry) and of the historical realities of African-Americans.  His historical stories, including Black Cowboy, Wild Horses and The Old African are, like his photographs, not about the famous, the celebrity, the well-known, but about ordinary people who struggled.  Black Cowboy, Wild Horses concerns a former slave who becomes a legendary tamer of mustangs in Texas, Bob Lemmons.  Lemmons was well-known in part because he persisted, and in part because (unlike most mustang-tamers) he worked alone.  Lester’s story embraces this strength and persistence against the odds.  Similarly, in The Old African, the titular character “had learned that enduring was a power too” (46) and because of his patience and endurance, he is able to provide visions and relief for slaves who are brutalized by the plantation owner and by a system that ripped them from their homelands in Africa.  Based on a story from coastal Georgia, Lester manages to combine the historical reality of slavery within the confines of mythical storytelling (the slaves, under the leadership of the Old African, walk into the sea and return to Africa over the bones of their ancestors).  His stories give voice and vision to African-Americans, and salutes their courage and persistence through struggle.  Lester made the ordinary person a hero, and gave those historically neglected a central role in his stories, photographs and songs.  His vision and voice will be greatly missed in children’s literature.

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Lester gave voice to the voiceless, and his vision will live on beyond him.

Panther Cubs? The Black Panthers and Children’s Literature

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This week, Artlyst announced that Tate Modern will be holding a summer exhibition on the art of American Black Power (http://www.artlyst.com/previews/american-black-power-explored-new-tate-summer-exhibition/). Tate Britain’s display of photographs, Stan Firm Inna Inglan, has already begun (http://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain/display/walk-through-and-spotlight/stan-firm-inna-inglan-black-diaspora-london), and the photograph used on the website about the exhibition by Colin Jones has the phrase Black Power prominently displayed. It is a pity that these two exhibitions are not more obviously linked, but the artistic and cultural adult world in general has been thinking back to the Black Power/Black Panthers era with increasing frequency (including a recent programme on Sky on the British Black Panthers). Children’s literature on the other hand, as I’ve pointed out in other blogposts, tends to avoid images of violence or aggression, especially if either is directed toward the dominant white power structure. So while photos of white people shouting at young African-Americans going to school or police officers threatening Black citizens are common in children’s books about this era, pictures of Black people taking control of a situation aggressively are not. In fact, most recent children’s books that include the Black Panthers go out of their way to take the claws out of the cat, as it were.

Colin Jones The Black House, 571 Holloway Road, London 1976, printed 2012 Tate. Gift Eric and Louise Franck London Collection 2016 © Colin Jones Digital Image courtesy of Autograph ABP  Photo by Colin Jones.

As with books about more radical individuals in the Civil Rights and Black Power era, such as Malcolm X and Claudia Jones, there aren’t many that exclusively address the Black Panthers. In fact, try this fun game: type “Black Panthers” into Amazon’s children’s book search (US or UK) and see what comes up. Yes, there are more books about the animal than there are about the movement—a lot more. I went to the library to see if perhaps I could find older books. Most books in the section about African-Americans started with slavery and ended with civil rights (minus the Black Panthers/Black Power) with nothing much inbetween, as if African Americans ceased to exist in the hundred years between the two periods. Civil Rights book covers were telling; the most common cover image for these books was of African-Americans singing, often as part of a multiracial and harmonious group. To be acceptable, Black people must generally appear to be non-threatening to white people.

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Civil rights is often portrayed as harmonious–literally–in children’s lit.

Some of the books on Civil Rights do mention Black Power or the Black Panthers, but carefully. Casey King’s and Linda Barrett-Osborne’s Oh, Freedom! Kids talk about the Civil Rights Movement with the people who made it happen (Scholastic 1998), which also has a cover illustration of singing African-American children, nonetheless includes a remarkably frank exchange between Menelik Coates and his former Black Panther father Paul. Menelik begins by asking his dad if he was “in charge of all the guns”; his father is quick to respond that Black Panthers “rarely carried guns openly” although they did have them in their homes, and that the main focus was uplifting Black communities. Paul Coates may admire Huey Newton for calling police “pigs,” but he concludes his interview with his son by saying, “It’s not about blacks wanting to be superior or treat anyone badly. It’s simply a way for us to be equal in this world”. It is unclear whether this interview is a transcription of an actual event, or if the book’s authors edited or organized the questions and responses, but the interview seems to be designed to both acknowledge and deny the connection between Black Panthers and violence.

This way of beginning with the potential for violence and ending with a peaceful message is common in children’s books. Lori Mortensen’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement (Capstone 2015) has a chapter on Malcolm X (unsurprisingly titled “By Any Means Necessary”) which begins with Malcolm X quoted calling Martin Luther King Jr a “fool” but which ends with a very different quotation where X says, “Dr. King wants the same thing I want—freedom!” In order to introduce controversial figures—whether famous or not—children’s books remove any threat the individuals might pose. In the end, Mortensen’s book suggests, the radical Malcolm X came around to the viewpoint of non-violence held by Dr. King—a portrayal that at best smooths over the truth, and at worst is a gross misrepresentation of Malcolm X’s viewpoints.

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They were pals, really–and Malcolm X in children’s books has to learn that MLK jr is right. From Lori Mortensen’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement.

Even when a children’s text mentions the aggression associated with the Black Panthers and Black Power, it is often euphemized, countered or contradicted by other elements of the text. Rebecca Rissman’s The Black Power Movement (Core 2014) uses both softening techniques and textual design to deflect any inference that violence or direct opposition to government and institutional policies had a positive effect on power gained by African-Americans. Like other texts, the Rissman description begins with the “strong actions” taken to achieve change, but concludes that “the majority of black power movement activities were nonviolent” (27), again both acknowledging and denying Black Panther militancy. The chapter title, however, refutes the idea that strong action was successful; and the photographic illustration shows African-Americans looting and rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr (which can only indirectly be connected to either Black Power or the Black Panthers). The people in the photograph do not appear powerful; rather, the opposite. The book’s design has the overall effect of raising doubt about the efficacy of Black Power and Black Panthers as positive forces within and for the African-American community on the very page it discusses their “strong” actions.

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Were the Black Panthers “strong” if they caused people to act like this? Textual design guides the reader to think not. From Rebecca Rissman’s The Black Power Movement.

The embrace of non-violence by authors of books about Black Power may seem just the result of the intended audience for these books; children are not “supposed” to read about violence, ostensibly because it might frighten them. Children’s nonfiction, however, often includes violence, aggression and damage to government property; just look at any text about the American Revolution. The Boston Tea Party is not portrayed as colonists looting private property, and the minutemen (who never, by the way, feed any children breakfast) are not brought round to peacefully protesting the monarchy. In England, Guy Fawkes Day is a holiday, but there aren’t any kids’ books (that I know of) about the Bradford Twelve. The fact that children’s books portray Black Panthers/Black Power organizations as either violent but ineffectual or initially violent but later allied with/embracing non-violence suggests that the author’s/publisher’s motive has more to do with their own fears than that of the child reader’s, and their need to ensure that readers dismiss the potential attraction of power for oppressed people found in movements like the Black Panthers.