Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Norman Rockwell's America

This post has been rolling around in my head and in an email interchange with the Great FranIAm, and I'm finally going to post it. It was brought to mind by Fran's use of a Norman Rockwell classic,
when she was talking about religious freedom and the ridiculous "I'm a Mormon" Mittens Romney speech.

First off, I want to say I'm not ragging Fran for her use of this artwork. It's just the whole idea of Rockwell and the way he painted America. Whenever I see Rockwell's work, I just automatically think about racism. Why, you ask? Let me explain.

Rockwell is an American classic, of course -- but what I hate about his paintings is that they're so freakin' white-bread middle America. That in itself is not the bad thing -- I mean, the majority of Americans are white/anglo people, including my partner and most of my friends. I loves the blondes and blue-eyeds of this nation! (did that sound like an idiot politician speaking or what?!)

The thing that bothers me about Rockwell and his imagery is this: When I think about racism in this country, it is always with the wistful belief that it will never go away. It'll still be with us, long after the KKK and other hate groups are gone -- because there will ALWAYS be a quiet, insidious racism that is evoked (at least for me) by things like Rockwellian imagery. He painted an America in which white people were these simple, folksy, Lake Woebegone-like people who think themselves good christians and good people. (I also love Garrison Keillor, so don't be hatin' on me; it's just an example.) The people in Rockwell gather with their friends, at home or at the park, down at the fishing hole, etc -- and it has always seemed to me that at least in some people's minds, America is -- or should be -- like a Rockwell painting, in which these small-town communities of nice white boys and girls playing and watching fireworks on the 4th of July, and old white veterans and grandparents watching parades down Main Street, and old white guys sitting on the porch of the country store playing checkers.

When you think about this version of America -- which many people long for, whether it was ever even real or not--that version of America doesn't have any people of color in it.
Just think about it -- the whole 1950s-early 60s "good old days" era of Leave it to Beaver America (which was never even real, in my opinion, but nonetheless is still perceived as literally real even today) is completely WHITE. Can you imagine those old white men on the porch playing checkers, and a black stranger comes up onto the porch, and even though he's the same age, probably has a lot of the same experiences and same hopes and dreams as the white guys -- when this black stranger comes up on the porch, can you see those old guys pulling out a chair for him to sit in and talking to him? No way. But if it was a white guy -- a guy who looked just like them -- suddenly, things would change -- their reaction would change -- you know it would! They would say "howdy" or whatever, ask him if he's new in town, invite him to join them.

I realize this example uses older people, who (let me just generalize here) tend to be a bit more prejudiced, and of course younger people are different, right? Well, I don't think so. I see it all the time here in Central PA -- there are at least two or three race-related incidents per semester here at Penn State, a huge modern university where kids from all over come to broaden their education and their minds. Yet every damned semester, we have someone shouting racial epithets from dorm windows at people, or someone finds a Facebook page with racist stuff on it, or there's an altercation downtown between some blacks and some whites. These kids are no different at all than those old men playing checkers, old people whose memories go back to the time before integration -- when it was George Wallace screaming "Segregation now, segregation forever!" That happened in 1963, before I was born, and yet I remember growing up and hearing those words over and over when Wallace was trying to run for office later.

For some reason (maybe it's just naivete), I think the KKK and other hate groups will eventually die out, but I think we'll always have this kind of under-the-surface racism, the kind that a lot of white people don't even know they feel until push comes to shove. You get a Hurricane Katrina, and a whole swath of Americans just turn their backs and say things like, "well, they should've evacuated!" Or a black family will move into a previously all-white community and get "The Look" that we minorities know all too well: that "what are YOU doing here?" look. Or maybe the subject of incarceration and sentencing inequities will up in a converstaion-- and all of a sudden, even good people who never thought they had anything against African-Americans suddenly feel a strange twinge when they think about it. They think back to all those episodes of "Cops" and think, "well, those black people ARE always in trouble!"

I realize race is a hot-button issue, and that I might have overgeneralized or offended with this post. If so, I'm sorry. I just wanted to discuss the issue with all of you, hear what you have to say. So let me hear from you.


CDP said...

I think that on matters of race, more people should just do what you just did, and talk (write) about it openly. We veer between pretending that race is no longer an issue in America (unfortunately not true) to being afraid to say anything at all about the topic for fear of offending someone.

dguzman said...

Very true, cdp.

Randal Graves said...

You're right, the groups may disappear, but the underlying racism will never go away. I think of my grandpa who died in the early 90s. Fought in WW2, his best friend was a black guy who I only met a few times, seemed real nice. But when he wasn't around, it was 'nigger this' and 'nigger that.' But never about his friend, who was treated and spoken about like the typical white guy. So many can easily justify their prejudices in their minds by whatever reason they choose to come up with.

Prejudice is taught, and the best we can hope for IS talking about it, so it becomes a front-burner issue again - which I don't think it is - and enough parents can teach their kids to not be assholes.

FranIAm said...

Oh my dear Delia, you have no idea how grateful I am for our correspondence. Seriously- you are one of the real gifts of blogging.

It makes me glad to see that you have gone ahead and put this post up. As you know, I grabbed the image and did not think much about it at the time.

However, you wrote to me and our conversation ensued and (as you know already) I totally agree with you.

I'd like to think of myself as sensitive, but as a white woman certain things are beyond my perception. Thankfully I have good friends like you who can further open my eyes, my mind and my heart.

What is it however, about the human condition, that makes up want to hate on others? Race, religion, gender and so forth... I fear it will never end, but nonetheless I work towards just that goal.

dguzman said...

Randal, I've come across that lots of times. People will say, "those damned lazy Mess-cans!" and when they see my face (rage) they say, "Oh, I don't mean YOU!" Right, I get it. Do you mean my mom? My uncle? My sister? Who DO you mean?

Fran,I'm working right beside you, babe. Thanks for your friendship!

GETkristiLOVE said...

Having lived in State College for four years, I'd have to agree. It's pretty damn white.

Oh, and I have never cared for Rockwell as an artist, no matter what the paintings evoke, it's just not my taste.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Brilliant post my friend. Thanks for writing it. I feel ashamed when any white person says hateful things to a person of color or to a gay person. I'm white on the outside but I'm black/brown/yellow/red on the inside.

DaveBones said...

I stumbled onto your page while doing a search for Norman Rockwell and the word racist. I got the same feel you did from the works I saw. It seemed to show this lie of a "better" time that seemed to ignore the social injustices of the time. I kept searching though and found a very powerful piece by him called "The Problem We All Live With" that shows a 6-year-old African-American girl being escorted by U.S. marshals to her first day at an all-white New Orleans elementary school,graffiti of the word "nigger" is on the wall behind her and you can see someone has thrown a tomato because it's smeared on the wall as well. Not all of his works were those cute slices of the "American Dream" that we generally think of with him.

Mr Econ said...

I stumbled upon this post from a google search, also. I must say, however, that I love Rockwell... for the same reason I love Steinbeck. Because they make me think of a simpler time. Racism was and is a disease, but I think you're getting a little too Freudian. Some things, simply, have face value. Perhaps I'm naive...


Anonymous said...

I think you are misguided for choosing Norman Rockwell as the subject of this. While many artists were racists and tended to ignore African-Americans, the placing of the African-American people in his paintings was clearly intentional, to show that they were not free in the United States, and that has to be changed. In fact, I am doing a paper right now on how Rockwell deplored Racism and painted that on purpose. Take two case studies.
The first one, is entitled The Problem We all Live With, and is a picture of one of the Little Rock Nine. It depicts her as strong and the white people as bigots.
The next painting in entitled Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi, and is stronger still. It is a response to the Cheney, Goodwin, and Shchwerner murders.

e.Green said...

I stumbled upon the Rockwell exhibit today in D.C. I've always had a kind regard for NR's work, but even as a kid it was very obvious to me that I didn't live in a world like the one he'd paint. As a black child growing up in a small city in PA, I can kind of see the nostalgia, but the lack of black folks in his work is also a stark reminder that things are very different.

The two pictures that another poster commented on are themselves a terrible example of black life. I mean there were black barbers cutting black hair, there were black waiters at restaurants. But again, that wasn't his world. I guess ultimately I don't have anything bad to say about NR or his work, I just wish that we had a closer representation of what life in AMERICA really is instead of it being so one sided.

dguzman said...

GKL--yeah, I don't like that style of painting either.

Dr Monkey--right on, brother.

Dave Bones--welcome to the bloggy, and sorry it took so long for me to respond. I'm glad that Rockwell painting something depicting someone other than middle class white people. I'd never seen that painting--it's certainly not a commonly seen one.

Mr. Econ--welcome to the bloggy! I too like Steinbeck and all the other white guys in the literary canon. But for some reason, those works seem different to me--perhaps because they don't make the whiteness quite so literal. ("Call me Ishmael, and I'm white!") Maybe. I don't know.

eGreen--have you seen anything by that newer artist (whose name I can't remember now, of course) who paints classic works of art like the Mona Lisa or whatever, but replaces the white people with black people? Cool. Like looking at everything that's passed but through a different lens.