The illustrator Norman Rockwell has been lauded and lambasted for projecting an image of America that was too mom and apple pie and White. If that’s your image of Rockwell, I’d like to give you a different one. One that confronted and encouraged through his works The Golden Rule (1961), The Problem We All Live With (1964), Murder in Mississippi (1965) and New Kids in the Neighborhood (1967). These works were created by a conscience rooted in the aspiration that “all men are created equal.”
Though never fully realized by the founding fathers, Rockwell imbued their aspirations in his Saturday Evening Post covers, especially in his illustrations of FDR’s Four Freedoms. I can’t look at that series and not hear the words to songs of equality like “The House I Live In” or “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” Innocent as those covers seem, Rockwell was saying here’s how the world should be for everybody. Ironically, the Post’s policy wouldn’t extend that equality and respect to black people. Blacks on their covers had to be depicted in subservient positions. Rockwell left the Post in 1963 and accepted commissions from Look magazine where he could portray the flipside of the Post’s America. But sometimes Look found his work too controversial to publish, too. Fortunately, that didn’t happen often.
The Norman Rockwell Museum has a virtual exhibit of Rockwell’s 1960’s works. Check it out here: https://bit.ly/37H3TCr where you can also hear from Ruby Bridges, the little girl in The Problem We All Live With.
Rockwell’s 1960s work asked Americans, “Which side are you on?” in the same way Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley and Gil Noble did in their network broadcasts. Sixty years later, these works are asking us the same question. Sixty years later, I hear us answering it in peaceful demonstrations being held all over the world, in paintings on the plywood of boarded-up Manhattan storefronts, in legislation passed to combat police brutality, in court decisions upholding LGBTQ rights. People are answering, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you must become the law of the land.” Despite authorities and administrations trying to divide us, people are answering and choosing to be on the right side of history because “the time is always right to do what is right.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the 1960s, Rockwell used his work to confront and encourage. May we use our resources to do the same today.
All the women in Anora Madison’s family have lived as “Poor Butterflies”: women still longing for but deserted by the men they loved. Determined to be the first to escape a life of abandonment, Anora fled Harlem for Brooklyn, severing her ties with her mother Angela and with the man who broke her heart, Winston Emerson, the father of her child.
Six years later, she comes back to Harlem to make peace, but a malignant spirit manifests itself during the homecoming, targeting her mother, her aunt, Winston and their little girl. Determined to stop the evil now trying to destroy all she loves, Anora must finally turn to Winston for help. But will their efforts be too little too late?
Excerpt from Haunted Serenade…
He nodded thoughtfully. “Why not? Self-hate has bedeviled people of color all over the world for hundreds of years. Being looked down upon because you’re not White, accepting you’re incapable of self-determination because you’re dark and not light is being confronted everywhere. The independence movements in Africa. The Civil Rights movement here. Why wouldn’t it be challenged in your mother’s house?”
I’d listened to sermons about the devil, sung hymns and praise songs to put him in his place. But I’d intellectualized all that. Those were metaphors for the evil humans did. But what if that metaphor represented real energy, energy that had agency, agency that needed to be combatted?
“Come on.” Winston picked up a tray. “Let’s put the pumpkins in the windows. I need some physical activity to balance all this intellectual speculating.”
I took the other tray and followed him into the parlor. We placed a pumpkin on each sill of the bay window then lit the candle inside.
Cammie was right. They weren’t at all scary. Their grins glowed with welcome.
We ascended to the second floor and repeated our pumpkin placement and lighting ritual in each window.
“Winston, if Diana’s spirit is trying to help us, why did she attack you, Elizabeth and my mother?”
“When were they attacked?”
I shared with him my mother’s lame excuses for her broken wrist and the bandage on Elizabeth’s forehead.
He pursed his lips then firmed them. “I don’t think Diana’s spirit attacked them or me.”
“But you said the cold—”
“Is Diana shielding us from another presence, a presence that made the shutters close in her bedroom, that made the cabinet door hit me.” He tucked his empty tray beneath his arm. “What if the cold is Diana’s love, but the energy that attacks has its source in someone else?”
As always, Delilah, thanks for making space for me and my thoughts
A great touch of very timely and relevant history. And a great excerpt to your book. Thank you, Anna. I regret not stopping in the Norman Rockwell Museum when I was in the area. Rockwell was a great artist in many ways.
Fascinating. I’ve never been too familiar with Rockwell’s work, but I know I’ve seen the painting of the little girl going to school. I’ve always thought it was one of the most touching images ever.
Hi Delores, Thanks for stopping by. Glad you liked the excerpt. The museum’s retrospective on these particular works is very enlightening. When the pandemic lifts visiting the museum is going on to my bucket list.
Hi Karen. I was introduced to Rockwell’s work through my dad who was taking a self-directed Famous Artists course. Not until I became an adult did I learn how Rockwell worked and the influence his second wife had on him in the making of the works in the 60s. I think it’s because of his earlier work his civil rights pictures have even more power. Thanks for stopping by.
I have long admired Norman Rockwell’s work but I did not know the things you’ve written above. Thank you very much for writing this piece about him.
I was glad to share this side of him. Thanks for stopping by.
This museum is now on my bucket list! Thanks for sharing Norman Rockwell with us. It’s funny, I have an NR collector’s plate, plus a little statue fashioned after his funny self-portrait painting.
It was my pleasure. Thanks for always giving me the space to share. : )