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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Segregation

Ruby Bridges, New Orleans, Louisiana, 5 December 1960
Ruby Bridges
The Ambiguity of Integration
- Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With, oil on canvas, 1964
- Ruby Bridges integrating Frantz Elementary School, New Orleans, escorted by federal marshals, photograph, 1960 (PDF)

In the pieces by James Farmer and Stokely Carmichael (see #7 and #8), we learn that integration was a problematic goal for many blacks. It was problematic for whites as well, with responses ranging from enthusiastic support through lukewarm acceptance to fierce hostility. Society's ambiguous attitude toward integration was captured in a rather unlikely place, a painting by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). Rockwell is best known for his nostalgic evocations of the simple virtues, sturdy people, and honest emotions of small-town America. From 1916 to 1973 his covers for mass circulation magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Look made him enormously popular. In 1964, after decades of black agitation for civil rights, Rockwell put the subject before subscribers to Look in a cover inspired by a series of photographs of a young girl named Ruby Bridges integrating an elementary school in New Orleans with an escort of U.S. marshals. Entitled The Problem We All Live With, the painting shows a determined black child, whose darkness is intensified by the whiteness of her carefully pressed dress, marching, with notebooks and ruler in hand, between two phalanxes of suited marshals. They walk beside a wall marred by a racial epithet and the red pulp of a hurled tomato. In this painting Rockwell's accessible, realistic style conflicts with thematic ambiguity.

We also offer one of the photographs that inspired Rockwell. Comparing the photo and the painting provides an opportunity to explore differences between the two media and the ways in which artists interpret experience. (2 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. In Rockwell's painting, what is the effect of the girl's white dress and shoes?
  2. What is the effect of the image's rhythm?
  3. Why are the marshals' heads not shown in the painting?
  4. Why might Rockwell have chosen a wall as background for the marching figures?
  5. How might this painting be interpreted as an illustration of Carmichael's assertion in "Toward Black Liberation" that "Negroes are defined by . . . their blackness and their powerlessness" (see #8)?
  6. How does this painting support Carmichael's criticism of the liberal argument for integration made in "Toward Black Liberation"?
  7. In what ways is the young girl in the painting "acceptable"?
  8. Who is the "we" of the title?
  9. What problem does the title refer to?
  10. Compare and contrast the photo and the painting. How do they differ in composition? How do those differences shape the meaning of each? How does each treat themes of vulnerability, protection, determination, power, authority, and racism?

Framing Questions
  •  What constitutes segregation?
  •  How did African Americans experience it?
  •  What is the difference between segregation and separation?
  •  What are the consequences of segregation? Separation?

Painting: 1
Photograph: 1
2 pages
Supplemental Sites
Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, interview with exhibition curator, 2000 (Online NewsHour, PBS)

Ruby Bridges Hall, interview, 1997 (Online NewsHour, PBS)

"Ruby Bridges evokes tears, smiles, as she recounts her story," Harvard Gazette, 25 April 2002, from Harvard University

Surviving the Struggle: Ruby Bridges, Ryan White, and Anne Frank, curriculum unit by Jean Sutherland, 2002 (Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute)

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Ruby Bridges, age 6, escorted by deputy federal marshals as she leaves Frantz Elementary School, New Orleans, Louisiana, 5 December 1960. AP Photo #601101076. Reproduced by permission.

1. Segregation–Separation   2. Lynching & Segregation   3. Antilynching Dramas
4. Life Under Segregation   5. The Black Psyche   6. Passing
  7. De-segregation–Integration   8. Separation & Power   9. Ambiguity of Integration

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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Revised: March 2010