One of my favorite paintings is this one, by artist Norman Rockwell. This painting is a portrait of Ruby Bridges, who was one of the first black students to be integrated into a white school in the early 1960’s. Many people know about the “Little Rock Nine,” nine African-American students who, upon being chosen to attend a white school in Little Rock, Arkansas were greeted by an angry mob and the Arkansas National Guard preventing their entrance into school (President Eisenhower had to intervene to get them into the school a few days later.) But I think many forget that the problems facing black students in the early Civil Rights movement were spread far beyond Little Rock.
I love this painting for a few reasons. First of all, I love that this painting is at a child’s eye level. You are Ruby’s height, looking at the scene as a child. You don’t even see the faces of the US Marshals escorting her into the building, only the repeating horizontal lines (like walls) in front of and behind her. You also see the tomato splattered on the wall behind her, along with a nasty racial epithet, which forms sort of a frame for her sweet-but-determined face. Secondly, I love that her pose mimics the strident walk of the Marshals. Though she is a child, and is of a different race from these authority figures, she walks with as much purpose as they do because she has as much right to be there as these men. Lastly, I love this painting because it illustrates a struggle for the right to go to school that occurred only a generation before me — two before my students. It was really not that long ago that students who look a lot like many of my students wouldn’t be in the shiny, new schools where I teach this year. They would be segregated to schools that didn’t have state-of-the-art technology… or even books, pencils, and paper, half the time.
This painting shows a girl who reminds me a lot of Ruby Bridges, in her pristine white dress and braided hair, also standing in front of some graffiti, but this time, she faces the viewer, smiling. In her hand, she holds a piece of blue chalk, and beside her is a drawing of a cat on the wall – both types of graffiti on the wall a far cry from that in Rockwell’s painting. This girl is obviously in an inner-city setting, like Bridges. I do not know what the artist’s message was for sure, but in my mind, I like to think this girl as a modern day Ruby Bridges, whose spirit is being nurtured by her time spent in a school that promotes creative thinking. To me, Whyte’s painting speaks to the importance — no, the dire necessity — for arts education for all children, especially schools that serve low-income students.
I see her face in the faces of all my students every day, and I am thankful to get to spend time with them for a little while each week. I hope my students learn about Ruby Bridges, though, and about students just like her who had to walk past angry crowds and armed soldiers just to go to school every day. Though students don’t face the same problems as Ruby Bridges to go to school today, there are thousands of children around the world who do, and education is a prize that many will risk their lives to attain.
While this would be a good discussion (perhaps for older kids) for Black History Month, I also like to propose teaching it during the other 8 months as part of HUMAN history. Students black and white should be able to understand the repercussions for all of us when we deny other human beings basic rights.