Last post, I started looking at how to use the OPTIC strategy to help students examine visual images, specifically I wrote about using OPTIC to examine Jacob Lawrence’s The Ordeal of Alice (1963). Today, I want to continue that discussion by looking at another image then briefly talking about how I would incorporate each of these images into my Lillian E. Smith Studies Course. I will not go into great detail on the latter part, but I want to highlight how the incorporation of images enhance students’ understanding of texts because the images provide them with a broader cultural understanding that helps to illuminate the text, whether that text is fiction or nonfiction.
Remember, for the overview, students must provide a brief statement about their initial thoughts describing the image. My thoughts on the image above are as follows, “When I see this painting, I immediately think about the juxtaposition of the young Black girl and the grown men, appearing to protect the girl. Her stoicism, amongst the graffiti and vandalism, and probably screaming mob off canvas, highlights her strength and courage.” These are, again, my initial thoughts, before students even begin to think about the title and other information in relation to the painting.
Here, students look at the various parts of the image, reflecting on how they contribute to the whole. Unlike Lawrence’s The Ordeal of Alice, this painting is realism and has realistic characteristics. We focus on the young girl, a little off-center on the left of the painting. Our viewpoint looks at her, as if we, ourselves, are children on her same level, at her same height. We also see the four law officers, framing the young girl. They move in lockstep, and the young girl appears to move in lock step with them. Every person in the painting has one foot forward, constituting movement. The young girl has her right foot forward and the officers have their left feet forward.
The officers, again, frame the young girl as if she is in a protective bubble or even a cage. Her movements, with the officers there, is constricted. We do not know if the officers are keeping her safe or hindering her from moving outside of where they want her to go. We assume it is the former because we see a busted tomato on the ground behind the girl and the spot where it hit the wall a littler further up the canvas. Immediately to the left, in the center of the painting, and starting right above the young girl’s head, we see the n-word in graffiti. With this, the parts seems to suggest that the officers are there to protect the young girl. However, we could also still read it as if they are there to hinder her progress.
Finally, we see wedding rings on some of the officers, particularly the ones in the front. This suggests, of course, that they are married and possibly have children of their own. Could this mean that they see their role as protecting the young girl from outside threats just as they would protect their own children? Possibly.
After looking at the parts, introduce students to the title of the piece. This painting is Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With (1964). He painted it a year after Lawrence’s and three years after Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana. Unlike Lawrence’s painting, our visual cues and realism tell us that this is Ruby Bridges. As well, while students may have an somewhat easy time determining the origins of the title of Lawrence’s painting, they may have a harder time coming to a consensus and understanding of the title for Rockwell’s painting.
The Problem We All Live With is an ambiguous title for a few reasons. What is the “problem”? Is the “problem” the young girl walking to school? Is the “problem” the violent attacks against the young girl? Is the “problem” the something else entirely? That is what students need to determine, and their answers to these questions will help them see the painting and the context and the present more fully. If we think about the “problem” as “the Negro problem,” what does that say? As Lillian Smith would say, “It’s a white problem, not a Negro problem.” So, then the “problem” would be the mob’s response to the young girl integrating the school. If the “problem” is the young girl herself, then it positions her, not the people enacting violence, as the problem, thus eliminating the violence enacted by the mob.
With interrelationships, students reflect on the ways that the elements within the image work together to convey a meaning and create a mood within the audience. First and foremost, Rockwell’s painting, unlike Lawrence’s painting, is firmly realism. It depicts an almost photorealistic rendering of Ruby Bridges walking to school escorted by four US Marshalls. We see the texture of the sidewalk. We see the texture of the wall. We see the fading of the graffiti and the splatter of the tomato. We see the creases in the uniforms of the officers. We see details in the young girl’s dress. All of this reminds us that this was a real event. This really happened. We can compare this image to the photos of Bridges integrating the elementary school in New Orleans. We can also compare it to the use of black and white images, instead of color, of Bridges in 1961. We can ask students and have them think about how the use of color instead of black and white affects their reactions to the image.
Here, students again provide a brief statement, as the did for the overview. However, instead of giving their initial reactions they provide a statement about the meaning of the painting. My concluding statement would be as follows, “The Problem We All Live With depicts the trauma and vioelnce enacted on a young girl merely trying to acquire an education. It highlights the lengths to which people would go to protect their own positions of power and to label someone who is not like them a ‘problem.’ The young girl shows resilience and determination in the face of such violence as she walks to the school accompanied by four marshalls.”
For my LES Studies Course, I would use both Lawrence’s and Rockwell’s paintings when I teach Lillian Smith’s “The Ordeal of Southern Women,” a piece she wrote for Redbook in 1962 after traveling to New Orleans to interview whites in the community. One woman told Smith that when she “saw those [white] women screaming and pulling at children” her ideas on segregation changed. She saw the psychological trauma that Alice endured in Lawrence’s painting. She also saw that the “problem” was not Bridges integrating the school but the white community’s racial hatred. However, other women stood firm to their segregationist positions, and these women remind me of the figures in Lawrence’s painting and those off canvas who enacted the violence in Rockwell’s painting.
I would use more in my class, but these two images, coupled with Smith’s essay, provide a fruitful way for students to examine multiple aspects of school integration. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.