The painting is called The Problem We All Live With, by Norman Rockwell, and last week, President Obama asked if the White House could borrow it from its permanent home at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. It commemorates Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to attend a white elementary school in the South. Fifty years ago, on November 14, 1960, the girl marched through the doors of the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans with her copybooks and colored pencils, and without so much as a whimper. At first, seeing the surging crowd from a distance, little Ruby assumed it was Mardi Gras. “The show opened on time. Sound the siren. Motorcycle cops,” the author John Steinbeck wrote of the scene. “Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest negro girl you ever saw.” Steinbeck, who was 58 at the time, had left his dog and car in a parking lot miles away, fearing for their safety. Bridges, who was 6 years old, dodged eggs, tomatoes and the taunts of housewives no newspaper would print. She had been volunteered to the NAACP by her parents.
In the past year, since Sky turned 6, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about how and when to introduce him to ideas about race and racism: the velvety soft, laced with pearls, but-I-voted-for-Obama racism his mother has experienced. The let’s-all-be-color-blind (-while-you’re-still-cute-and-not-yet-that-teenager-wanting-to-date-my-daughter) racism he will almost certainly experience. The James-Byrd-in-Jasper, we-need-a-hate-crime-law-on-the-books-yesterday racism that makes other people feel much, much better about their racism. And I wonder — is the age of 6 too young to have the lid opened on this ugliness? Did I need to cloud Sky’s world by showing him that picture book with the stoic black mother saying, “No matter what anyone says, Martin, you’re just as good as anybody else?” In showing him that, was I fortifying him against those things “anyone” might say? Or was I simply introducing him to the idea that he might not, in fact, be as good as anybody else? When he asks about the problems between black people and white people, do I start every answer as I now do — “It was a long, long time ago” — even if a white person gave his black mother a problem that kicked the shit out of her last week?
From the looks of it, Ruby Bridges, now Ruby Bridges Hall, 56, seems like an extremely well-adjusted individual. (You can watch a video of her meeting with President Obama viewing the painting here). She not only lives in the city where protesters once laid a black doll in a miniature coffin outside her school; she volunteered in that school as a parent liaison in the 1990s, three days a week. (In 2005, like countless residents of New Orleans, Bridges Hall lost her home to Hurricane Katrina). She’s raised three children of her own and helped raise nieces who were orphaned. She runs her own foundation and tours the country with a message for all adults — the uneducated and the highly educated; the rural, urban, and comfortably suburban; the conservatives and the liberals who would like to believe it only applies to people living in Jasper: “Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.” If she could emerge from those schoolhouse doors as focused and forward-moving as when she walked in, why, exactly, do I worry about my 6-year-old knowing the story of the 6-year-old who did the walking?