Ruby Bridges Was Six Years Old

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?



  1. Posted – Jul 12 at   | Permalink | Reply

    Thank you for this great entry.

  2. Posted – Jul 15 at   | Permalink | Reply

    Thank you for sharing this news and the excellent entry about your son and a difficult issue. My children are all in their mid teens and early 20’s now and I remember having the same exact thoughts when they were younger. It is scary though because you don’t want to NOT talk about it, yet you don’t want make it an issue if it isn’t yet. We just always let them know they could talk to us about anything and when racial issues came up we tried to address them as best we could. We must have done something right because all of them are very comfortable with who they are (at least as far as they’ve told me) πŸ™‚

  3. Posted – Jul 26 at   | Permalink | Reply

    Thank you for highlighting this topic. Regarding
    “do I start every answer as I now do β€” β€œIt was a long, long time ago””
    I would say not. It’s our recent past and unfortunately hate is still alive. The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps track of all the hate groups and there are over 1000 active groups in the U.S.

  4. Posted – Nov 16 at   | Permalink | Reply

    great post!

    i can totally relate to your concern with your son because i have felt the same way about introducing racism to my 6-year-old son. in fact, i wrote a post about it on my blog last year after my son, who was in kindergarten at the time, brought home a book about jackie robinson ( up until then we hadn’t discussed race. “black” wasn’t a word i had ever used to describe him or anyone else for that matter.

    i’m biracial and bringing up racism is so scary to me. i, too, have used the “it was a long, long time ago” line when we were reading his martin luther king, jr. book, but what happens when the color of his skin is thrown in his face in a hateful way? will he think i only told him half the story or worse, that i lied to him?

    we don’t discuss race often, but when he asks questions, i’m always here to answer. and every once in a while i have to set the record straight like when we were watching “black girls rock” recently and he said, “mom, you don’t rock. you’re not black.” hahaha… he calls me “peach” and calls my pop the same. i tried my best to explain that we (black women) come in all shades! i still don’t think he “got it” though. πŸ™‚

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