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There’s a Norman Rockwell illustration that’s stuck in my head lately.
The image comes from the April 1, 1961 cover of The Saturday Evening Post. It shows a cluster of men, women and children, all of various religions, races and ethnicities standing together, shoulder to shoulder. Each figure’s gaze is earnestly fixed upon the words of the Golden Rule emblazoned in golden serif font across the bottom of the illustration:
DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM DO UNTO YOU
It is a profound image, one that always draws me in when I see it. I find myself staring deeply into each face, each expression, admiring each figure’s unique attire that expresses their sense of place and self in the world. It is an image that speaks at once of diversity and unity, of seriousness and longing, of a world in anticipation of something greater than itself.
When Rockwell originally conceived the image, nearly a decade prior, he was grappling with the politics, turmoil and disturbances of the times. The year was 1952. America was two years into the Korean War. The Cold War was at its peak. Somewhere in the midst of that turmoil and uncertainty, Rockwell was inspired to create a vision that captured his aspirations for what could be. He painstakingly sketched 65 human figures in pencil and charcoal across an eight-foot long paper canvas, each figure representing the peoples of the world.
And then he left the sketch in the cellar of his studio, abandoned and unfinished.
Sometime after, he would resurrect the sketch from his cellar as inspiration for the iconic image he created for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. And decades after that, Rockwell’s image would be translated into a stunning mosaic that would grace the U.N. Headquarters in New York City.
Rockwell’s work of art comes to mind as I reflect on the events of this summer, on the violence and unrest brought on by racial injustice, intolerance, hatred, inequality and fear that seems to be rocking our country to its core and permeating our newsfeeds. As we react to events in Orlando, Florida; St. Paul, Minnesota; Baton Rouge, Lousiana; Dallas, Texas, I am reminded of another summer, in 1963, when civil unrest took center stage. Protests erupted all over Alabama that summer, where law enforcement officers had unleashed police dogs and firefighters turned their hoses on black civil rights protestors. In Cambridge, Maryland black and white activists who supported integration were met with acts of distain and cruelty from white segregationists. Civil rights activist, Medger Evers, was assasinated in Jackson, Mississippi. Ku Klux Klan violence and demonstrations surged, burning crosses in the streets of Chicago. The summer of unrest culminated in August, when Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders marched on Washington. Then, as now, people lifted their voices to shine a light on racial inequality and demand better treatment under the law. Then, as now, people battled, angry, tired and frustrated, yet holding firm to a vision, a “dream” of something better.
We as a human race are still waiting for a time when we can stand together like those figures in Rockwell’s painting – black, brown, white and any color or creed in between, shoulder to shoulder. What will it take? When will we achieve that time of universal brotherhood and sisterhood that theologians and spiritual leaders allude to, the Peaceable Kingdom where war, crime and poverty cease? Is it to be only the “world to come” or can we find it in the here and now?
An unlikely glimpse
I believe it can be found in the here and now. I believe that I spotted it on a lakeside corner in Oakland this past Sunday. On a spontaneous bicycle ride with the sun sinking slowly into the evening sky, my husband and I headed down to the waterfront at Jack London Square. On our way, we stopped to take in the sights and sounds of a massive crowd of people – black, brown, white and all colors and creeds in between. They were smiling and making music together. They were young and old, dressed in all attire. They were not only standing shoulder to shoulder, they were dancing together.
The video below captures some of what I saw, though it doesn’t nearly do justice to the sea of people I witnessed that day, families wrapped around Lake Merritt, spotting the grounds with picnic blankets, food and drink. There were countless couples strolling the lakeside path. There was a man was selling succulents and another hawking t-shirts by the roadside. Sailboats in their rainbow-colored sails were gliding along the water. Even the policemen I watched simply stood by, looking out over the crowds, smiling and taking in the scene.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not disregarding the real, harsh reality that is around every corner of this city. Oakland is understandably its own hotbed of unrest these days. It is a place far from perfect. The city has been racked by deplorable violence and racial as well as socio-economic disparity for as long as I can remember. The people of this city have witnessed senseless police brutality as well as the senseless killing of police in the line of duty. In just the past few weeks, as a police sex scandal was uncovered, the city has found a new low. Oakland holds within its arms all the challenges that the country is grappling with.
And yet, in the midst of all our turmoil, violence, scandal, inequality, poverty, stupidity, disrespect and strife, one can still find moments of unity, love and hope where neighbors stand shoulder to shoulder. They don’t just tolerate each others’ differences, they embrace them.
Those awesome visions of hope are all around us. They may pass in a moment. But if we recognize them, hold that glimpse in our mind’s eye, resurrect it and paint the colors in, we just might find a work of art that leaves us breathless.
Learn more about Norman Rockwell’s life and view many of his works at Artsy.net.
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July 14, 2016