I went to a street fair when I was 6 because I was the son of a single, Black Mama who made good use of the city circulars to help find free or cheap entertainment for an intellectually curious boy. The sights and sounds of a street fair were cheaper than a movie and kept me captivated longer. As we neared the end of the fair, I saw a man drawing caricatures. I was a budding artist, and more than a little vain so I begged Mama to pay the $3.50 so “the man could do me”.
I sat on the stool and the older white man asked me a few questions as he sketched away. How old was I? (“6”) I betcha like to play football, (“No, I like to draw and read”) How do you like school? (“School is fine, I like art the best”)
When he finished and handed me my picture I was sickened. I didn’t recognize this narrow-nosed, thin-lipped, charcoal-black, football-catching boy with an 8 on his chest. This drawing wasn’t at all representative of me. It was grotesque. This man had pretended to take me and my history into account but had created something he wanted to see. His vision. His reality. And in it, my little black life was nothing more than a grotesque caricature.
I felt a similar sense of pain and outrage on Monday when I saw the comic that conservative cartoonist, Glenn McCoy, whipped up for Belleville News–Democrat. The image in question is, of course, McCoy’s gross reimagining of the Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With” – featuring a stylized, blue-clad Betsy DeVos striding on spindly legs in the company of four men – presumably her security detail.
Rockwell’s original – and the real McCoy – featured six year old Ruby Bridges being escorted by federal marshals into William Franz Elementary School. She walks past a wall tainted with the remains of the rotten fruit that had been thrown at her. The word “NIGGER” is scrawled just over her head. The men in the painting are bent a little, slightly bowed. Not Ruby. She’s 12 o’clock straight…in step with the time.
To get the full depth of why McCoy’s glib scribblings are such a slap in the face, it’s important to note a few things about this painting. The title is as important as the image. “The Problem We All Live With” spoke to the silence of the well-meaning liberals of the time who thought Civil Rights were an important issue but didn’t feel compelled to do anything about the suffocating racism . It was a condemnation of the silent consent that was — and remains — rampant in the face of egregious injustice. No one could look at this little girl, pristine in her dress and purposed in her step, with the word nigger hanging over her, and the vile stain of hatred behind her and not see a problem. But the title demands of the viewer “How do we live with this?” And the title is clear about one thing, it’s not just a problem for Ruby. It’s a problem for us all.
The event depicted in Rockwell’s painting happened in November of 1960, but Rockwell didn’t paint it until 1963. What happened in those years was a political and social awakening. Rockwell had started working for Look magazine, after ending his contract with the Saturday Evening Post. His paintings for the Post are what Rockwell is most known for – because that’s the part of his legacy white people enjoy – outdated scenes of “a simpler time” with Grandma’s lace doilies and dry turkey, and little Johnny playing ball with Henry from down the lane.
But by 1964, Rockwell was as sick of painting that bullshit as you were just now from reading it. He wanted to confront the world that was happening around him. “The Problem We All Live With” was his first notable Civil Rights painting, and it traded on the seared-in memory of images from an ugly, year-long protest white parents waged against innocent children like Ruby. And the post-1964 Rockwell painted scenes that directly confronted the viewer with the ugly realities of the racial divide in the country. Images like “Southern Justice” which featured beaten Civil Rights workers, were dark and full of substance, compared to the marshmallowy fluff of “New York Central Diner” of “The Runaway”.
So to this context we bring the spit in the eye of history that is Glenn McCoy’s untitled (and entitled) comic.
In McCoy’s world, in his view, the 59 year old billionaire DeVos, who had, a week earlier, been prevented from entering a school by a handful of rightfully angry protestors was equivalent to six-year old Ruby Williams being harassed, threatened and assaulted by mobs of adults every day for a year. In his skewed view, the political label “Conservative” – a label which people choose to wrap themselves in like the flag, and which – in his image DeVos steps out in front of, is the same as the slur “nigger” which literally and figuratively hangs over the head of young Ruby, not a word she chose to be identified with but one hurled at her like the rotten fruit that also stained the wall. To McCoy’s eye, DeVos is facing not protests from liberals or moderates – but the threat of Anarchy, the symbol for which he puts in place of the “KKK” Rockwell included in the original.
McCoy can’t plead any kind of ignorance here; he too carefully and too thoughtfully studied the image in order to lampoon it. He knows the history of it because he knows the context. But he doesn’t care. And that’s why he doesn’t get it.
McCoy’s comic is endemic of the America’s new affliction. The new “Problem We All Live With” is racists, conservatives, bigots and the entitled elite casting themselves as victims of some imagined oppression that somehow prevents them from “speaking their mind” or “living their truth”. Our new Problem is that these people who have created and profited from a climate of oppression for hundreds of years now see the budding of equality and resistance to oppression as somehow oppressive in itself. The Problem is a sickness, like most others sicknesses it attacks the healthy tissue and infects it with the perversion of logic that sounds something like McCoy’s defense in Talking Points Memo.
“My cartoon was about how, in this day and age, decades beyond the civil rights protests, it’s sad that people are still being denied the right to speak freely or do their jobs or enter public buildings because others disagree with who they are or how they think,” he said in the statement. “I’m surprised that some readers see ‘hate’ in this cartoon when I thought I was speaking out against hate.”
Of course McCoy doesn’t see it. Of course he thinks he’s the good guy. That’s the nature of The Problem. He thinks that parents and teachers rejecting a photo-op visit, by an unqualified, disconnected billionaire, oligarch – who by her own confession buys political favors (like this appointment) – is the same as hating a little girl because she is Black. McCoy thinks “disagreeing with how someone thinks” is the same as hate.
It sounds like he even thinks the civil rights protests were supposed to protect him and ensure that his way of life remained unaffected. He and people who think like him are supposed to continue to be able to step on others’ histories, flout reality, oppress willfully and not be called out for it. This man who just committed the artistic equivalent of smearing feces into the pages of a history book by drawing and publishing this horrifically tone-deaf bullshit thinks he’s among a group that is being “denied the right to speak freely or do their jobs.” He thinks his is a sad plight.
Of course, McCoy apologized “if anyone was offended” by his “visual metaphor”. Because a part of The Problem is not being sensitive to light. So you’re never enlightened or empathetic enough to realize that you’re being a grotesque caricature of those grieved by actual oppression. You just see what you want to see.