Commentary: White House Painting Speaks Volumes

Commentary: White House Painting Speaks Volumes

The Norman Rockwell painting added to Obama’s White House art collection last month is more controversial than Obama’s been in years.

Published August 24, 2011

President Obama, Ruby Bridges and representatives of the Norman Rockwell Museum view Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With, hanging in a West Wing hallway near the Oval Office last month. (Photo: White House Photo/Pete Souza)

One of the worst things about being a politician is that, because of the precariousness of the job, you’re often forced to keep your mouth shut about how you really feel in order to stay in office. That’s not necessarily fair, and it’s certainly not right, but that’s just how it is. That in mind, it makes a lot of sense that President Obama has kept mostly mum about racial issues while in office. To the irritation of many, the president generally avoids difficult conversations about race, which is a far cry from how Obama the candidate behaved. Obama the candidate gave a poignant speech about race and politics in 2008 that touched millions. Nowadays, it’s a fight to get Obama’s aides to even say that Blacks are having a rough go of it.


Some have been left wondering if Obama’s lost his interest in racial issues in America, or if he ever even had any in the first place. If a new piece of art being hung in the White House is any indication, the answer to those questions is a resounding yes.


Called “The Problem We All Live With,” the latest addition to the White House art collection was painted by American master Norman Rockwell in 1964. It depicts Ruby Bridges Hall, a Black girl in Louisiana, desegregating a New Orleans kindergarten class. Hall was abused verbally and physically as she made her way towards her school, shocking Rockwell enough that he painted the scene for Look magazine. It’s not easy to look at, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful (it is a Rockwell). Rockwell had long been known for his conservative and wholesome paintings of everyday American life, so when “The Problem” debuted, the n-word painting in huge letters behind Hall’s head, people were shocked.


Similarly, people have been quite shocked that Obama has put the racially charged Rockwell in a hallway right outside the Oval Office. Having gained a reputation for ducking serious talks about race, Obama’s willingness to throw his support behind the painting should let all naysayers know where he stands about issues of race in America. Obama keeps the ugly history of racism and racial violence close to his heart and mind. Unfortunately, his high office has muted his mouth.


Written by Cord Jefferson


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