Rockwell Museum Exhibit on Race Powerful but Overwhelming




Norman Rockwell Museum

Stockbridge, MA

Through October 30, 2022




Is it possible to make a point too well? The Norman Rockwell Museum is currently displaying a powerful exhibit titled Imprinted: Illustrating Race.  Early on we see a 2018 work from Thomas Richman Blackshear II titled A Common Thread. We see individuals of African American, Asian, and Native American heritage fronted by an exotic female figure who looks as if she might have escaped a Gustav Klimt painting. Each holds a candle, which suggests the exhibit will shed light on how race is depicted.


In 1944, the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal published An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. More’s the pity that the issue he highlighted 78 years ago–white oppression of peoples of color–persists. Systematic racism is a major reason for this, a term that alerts that racism is so tightly woven in the fabric of American society that many people no longer “see” it, and those who do find it hard to disentangle enough threads to make it unravel.




Imprinted reminded me of the unexamined systematic racism of my elementary school years–like illustrations for Little Black Sambo storybooks. These were in wide circulation and were even read aloud in school. They were first written by a Scottish woman and Sambo was supposed to be South Asian, shades of British imperialism. Sambo, though, resembled a golliwog, a black rag doll that caricatured black features. Golliwog dolls and books in turn took were inspired by minstrel shows in which (mostly) white entertainers donned blackface to lampoon African Americans. Thus, white American saw Sambo as African American, as he resembled golliwogs and all-too-present blackface acts.






This set the tone for numerous other disrespectful ways people of color were depicted. Consider the above ad for Cream of Wheat in which a smiling black man is infantilized to the level of the white blunderbuss-toting toddler at his side. Norman Rockwell’s 1946 Dining Car captured the same man-to-child implications.






Smiling subservient black folks were once trademarks for products such as Uncle Ben’s rice and Aunt Jemima Pancake mix.  If you can believe it, when I was in second grade a black woman wearing a kerchief visited our school as the “real” Aunt Jemima. The entire school was ushered into a room to gawk at her. (She was most assuredly an actress handed a very bad gig!) For sheer offensiveness, though, it's hard to top British soap maker Pears. The image speaks for itself. 




Here's where things get complicated. The Rockwell show has over 300 images from the 19th century to the present. To return to the Blackshears work, by trying hard to be inclusive several problems arise. The first is a drive-by issue. Themes of Orientalism, negative views of immigrants, and discrimination against other non-white peoples are given short shrift. The images educate–one including an Irishman serves notice that “whiteness” isn’t a given–but the unintentional suggestion is that discrimination against African Americans holds primacy. It is indeed an American dilemma, but it is slippery turf to imply rankings of oppression. (The Chinese, for instance, were even more reviled during the late 19th century.)  The show would have been stronger had it not strayed upon turf it could not cover thoroughly.


Gary Kelley "Nina Simone"

Gregory Chrsitie "Coltrane"

Blitt's controversial "Fistbump"


A larger problem is that Imprinted is overwhelming. A Swiss friend with less grounding in American history expressed feeling bludgeoned before she entered the second gallery. The images are powerful, but I think less would have been more. By the time one gets to positive images of black life in gallery three, the viewer is emotionally spent. Thus, we recoil in horror before Barry Blitt’s Fistbump (2008), which shows Barack and Michelle Obama as terrorists burning an American flag in a fireplace with Osama bin Laden’s portrait hanging above the mantle. The irony is that this is a New Yorker illustration in which Blitt sought to lampoon Obama alarmists. Yet it’s understandable viewers might misunderstand after being saturated with negative depictions. Many, I’m sure, were so exhausted that they long stopped reading accompanying wall placards. (For the record, I echo those who find Blitt’s illustration problematic.)


Kadir Nelson


I also observed people rushing through the exhibit In Our Lifetime: Paintings from the Pandemic, which spotlights the heralded Kadir Nelson. Maybe this should have been the first gallery. Nelson is a Los Angeles-based artist whose work has graced postage stamps, New Yorker covers, Dreamworks projects, galleries, and museums. He offers an America that could/should be, one that includes confronting its past, but finds room for people as people. Two paintings of kids drive home the point in Rockwellian fashion. Stickball shows a determined boy who just happens to be black ready to take his best cut. If the little girl in Sweet Liberty had been white, one might call the painting mawkish. Because she is black, though, we see it for what it is: a call for America to follow its better angels.



Rob Weir





The Sentence an Astonishing Novel


The Sentence (2022)

By Louise Erdrich

Harper, 387 pages.





Forgive repetitive use of the words haunt, ghost, and sentence in this review; they are necessary. The Sentence, a new book by Louise Erdrich, is haunting and brilliant. There are some actual ghosts in the book, or at least we think so. There are many ways to be haunted in both the normal and paranormal. Can the past be a ghost? Our imaginations? Trauma? Madness? Guilt? What about present-day upheaval and social harm?


The book is also about sentences. That word also has multiple meanings and implications. One can be sentenced to jail, to carry a burden, to perform unwanted roles, to atone for past sins, to bear the brunt of anger, or even endure Covid, the latter also an omnipresent haunting.


The protagonist of The Sentence is an Ojibwe woman named Tookie. She is what Native American call a “City Indian” who dwells in Minneapolis, a place haunted by the police murder of George Floyd. Before that happens, Tookie is involved in a harebrained scheme while thinking she was doing a solid for friends. She is talked into bringing them a body from the morgue under false pretenses. Unknown to Tookie, the corpse had drugs taped to his body. Because Tookie had been in trouble earlier in her life, a White judge sentences her to 60 years of incarceration. Luckily, the lawyer she thought was the inept successfully appeals her case and secures her release from prison. The bad news is that she’s haunted by the time she spent in solitary confinement. Tookie maintained her sanity in prison by reading. This, of course, involves different kinds of sentences: printed words upon the pages of books.


When we next meet Tookie, she is married to her soulmate Pollux, the tribal cop who arrested her. He is no longer a cop, rather a gentle man who helps Tookie endure her nightmares and memories. (More hauntings.) Pollux and Tookie are also the de facto parents of the orphaned Hetta. Tookie works in a bookstore that carries mass market titles, classics, and Native-American literature. Jackie, Asema, and Penstemon are supportive colleagues, but Tookie prides herself on choosing the right books for customers, even the cranky ones. She dubs one particularly demanding customer Dissatisfaction, though actually he's an attorney whom she later befriends. The real problem customer is Flora, who dies while reading a sentence in a book and haunts the bookstore. What did she read? What does she want? Her behavior is reminiscent of pixies, naughty but not openly dangerous – until she is.


The Sentence is a complex book that takes us many places, not all of them pleasant. Hetta gets herself in dire straits on several levels and believes that the father of child she’s carrying has ghosted her. Ahh! Another type of haunting and this one for a reason we discover. Flora carries preexisting ghosts that prevent her from moving on. Erdrich guides us through tragic dealings between Native peoples, enslavers, and the governments of both United States and Canada. The infamous Riel rebellions of the Métis peoples and the 19th century come into play. Before Erdrich concludes–and she cameos in her own book–she immerses us in Venn diagram overlaps where legend, life, and the afterlife collide. Have you ever heard of werewolves or rugaboos? Want more? How about Marcel Proust references? Do you know the difference between a quarter and a quatrefoil, let alone the significance of the latter?


You don't have to dig into myth or the 19th century to find points of contact. As I noted earlier, Covid is an ever-present ghost. So too are the riots and protests linked to violence against non-White peoples. When Erdrich details police violence and mob chaos in Minneapolis, the craziness is reminiscent of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. Erdrich writes, "The world was filling with ghosts. We were a haunted country in a haunted world." Yet somehow, she makes sense of this sentence:  "Ghosts bring elegies and epitaphs, but also signs and wonders." Can a name haunt us? Read this astonishing book and maybe you will know. I can assure you that her sentences will haunt you.


Rob Weir


On the Road a So-So Version of Kerouac's Novel


ON THE ROAD (2012)

Directed by Walter Salles

IFC Films. 124 minutes, R (sex/nudity, language, violence, substance abuse)





In Friday’s blog about a museum in Lowell I mentioned Jack Kerouac, a native son. Today I look at the film adaptation of his most famous novel, the semi-autobiographical On the Road.


The movie certainly had an all-star cast: Amy Adams, Alice Braga, Kirsten Dunst, Garrett Hedlund, Elisabeth Moss, Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Stewart, Tom Sturridge.... Yet it also had a troubled path to the screen and went through numerous scripts and endured directors who dropped out of the running and multiple cast changes before executive producer Francis Ford Coppola coaxed it into existence with Brazil’s Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) at the helm. It got mixed reviews and that’s about right. It might have fared better had Kerouac never written his thinly disguised travel novel. If you’d read it, you can’t help but see the film as a streaky copy of the formative years of the Beat movement.  


Kerouac wrote about how he, under the pseudonym Sal Paradise, fell under the Svengali-like spell of Dean Moriarty, a Neal Cassady avatar. They split from New York City on a drug, booze, stolen car, and sexually-charged cross-country jaunt. On the Road (the novel) came out in 1957 and is a roman à clef that chronicles the spirit of their post-World War II adventures. Kerouac used aliases in most of his novels, but most were only lightly fictionalized and are easily unmasked. In the movie, Sal is played by Sam Riley, and Hedlund is Dean. Marylou (Stewart) and Camille (Dunst) are stand-in for Moriarty’s wives LuAnn and Carolyn. Carlo Marx (Sturridge) is an Allen Ginsberg surrogate and Old Bull Lee (Mortensen) a William Burroughs incarnation. Jane (Adams) parallels Joan Vollmer Burroughs and the Dunkels (Danny Morgan and Moss) portray Al and Helen Hinkle, friends of Cassady’s.


On the Road is, in many ways, the tale of young people (Sal, Carlo, Marylou, Camille) coming of age after falling under the spell of powerful men and mentors of the twisted variety such as Bull Lee and Dean. Marylou/LuAnn, for instance, was just 15 when she married Moriarty/Cassady and Sal/Jack followed Dean like a starry-eyed teen, though he was actually four years older. Subplots such as Sal finding his voice as a writer and Carlo coming to grips with his sexuality are shoe-horned into the film but are not particularly well integrated. Sex, though, is depicted. It fueled the Beats, along with jazz, poetry, debates in smoke-filled cafés, and devil-take-care lifestyles. Sal was particularly shy when he met Dean and turned down offers to sleep with Marylou. Dean/Neal had no inhibitions; he was bisexual and didn’t allow anything as “square” as a wedding ring to get in the way of trysts with available women and men.


On the Road takes us from New York to New York via Denver, Louisiana, North Carolina, California, Mexico, and points in between. In the film, Sal becomes his own person as a field worker and in Mexico, where he breaks Dean’s hold over him. The sprawling cast of characters has time to develop on the page, but is hard to condense in a movie, a partial reason why the first version ran 137 minutes before losing 13 minutes when it went into wider distribution. Neither version can really do full justice to the tone of Kerouac’s writing, which appears only as brief voice-overs in the movie. One does wonder, though, if a stronger film would have resulted had two drop-outs stayed aboard: Russell Banks as scriptwriter and Gus Van Sant as director.


It does have a great soundtrack. How can you go wrong with tracks from Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Son House, Charlie Parker, and Dinah Washington? Éric Gautier’s cinematography also stands out. Nor is there anything wrong with the acting. Overall, though, the film feels like a jazz ensemble on an off night– the notes are there but not the passion.

If you’ve never read On the Road, the movie might entice you to read Kerouac. If you have done so, take a look at the film and we can compare notes.


Rob Weir