Bridging the Gap, Crossing the Bridge

Black lives matter. Tragically, it is clear that the United States of America has a problem understanding this. The nation’s approach to ensuring that all individuals are given equal, equitable and justice driven access to fundamental rights has been nefariously inconsistent and negligent. Governing, economic and social systems have been against racial equality from the moment when men, women and children were stolen from their homelands within the African continent and became slaves on ‘New World’ plantations. Black and Indigenous people have been continually segregated and forced to assimilate within a social and cultural system that has subjugated them to colonial and white-supremacist laws, bias and education (see: Little, 2018; Natividad, 2020).

There are too many instances of Black communities and Black individuals experiencing discriminatory policies and actions. One only has to turn on the news or login to social media to see the myriad of stories where Black individuals are singled out by their fellow white citizens, and wrongfully and/or falsely accused of something. Predominantly Black neighborhoods are more heavily scrutinized and over policed than predominantly white neighborhoods (Smyton, 2020). The first things that many of our Black students see when they arrive at school is a metal detector and a uniformed police officer. These implicit and explicit actions of racial discrimination result in devastating narratives of physical harm and emotional duress. It is outrageous that a nation, which self describes itself as ‘home of the free,’ is riddled with policies and measures that uphold systemic racism and disenfranchise BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities.

U.S. Marshals escort 6 year old Ruby Bridges from William J. Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans on Nov. 14, 1964.

At the crux of many of the issues affecting education today, is the lack of egalitarian learning environments. Classrooms and schools are often too homogeneous, which reinforces social, cultural and economic imbalance (see: Chang and Mehta, 2020). If you look across the board in New York City, it is woefully apparent that educational settings with student bodies consisting of mostly Black and Hispanic students have less resources to support efficacious academic and social learning experiences (see: Yin, 2017). Racial, social and economic diversity in schools provides framework for an equal, equitable and justice based education. This form of pedagogy is essential for developing each individual student’s understanding of what it means to be part of a heterogeneous society. Students need experience interacting with peers who have different racial, cultural and educational experiences in order to be successful in the multicultural world outside of the classroom.

Since the defining 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. the Board of Education, which was supposed to make education equally accessible to all American students, there have been both major advances and devastating setbacks to educational justice. Even after the landmark case, schools maintained largely segregated facilities and Black and white students continued to receive inequitable and unequal educational experiences. This was especially problematic in regions where state governments refused to abide by the federal ruling. In 1957, federal troops had to be called to Little Rock, Arkansas to safely escort nine Black students (known as the Little Rock Nine) into Little Rock Central High School. On November 14, 1960, a 6-year-old Black girl named Ruby Bridges, walked into William J. Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. This event rattled the community and transformed racially segregated cities. Ruby broke down a wall that was both symbolic and actual. It was a bold move, which subjected a small child to verbal abuse and physical threats. Thanks to the audacity of civil rights leaders and brave students like Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine, integrating schools so that Black and white students could learn together and from one another became a reality.

Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With, 1964, oil on canvas. Collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

The bravado of Ruby Bridges walking into school is immortalized throughout popular culture. The most famous example is The Problem We All Live With , a 1964 oil painting by Norman Rockwell. The painted rendition of Bridges on her way to William Frantz Elementary School, suggests that we as viewers are meant to be present in the moment. Racism is a problem we all must respond to, and any silence or inaction to address it signifies our complicity in upholding the country’s racist past and present. We view the painting from the perspective of the onlookers, many of whom protested the event. Ruby is the main focus in the composition. The other figures are four deputy U.S. Marshals escorting her to school. These marshals have been cropped at the shoulders, so that the only facial expression we see is Bridges’. Behind Bridges, the hate-word, ‘Nigger,’ is graffitied and a tomato has been hurled, missing Bridges, but smearing the wall and accentuating the vitriolic word, as if it were a punctuation mark. One can only imagine the anxiety, fear and trauma that she felt that day, but Ruby Bridges is presented in the painting as being stoic and emboldened. This stylistic treatment signifies the level of maturity she possessed, while the adults around her exhibited callow and cowardly forms of ignorance and bigotry. The painting was reproduced as a centerfold in the January 14, 1964 issue of Look magazine, where it was viewed by millions of Americans. For a period of time during 2011, the original painting was displayed in a hallway outside the Oval Office.

Bria Goeller & Good Trubble‘s image of Kamala Harris alongside Ruby Bridges shadow, created in October of 2020 and went ‘viral’ after Biden and Harris were elected.

The painting’s depiction of Bridge’s unmistakably assertive posture and gesture has inspired another popularly shared image, featuring Vice-President elect, Kamala Harris, who just became the first Black and South Asian woman to be elected to the country’s second highest government position. This recent image was created by graphic designers Bria Goeller & Good Trubble. It depicts Harris striding towards what we can figuratively presume to be the White House. The shadow she is casting is a silhouette of Ruby Bridges from The Problem We All Live With. While the image was made prior to the election, the message is clear. Harris is breaking ground by becoming the first Black woman to serve as the Vice President of the United States. The audacious narratives of Harris and Bridges can be inspiring for Black girls around the country (see: Block, 2020). Goeller & Good Trubble’s image is a tribute to the trailblazers like Bridges, who have broken glass ceilings and paved the way for Harris’ historic moment.

A page from Clarissa Sligh’s art book, It Wasn’t Little Rock, 2004. © Clarissa Sligh. Courtesy of the artist.

Another trailblazer for racial justice in the educational system is contemporary artist Clarissa Sligh. Racial segregation in schools is personal for Sligh. Growing up in Virginia, she wasn’t allowed to attend schools with white children. In 1956, when Sligh was fifteen, she was a part of a school desegregation case (Clarissa Thompson et. al. vs. Arlington County School Board). Experiencing the fight for desegregation and overarching racial and social justice has informed her multidisciplinary art practice. Sligh’s artwork explores transcendence from the traditional binary structures of race, gender, sexual orientation and class. She is investigating equality, equity and justice through an intersectional lens. This means that issues including gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, disability and physical appearance are not isolated from each other. They exist and are experienced through a complex but relational network, which in turn manifests different forms of privilege and discrimination (see: Coaston, 2019). Her ongoing participatory artwork Transforming Hate, is a mixed media project that combines historical sources with contemporary personal and communal narratives. Through participatory workshops and investigations into the roots of systemic racism, this work of art communicates how collective artmaking can transform and dismantle hateful rhetoric, imagery and expressions.

Sligh created an artist book called It Wasn’t Little Rock (2004), which describes her educational background, prior to, during and after the school system in Arlington was racially desegregated. The book’s title references a typical response from Black students in Arlington, when they were asked about their experiences in Virginia’s desegregated public schools. The brutality of Little Rock’s desegregation efforts was scarring to other Black students across the nation, who feared similar brutality and hatred from their white peers. It Wasn’t Little Rock combines text with primary sources, and unique works of art that Sligh made to give further symbolic expression to the poignant visual and textual narrative.

Our students deserve an education system that supports free expression, self-determination and civil rights. To truly bridge the educational and societal gap between race, ethnicity and class, our schools need to be far more than just heterogeneous environments. The curricula needs to focus on social and emotional learning that seeks to heal centuries of trauma and cultural bias. If this is done in a manner that supports collaboration, students and educators will have ample opportunities to learn about each other’s personal and cultural experiences. Discussing examples of socially engaged contemporary art, and incorporating project-based artistic explorations around themes of social justice can help strengthen how we coexist, exhibit empathy and stand up against systemic racism and other forms of oppression.

I have frequently cited examples throughout this blog of how contextualizing and making art has inspired progressive social, cultural and environmental transformations. Here are links to previous posts for reference:

Turning the Dismantling of Monuments into Teachable Moments – a post about transforming the dismantling of Confederate and other malevolent monuments into teachable moments.

Artfully Speaking – a post about the importance of empowering student voices, and how code switching is a skill and technique that BIPOC students use to represent themselves within two or more simultaneously occurring realities (i.e. the classroom, their communities and so on).

Shifting the Paradigm: Indigenous American Art and Multicultural Art Education – a post about introducing Indigenous art history and contemporary Indigenous culture within the art education curriculum.

Education and Empowerment via Entertainment JusticeGenerations of human beings have taught and learned valuable lessons from songs that are created within the community and are immersed in our collective cultural identity. This post explores some examples of collaborative learning and empowerment via song and performance.

W.E.B. Du Bois’ Visual Lessons About the Black Experience in Academic, Professional and Everyday Life – Through his artful early 20th century infographics, W.E.B. Du Bois teaches us a powerful lesson on how reflecting and assessing race in academic, professional and everyday terms impacts the lives of Black communities.

Artfully Dismantling Systemic Racism – This post features artists, art historians and art educators who are doing critical aesthetic and pedagogical work that implores us to reflect on systemic racial and social inequality, inequity and injustice, and build strong and united communities as a response

What does an equitable art education look like? – A post about how art and art education can divert and dissect colonialist ideologies and shift the paradigm of the Western canon to be representative of intersectional identities and experiences.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Block, Melissa. “‘She’ll Look Like A Boss’: Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris Inspires Young Girls.” NPR, 12 November 2020.

Chang, Ailsa and Mehta, Jonaki. “Why U.S. Schools Are Still Segregated — And One Idea To Help Change That.” NPR, 7 July 2020.

Coaston, Jane. “The intersectionality wars.” Vox, 28 May 2019.

Little, Becky. “How Boarding Schools Tried to ‘Kill the Indian’ Through Assimilation.” History, 1 November 2018.

Natividad, Ivan. “Why are American public schools still segregated.” BerkeleyNews, 4 March 2020.

Smyton, Robin. “How Racial Segregation and Policing Intersect in America.” TuftsNow

Yin, Alice. “Education by the numbers.” The New York Times, 8 September 2017.

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