HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: THE OTHER PEOPLE IN NORMAN ROCKWELL’S AMERICA – JANE ALLEN PETRICK

Freedom_from_WantThis beautifully written book about Norman Rockwell, the artist and his work focuses on the non-white children and adults who are his legacy. The book will be an eye-opener for many readers despite the fact that anyone who goes to the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts — or seriously looks at Rockwell’s body of work — can see that Norman Rockwell never portrayed a purely white America. This country’s non-white population have always been there, even when he had to more or less sneak them in by the side door.

These people — Black people, Native Americans and others — are not missing. Rockwell was passionate about civil rights and integration. It was his life’s cause, near and dear to his heart. It is merely that the non-white peoples in his pictures have been overlooked, become invisible via a form of highly effective selective vision. Despite their presence, many people choose to focus on the vision of white America and eliminate the rest of the picture. Literally.

The author tells the story not only of Rockwell’s journey and battle to be allowed to paint his vision of America, but also of the people who modeled for him, both as children and adults. She has sought out these people and talked to them, getting their first-hand experiences with the artist.

It’s a fascinating story and I loved it from the first word to the last. HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT is available on Kindle for just $3.49. It’s also available as a paperback.

InPlainSight

From the Author

Whether we love his work or hate it, most of us think of Norman Rockwell as the poster child for an all-white America. I know I did. That is until the uncanny journey I share with you in this book began to unfold.  Then I discovered a surprisingly different truth: Norman Rockwell was into multiculturalism long before the word was even invented.

Working from live models, the famous illustrator was slipping people of color (the term I use for the multi-ethnic group of Chinese and Lebanese, Navajos and African-Americans the artist portrayed) into his illustrations of America from the earliest days of his career. Those people of color are still in those illustrations. They never disappeared. But the reason we don’t know about them is because, up until now, they seem to have been routinely overlooked.

For example, in her book, “Norman Rockwell’s People,” Susan E. Meyer catalogues by name over one hundred and twenty Norman Rockwell models, including two dogs, Bozo and Spot. But not one model of color is named in the book.

Another case in point? “America, Illustrated,” an article written for The New York Times by Deborah Solomon, art critic and journalist In honor of (an) upcoming Independence Day, the entire July 1, 2010 edition of the paper was dedicated to “all things American.”

“America, Illustrated” pointed out that Norman Rockwell’s work was experiencing a resurgence among collectors and museum-goers. Why? Because the illustrator’s vision of America personified “all things American.” Rockwell’s work, according to the article, provided “harmony and freckles for tough times.” As Solomon put it, Norman Rockwell’s America symbolized “America before the fall.” This America was, apparently, all sweetness and light. Solomon simply asserts: “It is true that his (Rockwell’s) work does not acknowledge social hardships or injustice.”

The America illustrated by Norman Rockwell also, apparently, was all white. Seven full-color reproductions of Rockwell’s work augment the multi-page Times’ article. The featured illustration is “Spirit of America” (1929), a 9″ x 6″ blow-up of one of the artist’s more “Dudley Doright”-looking Boy Scouts. None of the illustrations chosen includes a person of color.

This is puzzling. As an art critic, Solomon surely was aware of Norman Rockwell’s civil rights paintings. The most famous of these works, “The Problem We All Live With,” portrays “the little black girl in the white dress” integrating a New Orleans school.

One hundred and seven New York Times readers commented on “America, Illustrated,” and most of them were not happy with the article. Many remarks cited Solomon’s failure to mention “The Problem We All Live With.” One reader bluntly quipped: “The reporter (Solomon) was asleep at the switch.” The other people in Norman Rockwell’s America, people of color, had been strangely overlooked, again.I have dedicated Hidden in Plain Sight: The Other People in Norman Rockwell’s America to those “other people”: individuals who have been without name or face or voice for so long. And this book is dedicated to Norman Rockwell himself, the “hidden” Norman Rockwell, the man who conspired to put those “other people” into the picture in the first place.

ON NOT BEING A CULTURE SNOB

I read a post about how dreadful (yet gripping) romance novels can be. It’s true. They are the potato chips of the literary world. Bet you can’t consume just one! Even if you don’t like them (and mostly, I don’t, much), they grab you and won’t let you go, even though you know in advance exactly what is going to happen, pretty much from the opening page.

That’s not the point of these books. If as a girl, you read the back of cereal boxes, romance novels are the next step up. I’m not sure what the literary equivalent is for guys, but I’m sure there is one.

netflix for books

As the former editor of the Doubleday Romance Library, I can tell you our research showed readers of romance novels to be far better educated than average readers. Many have advanced degrees in the sciences. They read romance novels exactly because they are mindless pulp. They aren’t looking to be informed or improved, to have their world expanded, reading-level or awareness raised. They want a book they can pick up, read, put down. If life gets in the way, they can just forget them without regret.

I read each 3-book volume, one per month. It contained three romances: 2 modern with a Gothic sandwiched between. Every novel had the same plot, the same outcome. They sold gangbusters.

Regardless of what we, as writers, would like, people don’t necessarily read books because they are good. Me? I often avoid “good” books. I don’t want to go where the book would take me. I’m not stupid or lacking in culture. I just don’t want to read it.

Why? Too depressing, too intense, too serious, too ugly, too educational. Too real. I read for the same reasons I watch TV and movies. To be entertained. I am not seeking enlightenment. Perhaps I should rephrase that. I am no longer seeking enlightenment. If I ain’t enlightened by now, I’m pretty sure it won’t happen in this lifetime.

The wondrous thing about the world of books is there are so many books. Enough genres, themes, and styles for anyone. Everyone. An infinity of literature so no matter what your taste –low-brow, high-brow, middle-brow, no-brow — there are thousands of books waiting for you. That’s good. I’d rather see someone reading a bad book than no book.

I’m not a culture snob. I think reading crappy novels is fine if you like them. Watching bad TV is fine too. Snobs take the fun out of reading. While I’m not a fan of romance novels, if you are, that’s fine. Since I love reading about vampires and witches, I’d be a hypocrite to act like your taste is somehow inferior to mine.

These days, I’m rarely in the mood for serious literature. Tastes change with the years. Mine has changed more than most. Life has been a very serious business for me. When I read, watch TV, or see a movie, I am happy to escape from reality.

Finally, my favorite professor at university — a man I believe was profound and wise in every way that counted — was a big fan of Mickey Spillane. He said there was a much truth in his books. I believe for him, there was.

NATIONAL BROTHERHOOD WEEK?

Way back in the dark ages, the third week in February (an otherwise dreary and neglected month) was designated National Brotherhood Week. As designated special weeks go, it was never a big hit with the general public. In the 1980s, it disappeared completely. Probably because it failed to sell greeting cards. Which is, I believe, the point of such created events.

brotherhoodweek-624x446

The National Conference for Christians and Jews (NCCJ) came up with the idea of National Brotherhood Week in 1934. Given the current political climate, maybe we can agree more brotherhood year round would be an improvement. Sadly, we no longer have even that one, measly week.

February is now Black History Month which seems to mean movie channels run films featuring non-white stars. Unless you watch PBS or the History Channel where you might see a documentary or two.

The man who took it seriously — even in the old days — as he took all politics seriously, was Tom Lehrer. He taught math at Hahvid (Harvard, if you aren’t from around here). He didn’t write a lot of songs since he, till his dying day (which hasn’t occurred yet as he’s alive and living in California), thought of himself as a math teacher who wrote silly songs. Not as an entertainer.

Despite this unfair self-assessment, I’ve always felt Tom got this particular holiday dead to rights. Ya’ think?

He got a lot of stuff right. Check him out on YouTube. He only wrote about 50 songs and most of them are posted in some video or other. Me? I’ve got the CDs. (Remember CDs?)

SAVING SOME THINGS OF VALUE

Antique Antics

What’s the oldest thing you own? (Toys, clothing, Twinkies, Grecian urns: anything’s fair game.) Recount its history — from the object’s point of view.


Collecting is a beautiful disease. Insidious with no known cure. You acquire a thing. You love it. You get another thing, similar, but not the same. One day, you look around and you have a collection.

Han Dynasty 206 BC - 220 AD

Han Dynasty 206 BC – 220 AD

Chinese antique porcelain and Asian sacred art grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. There is something awe-inspiring about holding something in your hand that was created thousands of years ago. It lives on your fireplace mantel.

Bronze, probably Tibetan, 19th century?

Bronze, probably Tibetan, 19th century?

You look at it and imagine all the people who have touched it, whose lives this pot has touched, whose prayers this Buddha has heard. It’s living history.

Qianlong (1736-1795) porcelain.

Qianlong (1736-1795) porcelain.

Thus, when I had to reduce the collection, I didn’t sell anything. I split the collection and gave more than half my favorite pieces to my friends, people who I knew would treasure it as I did. How much was it worth? A lot, maybe. Or not so much. I don’t know. It was beyond price to me. Money is transitory but these precious, fragile, beautiful pieces need to be protected, to be kept safe, not sold as decorations.

Tang horse with servant

Tang horse with servant

A great deal of the world’s great art has been casually destroyed by governments and individuals with no reverence for art or history. War, natural disasters have contributed to reducing the number of these fragile pieces of art. If I can save a Han pot, a Qianlong vase, or a single Tibetan Buddha. I’ve saved something of value. I no longer collect, but I continue to preserve and protect.

SIT! STAY! THINK!

Living Art

One day, your favorite piece of art — a famous painting or sculpture, the graffiti next door — comes to life. What happens next?


“For God’s Sake,” I shout at the giant naked bronze guy loping around my garden. “Put something on! You can’t go running around like that!”

the thinker

It’s already too late. I can hear the sirens getting closer and I know those evil neighbors are getting me back for all the nights when my dogs barked and wouldn’t shut up. I glare at Bonnie. She grins.

“Quick, hurry,” I urge him. “Here, take this shirt. It should fit you.”

It doesn’t. The bronze guy is huge. The pants are hopeless too, even though they are a very copious pair of pants … big enough for me and a couple of good friends. Finally, in near despair, I throw him a blanket. He harrumphs and plunks his butt down on the big rock by the garage.

“Just stay very still,” I tell him. “Pretend you’re a statue. Better yet, act like you are thinking. I’ll deal with the cops.”

It turns out he is very good at being a statue. He had years of experience. He likes it so much, he remains there as I write. Sitting.

And thinking, I’ll wager.

ALL YOU ZOMBIES, ROBERT HEINLEIN

all you zombiesTime travel makes my brain go “eek.” This is a compliment. Not many things make my brain do back flips and somersaults. Time travel is an impossible concept I cannot understand because it is inherently incomprehensible. Therefore, I love it.

This review contains spoilers, so if you’ve never read this, you might want to stop now and be surprised by the story.

I first read this story by Robert Heinlein long ago as part of a compilation of his classic short stories. After all these years, it remains on the top of the heap of time travel tales. I couldn’t remember its title, so it took me a while to find it. It is called “All You Zombies.”

In a strange infinite loop, a baby girl is mysteriously dropped off at an orphanage in Cleveland in 1945. “Jane” grows up lonely and dejected, not knowing who her parents are, until one day in 1963 she is strangely attracted to a drifter. She has a brief passionate relationship with him and becomes pregnant.

RobertHeinleinThe stranger disappears.

During a weird and complicated birthing, Jane’s doctors discover she actually has two complete sets of sex organs. With her life on the line, the doctors change her from female to male. Jane is now a man. Then …. a mysterious stranger kidnaps her baby leaving Jane a man and childless.

Depressed, lost, he becomes a drunk and a drifter. He eventually, meets a young woman in a bar, who he impregnates during a brief affair. The story contains even more complexities, involving the Time Corps and a bartender. Throughout, everything continues moving forward and backward in time.

Read it, and get your own brain in a twist.

The story is a paradox, impossible yet structured with its own internal logic that you can neither reject nor accept. At which point, my brain goes “Eek!!” Jane is everyone. Everyone is Jane. She is her family: tree, trunk, branches and roots. I found this amazing diagram of the story. I do not know where it originated and I would love to credit whoever drew it in the first place. Tree of lives The circular logic combined with the impossibility of the sequence where the same person is mother, father and child forever in an infinite loop — the snake eating its tail — is deliciously mind-blowing. You can get it for your Kindle from Amazon for $1.25, or as part of an anthology of Heinlein short stories. There are several listed on Amazon, new and used.

Heinlein did much of his most creative writing in these early short stories. His later novels are better known today, especially Stranger In a Strange Land. The short stories have gotten a bit lost in time but are well worth your time. Most were written for the science fiction fanzines – newsprint magazines that were the primary outlets for sci fi until the genre broke into mainstream literature in the 1960s. Not only Heinlein, but all the classic great science fiction authors started their careers writing for the fanzines.

I’ve read many hundreds of time travel books and stories over more than 50 years of loving science fiction. But this one, this story, has stuck firmly in my brain as the most perfect paradox where the past, present and future come together in a perfect conundrum.

All You Zombies is my favorite for good reason. It’s unforgettable. I promise you will never forget it either.