William stands with his back to the camera and looks at a Ruby Bridges painting at the Norman Rockwell Museum

Norman Rockwell Museum: Illustrating Race

What do advertisements and illustrations and magazine covers tell us about who we are as a society? When does an image become sentimental because it conveys hope without sorrow? When are figures used to represent full humanity and when are they caricatures? 

These are some of the questions William and I talked about when we visited the Norman Rockwell Museum’s exhibit called “Illustrating Race.” It covered 150 years of depictions of Black Americans in advertising and popular media, culminating in a room with a series from Kadir Nelson. Nelson’s New Yorker covers have told the recent story of race in America with power and grief and hope. I could have stood in front of his portrait of George Floyd for an hour, just trying to absorb the power of this image—a man whose body holds the history of the trauma of 400 years of injustice. 

Rockwell created covers for the Saturday Evening Post for over forty years, and as far as we could tell, he only depicted Black figures twice during that time. William and I wanted to know more. There were Post covers on display from the same time period with offensive caricatures of Black Americans. Rockwell’s depictions of Black Americans seemed to offer a compassionate eye that wanted to render the fullness of their lives, not a flattened and demeaning one. 

And after he finished with the Post, he painted the famous scene of Ruby Bridges on her way to school as well as a few other scenes that captured the tensions and trauma of the Civil Rights era. 

The show as a whole prompted all sorts of conversations about how people are depicted and what stories our advertisements and popular cultural images tell us about who we are. 

It’s only there until Sunday, so if you live anywhere nearby, this weekend would be a great time to check it out!

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