The Problem We All Live With

BLM protest

Picture above: “Black Lives Matter Protest 6/6/20 – Washington, DC [Explored]” by Geoff Livingston

Negar Ebrahimi

The problem we all live with, is a painting by Norman Rockwell from 1964 on the US Civil rights movement. The painting reflects on events following school integration for a 6-year-old girl, Ruby Bridges, in New Orleans Louisiana.[1]

 

Art work the problem we all live with

Picture above: Norman Rockwell: The Problem We All Live With. 1964. Collection of Norman Rockwell Museum.

While the very term “school integration” might sound alien today, there was a race-based school system in place before the supreme court of the US pass a bill for the public schools’ integration in 1954. As you see in the painting, Ruby is accompanied by four US marshals, who escorted her every day to school, since many were opposed to her admittance to a “white” school. The signs of the protesters’ aggression, a thrown tomato and the slur word are on the wall behind Ruby in the painting. Although ruby emanates courage, her white attire hints of her vulnerability to such violence. It breaks my heart to think what hardships Ruby had to go through, it is equally heart-breaking that after about 6 decades we are still struggling for equal rights. The persisting white privilege – where any “other” is suspected of being lacking or at least, not worthy of similar attention – is evidenced by the 2020 #BlackLivesMatter civil unrest worldwide, after George Floyd was killed unjustly.[2]

But why do some resort to the act of violence? What is the drive for such vehement attempts to stifle any “otherness”, terrorise and oppress the Other’s very existence through means that are clearly against virtues of being human? Violence, “the deliberate exercise of physical force against a person, property, etc.; intimidation by the exhibition of physical force”[3] is often seen as the opposite of freedom. Violence jeopardizes the freedom of those who are victimised while hindering the freedom of expression for those who are implying a contradicting force. Let us recall the current social unrest across the world due to the lockdown restrictions for Covid-19 pandemic. While groups of people were exercising their right to freedom of expression through rioting and rejecting social distancing or mask wearing, healthcare workers were struggling with the rise in hospital admissions, putting their lives on the line to save patients. If there is one thing upon which we all can agree from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that how we are all linked as one community, such that one cannot properly exist without considering the entwined relationships of the global community. Even our rudimentary health cannot be conceived of independently from the community we belong in. It seems evident that we need to revisit our definitions of freedom, to which we feel entitled. If our freedom is violating another’s, how is it morally justified?

 

Ruby’s marching on a concrete pathway of cement, the unyielding structures that she needed to press forward despite of; standing tall, armed with her pen and paper is inspiring. The painting’s representations persist in the present while they are reminders of another time and place, showing us something of ourselves and of our present situation. It reminds us of the tireless effort and grit that has gone into what we take for granted today, and that strength and determination should be our reaction to prejudices. That is,  if we want to bring about positive change. Another lesson to be drawn from the Covid-19 pandemic, is the speed at which we can intiate and effect change. As it was demonstrated by the 2020 global pandemic, the structures we are used to can be transformed and reshaped overnight. It is time for us to understand that we do not need years and decades for change, with our determination the world we live in today can change tomorrow. And although history is shaped by forces that sometimes are beyond our control and comprehension, there is no excuse for not being human, compassionate and empathic, at all costs. What impedes our freedom is the violation of empathy and kindness. For our autonomous spirits to grow and flourished, we need to accept that we are but one. As it is demonstrated in a poem by Saadi,[4] and inscribed in the United Nations building in New York,

“Human beings are members of one body,

since in their creation they are of one essence.

When the conditions of the time bring a member to pain,

the other members will suffer and will not be at ease either

the ones who are indifferent to the sufferings of others,

is it fitting that they’d be called human?”

Despite our differences in colour or gender, what we owe to ourselves demands our engagement with inequality morally. Solving “the problem we all live with”, by doing whatever we can do today, is our commitment by default to our love for human beings. We do not need to hit the headlines in order to do so, with even small steps gradually leading to a change for the better. Even if we don’t end up changing the world, at the very least, we will change our own reality. Can we be sure that our efforts will really work? Who knows! But does it have an ancillary effect of putting problems into their right perspective? It certainly does!

[1] Norman Rockwell Museum Collections, ‘Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With’. See more on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4Trz-ijBYg. Last seen on October 2020.

[2] #BlackLivesMatter movement uprisings worldwide in 2020, after George Floyd was killed at the hand of police officers in Minneapolis.

[3] “violence, n.”. OED Online. September 2020. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/223638?rskey=wkqwH7 (accessed October 31, 2020).

[4] Saadi Shirazi is a renowned Iranian poet. This poem (Bani Adam) was quoted by former US president Barack Obama in his message for Nowruz celebration, the Persian New Year, on March 2009 and is from Saadi’s book Golestan. See more on Saadi in “Saadi and humanism” by Dr Abbas Milani and Stanford Irannian Studies:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KMMCOl4QGU

References

Paxton, Pamela Marie, Melanie M., Hughes, and Tiffany Barnes. Women, Politics, and Power: A Global Perspective. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020.

The Art Institute of Chicago. ‘Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks | Art Institute Essentials Tour’. The Art Institute of Chicago, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–hoDMroROw.

OED Online. September 2020. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/223638?rskey=wkqwH7 (accessed October 31, 2020).


Author’s bio:

Negar is an architect and a consultant in spatial analysis with a Master of Science in Spatial Design; Architecture and Cities from The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Currently, she is completing her PhD in Architecture while teaching at the University of Edinburgh. Negar is passionate about promoting people’s wellbeing through architecture and urban design and her ongoing research interests focus on the correlation between happiness and spatial design. Her work has been exhibited in the London Festival of Architecture (LFA) 2017 (in collaboration) and at the UCL Doctoral School exhibition in London as The Best Hundred Research Images of 2018. She was awarded multiple grants for her research; including Social Responsibility and Sustainability Award (UoE SRS) 2020, IAD Action Fund (Institute of Academic Development) 2019, Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funding award for the FoSS 2019, and Festival of Creative Learning (FCL 2019) Award. In 2020, as a Young Women Lead (YWCA @youngwomenscot) committee member she worked on an equal rights and inclusion report with The Scottish Parliament (@ScotParl); and also received the Clinton Global Initiative recognition of Commitment to Action (CGI U). See more on her latest project on  https://edinburghccc.eventbrite.com. When she isn’t working, you’ll find Negar reading Persian Poetry or doing origami. You can find out more about Negar and her work here: www.linkedin.com/in/negar-ebrahimi