Let me begin by saying right off the bat that there is nothing wrong with the illustrations of Norman Rockwell. It’s just that he spoke for a different America, an America that was predominately small-town or even rural. His work belongs with the Judge Billy Priest stories of Irvin S. Cobb, silent films like King Vidor’s Tol’able David (1921), and the paintings of Thomas Hart Benton. Just about everybody you would be likely to meet on Main Street was White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant.
Then the Second World War happened, and people started to move around—a whole lot. African-Americans moved up to the industrial cities of the Northern U.S. Mexican farmers started streaming across the border to help bring in the crops.
And people like me started to pop up. When my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Idell, first saw me in 1950 at Harvey Rice School in Cleveland, it was probably like a portent of the Apocalypse. My friend András and I didn’t speak a work of English. And although she taught at a public school in the heart of the largest Hungarian community outside the Peoples’ Republic of Hungary, she didn’t know a word of Magyar, nor did she feel she had to. When András and I started kicking her in the ankles, I am sure she felt like Joan of Arc among the Barbarian Hordes.
It was just the beginning. In addition to all the black and brown people who were showing up, including a large Puerto Rican neighborhood by Lorain, there were other strange people who came because we chose to fight wars all over the map in places where we had no more inkling of their culture than Mrs. Idell had of mine. I work in Tehrangeles, in a city that has a Thai Town, a Little Seoul, a Little Tokyo, and, of course, “East Los,” a.k.a. East Los Angeles. There are thousands of Armenians, Ethiopians, Hmong, Vietnamese, Arabs, and Chinese—to name just a few. Then, too, there was a whole new type of minority: gays, lesbians, trans-gender individuals.
For many Americans, the odd admixture of cultures leads to a terrible uncertainty. Many people who have been left behind in the “Heartland” feel that America doesn’t belong to them any more. Well it does, and it also belongs to the newcomers. They are or soon will be just as American as any of us. They may be slow to speak our lingo, but their kids’ll pick up on it quickly.
Of one thing I am sure: There is no point in trying to return to the America of Norman Rockwell.
There’s nothing wrong with uncertainty. There is, however, quite a bit wrong with false certitudes. Whatever happens, Norman Rockwell describes an America that is, for the most part, gone. Any attempt to force the Americans of today into a White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant mold will fail, after causing a lot of hard feelings. Even I get pretty sick and tired of Evangelical posturing and the whole Anglo thing which is 0% of my own heritage. If I keep my mouth shut, I might be mistaken for a WASP; but I have no desire to parade around as one. I have no particular respect for WASPs. Their moment has come and gone. There are a whole lot of different people now.
I can live with that. In fact, I rather like it.