On Feb. 15, the University of New Orleans Women’s Center Coffee Talk Lecture Series presented a lecture about Norman Rockwell’s famous painting, “The Problem We All Live With,” which depicts six-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted to William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans during the effort to desegregate public schools.
This was the first lecture of the Coffee Talk series this year, chosen in light of Black History Month and the ongoing campus-wide UNO Diversity Celebration.
The talk was led by Nikki Brown, associate professor of history at UNO and author of “Private Politics and Public Voices: Black Women’s Activism from World War I to the New Deal.”
Brown’s particular focus concerned the civil rights movement and the various incarnations it has evolved into, from the late nineteenth century all the way to the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the African-American community in New Orleans.
She outlined the waves of the movement on the African-American community, from the Harlem Renaissance to the Great Depression and the desegregation movement, to the socio-economic impact of World War I and World War II.
Brown’s work has taken her many places (including a five-year photography project revolving around African-American men in New Orleans), but she said one question remains on her mind throughout the learning process: “How are people thinking about civil rights now?”
She shared a quote from civil rights activist Diane Nash. “We tend to think about the civil rights movement as singular actors—Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Ruby Bridges, Malcolm X, when it was a collective movement, a people’s movement.”
“The point of these articles was to say there is a civil rights movement in New Orleans in the shadow of Katrina that doesn’t focus on obtaining civil rights—it focuses on the quality of the civil rights,” Brown said, using articles used to illustrate the “white backlash” and opposition to the movement in the media throughout history.
Brown even showed a striking image of a recent parody to Rockwell’s painting that portrayed controversial Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in the place of Ruby Bridges, which set off a firestorm of criticism on social media.
Chelsey Shannon, graduate student in the MFA program for fiction writing, remarked that she has not been to a Coffee Talk lecture before and generally limits her on-campus involvement.
However, Shannon said seeing the poster for the lecture put her “on the spot” and inspired her to attend the talk where she had a few thoughts of her own to bring to the table. “I saw the poster and I saw the Ruby Bridges image of Betsy DeVos and I thought that was sort of pointed,” said Shannon, adding that she wanted “to find some connection and the face of all this nonsense that’s going on.”
Brown said she thinks that as time goes on, the phrasing of “African-American history” will lose its stigma in popular culture and academia to eventually graduate into the collective conscience of American history.
“You have to keep your eye on the prize—that you’re talking about all Americans, that [we’re all] a unique gumbo contributing to America.”
The next Coffee Talk lecture will focus on small businesses established by women locally. As always, light refreshments will be provided.