A Teachable Moment from “Freeport artist living a dream, with cover image on this week’s New Yorker” – The Portland Press Herald

Abigail Gray Swartz, who attended the Women’s March in Augusta, ME updated the iconic Rosie the Riveter as a woman of color with a pink pussyhat and made the cover of the New Yorker. Source: Freeport artist living a dream, with cover image on this week’s New Yorker – The Portland Press Herald

When I first wrote this post, I hestitated pushing the “publish”button. A white woman creating art about Black women? From Maine? Odds that she’s got close friends of color who inspired this photo? Possible, but not likely. My introsectional radar jangled. I published it anyway, because, homestate pride.

Then I read this critique by Nynah Marie (and h/t to Shay Stewart Bouley of Black Girl in Maine for once again laying down some painful truth for us to get right with), and I sighed. I should have trusted that doubt. Nynah said:

Rosie the Riveter is a symbol of labor…during WWII women were asked to step up and do the work men couldn’t cos they were deployed.

Rosie was “invented” as a way to bring women to labor…she was an advertisement calling women to work…she was a call to action. She was a symbol for white women because WoC have always been working.

We all know the symbolism of the pink hat. Anatomically inaccurate for so many, non-inclusive and limiting for many more.

We’ve seen one million think pieces and heard one million and one opinions on this…we are all aware of women’s march commentary.

So, in this image, the artist, a white woman, has forced a black woman into the pink pussy hat…like, too bad right? She’s gonna wear this shit and like it. To top it off she then thrust the black woman into the role of the riverter, the laborer. Not the architects of resistance or leaders of a movement. As would’ve been appropriate in my opinion.

The only thing really captured, in this piece, is the tone deaf response America has had to WoC, especially black women brave enough to call out the hypocrisy…

This piece says….

“black women, accept the work white women are trying to do in the name of unity (even tho we have not shown up for you in the past and regardless that my efforts erase you and others. Given what we are facing, we need to be united) Also keep laboring. “You can do it!”

This “art” is trash. The artist a lie, this painting is a lie, and America is the greatest lie ever told.

I don’t agree with everything she says, but I listened. And when given the choice between my state pride and publishing something that might offend, the choice is simple. Pride goes before the fall, as they say. And there’s no place for it in our movement. I went and deleted the post.

Then I went back into the trashcan and pulled it back out, because one comment on the photo stuck in my mind. “The original Rosie the Riveter was a black woman.”

And since most of you reading this blog are white like me, and probably had no idea this was the case….

Pull up a chair folks, it’s Teachable Moment time. Let’s dig down into this. 

Some facts:

  • 1941-43, 700,000 African American families relocated from farms and rural towns in the South to cities with factories and plants in the North as well as shipyards and factories on the West Coast.screen-shot-2016-02-01-at-12-09-01-pm-625x500
  • Black workers were hired to fill eight percent or 400,000 of the 5 million defense jobs that were created during World War II.  Black women may have been employed in an estimated 10-20 percent of those positions although the actual numbers remain unknown.
  • They faced dangerous working conditions and were often assigned to the toughest jobs.
  • The women fought to get into the jobs, fought to advance, and they reported to the FEPC or directly to the White House corporations that failed to hire Black workers and filed complaints against companies for unfair and dangerous working conditions.  ….it has been conjectured that their experiences laid the groundwork for the organized activism of the Civil Rights movement that occurred during the next two decades. [Source: http://www.beyondblackwhite.com/black-womens-history-rosie-the-riveter-wasnt-always-white/ ]

Lesson #1: So, the women doing the roughest, tumblest jobs in those WWII defense jobs were Black women. In many ways they blazed the trail for others to follow.

The advertizing poster was a Euro-American (white) woman, of course.  She’s the image we all have in our mind when we think of Rosie the Riveter, now an icon of the feminist movement. But the truth is much more multi-colored.

Lesson #2: Black folks’ history got white-washed for marketing. (Naw, that never happens!)

And then here we are in 2017, and a white woman went and put a Black woman back in that poster. I don’t know her motivations, or if she knew the history, or the many struggles that Black women had in those defense jobs, or that they had a right to be included in those posters in the first place. My guess is that she just wanted to represent  the intersectionality of the march, so she used a black woman’s image and a pink hat. And if that’s all the thought she gave to it, well then she goofed. Classic well-intentioned white-person mistake.

And here’s the Lesson #3: You don’t get to use others’ images without their permission. Or you can, but you’re wandering into a minefield, and you’d do best to ask a few locals for some guidance before stepping out.

So, class, thoughts? Are you surprised to learn this? How does this change (if at all) how you view the Rosie posters? The same? Different? What about this artwork? Art is supposed to make us think, to look at society. What’s your take?


2 thoughts on “A Teachable Moment from “Freeport artist living a dream, with cover image on this week’s New Yorker” – The Portland Press Herald

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