Belonging and Demographics in Rockwell’s “New Kids in the Neighborhood (Negro in the Suburbs)”

Installation view of Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties

The work in Witness that mesmerized me most was the Norman Rockwell’s oil on canvas, New Kids in the Neighborhood (Negro in the Suburbs). It is the first painting displayed in the exhibition. The painting depicts five characters: two African-American children and three white children staring each other. One African American boy in a white long sleeve shirt and plaid shorts holds a baseball glove; and a smaller African American girl stands right next to him. She looks a bit worried as she holds onto a white cat. She wears a pink dress and a matching hair tie and socks. On the other side of the canvas, one white boy, as tall as the African-American boy, has a bit of attitude and is in a yellow long sleeve shirt and jeans, also holding onto a baseball glove; there is a shorter white boy next to him, who is in a baseball uniform leaning towards to take a closer look at the African American children; and a white girl in a pink hair tie, who is standing right behind the two white boys. The white children have a black dog that looks directly at the African-American children as well. Behind the children, an adult is busy moving items out of a moving truck. Beyond the moving truck, parts of average suburban houses not too far from each other, hinting at the kind of neighborhood this is . Grass is green, and the some of the furniture is out on the yard. The two African-American children are standing closer to the houses, suggesting that they are the ones moving into the neighborhood. The painting is realistic. Its tone is not too bright or too dark but resembles natural light on a regular day. A bit of tension between the two groups of children can be felt through the work.

Norman Rockwell gained his success early. He was hired as art director of Boy’s Life, the official publication of the Boy Scouts of American, when he was a teenager (2). Starting at 22, Rockwell worked for The Saturday Evening Post. In 1963, Norman Rockwell left his iconic position as an illustrator at The Saturday Evening Post because the magazine refused to publish his more socially engaged work. Rockwell moved to the Look magazine where he started illustrating his concerns and interests including civil rights, America’s War on Poverty, and the exploration of space for the next 10 years. New Kids in the Neighborhood was reproduced in 1967 in a Look magazine article on integration in the suburbs (2).

This artwork resonated with me, because it reminded me of when I first moved to the United States at age 9. The way that the black girl is looking at the white kids is essentially how I felt when I first moved to the US. I felt separated. I felt like the white people were watching me closely because I was different. The tension between the two groups of children reflected to me the tension I felt when I was interacting with other racial groups as a young girl. Rockwell’s realistic figures in a suburban setting contributed to my connection. In addition, learning about the artist’s life story and his belief in racial equality made me appreciate the artwork more. Knowing Rockwell’s background and the choices he made to produce more socially-engaged work made me consider this painting as even more powerful that I initially thought.

New Kids in the Neighborhood illustrates segregation in the 60s. Segregation is any practice that separates a population based on race, religion, or ethnicity. Under Jim Crow Laws , there were two separate societies: one black and one white (4). At this time, African-American could not ride the same rail car, sit in the same waiting room, share the same theater, or attend the same school as white folks. In 1954, the Supreme Court declared segregation in the public schools as unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education case. After this, bus-riding Freedom Riders, marchers, boycotter, and other protesters started fighting against racial inequality not just in education, but also in everyday living, through the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s (4).

Rockwell used many different techniques to draw attention to the issue of segregation. First the physical separation of the two races is illustrated through the gap between them. The center of the painting is an empty space and the main characters are facing each other from the opposite side. This amplifies the tension between the groups. He used the suburbs as the setting to illustrate the fact that segregation is not only a problem in the urban area, but extends throughout the country, including the suburbs. The artist’s decision to use children was deliberate as a way to suggest innocence. The baseball gloves in the hands of both white and African-American boys allude to the great American pastime. Also the girls in this painting are both wearing a pink hair tie. Together, these aspects illustrate the commonality between the two raced groups. I believe that Rockwell used these subtle techniques to portray the state of the nation at the time and his belief that both race share common values and together make up the nation.

In sociology, segregation can explain inequality and demonstrates how external forces change demography. As mentioned earlier, segregation was a major problem facing the society in the 60s –and continues to be a problem today.. The economic and social impact of extreme segregation could be why the African American children in Rockwell’s painting moved to the suburbs,. An area where effects of segregation are imagined to be positive and not as harsh as in other places.

Race, along with income, education, place, and gender, is a social location. A social location indicates an individual’s particular chance at being “at risk” and shapes the contours of illness and disease once a person becomes sick (1). As studied in Dr. Sharon Cavanagh‘s Population and Society class, segregation leads to chronic stress due to unfair treatment. This can lead to many health problems that have a tremendous effect on the fertility and mortality rates of the population (1). Because the main characters of New Kids in the Neighborhood are children the weathering effects of living in a race-conscious society as African Americans have not yet reached the population at that age, it might not be immediately apparent that there are health disparities among the children. Fertility and mortality rates are important processes in population changes, which have a huge impact on the development of the population. In order to understand population change, it is necessary to see how population is impacted by forces such as segregation.

Julie Choi is a third year public health major at the University of Texas at Austin.  She was born in South Korea and moved to San Antonio when she was 9. She enjoys being outdoors, hiking, hanging out with friends, and playing music. 

Works Cited

Cavanagh, S. “Week 4 Lecture.” SOC 369K Population and Health. The University of Texas at Austin, Austin TX. 12 Feb. 2015. Lectur

“Norman Rockwell.” com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.

Rockwell, Norman. New Kids in the Neighborhood (Negro in the Suburbs). 1967. Oil on Canvas. Blanton Museum of Art, Austin Texas

“1960’s Civil Rights Movement.” Historybits. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.


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