With Thanksgiving around the corner, it’s worth revisiting some of the holiday’s most cherished expressions. In such a revisiting, we can discover not only the gaps between aspirations and lived realities, but also redemptive possibilities.
Take, for example, one of the most iconic of Thanksgiving images: Norman Rockwell’s painting, “Freedom from Want.” In the painting, a white family sits around a table. As the matriarch sets down a plump turkey, the glow from a background window casts a luminous image of togetherness, abundance, anticipation.
Rockwell painted this in 1943 as one of four paintings that became covers for the Saturday Evening Post, covers that illustrated and idealized the four freedoms President Franklin D. Roosevelt had espoused in his January 1941 State of the Union address.
Roosevelt had articulated these freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear and freedom from want) to rouse support for Great Britain in its war with Nazi Germany, and to define values that could help motivate and guide America’s own war preparedness. Inspired by Roosevelt’s vision, Rockwell’s paintings and Post covers gained instant popularity, and the paintings toured the country in an exhibit that helped raise millions in war bonds.
What is less remembered, however, is that each of the Post covers were accompanied with essays by well-known writers, including the labor activist, poet and novelist Carlos Bulosan. Bulosan’s brief essay on freedom from want is particularly worth reading today. He not only presented a vision of America starkly different from Rockwell’s; he also prophetically addressed issues that continue to vex the nation today.
Though Bulosan alluded to the fight against fascism, he devoted most of his essay to the struggle within America: a struggle for economic justice and human dignity. Coming to the U.S. as a teenager in 1930, he had experienced firsthand the hardships of agricultural labor as well as the racism directed at him as a Filipino immigrant.
Bulosan wrote from the point of view of working people – individuals who didn’t view freedom as an abstract value, but as a concrete manifestation of economic justice:
“We are not really free unless we use what we produce. So long as the fruit of our labor is denied us, so long will want manifest itself in a world of slaves. It is only when we have plenty to eat – plenty of everything – that we begin to understand what freedom means.”
Bulosan made clear that such freedom is not a “gift” that is philanthropically bestowed. It must, he said, be struggled for.
And he posed a challenge to the America that had been for him a less than hospitable home: “We are the mirror of what America is. If America wants us to be living and free, then we must be living and free. If we fail, then America fails.”
Today, the challenge posed by Bulosan is more sharply defined than ever, with 33 million Americans living in households that are food insecure, with indications pointing to a deepening crisis of homelessness, and with the extreme inequality of American society continuing to rise.
Bulosan died tragically young (mid-40s) in 1956 of tuberculosis-complicated pneumonia, but not before producing many other works, including his moving fictionalized memoir, “America is in the Heart.” The message in his “Freedom from Want” essay is as important to recall this Thanksgiving as is the radiant image in Rockwell’s painting.
Rockwell conveyed the joy of human gathering. Bulosan, on the other hand, calls his readers to the work yet unfinished – to the journeys yet to be taken on a true road to freedom.
Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor of English and Nonviolence Studies at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.