Monday, December 02, 2002
: . Freedom from Want:
- We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression--everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want...everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear...anywhere in the world.
-- President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Message to Congress (January 6, 1941)
What do Franklin Roosevelt, Norman Rockwell, and Carlos Bulosan have in common? This is an old story for students of Filipino-American history (and I am surprised that as far as I know no one has put up the full text of Freedom from Want online until now). But it is a story worth retelling since it involves such an iconic image that many of us have seen and will see again and again especially during the holidays but never really think about. In his State of the Union Address on January 6, 1941, FDR urged his countrymen, then hesitant to join the war in Europe, to take up arms against fascism abroad if only to defend American ideals and to widen their sphere of influence. For FDR, America is animated by the spirit of four freedoms -- freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear -- each worth dying for, none worth compromising. Inspired by FDR's speech, Norman Rockwell created a series of paintings based on each of these freedoms and in 1943, long after the attack on Pearl Harbor and with much of the US armed forces already in the thick of battle, Rockwell's paintings were reproduced in the Saturday Evening Post. To accompany Rockwell's images, the Saturday Evening Post commissioned four American writers to each write an essay elaborating upon one of the four freedoms. One of these writers was Carlos Bulosan and his essay explored the theme of Freedom from Want.
Bulosan's essay is a remarkable revolutionary document and one wonders whether editorial oversight, thick headedness, or a desire for provocation allowed it to see print. Bulosan hijacks the instruments of the Establishment and the consecrators of the American status quo and turns the attention of American readers from the war being fought outside the nation's borders to the war raging within. While Rockwell's comforting image celebrates what America thinks it already is -- a land of shared plenty, domestic warmth, patriarchal authority, and bland but comforting whiteness -- Bulosan points to what America has yet to become. He focuses on what Rockwell's image excludes, and the everyday realities within the home and out of doors that it momentarily banishes from view. Bulosan revises Rockwell's image, enriches its palette, and reframes it as a vision of a future realized through social struggle instead of a present that only needs to be preserved. Bulosan therefore urges Americans to live up to, and to struggle for the realization of, the narrative of itself. For Bulosan, Freedom from Want is not an accomplished fact but an aspiration, a promise held out by collective resistance.
Rockwell’s images were soon exhibited around the nation and mass reproduced to instill patriotism and to boost the sale of war time bonds. Loosened from their intended use after the war’s end, Rockwell’s images entered the realm of kitsch Americana, inspiring nostalgia for a past that never was and forgetfulness for a future that still needs to be coaxed into unfolding. Bulosan’s essay on the other hand was quickly forgotten and even now, with the flourishing of Asian American Studies, remains little known. In a way, Bulosan's essay calls for its own obsolescence: that the injustices it names will be set aright and the yearnings it gives voice to will be satisfied. Sadly, close to 60 years later, Freedom from Want has still not been realized. That Bulosan's essay remains timely should compel us to finish the task that he himself has taken up and has passed on to us when he did not live long enough to see it through. [Ugh, will be editing this in a few hours. Am exhausted...]
From On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan [Originally published in the Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943]:
- Our history has many strands of fear and hope, that snarl and converge at several points in time and space…
We do not take democracy for granted. We feel it grow in our working together -- many millions of us working toward a common purpose. It took us several decades of sacrifices to arrive at this faith, because it took us that long to know what part of America is ours…
But sometimes we wonder if we are really a part of America. We recognize the mainsprings of American democracy in our right to form unions and bargain through them collectively, our opportunity to sell our products at reasonable prices, and the privilege of our children to attend schools where they learn the truth about the world in which we live. We also recognize the forces which have been trying to falsify American history -- the forces which drive many Americans to a corner of compromise with those who distort the ideals of men that died for freedom…
We have been marching for the last one hundred and fifty years. We sacrifice our individual liberties, and sometimes we fail and suffer. Sometimes we divide into separate groups and our methods conflict, though we all aim at one common goal. The significant thing is that we march on without turning back. What we want is peace, not violence. We know that we thrive and prosper in peace.
But our march to freedom is not complete unless want is annihilated. The America we hope to see is not merely a physical but also a spiritual and an intellectual world. 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.
What do we want? We want complete security and peace. We want to share the promises and fruits of American life. We want to be free from fear and hunger.
If you want to know what we are -- We are Marching.