90. Bread and Roses: James Oppenheim

The Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 was a watershed event in the labor and women’s rights movements. It occurred in the town next to where I grew up, yet we never studied it in school. Even while reading about the advent of the Industrial Revolution and visiting the factory museums in nearby Lowell no one even mentioned this infamous event. Be you a radical socialist or frothing capitalist, the strike itself is an event worth studying for its many lessons.

Visit this interesting article by John Stringer about poetry and labor movements for an interesting perspective on how different classes capture the working class in verse.

What is the role of art in keeping the flame alive? As the survivors of World War II and the Holocaust pass away, HBO specials and the occasional movie are all that keep it in the public eye. But, while Tom Hanks wins the war, what about smaller events like Guernica? If “Guernica” had not been painted by Picasso, and had he not captured it as a genius can, it would be a footnote to anyone but those now living there (although, from my own experience with the Bread and Roses Strike, it might be a footnote even there)?

Oppenheim is not Picasso. And, like poetry, most people only know a few classical pieces of art. With those factors combined, this poem will not keep the strike in the public consciousness.

That said, the poem captures much of the event. For example, it speaks of the dead yet cheers! They are throwing off the chains of domesticity and second class citizenry while suffering for their efforts. Can they hear the emotion? Show them the scene in “Casablanca” where they sing “Le Marseilles” in the face of the occupying Nazis for an example of what it means to stand up to oppression; joyous sorrow. Heck, see it here:

Just the name: Bread and Roses. What images the title alone evokes (as opposed to the Pullman Strike: boooor-ing). Speak to the students about what it takes to keep something historically relevant. Ask them their knowledge of history, and how it got stuck there? Then, what is art and its purpose?

And what, from their young lives, is worth capturing immortally in art?

Now, capture it!

Bread and Roses
James Oppenheim

As we come marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing “Bread and roses, bread and roses.”

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children and we mother them again,
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes it is bread we fight for but we fight for roses too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the woman means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler – ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses!


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