Every once in a while, a snippet of imagery captures the American sentiment exactly. Firefighters raising the Stars and Stripes above the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center towers was such an image. So was the Depression-era black and white photo, "Migrant Mother," depicting Florence Thompson, an unemployed widow with seven children trying to scratch out an existence amid the Dust Bowl.
Such imagery is at once disturbing and reassuring. It crystallizes where we are as a nation, while reminding us of our common bond.
Another such image was captured earlier this week, this one in a shaky hand-held video clip. It was of a Baltimore mom forcefully herding her teenage son from the ongoing riots in that city. The scene wasn't pretty. It was raw and real, and it said it all.
The video showed the desperation of one mother, in a bright-yellow blouse, trying to keep a teenage son from harm. Toya Graham is a force to be reckoned with: She angrily pulls at her son's hood, slaps at his face and launches a loud and stinging verbal tirade. She doesn't care who's watching or what she looks like; she's keeping her son from rioting, no matter what. What Toya Graham was really saying was, "I love you."
The Graham video, which does not show her son rioting, does several things at once. It reminds us that the angry, faceless mob we see on the national news in Baltimore and elsewhere throwing stones and looting stores is comprised, mostly, of impressionable kids. It also reassures us that an old-fashion ear dragging can sometimes set things right. Tough love still works.
But the real iconographic story told by "Baltimore Mom" is the story of American moms themselves, particularly inner-city mothers today. They are being asked to do too much. They are being forced to do too much. Fathers have walked away from their children en masse -- or are dead or in prison -- while mothers stick it out, working, cooking, cleaning, helping with homework where they can, all the while trying to keep their children out of harm's way. It's neither fair nor sustainable.
In the Baltimore video, amid a sea of tightly drawn dark-colored hoodies, a stark figure in yellow emerges. She is there to tell us that many mothers are barely hanging on.