Bread, Roses, and a Declaration of Joy

[Photo – Jennifer Kronenberg and Carlos Guerra of Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami]

This is a cultural blog, but celebrating culture often feels difficult these days. Politics is so enraging and frightening. The abuse, lies, stupidity and nastiness of President Trump; the meanness of politicians who seem determined to decimate support for the environment, health, voting rights, civil rights, education, women’s rights; the sense that our institutions are being torn apart – it all generates an anger and feeling of being constantly under attack that can be overwhelming. How can I focus, or expect people to focus, on a dance performance or an art exhibit, on what a director or a choreographer thinks, when the world seems to be falling apart?

So on this 4th of July, when we’re supposed to be celebrating independence and the ideals of democracy and freedom from tyranny, I’d like to offer a declaration of the need for joy. Give us bread, but give us roses. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Bread and Roses was a poem written by James Oppenheim in 1911. Inspired by a political slogan, it was closely associated with a 1912 strike by immigrant women textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The women labored under brutal hours and conditions; they were attacked by mill owners and town government – a turning point came when police clubbed children and their mothers at a train station as the children, for their safety, were being sent out of town.

But the women didn’t just demand living wages and better treatment. They demanded that life be more than just survival, that they had the right to hope and happiness and spirit. Bread and Roses captured that sentiment. Here’s the line that always makes me cry. “Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes; Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!”

In the 60’s folk singer Mimi Farinas set the poem to music, Joan Baez recorded it, and it became famous as a protest song. Ani DiFranco has recorded it too. Its soaring, sentimental language is very different from the way we speak and think now. But I find its grandeur inspiring, and its assertion that our lives have meaning exhilarating and empowering.

Art gives us roses. It’s our declaration of joy, and inspiration and meaning, our expression of humanity. It’s irreverence and difference, extremity and strangeness, the fabulously bizarre, and the profoundly normal. It’s ideas manifested. It’s beautiful. That’s why I keep laboring in the cultural mines. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, right? I’m not giving up on any of them.

Happy 4th of July.

Bread and Roses

As we come marching, 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 song of 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 women 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!

One Comment Add yours

  1. cornelius conboy says:

    what a beautiful poem and an inspirational message for the 4th of July. A step forward towards changing the culture of bread and circus to one of bread and roses


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