You are here

Get on Board to Stay on Track

We do not, as Americans, hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. If we did, all men and women in America would have the same rights, but they do not. Women still earn less than men in the workforce and have not been elected president of our nation. Homophobic laws prevent some Americans from marrying the person they love or remaining with them and making decisions for them when they are critically ill. Racism continues to occur all over the United States on a daily basis with the Ku Klux Klan still very active throughout the country.

America has been hypocritical for years, accusing other countries of human rights violations and encouraging democracy on foreign soil, yet our own laws do not support the very foundation that human rights and our government are based on. Our Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

According to Roland Barthes, “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.” Images have been tools of communication for years and with our current digital technology, we are able to manipulate images to evoke even more meaning from what once appeared to be a simple photograph.

Barthes, in his Rhetoric of Image essay, discusses three messages that can be extrapolated from an image. Looking at the image “Get on Board to Stay on Track”, for instance, we find the basic literal, non-coded iconic, image to be a train on tracks, empty train tracks and colorful stick figures sitting on the train or running to get on the train. By itself, without the benefit of text and without allowing ourselves to be swayed by a separate level of messaging, we can understand that these people want to be on this train, or want to get on the train.

Digging a bit deeper, we can take another look at the picture and notice the symbolic, coded iconic, messages. Embedded within the literal train, we see the red, white and blue colors that decorate the train. These colors automatically tag this train as belonging to Amtrak even without the text label. The symbolic level of understanding emerges from our cultural background. Everyone has different cultural backgrounds that are specific to the region where they grew up, but all Americans share a larger culture that includes transportation imagery such as the colors of the American flag on the train indicating the brand name as Amtrak.

The multicolored people also share a message. They can represent multiple cultures or races, showing a wide diversity of people are being addressed in this image. The shapes of these stick figures appear to connote their gender as some have triangular bodies and others have straight bodies. We gain this understanding from a shared culture of public bathroom signs indicating the gender for which the bathroom is intended.

A higher level of messaging exists in this image, which we find in the linguistic level. The title of the image seems to be in linguistic relay. The intended meaning of “Get on Board to Stay on Track” does not make sense by itself, but when paired with the image, it causes the viewer to go from the image to the title multiple times to fully understand the meaning.

Noting the text on the train itself, we see an example of linguistic anchorage. On the front of the train we read “Amtrak” and “Civil Rights.” Immediately we see that Amtrak is an American railroad company that transports passengers. This could indicate that the message is intended for Americans. The text regarding Civil Rights anchors the core of the message in this image because it seems to be the label for the train that we were asked to “get on board.”

Further anchorage is seen in the text on the side of the train. “Sexual orientation = Race= Gender = Rel.” The initial perception is that Civil Rights has been broken into divisions and each division is equal to the other, as in they are all important. A cultural symbol that most people are aware of is the Human Rights equals sign, which indicates that all humans are equal and should be treated as such. The equals signs in this image could be indicated that not only are each of the Civil Rights divisions equal but so are the people within each division.

Taking the meanings from the three levels of messaging we understand that the image and its title are telling us that Americans need to get on board the civil rights train to stay on track. This puts forth the message that all people are equal and America needs to get on board with that. It also provides the converse notion that America is not fully on board with Civil Rights so this is somewhat of a political/cultural statement encouraging Americans to take note of the current state of equality in the country and to make changes to ensure that all people are provided with equal opportunities of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


Amtrak 719 image by Flickr user slideshow bruce, Creative Commons Licensed.
Stick figure running by Google user Dana Farber, Creative Commons Licensed.
Colorful stick figures created by Julie Dymon
Text created by Julie Dymon
Equal signs created by Julie Dymon
Gray patches on train created by Julie Dymon

Brief Description: 

Americans need to board the civil rights train and support their fellow Americans who are not yet represented by the laws in our country as equal citizens. Equality should not be determined by the divisions between us like gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, etc.; being human is all that is required to have civil rights.


I love your tags on the side of your train. I'm not big on your stick figure. They look a little messy.

The stick figures mainly represent race to me, and the problem of race is already addressed on the train. I feel you could ditch the stick figures layer completely. If you wanted to use people you could put in a conductor, or have someone rushing to catch the train, or have someone standing off to the side, looking at it, confused... But otherwise, yes, I can't think of anything to change about the essay!

Italicize titles in your image, like "The Declaration of Indipendance" and the works you mention.

Also, "Rights, Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" should not be capitalized.

Otherwise, strong essay.

User login