Faith Ringgold, Who I Am and Why
A Multi-Generational History of Artistic Creation
Melanee Harvey, essay. Juliette Harris, introduction
A long line of enterprising, artistically talented and mostly unknown women laid the foundation for Faith Ringgold to fulfill her dream of being a professional artist at a time when hardly anyone knew that African American women could work and excel as visual artists.
The line begins with Ringgold’s designer/couturier mother, Willi Posey, and extends through Posey’s mother Ida and grandmother (who Posey called Betsy – i.e., "Betsy was rich! Betsy had everything”) back to even earlier female ancestors. Betsy Bingham (1850-1926) was a quilter and dressmaker in Jacksonville, FL. In the photo shown here, Bingham is on the porch of her house and faintly visible above the right side of her head is a sign that says “Dress Making." Bingham's mother, Susan Shannon is in the background with one of Betsey's children, possibly, Willi. Bingham’s great granddaughter, the writer and visual culture scholar Michele Wallace says that Willi Posey learned her sewing skills from Bingham, as did Willi's mother (Ida Matilda (Bingham) Posey. The family’s known creative legacy begins with Susan Shannon (1812-1912), a former slave who was a quilter, dressmaker and, says Wallace, probably a weaver as well. “As you can see Susan lived to be 100, so I have pictures of her and Betsy, which mother uses a lot in her work. So Mom learned quilting and sewing from her mother (Willi) who learned it from her mother (Ida Matilda) and her grandmother (Betsy) who learned it from her mother (Susie).” These ancesters are reunited in Ringgold's Matisse's Chapel (shown below, left).
The remarkable family legacy of achievement extends to Faith Ringgold’s daughters and granddaughters and is the broad historical context for the article that follows. The more immediate context for the piece is the impact of intertwined race and gender factors on Faith Ringgold’s recognition in the art world.
In a 1996 article Dianne Weathers interviewed Faith Ringgold for an article in the print IRAAA. “She’s been on the scene since the ‘60s but was never even close to being considered among the ‘top ten,’” Weathers wrote. “Today, attention seems mostly focused on the sort of work where race isn’t so much in your face. But race and gender issue(s) remain the dominant themes of the black feminist’s paintings and storytelling quilts.”
In the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Ringgold’s fabulous imagination and high level of execution made her a candidate for the kind of recognition that black artists like Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence and women artists like Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell were beginning to receive in the mainstream art world. However gender latched onto race in ways that always conspired to put a ceiling on Ringgold’s status.
“It wasn’t until the 1980s that I began working on a national level,” Ringgold told Weathers. My retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem marked my turning point. I should have been showing earlier with the other guys but the other guys refused.”
Several factors have prevented the art establishment from recognizing Rinngold's genius. These include her feminism and social activism, the domesticity of many of her endeavors — the “women’s work” of dollmaking, quilting, appliqué, sewing and macramé used in some cases as frames for her painted canvases, and also Ringgold’s nurturing of her children, her students and the mentoring she gave other women artists, her charming children’s books, and her Anyone Can Fly educational foundation as well as her unabashedly loving treatment of the black subject. In the Western art world, the typical genius has come to be known as a man who single-mindedly pursues the perfection of a singular style, and often to the detriment of his relations with others.
Ringgold also sees the upside of this refusal. "(t)hey did me a favor by ignoring me, that way I could do what the hell I wanted to, " she tells Melanee Harvey in the article that follows.
Delete feminine concerns from the picture; insert a man, Romare Bearden, as she did for her celebration of his centenary (Bearden We Love You, 2011), or add a romance of Gallic culture to the black subject as she did in her French Collection, or prominent white figures as she did in paintings such as Between Friends and The Cocktail Party, and the great sophistication of her work is unmistakably clear to even the critic with misogynist, Westernist and/or racist leanings.
Many discerning art professionals have been able to appreciate Ringgold’s exceptional talent and have poked lots of holes in that ceiling on her status, a ceiling, however, that remains intact. So, today, Faith Ringgold (who turned 83 on Oct. 8), is both highly celebrated and under recognized — an anomalous situation that is perhaps uniquely hers. Most recently on the “celebrated” side of the scale, Ringgold discussed her long career to an enthusiastic crowd at sold-out program (with a waiting list for reservations and paid admission). The program was held on Oct. 28 in connection with the American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s exhibition at the National Museum of Women Artists in Washington, DC.
Ringgold's daughter, Michele Wallace, experienced a more contentious type of celebrity. Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwomen published in 1979 and the 1976 Broadway production of Ntozake Shange’s play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf were salvos that ignited public debates on black sexual politics and “the problem of black male-female relations” during the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The era’s other influential black feminists included scholar Barbara Smith (“Towards a Black Feminist Criticism” essay, 1977) and poets June Jordan and Audre Lorde.
The black feminist firestorm swept through the African American academic community, was covered in mainstream media, and fed into a gender-based polarization of black creative expression. This polarization included the rise of exhibitions devoted solely to black women visual artists and anthologies and critiques of black women’s literature in the 1980s.
Faith Ringgold, the riddled ceiling, and the family tradition of female creativity, feminism and social activism is the focus of the essay that follows. It includes revelations about the family dynamics and publisher machinations behind Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwomen and insights from Ringgold’s unpublished writings. The essay is based on interviews of Faith Ringgold and Michele Wallace conducted by Melanee Harvey in August 2013. — J.H.
PLEASE NOTE: Full caption details for the images in this article and updates to the article are in the "Faith Ringgold: Updates & Addenda" article in the "More" section.
Who I Am and Why
The year 2013 has been a great landmark year in the career of artist, activist, Faith Ringgold. On June 27, Ringgold was recognized for her contribution to the art world with an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art, London, adding to a long list of honorary doctorates that she has been awarded with since her first in 1986.1 Earlier that month, her exhibition, American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings from the 1960s, opened at the National Museum for Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, D.C. The shows runs through November 10, 2013.
Viewing this art from her early career in the present reveals Ringgold’s unwavering insistence on visualizing the human experience from a black feminist perspective. The exhibition catalog, featuring an essay from Ringgold’s daughter, Michele Wallace, provides an intimate historical context for American People, Black Light that situates Ringgold’s art in a family tradition of African American female creativity.
Since the 1970s, Faith Ringgold and Michele Wallace have synergistically contributed to the interpretation of African American art, often emphasizing the unacknowledged perspective and experience of African American women. They also have both been vocal about the ways in which this outlook was cultivated within a familial context of artists, educators and cultural critics.
Young Faith was influenced by the example of her mother, Mme. Willi Posey, a couturier who formed her own, high fashion line. Faith Ringgold’s experience as an African American feminist visual artist, in turn, directly influenced her daughters Michele and Barbara. Growing up in Harlem — on 147th Street and then Edgecombe Avenue — made a deep impression on Faith. Since the 1920s, the famed “Sugar Hill” Edgecombe Avenue address had been home to many luminaries including Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. DuBois, Aaron Douglas, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Lena Horne, the Nicholas Brothers and others. Their example raised Faith’s expectations of her own potential. Her friends on the block included the now jazz great, Sonny Rollins.
In the 1940s, Willi Posey worked in the downtown New York garment district, joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and actively participated in labor union activities. She worked in this industry about 20 years before retiring to focus on her own career as a well-known couturier in Harlem.
Faith Ringgold recalls her mother bringing her work home during this 20-year stint. It was in these intimate moments that Posey introduced her daughters to the artistic skills developed in couture fashion design. She also taught them the foundations of sewing and cutting patterns, which would later influence Ringgold’s soft sculptures of the 1970s. This initial introduction to design flourished into an artistic collaboration between Posey and Ringgold that included wedding attire for Ringgold’s sister, Barbara. Faith Ringgold hand-embroidered her sister’s veil; Posey designed the rest of the attire for the women in the party. In her later life, Posey assisted Ringgold with her textile-based art projects.
All three generations of women have been committed to women’s empowerment and community action. Posey set it off by instilling the importance of black women asserting themselves through confidently projecting their own beauty, public speaking and being enterprising while helping others. Michele Wallace has emphasized the continuing aspect of the intergenerational collaboration:
But [Willi Posey] stopped having fashion shows in the late 60s because they weren't making any money. My grandmother would price things according to what her customers could afford, not according to the labor or in order to make a profit. At that point, Faith put Willi to work collaborating with her on clothes for her soft sculptures, clothes for her dolls, tankas to frame her paintings, and also as a teaching assistant in her art making classes as Bank Street College. They always did everything together. Aunt Barbara also was able to sew and sometimes collaborated on special projects with them. It was Aunt Barbara who taught me how to knit and crochet, which was her specialty.
On Being a Black Feminist Artist — Ringgold’s Early Career
In Wallace’s essay, “American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Painting of the 1960s,” the personal quotations from Ringgold’s autobiography, We Flew over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold and photographs of Faith Ringgold modeling her mother’s fashion designs vividly tell this story of African American female creative agency.
Madame Willi Posey showed her daughter how to verbally articulate her ideas and promote her work, in this case fashion design, and gave her opportunities to practice these skills. Faith Ringgold was also able to express her early interest in social activism when she arranged for Fannie Lou Hamer to speak at one of her mother’s fashion shows.3 Elaborating on her mother’s influence, Ringgold recalled:
I loved working with my mother. I worked with her through all her fashion shows. She taught me how to speak publicly…. I also mc-ed her fashion shows. I remember the first one I did, I was shaking I was so nervous. And she danced up to me and asked “What are you shaking for?” She was so comfortable in front of an audience. And I had to learn to do the same. And she was good at that. She taught me how to stand up there and have a little joke and just feel comfortable with myself. 2
Faith Ringgold witnessed her mother thrive artistically while negotiating marriage, the struggle of women in the workforce and other gender concerns during the 1940s and 1950s. Willi Posey developed sewing and design skills by making Eisenhower jackets. This work at a commercial company helped Posey be financially independent and develop her own career in the fashion field. 4
During our interview, Ringgold recalled being involved in creative work with her mother and learning from her mother to be self-supporting and develop a disciplined work ethic. She also acknowledged the supportive aspects of her marriage to Burdette Ringgold which enabled her to pursue a full-time career:
[Madame Willi Posey] taught me how to be self-supportive. How to quit my job. [chuckles] … Anyway, I quit my job so that I didn’t have to work for somebody other than myself as an artist. And I was able to do that because I married a man who was willing to take care of me, Michele and Barbara.
She taught me that kind of independence in a sense, because I always thought I don’t care if you have a husband that pays that rent, you’re still independent. I’m not just sitting there on him.
I’m doing a lot of things I couldn’t do without him, at the same time I’m still working for myself and I always like to tell that story, because without him, we wouldn’t be having this interview because I wouldn’t be an artist. I don’t think if I had continued on teaching in the public schools and then teaching in college at UCSD, I wouldn’t have had the time to develop myself as an artist to the extent that I would be getting interviews shows and all of these things. Because I wouldn’t have done the work of being an African American woman I really needed to be to get out there and kick ass…. My mother taught me that; it was obvious. 5
Despite her early encounters with an exclusionary, 1960s American art world, Ringgold remained open to sympathetic portrayals of the white figurative subject. She traveled to France to see how her technque compared with the European masters and also maintained a strong interest in African visual culture.
When she was working on the early paintings of "American People," Ringgold wanted to attend the first World Festival of Black Arts in 1966 in Dakar, Senegal, but Hale Woodruff, who was in charge of selecting the visual artists who would attend, refused her request. Ringgold's dream of attending such an event was only realized when she was selected to participate in FESTAC, the Second World African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977. 6
Recounting her exchanges with Hale Woodruff about her efforts to participate in in the 1966 festival, Ringgold said those exchanges included Woodruff’s insistence upon critiquing her work, pointing out deficiencies in her use of compositional elements such as rhythm and movement. Ringgold writes: “I thought it was insulting that he thought I didn’t know anything about rhythm or movement because I didn’t have it in my work. Because you don’t put everything you know in every picture that you do. You use it when it’s appropriate. But I said ‘Just in case, I’m going to do a picture just for him’.”7
She later explained:
So I decided I’m going to show him I know rhythm and movement because my teachers did teach me those aspects of paintings. They didn’t teach me anything about being a black artist; no I learned that by myself. But they did teach me about movement and that sort of thing. And that’s when I did DIE — the biggest painting I had done up until then. (Ringgold has done larger paintings since). A tribute to these guys who want to try to tell me I don’t know what I am doing. Six by twelve feet! I’m not sure if he ever saw it; he never referenced it. But this was just to show him, I know what rhythm is, I know what movement is. I use it when I need to. That’s a part of good education you use it as it is appropriate, not just to be using it. 8
This painting is a tour-de-force in visually articulating the intergenerational, physical chaos of the 1960s race riots. Formally, the painting illustrates Ringgold’s mastery of the Western canonical strategy of expressing narrative and figurative movement by placing the same group of figures across the picture plane in various stages of the scene. In contrast to act of reading left to right, the artist situates the stampede-like wrestling of forms in the right side of the canvas, almost spilling over to the left portion of the composition. In terms of rhythm, Ringgold’s placement of heads throughout the canvas conveys the social unrest of the period. This point is emphasized by the overlapping, diagonal limbs and the implied triangular shapes formed by the positioning of heads.
Faith Ringgold also expressed movement and rhythm in this painting, in her use of color. Referencing gray ambiguity of racial constructions and racism in the background, the racial tension is explicitly expressed in the repetition of black and white in attire of the male subjects and child in the left quadrant of the painting. The range of red and orange hues, forming abstracted triangular dresses on the female figures and blood stains throughout the scene, carry the eye across the pictorial space.
Ringgold thus turned negative criticism of her work into a large masterpiece. Despite the contemporary canonical stature of paintings such as Die and The Flag is Bleeding, the cold reception Ringgold received from Woodruff was echoed after her first and second one woman shows in 1967 and 1970, respectively.9 Her daughter Michele Wallace reflected on this experience:
You know all the while, while it was happening I kept thinking, “People are going to be knocking me down to get this work.” It was literally Black! “Black power every hour!”, “Black is beautiful”, “Black Black Black Black Black”. I said “Oh my mother has hit it now!” Even with the sexism and everything, people would have to recognize it. I thought everyone would begin painting like her. You know, take these images and run it.
Meanwhile, a deafening silence ensued. They continued with the painting on black velvet and the sexy women, or whatever it is they were doing. They were studiously ignoring my mother’s venture into black life.10
During our conversation, when contemplating the life of the American People and Black Light series, Faith Ringgold explained:
Some of it has been shown now and then. Like Die has been shown here and there but they were ignored primarily by the black and white art world. Amazingly ignored. And the idea in the art world always was, if we don’t like what you are doing, we will just ignore you and eventually you will have to stop. And since the white art world is not going to pay any attention to you anyway, we know you will have to stop.
During the ‘60s, it was not appropriate to do political art. Everything was political in the sixties, except the visual arts. There were a few other people other than me that took on political subjects, but they were all guys. Like Benny [Andrews] had some political aspects.
But they did me a favor by ignoring me, that way I could do what the hell I wanted to. And I knew that. Why should I try to please an audience I don‘t have? But what I thought and what I did and have done and continue to do is please myself. I wanted to tell my story. Who am I and why?—why, who, what, where, when. 11
Ringgold places her persistence within the desire to visually speak her experience into material existence and transform how individuals view human nature. She instilled her keen sense of self-worth and social commitment into daughter Michele Wallace, who manifests them in her own form of expression: autobiographical and critical writing.
Raised to Speak — The Road to Black Macho & A Theory of Black Feminist Creativity
Michele Wallace, the elder daughter of Faith Ringgold, grew up witnessing her mother evolve as a black feminist visual artist. In recent years, she has accompanied her mother to public events and has been instrumental, along with her sister Barbara, in establishing and furthering the aesthetic legacy of their mother and grandmother.
In print and in our conversation, Wallace has emphatically attributed Faith Ringgold with shaping her perspective on visual art and feminism and other politics. In fact, her view of the American People and Black Light series includes memories of her own involvement in its development. “My relationship to the work is that I was there when it was painted,” she recalls. “Barbara and I toted it up and down the stairs and we smelled the paint. We smelled the turpentine. My life is unfolding as this work unfolded. They unfolded together. This work, this sensibility, this vision is part of what made me the black woman that I am and what gave me the strength that I have.” 12
Michele Wallace also reflected on her adventures at the Museum of Modern Art and seeing Picasso’s Guernica with her mother. Wallace’s early memories of her mother musing on Picasso’s mural protesting war and engaging in acts of protest herself remains prominent in her memory and continue to influence her to this day.
Of her mother’s social activism, Wallace said, “My mother has always been very militant and insistent upon classifying herself as a black artist, as a black woman artist, as a woman artist who is politically and consciously engaged with improving the status of her people.”
Wallace internalized her mother’s activism and nurtured it to make it her own, as she explains in writings such as “To Hell and Back: On the Road with Black Feminism in the ‘60s and ‘70s” and “Feminism, Race and the Division of Labor.” She tells the poignant story of Faith Ringgold trading her (Michele’s) arrest for her own: “I was the first arrested, along with Jon (Toche) and John (Hendricks), for ‘desecration of the flag’ on the night the U.S. Attorney General’s office closed down the show…I will never forget that moment, standing there as Faith traded me for herself—the hush of the sanctuary, the shadows, the quiet voices of the officers, and the look in my mother’s eyes as she pushed me behind her, as if to shield me with her body.” 13
Michele Wallace’s particular experiences of being Faith’s daughter and Willi’s granddaughter were the seeds of her first writing project, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, a quasi memoir published in 1979.
Wallace has written at length on the creative process behind this book in essays such as “To Hell and Back: On the Road with Black Feminism in the ‘60s and ‘70s.” In my interview with her, Wallace said that she is currently re-examining her family’s artistic activity during the 1970s and the writing of Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman:
When I wrote Black Macho, it was a real struggle for me because I was 25-26-27, writing about things that I myself had not experienced and if I had, I was so young that I didn’t remember them well whereas she [Faith Ringgold] was an adult. Going through all these different things, she saw at the peak of her adulthood, whereas I was a child, and what I remember had a dream-like quality to it.
But writing that book was pushing myself forward to make a statement about something that I didn’t have the full historical authority to make. It was my taking on of boys. My model was James Baldwin. I’m going to be a black female James Baldwin and make these big statements about what life meant. It was an exercise in making a public statement. 14
Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwomen must be understood in the context of her family’s legacy—her grandmother’s fashion design and shows and her mother’s monumental body of art.
For almost ten years after the publication of Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, Michele Wallace consistently revisited and expounded on the issues explored in this book on platforms ranging from The Donahue Show to scholarly writings on black feminist thought.
In our discussion of the book, Wallace upheld her contention that Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwomen was not meant to be purely autobiographical. In maintaining that she was making a statement on black gender constructions, she said:
“It was never my intention of representing who I really was and what I was really about. One of the things, to me, that is a classic sign of that is the fact that I repeat the story there of how my father died from having a car accident. This was not true; he died of a drug overdose. But I was still telling what I was told to tell when I was 15 when he died, in Black Macho. And I think it’s a sign that the book was not autobiographical. It was an exercise in making a public statement.” 15
In the tradition of African American autobiographical writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace employs autobiographical touches and frameworks in order to tell a broader story.
Although the public backlash from Black Macho has been addressed by Wallace in her writing, the response of her closest family members has not been publically documented. During my interview with Faith Ringgold, she expressed her love for her daughter and her pride in the success of Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwomen. She also referred me to a seven-chapter, unpublished illustrated text entitled A Letter to My Daughter. This text also featured an introduction written by Ringgold’s younger daughter Barbara discussing her own relationship with her daughters. 16
A Letter to My Daughters is a creative, intergenerational dialogue. The seven-chapter series of letters to Michele Wallace engages Black Macho’s main arguments from Ringgold's perspective as the mother. Wallace described A Letter as a “series of comments on the way in which I’m not representing my growing up, about most particularly the decade of the 70s.” 17
Ringgold makes three points in the text that convey the essential aspects her response to representation in Black Macho. In the first paragraphs of the first chapter, “Why Black Macho?,” Ringgold inquires about the absence of reference to the family’s cultural legacy as well as her feminist tradition Wallace inherited. Ringgold asserts:
It is no secret that the history and culture of black people has always been very important to me. It is a family tradition and I have given a great deal of time and energy in the interest of blackness and femaleness in my professional/artistic as well as in my community and our [author’s emphasis] family life. Because I am a black woman, feminism is equally as important to me, so much so, that I have adopted the principle of a feminist activist as a way of life. 1In addition to thoroughly critiquing the “superwoman” concept, Ringgold points out the exclusion of the family legacy in Black Machos and declared the text “distorts and disguises” her. 19 She goes on to explain her ambivalence:
…it names me. I am the myth who is not a myth. I am the superwoman. I have tried to think of myself in other ways. But I cannot deny it; I’m one of them. I am a superwoman and a feminist, an insufferable package. Not many people can withstand this type of woman. On this, we may possibly agree… Many black women will not only be superwomen, but super-mamas. That is the mother who has raised the children and done her own thing, too. ” 20
In our interview, Michele Wallace spoke very candidly about this experience as she recalled her mother’s disappointment for, “…not realizing her contribution to my thinking, and not recognizing her as an artist, not recognizing her work.”21 This caused a strain in their relationship that Wallace has discussed in “To Hell and Back” and Ringgold has addressed in A Letter to My Daughter. It is the power of their mother-daughter relationship, rooted in this legacy of female creative collaboration, social action and unconditional love that healed the rift, led to their collaborative performance No Name Performance #1 in 1982 and continues in their current collaborations.
Another integral aspect of Ringgold’s response to Black Macho was a critique of her white feminist counterparts. In our interviews, both discussed the compromises they were pressured to make; they had to alter some of their statements in order to publish their writing. Ringgold described the divisive politics at play during the publication process of Black Macho:
(beginning of quote) Michele worked with several feminists, one of whom was Gloria Steinem, to publish Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. The early feminists, of which Gloria Steinem was one — they had the feeling that their mothers’ were pretty ignorant as to freedom. They had their father, and the mothers hung behind the father, and so it was the daughter’s job to teach the mother about her own freedom as a woman.
So what they had to do where Michele was concerned, they had to put Michele in the leadership position, and have it that she’s teaching me, even though they knew better. What they thought is Michele is getting an opportunity to publish this book that will make her a huge success. Her mother is suffering as an artist. And that’s even if they knew I was an artist—because that wasn’t always known in those days. So they thought we can get away with this… And they did for a long time. We will just make Michele the feminist—she’s the young one. And her mother we will ignore, don’t talk about that. It’s not important. She’ll never be able to change anything you say because [she] won’t have the power.
They were not people who knew about art, you know people think, “She’s an artist. She makes pictures. So what?” Don’t try to get in our way. And so when they edited her book, they thought it was okay to leave it out. Whatever they said about me, there’s nothing I can say about it. [They thought] the mother cannot do anything about it. There is no black women’s movement anyway. And we are going to publish this book. It will make Michele famous and the mother, there’s nothing she can do. 22
Wallace confirmed this dynamic in our conversation as well. She passionately stated, “You know it seems like to me apart from writing and publishing Black Macho, I’ve always been a vigorous supporter of my mother. And I think what happened in Black Macho had a lot to do with my editor and publisher and what they wanted to hear. So not to say that I didn’t have a responsibility—a responsibility that was pretty big.”
Faith Ringgold’s first painting of the “American People”series, Between Friends, approaches this subject matter and visually foreshadows the events surrounding Black Macho 16 years later.
In Wallace’s essay in the exhibition catalog for American People, Black Light, Wallace cites Between Friends as an example of Ringgold’s early interest in the intersection of gender, race and class. In “The Black Women in the Sixties,” the fourth chapter of A Letter to My Daughter, Ringgold, the artist, uses religious frameworks as a metaphor for the ideological differences between black and white women:
Needless to say – nobody ever really thought of black and white women fighting women’s unequal position in the ‘60s. There was no secret about the fact that there was a pedestal between us. The white women were on the pedestal, and the black women were not…. The fact was that they were not ready to destroy the pedestal and that is what fighting the inequality of women would have meant… My very first painting in the American People series, painted in 1963 is about this very same subject. I felt that incredibly persistent racial barrier between the black and white women at Babe’s NAACP Life Membership party in Oaks Bluff, Massachusetts. And, in spite of the fact that many of the black women there were so ‘white,’ they were practically indistinguishable from the real white women. There was still that thing [author’s emphasis] that separated them – it was reflected in their conversations, and in their eyes. In my painting, Between Friends I have a cross separating a black and a white woman. The cross was intended to represent the Judeo-Christian ethic in the vertical bar and the rape and enslavement of black women in the cross bar. But today I know it is the pedestal I was painting in the shape of a cross. 23
Ringgold uses this example to remind her daughter that Black Macho emerges out of a historical context. She concluded our discussion on the racial dynamics of feminism by referring to the quote on the book jacket for her 1991 autobiography, We Flew over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold. She read and interprets it as follows:
Gloria Steinem says on the back of the original hardcover edition, Little Brown 1995 “Faith Ringgold’s memoir tells us what it means to pursue a personal vision, even if it opposes centuries of racial and sexual caste systems, is sometimes obscured by them, seems to makes one’s own children jealous, and often produces loneliness. In words that are as direct, honest, full of color and life as her paintings, Ringgold gives each reader the greatest gift of all – courage to be one’s unique and universal self.”
So Gloria Steinem making that statement is admitting what she stood for with Black Macho was not real. And I always thought that was pretty good. But the only reason why [this quote] is important at all is because it’s on the back of my autobiography. But other than that it would have been a secret. So this is how I feel about it. I would not have wanted to stop her from producing Black Macho. I think there are some good things in it. 24
Michele Wallace continues to be a prolific cultural critic and in many ways has responded consistently to that initial omission of her family influences. She has developed theoretical frameworks that privilege the personal, intimate creative legacy she continues in books such as Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory. Part I, “Black Feminism/Autobiography,” provides a sketch of the artistic and activist traditions she inherited. Chapter 23, “Variations on Negation and the Heresy of Black Feminist Creativity,” gives theoretical form to the artistic legacy that frames her worldview. Here Wallace discusses what I have identified as foundational to the Posey-Ringgold-Wallace tradition: the socially transformative act of speaking, visually and verbally. Her discussion of “critical silences” echoes the perpetual exclusions her mother experienced. From this point of view, it could be inferred that Wallace is paralleling her mother’s struggle for inclusion with the black women writer’s struggle for inclusion. 23 Wallace’s notion of a “tradition’ of speaking out of turn” as a means of visually or verbally communicating and documenting the negotiations of the human experience and ideas of beauty can be understood as evolving out of her grandmother’s audacity in the field of fashion and her mother’s trail-blazing art career.
In her 2004 book, Dark Designs & Visual Culture, Wallace continues to formulate theoretical frameworks to analyze African American visual culture. 24 She has also remained consistent in examining her mother’s paintings through the lens of feminist art as exemplified by her essays in the exhibition catalog for American People, Black Light.
Solidifying the Legacy Through Education and Social Engagement
Educational achievement is another facet of the Faith Ringgold’s family’s legacy. Michele Wallace’s blog, “Soul Pictures: Black Feminist Generation,” tells this story with audio and visual clips and photographs to convey the family’s emphasis on education and creative expression. This media includes a clip of an oral history interview Wallace conducted with her grandmother. Madame Posey reveals that her father was a principal at schools for black children.27 Emphasizing the importance of learning in her family, Ringgold chuckled as she told the following story:
Well, they taught me to be educated. That was very, very important. My uncle thought that getting a Ph.D. was an ultimate adventure. Getting an education was fine but you must get a Ph.D. That’s the final step. Every graduation I had, he reminded me of that. From the time I graduated from elementary, junior high school, high school, my bachelor’s degree, my master’s degree [Chuckles].
“Uncle Cardoza, artists don’t get a Ph.D. Our final degree is an MFA, okay?” He said “I’m sorry…get a PhD.” And he did not get that. He got it from B. B. (Benjamin Bunyon) Posey, who was my mother’s father. He was a teacher also. So my family was very interested in education. On my father’s side as well. My brother didn’t go to college, unfortunately. He got involved with drugs and died young. But he was brilliant. My sister went to NYU, graduated in 1948 and became a teacher. But she died in 1980. She drank too much. Drinking and drugs were issues that break our families. I grew up with that education which helps me to stay straight. Education was big in my family and certainly helps us, because without it we would just have the drugs and alcohol. 28
In addition to leading to Ringgold’s terminal degree, these expectations of educational achievement were fulfilled in Wallace’s Ph.D. in cinema studies and her sister Barbara’s M.A. in linguistics from the University of London and M. Phil. in African linguistics from the City University of New York Graduate Center.
In the family tradition of collaboration, Madame Posey and Ringgold’s collaborative creation culminated in their final work together, Ringgold’s first quilt, Echoes of Harlem.
Three years after the publication of Black Macho, Michele Wallace continued the family collaborative tradition when she joined her mother for the No Name Performance # 1 at Kenkelaba House.29 In 1984, Michele wrote an accompanying essay for Ringgold’s 20 year retrospective at The Studio Museum Harlem. And the mother-daughter association currently continues with Wallace’s contributions to the American People, Black Light catalog.
One hidden jewel of the American People, Black Light exhibition is the bust of President Barack Obama located to the left of the title wall in the exhibition at the National Museum for Women in the Arts. This bust is vastly different from the bustincluded in the recent exhibition, Visions of Our 44th President held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. In the American People, Black Light bust, Ringgold approaches the figure with the same interest in color and lines’ expressive qualities evident in her flag paintings of the late 1960s. The piece depicts Obama with terracotta skin contrasting with the intense chromatic placement of bright blue hair, complimented by a bright blue suit with red and white detail, reminiscent of The Flag is Bleeding and includes text expressing the artist’s pride in the historic election.
When asked to explain why American People, Black Light is relevant in 2013, both Ringgold and Wallace refer to how the paintings and posters address the United States’ history of social inequality and injustice. In early August 2013, almost one month after the Trayvon Martin verdict, both women described how that case echoes this history. Ringgold shared a poem she wrote and illustrated, “Poor Little Black Boy,” that conveys the range of emotions her community feels as a result of this loss.
Poor Little Black Boy
By Faith Ringgold
Poor little black boy
walking down the street,
Munching a bag of Skittles,
Didn’t know who he’d meet.
Ran into the Devil!
Looked into his eyes.
Gotta hateful look
And a bullet by surprise.
Poor little black boy,
Laying dead in the street.
His American Dream
Lay bloodied at his feet.
He ran into the devil
And didn’t know what to do
Run little black boy
If this happens to you.
In discussing the creative process behind the poem Ringgold emphasized the importance of staying connected with the African American community through artistic expression and using visual strategies to address racial and gender inequality.30 “Poor Little Black Boy” continues Ringgold’s creation of art protesting criminal violence. Her sculptures and posters dedicated to The Atlanta Children addressed the murders of black boys in Atlanta by a serial killer in 1979-1981.
Michele Wallace contemplated the Martin case by alluding to her mother’s painting, Portrait of American Youth:
So Trayvon Martin reminds me, what I think of immediately, the one [painting] that my mother sees and thinks of as my Uncle Andrew —it is called Portrait of an American Youth. Portrait of an American Youth is the central model of the young black male who is somebody who might be able to travel far if racism and prejudice were not what they were. Because of it, he can either with great difficulty hold his position as is or he could go down.
It was painted in 1964. It was supposed to be Uncle Andrew. He was my mother’s oldest brother. He’s a Trayvon Martin. From what I understand, when he was 15 years old, he went on an errand for my grandmother which took him into an Irish part of Manhattan which was almost everywhere then. And this Irish gang beat him awful within an inch of his life. The police sat back and watched. He struggled home and mother, she was a little girl, said they could see his skull. And my grandmother went and took him to the local hospital. They wouldn’t take him because he was black.
The thing is my thinking is he was never the same after that experience. He suffered, subsequently dropped out of school, became a drug addict and died of a drug overdose in 1961 while we were in Italy. 31
American People, Black Light casts the realities and tragedies of African American life through Ringgold’s prism of black beauty. Wallace’s analysis of her mother’s art offers a critical iteration of her mother’s engagement with speaking new, nuanced histories with the intention of realizing a more inclusive notion of American identity informed by African American culture transmitted through generations of African American women.
Over the past ten years, Faith Ringgold, Michele and Barbara Wallace have continued the family collaborative tradition by laying the foundation for a permanent physical space for these histories. They have created virtual communities such as the Faith Ringgold Society and Faith Ringgold’s Online Museum. Michele Wallace described their ultimate vision for these projects – a Faith Ringgold Museum where visitors could view the Madame Willi Posey’s fashion designs of the 1930s and 1940s, a robust sampling of art reflecting the dynamic career of Faith Ringgold and other materials:
Ultimately, I would imagine it would be truly a functioning thing that people could turn to for the full range of material that my mother now houses at her house. She has an archive—really an archive! I mean she has my grandmother’s audio tapes. She wants her house and this stuff to be a house museum. At the same time, I would imagine I would be the in-residence-curator of that museum. I’m sure my sister would be instrumental in ensuring all these things survive digitally.
I would imagine the legacy would be one in which we will be involved in making this a story that will not be forgotten. In those cases when women will cooperate and get involved, and in the absence of men, things will need to get done. So I am hopeful we will serve as an inspiration to them. 32
The museum would include a photograph of Madame Willi Posey, her three granddaughters, Cheryl, Michele, and Barbara, and her great-niece Linda that was a part of the 2010 exhibition and companion catalog, For All The World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights.
A clip from Ringgold’s Change video of 1988, posted on Michele Wallace’s “Soul Pictures” blog also illustrates the survival of the family legacy. The video opens with Michele Wallace preparing herself to be videotaped, as her mother, the voice behind the camera assures her of her perpetual state of beauty.33 The scene proceeds with Wallace introducing her nieces as the girls prepare to engage in the act of storytelling. Although the story is quite brief, it exemplifies the ways in which this legacy will continue: in the everyday act of creating space to speak and visualize or verbalize one experience with the world.
Ringgold’s granddaughter, Faith Wallace Gadsen, is another example of the thriving family tradition. Gadsen is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Microbiology at Tufts University and is serving on the board of her grandmother’s foundation along with her mother Barbara Wallace.
Preserving and extending the family legacy is a part of the family’s larger quest: to provide various means for telling more inclusive stories of African American and female identities. 34
Melanee Harvey is completing requirements for the Ph.D. in art history at Boston University.
1 Michele Wallace, “Chronology,”American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s, Faith Ringgold, Michele Wallace, Thom Collins and Tracey Fitzpatrick, eds. (Purchase, NY: Neuberger Museum of Art) 108.
2 Faith Ringgold, telephone interview by author, August 7, 2013.
3 Faith Ringgold. A Letter to My Daughter, “Part IV-The Black Woman the Sixties”, unpublished.
4. Faith Ringgold, telephone interview by author, August 7, 2013.
6. Patrick Manning. The African Diaspora: A History Through Culture. “Chapter 6, Equality”. (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009). This author notes that this event was attended by artist of the African Diaspora such as Langston Hughes, Aimé Césaire and Cheikh Anta Diop.
7. Faith Ringgold, telephone interview by author, August 7, 2013.
8. Faith Ringgold, telephone interview by author, August 7, 2013.
9. Faith Ringgold. We Flew Over the Bridge: the memoirs of Faith Ringgold, “Chronology,” (Boston, MA: Little, Brown. 275-276.
10. Michele Wallace, telephone interview by author, August 9, 2013.
11. Faith Ringgold, telephone interview by author, August 7, 2013.
12. Michele Wallace, telephone interview by author, August 9, 2013.
13. Michele Wallace, “Feminism. Race Division of Labor” (1995), Dark Designs and Visual Culture.(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004) 393. Also see http://ringgoldinthe1960s.blogspot.com/2010/05/peoples-flag-show-1970.html
14. Michele Wallace, telephone interview