Faith, Hope and Anger
By Virginia Butterfield
WHO EVER HEARD of a politically explosive quilt? Fans of Faith Ringgold, that’s who. Faith Ringgold. That fiery protester of the Sixties, dubbed by a colleague “a terrific and successful troublemaker.” The inventor of a new genre of art known as the story quilt. And the (somewhat) mellowed artist/professor now in her 11th year teaching students to paint and draw at the University of California at San Diego.
Ringgold got the inspiration for story quilts from listening to her older relatives spinning family tales. A story quilt is made up of scenes and figures painted on canvas, framed in quilted squares and explained in writing—and in Ringgold’s case, frequently stating such outrageous opinions that the fabric seems about to explode into pieces.
Yet not all her quilts are angry. Some are reflective; some are even humorous. One series chronicles Ringgold’s own loss of 100 pounds and includes photos of her taken over five decades, with lyrical observations on this tremendous achievement. Others tell stories of tenement life in Harlem.
In the course of four decades, Ringgold has created 85 quilts and myriad paintings, fashioned countless masks and costumes, won seven honorary doctorates and written and illustrated six children’s books. Her work is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, as well as in the private collections of Maya Angelou, Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey.
But Faith Ringgold always had one other dream. She wanted to write her autobiography. Alas, she says, nobody would publish it.
Until now. “‘Look,’ they said, ‘we’re not publishing you; you’re not famous enough.’ Wow, I thought you could write an autobiography if you had something interesting to say. Did you have to be a famous person for your life to be worth talking about?”
Apparently so, at least for many years—during which time Ringgold told her story in other ways. At first through paintings, usually heavily political. (She is a woman of passionate beliefs.) Through quilts on which she inscribed lengthy tales. Through performance art utilizing masks and costumes along with songs, raps and scripts. She wrote and wrote. “But my writing was very spotty,” she says.
Still, all that practice paid off. An editor who read Tar Beach, one of Ringgold’s most famous children’s stories, decided to give her a chance to write her autobiography.
“It’s a good thing,” says Ringgold matter-of-factly, “because I had already written it.” We Flew over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold has just been published by Little, Brown & Company’s Bulfinch Press.
The book’s title refers to Ringgold’s recent crossing of the George Washington Bridge to live in suburbia. It has been a move plagued—as has been Ringgold’s entire tempestuous life—by difficulties and opposition.
“I’m catching hell getting a studio here,” she tells us by phone from Englewood, New Jersey. (Neighbors objected to her building a working studio in such a classy residential environment.) “But a lot of my life has been difficult.”
The part of each year she spends in San Diego would seem to be the serene half. During the two quarters Ringgold teaches at UCSD, she lives in an apartment on the beach in La Jolla. “And I’m alone. I leave everybody home. I love my freedom.”
RINGGOLD’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY was a long time gestating. She had taken a stab at writing parts of her life as early as the 1970s. “Mother was still alive then,” she remembers. So were many relatives and friends from Harlem. She quizzed them on details of life in the Thirties and Forties. (Even now, her list of friends from those years is legend. Sonny Rollins, for one, played the sax at her sister’s wedding.) Harlem born and bred, Ringgold tells of family life in a four-room apartment on 146th Street, a life both difficult and rewarding.
“Being poor was acceptable. Everybody was poor except rich white people, and we never saw any of them except in the movies,” she writes.
Faith’s father drove a sanitation truck; her mother was a hard-working housewife but an artist at heart, so clever with a needle that later she would collaborate on some of the quilts and masks for which her daughter would become so well known. Ringgold’s chapter on her mother is mischievously titled “My Mother Was Perfect, or So She Said.” On hot summer evenings the family would go up to the tar-covered roof of the apartment building; they called it Tar Beach. This escape from the heat of the city became the setting for Ringgold’s famous Tar Beach children’s book, which gave her a foothold in the publishing world. The world of her Tar Beach was relatively untroubled. “There was simply no need to spend money as we do today,” she writes. “Since nobody had a telephone until the Forties, we kids were always on one errand or another—to the store to get a pound of sugar (which cost a nickel), or to Mrs. Brown’s house to do her a favor.” She explains, “Raising children in the Thirties was far simpler than it is today. Everybody agreed that parents were in charge. You didn’t have to really listen to your peers, because it was your parents you were trying to please.”
Faith and her sister and brother eventually shared in a richer life. During the Forties their mother went to work in a defense plant, and they moved to the section of Harlem called Sugar Hill, which Ringgold describes as the part of town “where Negroes knew how to be swanky and had the cars and fine clothes to prove it.” Neighbors included Duke Ellington, Willie Mays, Marian Anderson, Sarah Vaughan, Harry Belafonte and—most exciting of all—Joe Louis.
Faith married a young musician, but the union didn’t last. Still, she believes in marriage. “I would no sooner put money in the bank without a passbook than I would put time and energy into a man without the paper,” she states. Her second attempt was with Burdette (Birdie) Ringgold, an alliance that has lasted, on and off, for the past three decades. Sometimes the “off” periods stretched into years. Once she took him to court for hitting her. He never did it again. For much of her life, Ringgold supported herself by teaching in elementary schools in Harlem and Brooklyn. She loved the kindergarteners. “Nobody does art better than they do,” she writes. “It was fascinating to watch these children’s random scribbles develop into pictorial compositions over just a few weeks. By then they would be fabricating long, involved, highly imaginative tales about their drawings that seemed to have no end.”
A little like the story quilts.
Of her relationship with her two daughters, Barbara and Michele, Ringgold is surprisingly candid. “There is a kind of eternal, insidious competition between me and my daughters—a women’s war that never seems to end. I’ve been told I am demanding, and I don’t deny it, but I am also generous and giving of my time, love, energy and resources. My mother made many demands of me, and I complied. With my daughters, I feel my demands, even of loyalty, have often been a burden on them.”
Recounting a series of wounding quarrels, she ruefully concludes, “There is only one certainty in the mother-daughter relationship: No matter how hard you try, mother will make mistakes and daughter will, too, but the mistakes daughter makes will probably all be ‘mother’s fault."
THE 1960S FOUND RINGGOLD smarting from an endless series of rejections of her paintings. She complains that “mainstream art was the art of the Sixties, despite the ‘revolution’ going on in the street. The art was cool, unemotional, uninvolved and not ‘about’ anything.” And, in her view, dominated by white men.
Ringgold was the originator of the first black demonstration against a major museum in New York City, the Whitney Museum of American Art, which she accused of snubbing black artists. She then turned her ire on the Museum of Modern Art. From 1968 to 1970, she says, she was caught up in a steady stream of activities protesting MOMA’s exclusion of black artists.
But very soon, as she realized the “brothers,” once accepted, didn’t necessarily reach back to pull the “sisters” on board, Ringgold turned adamantly feminist. “Trying to get the black man a place in the white art establishment left me no time to consider women’s rights. I had thought that my rights came with the black man’s. But I was mistaken,” she writes. “I became a feminist because I wanted to help my daughters, other women and myself aspire to something more than a place behind a good man.”
Ringgold joined an ad hoc women’s group to protest the Whitney’s lineup of mostly male artists. The angry women deposited eggs and sanitary napkins in the corridors of the museum, and when only two black women sculptors were selected for the next show (the first black women ever to be exhibited at the Whitney), the group forged tickets to the opening and demonstrated, sitting in a circle on the floor, chanting and singing deliberately off-key.
Following a People’s Flag Show at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village a few months later—in which nude dancers performed with flags tied loosely around their necks—Faith was arrested, along with two other artist members of the show’s organizing committee. Each of the “Judson Three” was sentenced to one month in jail or a $100 fine. They paid the fine.
Ringgold was now on a roll. She made two posters for Angela Davis, made another poster protesting conditions at Attica Prison, and painted and wrote texts for “Political Landscapes,” a series of 57 landscape paintings “that had writing on them, like the Chinese,” she explains, “but that said something about people.”
Her daughter Michele wrote eight of the texts, terse and sharp, such as the one that reads: “He’s leaving her. Says he’s got to do his own thing. How come she don’t?” Faith wrote the remainder of the “Political Landscapes” comments on racism and the relationships between black men and black women.
“Today, when I read [my] texts, I’m turned off by the writing,” she confesses. “I’m embarrassed by its lack of originality and wit, and also its heavy-handed 1960s rhetoric. I simply wasn’t able to find my voice. It was so frustrating.”
With her autobiography, Ringgold has found her writing voice at last. (Her paintings, quilts and African masks long ago found a way to speak for themselves.) But even with the publication of her life story, the impression is that Faith Ringgold is not through talking.
The Guggenheim has recently earned her wrath. The museum includes her Tar Beach quilt (purchased by Judith Leiber, the evening-bag designer, and donated to the museum) in its permanent collection, but never shows it. Children ask to see Tar Beach, says Ringgold, but to no avail.
She says, “I don’t know what it would take to have this totally Eurocentric, male-dominated Guggenheim Museum exhibit a painted story quilt by an African-American woman. So I don’t hold my breath.”
It irks Ringgold that quilting is so often denied a place in the realm of fine arts. For several years she taught a class in quilt-making at UCSD but has discontinued it. “They wouldn’t make it part of the curriculum. It was an extra. There is still a lot of prejudice against the quilt media in academia, even though the art world has embraced it. Yes, quilts can be merely craftsy, like paintings and sculptures can be craftsy if they’re not based on interesting ideas,” she says. But hers are serious in content.
“Academia has been a little slow to catch on.”