Race, Art, and Activism: Faith Ringgold’s Inspiring Journey
“I remember when I was young and I would go into a gallery to show my work, and the gallery dealer would look at my legs and not my art.”
— Faith Ringgold, Makers: Women Who Make America
I first became acquainted with the work of Faith Ringgold the author through her award-winning children’s book Tar Beach, a wonderful story about a young black girl living in New York City’s Harlem in the 1930s who dreams she is flying over the city when relaxing on the roof of her apartment building (the “tar beach”). All of my children enjoyed the story. It was many years later that I was exposed to her rich history as a painter, sculptor, and quilter. So I was thrilled to take my budding 12-year-old artist to see the exhibition of Ringgold’s work at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and take an opportunity for what I knew would be a way to sneak in a few teachable moments about race and civil rights. I was not disappointed. Over a few hours we covered “black is beautiful,” poverty, racism, white/black relations, feminism, “Mr. Charlie,” Black Panthers, and even the Apollo mission. There was a lot going on.American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s is an exhibit of Ringgold’s work that is powerful and evocative of a time when civil rights, race relations, gender, and social class erupted into a maelstrom of uncertainly and change. Amazingly, until 2010, many of the works had not been seen in almost 50 years, because as Ringgold noted on NPR, “The struggle was one thing when you talk about it, another thing when you picture it.” The controversial nature of the work kept her from advancing as an artist.
The now 82-year-old was a political and feminist artist long before these themes were a part of the mainstream landscape of black artists, and she was also one of the first women to organize and fight to get the works of African American and women artists into museums and galleries. Ringgold began the American People series in 1963, a pivotal year in the civil rights movement — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington, it was the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the activist Medgar Evers was tragically murdered, and there was the shocking assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Ringgold wanted to make a personal statement through her art about what was happening at this critical time. The exhibit is an emotional and visual kaleidoscope of many of the major events, attitudes, and actions affecting African Americans throughout the 1960s.
It is difficult to avoid the striking realization that, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, Ringgold’s images send a powerful awareness that many of the same issues of race, class, and gender remain unresolved, close to the surface, and contentious today. In a recent interview on NPR’s Tell Me More with Celeste Headlee, Ringgold was asked about the civil rights movement and what she “had expected to be changed by now.” She had this to say:
My expectations were not all that much. I don’t think I was sitting around expecting. What has not changed is, people are still doing whatever they think they can get away with. I think there’s still a lot of advancement for people, generally speaking. To learn to let other people live in the world with freedom. So that might be a continuing struggle as long as people are different and they can find a way to classify a group and oppress them accordingly. I think people pretty much will do it. If you understand what I mean.
Yes, I actually do understand what Ringgold means. And after the museum visit, so does my daughter.
What did you expect would have changed by now? Share your thoughts in the comments below.