Faith Ringgold: “Tar Beach”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

For my dear friend, Amy Young

Faith Ringgold’s story quilt seems like a fitting conclusion to our month-long focus on the tales of African Americans who soared to freedom.

When I first encountered Faith Ringgold’s work in the early ‘90s, it deeply resonated with me. I love quilts (or the “idea of a quilt,” to use my friend Amy’s phrase). I love their visual impact, the artistry they demonstrate, and the fact that they can tell stories.

Scholars tell us that slaves stitched messages of escape and freedom, clues to the Underground Railroad in their quilts. These messages, say authors Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobin, were “hidden in plain view.” (Check out their book, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, to learn more.)

As much as I love quilts, I love stories even more. (After all, my love of stories gave birth to StoryWeb!) I love someone who can spin a good yarn, and I love getting lost in the pages of a good story-centered book.

So you just know it was a match made in heaven when my friend Amy Young introduced me to Ringgold’s “story quilts.” Ringgold paints and stitches, works with fabric and on canvas, uses traditional African American quilting motifs and writes a story directly on her artistic creation. She fuses narrative, painting, and quilting to tell tales of resistance and empowerment.

Ringgold has created many story quilts throughout the course of her long career. Born in 1930, she began creating story quilts in 1980. They hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Art, and the Guggenheim, among many other museums. Amy and I saw a stunning retrospective of her story quilts at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. I have a print of “Freedom Baptist Church Annual Sunday School Picnic, June 6, 1909” displayed prominently in my office – and it makes my heart sing.

But my very first introduction to Ringgold’s work was her 1991 children’s book, Tar Beach, based on the story quilt of the same name (the story quilt is displayed in the Guggenheim). In this story, eight-year-old Cassie Louise Lightfoot goes up to the rooftop of her Harlem apartment building (the “tar beach”). At night, she lies on a quilt, looking up at the stars in the sky. She imagines herself flying all over New York City – or maybe she really does soar up high in the sky. Says Cassie, “I will always remember when the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above the George Washington Bridge.… All you need is somewhere to go you can’t get to any other way. The next thing you know, you’re flying above the stars.”

Tar Beach is a marvelous book to own – whether you’re an adult captivated by stories and quilts and dreams of flying African Americans or whether you’re a child beginning to wonder about the wide universe to explore.

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Watch Faith Ringgold talk about creating Tar Beach in this short video. Then watch her talk about her writing process and Tar Beach in this short video.

Image Credit: Faith Ringgold in front of the “Tar Beach” story quilt. This photo is used with permission of Faith Ringgold. Faith Ringgold © 1997.