As a child, Faith Ringgold was one of my favorite artists. A Black woman creating art that featured other black folks in vivid display, I was sold. Her work quickly captivated me. I can recall the awe and elation I felt when I first read her book, Tar Beach which (was also semi-autobiographical by the way) featured a little black girl named Cassie soaring the skies of Harlem. Scenes of the city life came alive and Cassie with skin like mine flew, like a super hero. Like a bird. Like something magical. Like some unstoppable force and that imagery has stayed with me years later.
I have to note that her quilt art really moved me too. As a child I knew that you could draw or paint or just about everything. (I tested out that theory) But seeing Ringgold create art with her narrative quilts brought new meaning to all the things that Black women could do. New possibilities are popping up in the art department. It also shed light on what I say as a reclaiming of an art form of sorts. Sure women had been making quilts forever. Women in different parts of the world had been making quilts, jewelry, embroidery and other things that may carry a feminine appeal or were widely known to be “women’s work”.
But for me, Faith Ringgold was among the first in my art education as a little girl to see a female artist using one of those mediums, taking to the art scene and making a big splash with it. The art was always beautiful and full of black and brown folk which I appreciated and earned to see. However, the narrative aspect of them were key: the fact that I could follow along and see a story forming — -to see a series of the pieces in a book bound meant something to me as a reader of everything and anything. At that age I knew her work meant something to me (as it still does). I knew her books mattered to me as that young age. I knew Faith Ringgold was as important to the art world at that age as black women were to world. As they still are and always will. I must link to one of my favorite pieces of hers which features a table of black women from different eras in time, my favorite flower and a curious inclusion of a famous artist who is often associated with that flower.
For a long time I was even unaware of her early work before the colorful, beautiful quilted art — the oil painting series that she created after graduating from art school and traveled to Europe for a while to study the art movement of the greats there. Her early oil paintings series, specifically The American People are mostly dark in color and featuring people of all colors and shades. Some even are ghastly pale. The American flag shows up a few times in a few pieces. An overall feeling that I get view the pieces of this series is…surreal.
The work looks like it could have been created today, or yesterday or ten years ago. This is by no means diminishing it. Or Ringgold. I believe that the series reflected the times it was created in (the early to late 60’s) which were a turbulent times as well. And even today I feel a pull to it as a reflection of the times that we live in.
Back to the piece in question which I’ll post the image again above — it is an oil painting of the American flag obviously. Red. White (Grayish) Blue. Star and stripes. The arrangements of the flag strike me curious…something seems off here. In the left hand corner, I can make up some letters on the stars. In black paint I can make out “DIE” faintly. Scratching my head I look to the stripes. The red. This baffles me. It is not until I tilt my head I can finally see it. “Nigger” The American Flag with “Die Nigger” displayed upon it.
Was this how people saw their America back in the 60's? Their home but a place that made them feel unwelcomed? Unwanted? Unappreciated. Did they associate the flag with their fellow Americans that sought to make their lives hell? To make them feel unsafe?
It is November 9, 2016. The day after voting day, the day after the presidential elections.
For me on the west coast in California it just turned ten in the morning. I am home. Looking at my laptop and typing. I emailed my Media Law professor telling him that I won’t be in class today because I am still processing the election results today. (He emailed back saying he too was still processing and in a state of shock and terror.)
I am still processing at this moment in time that I don’t feel safe enough to leave home yet. I am still processing that people in this country, this place that I call home came together to elect a man who, when speaks, inspires the worse in people. Brings out the worse in people. Racial slurs tossed about freely at his rallies and protesters attacked willingly without a beat until they were bloody at his events. A man who has spoken and made a number of marginalized people which include people of color, Muslims and the LGBTQIA community feel unsafe, scared and completely vulnerable.
The message is clear to me. The message that this man was elected means that this flag, this American flag is my American flag today. This is what the election delivered to me this Wednesday morning.
I believe it was the late and great Nina Simone that said, “It is an artist’s duty to reflect the times.” Artist Faith Ringgold did that here within a series of oil paintings several decades ago as a Black woman creating art. As a Black writer. As a Black activist. As a Black mother. As a Black survivor.
In the grand scheme of events and considering the history of how Black people have treated in this country throughout time I should feel some kind of way, that a piece of art from what seems so long ago to me still be so relevant in days such as these but I won’t let my heart go there.
Instead I can only see Ringgold as a sort of wizard, a time traveler in my head. She knew.
As did the black women, her ancestors before her and those before them: this land we call home will not always recognize us. This land we call home will not always make or feel welcome or loved or wanted.
America for better or worse is ours, even on days when she turns her face away from us.
Yes, even on days when we aren’t sure if she sees us trying to manage our fears and anxieties on daily basics whenever we leave home which are amplified on a day like today.
(Please look out for each other and take care of yourselves on today. Unplug from online if you need to and step away from conversations from those don’t understand. Self-care is the best care.)
See more pieces in The Black Light Series by Ringgold here.
See pieces of another series of oil paintings titled, The American People here.
Read more about the artist Faith Ringgold here.