Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach (Part I from the Woman on a Bridge series), 1988. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation/Art Resource, N.Y.
There is one image that defines my childhood like no other: a young Black girl, her hair braided in pigtails, flying above the George Washington Bridge while her family enjoys a summer night on their Harlem rooftop. The roof is a hub of activity: a picnic table with watermelon and drinks dominates the right side, four adults sit playing cards in the middle, a clothesline stretches along the left side of the roof, and two children lie nearby on a quilt, staring up at the stars.
This is the world of Tar Beach, Faith Ringgold’s masterful and, arguably, most enduring children’s book, released in 1991. It tells the story of Cassie Louise Lightfoot, an 8-year-old girl who dreams of freedom and finds it one night when she discovers she can fly. Flying doesn’t just give her freedom; it also gives her power. She flies over the George Washington Bridge, built by construction workers like her father, and declares it to be hers. Resources long denied to her family, like membership in the local union, become hers for the taking. “Daddy is going to own that building,” she says, floating above union headquarters, “’cause I’m gonna fly over it and give it to him.”
Freedom is a straightforward proposition in Tar Beach. You ask for it and the universe delivers. Then you use your freedom to free others. As the scholar Dr. Elleza Kelley argues in her forthcoming book, Flight Lines: Making & Marking Black Space, Cassie’s flight serves a collective purpose: She wants dignity for her father, rest and relaxation for her mother, economic security for her family. Kelley suggests her imagination turns an ordinary rooftop into a launch pad to a new world, one unburdened by the rules and exclusions that define her own.
Tar Beach was published two years before I was born. It’s one of the earliest stories that I remember loving. My mother, a truly insatiable reader, surrounded me with stories about magnificent women who ran for president, invented revolutionary products, defied the odds, and freed themselves and others from slavery. But Cassie was different; she was ordinary. Her story was proof you didn’t have to be extraordinary to be free.
I was struck anew by Cassie’s power while visiting Faith Ringgold: American People, a groundbreaking retrospective at the New Museum in New York City. I thought I could do the exhibition in a day and found myself gobsmacked by more than 50 years of radical art. Ringgold’s influence spans decades, genres, and mediums. She’s a painter, sculptor, quilter, performance artist, activist, illustrator, and author. Her name graces the covers of over 17 children’s books. In many ways, Cassie, Ringgold’s first young literary protagonist, embodies the characteristics Ringgold gives the children in her art. Many are poor, their families struggling under the weight of racial capitalism. Children witness and experience violence, often at the hands of the state and their communities, but their imaginations are limitless, as is their ability to liberate themselves and others. Throughout Ringgold’s expansive career, Black children remain at the center of struggle and possibility. In art and in life, Faith Ringgold sees children’s struggles, imaginations, and dreams as sites of revolution.
Ringgold, like so many path-breaking artists, is a teacher. She began her career as an art teacher in Harlem about a year after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. New York City leaders largely ignored the Supreme Court’s mandate to desegregate public schools. Black parents, fed up with underfunded and overcrowded schools, responded with a barrage of legal, political, and direct action. They defied segregationist zoning laws, sued the city, and organized school strikes. Black mothers were beaten by police, thrown in jail, and threatened by child welfare agencies. Children faced violence and intimidation as well, regardless of their age.
It was during this time that Ringgold began working as a commercial artist. You can see her fears and anxieties as a parent in one of her earliest paintings, Hide Little Children (1966). At the time, her two young daughters, Michele and Barbara, attended the New Lincoln School, a private, experimental, majority-white school in Manhattan. In the painting, her daughters hide in a bush with their new white friends, smiling serenely and temporarily safe from the violence that plagues Black children in white spaces.
Soon, a new political movement would emerge and change the trajectory of Ringgold’s life. “It was in 1967 that for the first time I heard the chant ‘Black Power every hour, Black Power every hour,’” she wrote in her 1995 memoir, We Flew Over the Bridge. “I could hear it in my classroom like background music while the children painted.” This soundtrack cemented a truth that would go on to define Ringgold’s politics, pedagogy, and parenting: the centrality of children within Black freedom struggles.
Children struggle in Ringgold’s work. They undermine hierarchies, sabotage societal norms, and even, in the case of her devastating sculpture Atlanta Children (1981), die at the hands of white violence and indifference. Her art forces hard questions about the nature of Black childhood. For example: If Black children are not spared the violence of white supremacy, do they have a right to take up arms in self-defense? Ringgold certainly thought so. One of her earliest posters, “All Power to the People,” created in 1970 to support the Committee to Defend the Panthers, depicts a Black family — mother, father, and child — resplendent in Black Power–era apparel and armed to the teeth. The parents carry rifles and ammunition. The child, a little boy, has a different kind of weapon: a long, silver stick. He is shielded by his parents, but also armed and ready to defend himself. Ringgold and the Panthers both saw Black children as worthy of fierce protection but also revolutionary forces in and of themselves.
Challenging the social order was something of a rite of passage in Ringgold’s household. Some of her most famous acts of civil disobedience were family affairs. Her 1970 arrest at the People’s Flag Show at New York City’s Judson Memorial Church, for instance, is largely remembered as a rebuttal of authoritarianism at the height of the anti-war movement. But it was also the story of a Black mother and daughter confronting state repression together.
The show, which sought to challenge flag desecration laws through public art, was a collaboration between Ringgold and her 18-year-old daughter, Michele Wallace. The handwriting that figured most prominently in the poster promoting it, supplanting the stripes of a red and black American flag with an invitation for artists to express what the American flag meant to them, was Wallace’s. On the penultimate night of the show, plainclothes detectives raided the exhibition. Wallace was among the first to be targeted. Ringgold recalled the terror of witnessing her daughter’s arrest in We Flew Over the Bridge:
The swap worked. Ringgold was arrested in her daughter’s place along with her People’s Flag Show co-organizers, Jon Hendricks and Jean Toche of the Guerrilla Art Action Group. The trio, dubbed the Judson Three, were charged with desecration of the flag by the U.S. attorney general’s office, found guilty the following year, and forced to pay a fine of $100 to avoid jail time.
Earlier that year, Wallace had founded Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL) alongside her mother. Their goal was to combat the erasure of Black women in New York City art institutions. In her memoir, Ringgold describes having turned to her eldest daughter for strategic advice as they developed demands for the 1970 “Liberated” Venice Biennale.
Wallace’s demand soon became the central rallying cry of the 1970 Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee. Founded by artists Lucy Lippard and Poppy Johnson, among others, in response to the Whitney Museum’s nearly all-white-and-male annual exhibition lineup, Ad Hoc joined forces with the Art Workers’ Coalition, Women Artists in Revolution, and Ringgold and Wallace’s WSABAL to pressure the Whitney to increase its percentage of featured women artists from 8 percent to 50 percent. For two and a half months, they staged surprise sit-ins, deposited eggs and sanitary napkins emblazoned with the words “50 percent” in gallery corridors, and distributed fake tickets to educate museumgoers about their campaign. On weekends, they led marches in front of the Whitney with chants supplied by Ringgold’s younger daughter, Barbara, then 17 years old.
By the time the Whitney Annual opened in December 1970, representation of women artists had jumped to 20 percent and included — for the first time ever — two Black women artists, Betye Saar and Barbara Chase-Riboud. In Optimism and Rage: The Women’s Movement in Art in New York, 1969–1975, the art critic Carey Lovelace argues that Ad Hoc served as an incubator for a new generation of radical women artists. Many members went on to lead collectives committed to transforming the political, economic, and social conditions artists faced.
Without Michele Wallace, would Ad Hoc have demanded equal female representation at the Whitney? It’s impossible to say. But what is certain is that the radical ambitions of Ad Hoc can be traced back to the mind of a Black teenager.
Revolutions, the historian Robin D. G. Kelley writes in his 2002 opus Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, are not forged only through political struggle; they are dreams in action, imaginations unleashed. In this way, transformative social movements share much in common with great works of art. Both require what Kelley terms “poetic knowledge,” or the ability to “enable participants to imagine something different, to realize that things need not always be this way.” This knowledge opens the door to what Grace Lee Boggs considered the true nature of revolution: redefining our relationships to one another and the Earth, loving people beyond borders and boundaries, and creating something new in place of the old.
Love, artistry, and transformation are also the primary ingredients in Ringgold’s children’s books. Her young protagonists are reservoirs of poetic knowledge; their imaginations propel them through time and space, enabling them to encounter new ways to live.
In Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky, Ringgold’s second children’s book, Cassie takes to the skies with her brother Be Be and the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. But unlike in Tar Beach, Cassie isn’t eager to take the trip; she’s a reluctant passenger. She travels through the Underground Railroad to find her brother, who has boarded “Aunt Harriet’s” train without permission. Like her ancestors before her, Cassie escapes slavery, sleeps in safe houses, and follows the North Star while Be Be leaves her notes of encouragement and adopts a baby sister named Freedom. When the siblings finally reunite in Canada, Cassie chastises Be Be for leaving in the first place. Be Be responds firmly but gently: “I love you, Cassie, but I had to go ... Freedom is more important than just staying together.”
In Harlem Renaissance Party, a boy called Lonnie discovers the liberatory power of art. He and his Uncle Bates travel to 1920s Harlem and spend the day surrounded by the greats, including Louis Armstrong, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, and Zora Neale Hurston. Immersed in Black artistry and genius, Lonnie has an epiphany. “Black people didn’t come to America to be free,” he tells his uncle. “We fought for our freedom by creating art, music, literature, and dance.” His uncle, smiling, responds, “Now everywhere you look you find a piece of our freedom.”
It’s easy to read Ringgold’s stories as compact Black history lessons for young readers, but Cassie, Be Be, and Lonnie are not simply vehicles to understanding the past; they are embodiments of the transformative power of imagination. I don’t know how old I was when I first picked up Tar Beach, but I know it made me feel free. It made the impossible feel tangible, and ordinary life magical. And that’s exactly how Ringgold planned it. “Cassie doesn’t take flight because she wants to see the world,” Ringgold later wrote, “but rather because she envisions a better life for her family. Already at eight years old she wisely recognizes that all good things start with a dream.”
nia t. evans is a freelance writer, an inaugural Black Voices in the Public Sphere fellow at Boston Review, and a member of the editorial team at Hammer & Hope.