This blog is composed of images and writings related to the life and work of Faith Ringgold, her mother Mme. Willi Posey, and her daughters Michele and Barbara Wallace. There are pages with links to blogs composed of the materials arranged by decades. The blog, itself, will ultimately be composed of materials related to the life of the family in the 90s and the 21st century.

Friday

Photo Essay: Invisibility Blues, Excerpts from New Introduction



Barbara, Mom (Faith Ringgold), Michele and Willi Posey, probably a birthday celebration for Mom, October 8, 1981. Photo taken by Dad, Burdette Ringgold. Photo Collection of Faith Ringgold.




Faith Ringgold with John Hendricks and Jon Toche, The Judson 3 at the Judson Memorial Church, Washington Square Park, 1970. Photo by Fred McDarrah for The Village Voice. Reprinted in Dancing at the Louvre edited by Dan Cameron, University of California Press, 2001 with essay by Rick Powell.


Oil on canvas, 30" x 24," Collection of the Artist

New Introduction by Michele Wallace
Englewood, New Jersey 2007

When I first conceived of doing Invisibility Blues in 1990, the intention was to draw together all of the major writing I had done, beginning in my college years in 1969. Such a thing seemed to be particularly important to do after the success of my first book, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, and the controversy it had aroused. Of greatest concern to me was the notion that had been circulated that I was not actually a writer, a feminist, or an activist, or even serious about the topics brought up in that book. The point was, though, that I was serious and had not been put up to my deeds by white feminists of any description, as dear friend and colleague Ishmael Reed lovingly suggested in his book Reckless Eyeballing. (I addressed his suggestion in the Village Voice in 1984, and that essay appears here as “Ishmael Reed’s Female Trouble.”) So, with Invisibility Blues, my aim was to establish my feminist bona fides by providing the reader with a context for the writing of Black Macho.

Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence taught me that the person the writer credits least may be the one most heavily borrowed from. My most significant mentor, teacher, co-conspirator and guide had been my own mother, also known as Faith Ringgold. Which brings us to another purpose broached in Invisibility Blues as constructed in 1990: my failure to properly thank my mother. Let’s get it said that in those days feminists were, at the very least, ambivalent about the importance of the maternal role particularly in regard to their own individual mothers. Adrienne Rich’s book Of Woman Born helped me to become more conscious of this double standard in feminist thought, as did the time I spent with Rich when she received an honorary doctorate from the City College of New York in the 90s.


Faith Ringgold, THE AMERICAN PEOPLE SERIES #18: THE FLAG IS BLEEDING, 1967
Oil on canvas, 72" x 96," Collection of the Artist

It was just in the normal course of things that if you were black, female, and young, and had managed to wiggle through the door of publishing success, you entered without family or baggage, and were booted out the next door just as unceremoniously when you were no longer young. But what could I have known about such things then? I was 27. At 27, nothing is actually known. Actual knowledge requires information sifted through experience. You sleep on it. You walk on it. You roll it between your thumb and your forefinger and then maybe, just maybe, in 30 years something will occur to you as known. But much more stunning still, at least to me at 56, is how much larger and larger the unknown seems to yawn into the eternal abyss.

Faith's art has shaped all of my life. It is impossible to imagine life without it in the background or sometimes in the foreground. So I include it often in my writings because it truly belongs there. But I also use the work in order to pay tribute to her undeniable gifts and importance as a black feminist artist.

Acrylic on canvas, painted and pieced border, 74.5" x 79.5"
Private Collection

In Invisibility Blues there are three illustrations used of Faith’s paintings. The first is “For the Women’s House” (1972). It is a painting I slept with and daydreamed over during its creation in 1971 when I was all of 19, attending City College as an undergraduate and living with Faith in Harlem. It is a large, perfectly square, painting organized by the principles of BaKuba (of the Congo) design, and greatly influenced by Faith’s growing interest in African art. The mural was made for the Women’s House of Detention on Riker’s Island, and during its creation Faith and I talked endlessly about the concept of a feminist vision designed to enlighten and enhance the lives of women of color in the prisons.

Faith went to see the prisoners several times to talk with them about what they would like to see in a mural; what would give them hope and help them dream of their future. I never went with her on those occasions but we reflected endlessly on their comments, and these reflections resulted in my interview with Faith, which was first published in Women and Art—an underground feminist publication of the early 70s—and appears here as the piece titled “For the Women’s House.”

The celebration of the installation led to the formation of a group called Art Without Walls, which turned out to be another those times in which all three generations collaborated--MJ, Mom, Barbara and me. All of us were in the group and led workshops along with other sundry artists and writers.

Another of my mother’s works, “Who’s Bad Painted Quilt” (1989) fronts the section on popular culture. This section includes my essay on Michael Jackson, which ends with a discussion of Faith’s painting of Jackson. The painting was donated to an auction sponsored by Jackson himself to raise money for Bishop Tutu.

A third image, “The Flag is Bleeding” (1968) fronts the Culture/History section most particularly in relation to an essay called “Reading 1968: The Great American Whitewash.” In this piece, I tried to bring a more diverse perspective to some of the dominant Liberal interpretations of 1968.

In addition to the reproductions of Faith’s art, there were many other ways that I sought to recognize and acknowledge my Mom’s contribution to my work as a writer. Within the autobiographical section, the first part of the book, each essay mentions Faith and her work generously, or so I imagined in 1990.

Today, my favorite among the autobiographical pieces are “The Dah Principle: To Be Continued,” and the “Baby Faith” essay. “The Dah Principle” was written for the catalogue I edited for Faith’s twenty-year retrospective at the Studio Museum in 1985. The essay was about three series of Faith's paintings, all abstractions: The Emanon Series, The Dah Series and "Baby Faith and Willi" These paintings were all done in tribute to the passing of MJ, my grandmother.




In this photograph, MJ (my grandmother) is in her prime in 1950, 50 years old herself, divorced and with her youngest child over 18. This was at the same time as Aunt Barbara's wedding, in the apartment on Edgecombe Avenue. Part of a series taken by her boyfriend, Mr. Morrison, of her modeling her own fashions, this work, together with a series of projects she did on weddings and cotillions for her friend's daughters and her own daughter's wedding seems to have provided the transition to her emergence as a full-fledged Harlem dressmaker and designer who had clients, supported a coterie of professional models and gave seasonal fashion shows. Mom inherited her professionalism, her capacity for hard work and dedication to her craft from MJ. Living in MJ's world prepared me well for living in my mother's world.

These three generations of my family, my grandmother MJ, my Mom and her sister Aunt Barbara, and my sister and I had formed the nucleus of a closely knit circle of people and children who gravitated around MJ's extraordinary energy, elegance and joie de vivre. For some time, I am not sure beginning when exactly, she had been a dressmaker and someone who greatly admired well-made clothes, having learned to sew from her mother Ida Mae Bingham, her grandmother Betsy Bingham and her great-grandmother Susie Shannon. Apparently, Betsy, who was also a former slave, maintained a profitable dressmaking business out of her home in Jacksonville. Ida Matilda Bingham, who had been a teacher when she met and married Prof. B.B. Posey, also a teacher, continued her sewing once she began to have her children and taught her daughters Bessie, Willi and Edith to sew as well, a skill that would come in handy in the garment factories when the family moved to Harlem and New York.

MJ arrived in New York still a teenager after her father died of appendicitis in 1912 in Palatka, Florida, her birthplace and the location of her early education. Coming to New York to live with her sister who was married to a seaman who was away on long voyages, she attended Wadleigh High School. Born in 1903, she must have graduated by the time she was about 18 or so and married Andrew Jones, my grandfather who drove a sanitation truck. From the outset she and her children were always impeccably turned out in clothing of her own design and making. After WWII, MJ went to work making Eisenhower jackets in the factories downtown and got involved in the formation of a black fashion network of aspiring designers called NAFAAD, the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers which began under the auspices of Abyssinian Baptist Church where MJ was a lifelong member. The first fashion shows they held were also at Abyssinian. Her children Andrew, Faith and Barbara, as well as many of her fashion designer friends such as Margaret Floyd and Barbara Mayo modeled in those first shows. Later on they developed into a finely tuned national organization with branches in many major cities, conferences and events taking place at the leading hotels such as the Waldorf Astoria, the Hotel Theresa and the Americana Hotel in New York.




Aunt Barbara, Allan (a boyfriend), Johnny Rainbow (Singer at many of the fashion shows) and Mom (Faith) on the couch at 363 Edgecombe Avenue circa 1956. MJ is just visible in the mirror on the left.



This photograph provides kind of a window on what had become another common pre-fashion show scene. Aunt Barbara who is at the center is rehearsing some kind of dance that she and the models who are fanned out around her will do for the show. The scene is in MJ's living room, a space which I would not have thought would be large enough for a dance rehearsal but rehearse they did, nonetheless. I am right there in the background curled up on the couch, dreaming of being a dancer myself and enjoying every minute of it.





Mom and Aunt Barbara, and MJ herself made exquisite models. The life we lived with MJ when I was a little girl always seemed to me highly theatrical in a way that kept me on the edge of my seat in anticipation of what might be said or done next. Waking up the next morning to discover that I had fallen asleep at some point the night before I often experienced as a kind of defeat over the fascination I felt for the people who swarmed around my grandmother, whom I thought of as a minor celebrity until the day she died.

When MJ died in 1981, I had just begun to embark upon my studies for a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale. To lose what had been the most crucial person in my life besides my mother at that time was profoundly disorienting. Although by then many of her siblings had died and I was becoming an old hand at funerals, it had not ocurred to me that MJ would die so soon. If it had, I like to think that I would have taken a leave-of-absence from Yale and spent as much time with her as I could have. There was a part of me that wanted to do that anyway.

I called her often from New Haven, spoke to her often. Even as the publication of Black Macho had really tested my relationship with my Mom, I had grown that much closer to MJ. Her house had always been my one refuge in my sometimes stormy young life. She had always been profoundly supportive of everything I did from the time I first began to publish in the early 70s. She read my work, bought my books, entertained my friends, attended all of my book parties and events, especially if my mother was unable to come.

When Ebony Magazine decided to do a profile of me, MJ received them and all the rest of the members of the family who were willing to attend at her house. The story never appeared but I still have the photographs they took and I will never forget her unfailing hospitality. She also encouraged me to make peace with my mother as frequently as she could. Indeed, in the extended interview I did with her in 1980, she spoke of the importance of making peace with my mother over my first book.



This photo which shows MJ relaxing with two of her best women friends also at the same time as Aunt Barbara's wedding illustrates another important principal MJ lived by, the importance of friendship. On her right is Lottie Bell, who kept the household in Atlantic City where MJ and her children spent their summers, and who later moved to Washington D.C. where we went on the first summer vacation I can remember when I was about four. Lottie Bell was a great cook and kept a crowd at her place. On the left is another good friend I don't remember. Afterall, I am not even born yet.

When she died and then Aunt Barbara died the very next year, it was not a good thing at all. In fact, it was devastating. I don't believe I will ever get over how different the world has seemed ever since then without them.

The “Baby Faith” essay, which is also included in Invisibility Blues, helps to provide an introduction that followed the exit of MJ and Aunt Barbara, which centered around the birth of my neice (1982) whom we called Baby Faith and who was named after her grandmother. The essay was written for Ms. magazine in 1987 when Baby Faith was 5 and already had a little sister Teddy who was then 2.

In the Pop section, which follows, there is an essay about the reception of the movie The Color Purple in Norman, Oklahoma where I was teaching when it was released (1987), and an essay on the reception of Michael Jackson in his then most recent video, “Bad.”1 The title essay “Invisibility Blues” is a meditation on the intersection of media and multiculturalism in the 80s. Also in this section are essays about Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Do The Right Thing.” Both films, along with The Color Purple would help to shape the future of blacks in the film industry in the 90s, and certainly shaped my enduring fascination with film: they ultimately influenced me to pursue a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies at New York University. “Entertainment Tomorrow” is a meditation on the impact of popular culture across a broad range of cultural phenomenon, from Jesse Jackson’s speech at the National Democratic Convention in Atlanta in 1988, to the Broadway production of “Sarafina” with the unforgettable, unstoppable music of South African expatriot musician Hugh Maskela. The final piece, which first appeared in ArtForum, briefly considers Clint Eastwood’s massively crucial “Bird,” and “Mississippi Burning,” yet another not-quite-entirely-successful stab at portraying the Civil Rights Movement on the silver screen.

The Culture and History section begins with “For Colored Girls, the Rainbow is Not Enough,” a profile first published in the Village Voice on Ntozake Shange and her play’s debut at Joe Papp’s Shakespeare Festival Theatre. “Slaves of History” is an essay on Deborah Grey White’s groundbreaking history, Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in The Plantation South, and on poet and playwright Sherley Anne Williams’s historical novel about antebellum slavery, Dessa Rose. “Slaves of History” first appeared in the Womens Review of Books (1986).

There is also a short profile of Wilma Mankiller, then the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation in Talaquah, Okahoma (1987), which was published in Ms. Magazine (1988). “Twenty Years Later” is an essay on my own experience as a teenager living in Harlem at the time of Martin Luther King Jr’s death in 1968. It reflects upon the confusion and the riots which followed, and the amnesia that had descended on places like the University of Oklahoma where I was teaching on the twentieth anniversary of his death. 

“Who Owns Zora Neale Hurston? Critics Carve Up the Legend” is a piece of feminist literary criticism stemming from the rediscovery of the Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, which was first published in the Voice Literary Supplement (1988). “The Great American Whitewash” was my way of naming the retrospective whitening of the revolutionary world event collectively known as “1968” and an attempt to make a correction restoring the recognition of black participation. This essay was first published in Zeta in 1988. The last chapter in the Culture/History section is an essay about the work of Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival, which I wrote for their catalogue in conjunction with an exhibition at the Dia Center for the Arts.

Tim Rollins was an artist who had helped form Group Material (a radical deconstructive/historical artists’ collective in the 80s and the 90s), and a junior high school teacher in the South Bronx. He started an after school art program and worked with a promising core of Latin kids to make large, mostly public art installations. They were always stunning, the kids brilliant and striking. I had such a great time visiting them.



From the time I was about five years old, which would have been in 1957, my sister Barbara and I modelled in all the fashion shows. Here I am modeling in one of the last of MJ's shows in 1970. I was 18, in college at CCNY and actually painfully shy but really enjoying this dress. Feminism was already very much in my life.

Finally, we arrive at the theoretical section of this manuscript composed of the two long reflective chapters that formed my M.A. thesis in English and Literary Criticism at the City College of New York. In retrospect, I think they are too long and too reflective for the times we are currently living in. The purpose of this writing was to substantiate through critical analysis something I still believe to be a fact: that a certain portion of the population—women of color, mostly— can not be heard, understood, or adequately recognized by dominant mainstream culture. The considerable wisdom and knowledge of this population remains unincorporated, even as it is indispensable to the survival of the smaller and often marginal communities where women of color participate and provide crucial leadership. What I said then about mainstream culture in the U.S., I would now enlarge to a global perspective.

Brilliant Third World feminist intellectual Gayatri Spivak refers to this population as the subaltern. The difference between her analysis and mine (at least since I last checked) is that I would include Spivak and myself in the group whose knowledge is chronically trivialized. As for the notion of a public intellectual, when it comes to the likes of us, it is an oxymoron.
I wish the writing in “Variations on Negation and The Heresy of Black Feminist Creativity” and “Negative Images: Toward a Black Feminist Cultural Criticism” was less dense and circular. But I still haven’t found any better way to express the invisibility that haunts women of color; intellectual, determined-to-be-useful women of color in particular. Despite the fact that many of them are now famous and a few are even rich, it continues to astonish me that nothing much has changed in terms of inequality in America.

And yet the desire to preach this sermon has entirely left me. At 56, perhaps the key is the realization that, yes, my grave will occupy the same six-foot depth as everyone else’s, but I don’t have to spend the rest of my life staring into the pit, waiting to fall. Black feminism doesn’t work well—at least in the United States—as a collective perspective or an organizational tool, but I still believe that it is real, useful, and functional. It only occurred to me recently that a progressive perspective need not recruit thousands of people in order for it to work the way it should. Perhaps it works best when it enhances the individual woman’s depth of understanding, the woman who can’t bear the idea of an unexamined life. It makes me happy to be the way I am, to think the way I think. And it may make you happy too.

1 The subway fight in “Bad” was actually filmed in the subway station on 145th Street and Nicholas Avenue above which I had lived since we moved back to Harlem in 1962.


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Michele Wallace: Talking in Pictures

Michele Wallace: Talking in Pictures
Barbara, MJ, Michele and Mom in the background in sunglasses at a fashion show in the early 60s