Michele Wallace and Mme. Willi Posey (Momma Jones) after the college graduation of the former standing outside of Madison Square Garden, New York June 1974. It was a windy day and Mom (Faith Ringgold) was took the picture.
She presented recent soft sculpture of her ancestors--her grandmothers and grandfathers, and her great-grands and great-great grands with the years of the life span following the place of birth. Almost all died some place else other than where they were born owing to the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North during the early decades of the 20th Century.
In particular I was struck by this in the case of Ida Matilda Posey, Mom's grandmother, who was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1869 but then died in New York City in 1927. It creates an entirely different picture if you think she lived her whole life in Florida, which she did not. Mom's grandfather was born in Rocky Grove, Aiken County, South Carolina--so far as I can tell--but he died in Palatka, Florida in 1912 suddenly of appendicitis.
But it may be that people didn't often live of a burst appendix in 1912 or of Bright's disease in 1927 period.
I do know that great care was frequently taken to conceal the true age, to the point of lying to the census takers, for which they no doubt had their very good reasons. I suspect in cases where education was highly valued (such as happened with Zora Neale Hurston), the age was put back in order to take advantage of some public program restricted to the young. From the time of the Emancipation Proclamation until now blacks were always playing catch up.
But the location and date of B.B.'s death in Palatka in 1912 is very important because Palatka is also where his youngest children Edith, Willi (Mom's mother) and Hilliard were born. It was when BB died suddenly of appendicitis that the family was gradually split up and scattered. It is also important because in the interviews I did with her in 1978 and 1980, MJ obviously considered Palatka her true place of origin. Apparently MJ ended up staying in Palatka to finish her primary schooling perhaps at that very same primary school for colored listed in the directory, living with a family named the Massingales, who had never had children themselves, whereas Ida sold the house in Palatka and took the other children with her to live with her mother, Betsy Bingham in Jacksonville, Florida.
The education of the eldest children Cardoza, Bessie and Inez at the Florida Baptist Academy was terminated because of lack of funds. Cardoza who had been born in 1892 was 20 years old and would by 1917 move North to New Jersey, establishing the first outpost of the immediate family in the North. Bessie who was 16 in 1912 and would live with her mother in Jacksonville until she married Henry Austin and then moved to Harlem with her husband who had a job as a cook on a boat docking in New York. This change of venue is important to our wing of the family because MJ would travel to Harlem to live with her and to attend Wadleigh high school in New York, and so therefore MJ went from really small rural town, which was hardly racially segregated to Harlem which was the capital of the black world. Although she was born in the South, she had never really experienced the pain of segregation and Jim Crow first hand.
Which may account for much of her sunny disposition toward life, I wonder? She was no doubt of an optimistic bent but whether this was her innate disposition backed up by life circumstances or whether life circumstances generated her optimism is not a question I can answer any better than most psychologists.
For me the fact that Mom is doing this work is fascinating, particularly since she has done so much other work using the figure of MJ and her immediate family. If it happens over and over again in an artist's work, one must ask how has that meaning grown? What does it mean this time, as she grows older. It's like artist self-portraits as the artist changes.