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.

Thursday

Critical Essay: Concerning Work on The Ancestors



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.

Yesterday I attended a powerpoint Faith did at the National Arts Club as she was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award for the City College of New York Art Alumni.

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. 

Although it is often remarked how young he was when he died, he was born in 1860 and he was 52. The same story was told of Ida that she died in her youth, yet she was actually 58. Not that 52 and 58 are that old but it isn't the first blush of youth either. Ida died of Bright's Disease. Obviously they both died of the tenuous health care of the early 20th century, with an added component perhaps of Jim Crow health care although how this worked for Ida Posey in the New York hospitals is a subject to be explored.  I am assuming that blacks received sub-standard health care in the hospitals of New York in the 20s since they still do especially in the public hospital of New York in 2009.

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. 

Palatka and Jacksonville are only about 30 miles away from one another and connected by a very convenient railroad line then.  There was also a ferry although MJ doesn't mention it.  No doubt it practiced Jim Crow and it may be that blacks carefully avoided Jim Crow accommodations and shielded their children from them whenever they could.  MJ remarks upon how her mother would bring Edith and Hilliard with her to visit MJ in Palatka on Christmas and other holidays.  Could it be that the commuter rail was small enough that the seating wasn't racially segregated or perhaps it was underutilized?

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. 

One can see the development in self-perception and world perspective. In any case, this project was initiated with friends Linda Freeman and Grace Matthews.

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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