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.


Photo-Essay: A Little Darling 1987 CHANGE

A Little Darling 1987, originally uploaded by olympia2x.  All rights reserved.  Copyright 1987 Clarissa Sligh.   Collection of Faith Ringgold.
This post is just for you Dawn and your precious daughters and son.
This picture is a photo taken of Baby Faith (Faith Wallace-Gadsden) by Clarissa Sligh in the process of documenting Faith Ringgold's CHANGE: PAINTED STORY QUILTS (1987). Faith is, of course, Faith Ringgold's oldest and first granddaughter.
In 1987, Faith had composed a quilt made up of a black and white collage of family archival photographs, which were then stencilled onto canvas and framed with quilting partly conceptualized by her lovely former assistant Lisa Yee. These photographs were made up of those that Momma Jones (Mme. Willi Posey, my grandmother, Faith's mother) kept and commissioned as part of her collection to document her work in fashion, and those photographs Faith had begun to keep and commission to document her work in visual art.
In addition, in 1986 Faith had begun a project to document a personal goal of losing 100 pounds, as her slow addition of body weight had become intolerable to her. In an attempt to politicize and universalize her own drama with food and excessive weight, she devised a script and a performance centered around the slow steady weight gain which often characterizes the lives of women as they have children and center their lives around their offspring and husband. She called it CHANGE and the message was that anyone could do anything he or she wanted, especially if it involved one's own body.

"January-October 1986
The worst part of being fat was squeezing yourself sideways through the subway turnstile, hobbling down the stairs to the train in hopes that it would still be there when you finally arrive and that you would be lucky enough to find two seats. Together."
Text of Change: Painted Story Quilts. Copyright Faith Ringgold 1986.  All rights reserved.   
The story of Tar Beach, that anyone could fly, came directly out of the resolve and the message of CHANGE. CHANGE also marks a transition in how Faith would approach her materials in the conception of her work. CHANGE was a story quilt composed of portions of her actual life in the form of her family photographs and the stories of her weight gain over the decades of her life due to the usual burdens of being a wife and mother.
But by virtue of this composition, Faith invented an indelible marker delineating the first half of her career as an artist and the second half. She did in fact lose 100 pounds. And her life and her career, would in fact, be different from then on in so many ways. It wasn't that she would no longer struggle with her weight or leave all concerns about her appearance behind her. The interest in appearance, as well as fashion and imagery in general, is part of the legacy of our family, especially of the women, although the men were far from shabby either. I know the men less well because there have been very few men. Of the men who survived, few had any children. And if they had children, they were daughters and those daughters had no children or had children who didn't survive to have progeny of their own.
Someone just recently suggested to me that families tend to be either predominantly male or predominantly female and I have noticed that this tends to be the case. The ongoing war between the sexes probably helps to exacerbate this tendency. Some countries are using ultrasound in order to weed out female babies in order to produce a marked dominance of male children throughout their populations.
In any case, from 1987 onward, Faith's work would be marked by an optimism and a buoyancy not particularly evident in her work before this time. To some degree, she began to leave behind the preoccupation with the more earthy topics of her earlier works, paintings and sculpture, such as the Slave Rape Series, the Weeping Women Masks, Windows of the Wedding, Emanon, Dah and Baby Faith and Willi Series of paintings, the America Black and American People Series, The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro and the Atlanta Children Sculpture.
The particular works of that immediate period--The Street Story Quilt, The Bitter Nest and the Flag Story Quilt would help to provide the transition to a more utopian as well as child centered vision. The work that fully signaled this development was the hugely successful Tar Beach Story Quilt, which is today part of the collection of the Guggenheim Museum and the basis for an award winning children's book also called Tar Beach.
In the 60s, 70s and the 80s work before CHANGE, the difficulties of being born the descendant of slaves and of being the survivor in the midst of a family in which alcoholism and drug addiction had taken its toll were obviously overwhelming in the issues addressed by her work (from The Flag is Bleeding (1968) to Die Nigger Flag for the Moon (1969), Political Landscapes (1972), Slave Rape Series (1973), The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro (1976), Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima (1983) for example).

In the 1980s, after her mother died and her sister died, Faith would do the Emanon Series, Baby Faith and Willi Series, the Dah Series and the California Dah Series, all abstractions in which she would express her grief over the death of all her immediate family as well as her joy over the birth of her first granddaughter Faith.

Photo Collection: Grandma, Teddy and Faith 1980s

Grandma, Teddy and Faith , originally uploaded by olympia2x. All rights reserved.  Faith RInggold Collection.  Photo by C. Love. 

Faith and her grandchildren in Harlem in the 1980s. These photographs are part of the series taken at the time of the Change Performances and Story Quilts. Photo by C. Love.


Photo Collection: Faith looking over Harlem 1980s

Photo by Ellen Eisenman, 1987. Taken from the roof of 345. Harlem was composed by a desolate landscape then but Faith was always hopeful, always positive. She is the peak of her weight loss powers.

Photo Collection: Baby Faith, Grandma and Teddy 1980s--Part of the Change

Baby Faith, Grandma and Teddy, originally uploaded by olympia2x.
At 345 West 145th Street in Harlem with her granddaughters Faith and Teddy. 1987. Photo by C. Love.

Photo Collection: Change 1987 Performance Images

Faith and her Collaborator, Artist Assistant Lisa Yee

Image including Video Camera Man.  What became of that video I wonder?
Add caption

Faith dancing with Bernice Steinbaum and Baby Faith in 1987 at her Change Performance in Soho.  Baby Faith is about 5.  Photograph by Clarissa Sligh.  All rights reserved.  Copyright Clarissa Sligh.

Photo Collection: Faith Ringgold's Change 1980s VII

Faith in La Jolla, California.  1987.  Photo by C. Love

More of the performance of Change by Faith Ringgold.  In the foreground, plastic bags filled with water equivalent to 100 pounds of weight. Celebratory dance at the end with Barbara and her two children, Faith in the dress and Teddy in her arms.  1987.

Faith reading from her text in the Change Performance (1987).  Seated in the audience is Lisa Yi, her artist assistant and collaborator then.   Photograph by Clarissa Sligh.  All rights reserved. 

Faith in La Jolla, California at an earlier stage in her weight loss program.  Perhaps 1986.  Photo by Lind Shlecht.  All rights reserved. 


Photo-Essay: Michele on The Terrace in 1978

Terrace09, originally uploaded by olympia2x.  Photograph by Barbara Wallace.  All rights reserved.  Michele Wallace Collection. 

These pictures were taken by my sister Barbara in the summer of 1978 when I was still teaching Journalism at NYU and had just completed the manuscript of Black Macho and The Myth of the Superwoman.

It was a lovely little apartment, a studio with a kitchen, a bathroom and a rather extensive dressing room with shelves and closets with shutters that I particularly liked. All parket floors. I could have remained in the apartment well after having left the employ of NYU but foolishly sublet the apartment to a real clown when I moved to New Haven and he simply walked away from it without paying the rent, without telling anyone. When I discovered what had happened, I had already been evicted. It was all I could do to pay the outstanding rent and achieve financial closure so that debt would not be hanging over my head. I lived at WSquare Village for about 3 years and there were many adventures, many parties, quite a few romances, about which the less said, the better.

Introductory: Facebook, Soul Pictures and Michael Jackson

Interestingly, I don't have any photographs to illustrate anything I am about to say.  Yes, there really is an entire conceptual universe beyond illustration, photography, images in general.

Gotta get some stuff clear about facebook now that I have discovered that I can actually post an entire blog in my notes on facebook. Still struggling with the advanced notes so I won't say anything about that right now.

In any case, Soul Pictures is now imported or exported, which ever the case may be into a note on my facebook, which is then broadcasts to the people whom we call "friends" on facebook. As I guess everybody has realized by now, even me, facebook has nothing to do with what we use to think of as friendship. The flow of it seems to have been largely determined by young people and current concepts of friendship, about which I won't comment since I don't understand it and don't have time to study it. It's their business. We had a chance to experiment with new forms of affiliation when we were young. Now it is their turn. Hopefully they won't make the mess of it that we baby boomers made of it.  Affiliation, that is.

But that isn't my topic. For me facebook has nothing to do with friendship. Not really sure what friendship is anymore, only that I don't have any friends in the true sense in which I regarded friends. There are many reasons, not sure about all of them, but I am content that this is as it should be for the time being. I don't have friends because I am otherwise occupied in deep work of the soul which takes up all of my time at the moment. I don't feel like I am missing anything. I don't feel like this is the way it will always be but people need hibernations, hiatuses, sabbaticals, vacations, retreats, whatever you want to call them. But this is not a vacation either. Rather this time and everything I am doing in this time is the chance I have been waiting for, planning for, dreaming about for at least twenty years, maybe more.

That's how long it has been since I have had a time of months long in which all I had to do was write and plan to write, research and plan research, and string it all together. I had such time after I wrote my first book Black Macho with the royalties I got from that book but I didn't yet have the skills or the research abilities or the spirit to know what to do with it. Instead I went back to school and I read and I studied which is pretty much what I have done with every other sabbatical or free moment since then. My last sabbatical since I have been a tenured professor I spent doing my Ph.D. in Cinema Studies at NYU, and believe me that was no vacation. I tried to make it as much about writing as I could but being a student just isn't the same thing.

So you see I am writing Soul Pictures as my sabbatical project. I am organizing the materials or that project via the resources of this blog, coordinated with several other blogs I use to coordinate and organize subsidiary materials to Soul Pictures, one on the culture of blues people which is how I refer to African American history and culture, the music of blues people, which is what it is all about, another blog on personal, emotional stuff I don't plan to pursue in the book but which might get in the way if I didn't have a chance to get it off my chest. There's a blog on African American photography and visual culture, which bears a symbiotic relationship to Soul Pictures. That is it is my study of the accomplishments of others in African American visual culture and American visual culture that has prompted my reading of the visual culture of the women and men in my family.

As for facebook, it has gotten rolled into the project because there were two reasons I thought blogging might be a good way to organize materials for facebook. First, because at the same time you are formulating your ideas, you can also be helping to formulate the audience for your ideas. Because I don't have an audience. Or rather if I have an audience, it is not an organized, identifiable niche audience. There isn't any way that I know of to make a living serving or speaking to that audience and that has to change. Otherwise the discourse, the exchanges, the languages, whatever you want to call it, will die out from lack of reinforcement. So blogging is audience development as well as tangible progress and work that you can track in its accumulation. It's also like a scrapbook in that you can actually show it to people, even to perspective publishers should the occasion arise. Facebook can conceivably fulfill the same purpose if you handle it right, which in my view it is possible to do best in the form of the notes application, which seem to have no length limits or time limits.

As for audience development, the opportunity of facebook seems crucial. Your first thought is well how many people are you actually talking to, how many pay attention, etcetera and so forth. But what could be more useful to the development of an audience tailor made for your material than to concentrate on a carefully selected group of people whom you already know and who have expressed some interest in accessing your daily, weekly or monthly development?

So this is the deal. Sorry if you want to be friends but for me facebook has nothing to do with friendship. I am 57 years old. I don't know how to make friends with anybody on a machine. More than likely all the friends I am ever really going to have, I already have. In any case, the development of new ones is temporarily suspended. This is about the work.  And while the work is for career purposes, it is first and foremost the labor of the soul, the stuff I recognize I need to do before I go one step further into the future.  If I were religious, I would say it is between me and God or me and my maker, or something like that, but I am not religious, so I will just say it is between me and me, or me and whatever there is beyond me and you.  It is between me and the planet.  Me and the vibrations of the universe.  Because I think vibrations might be real, which is where the music comes into it.

These remarks I address in particular to my nieces, my sister, my Mom and Dad, and to my friends. It's about the work right now. Whatever you see me doing, that's what it's about.  In the beginning, I conceived dance, drumming and music as the entertainment aspect of the whole thing-- but I have known for some time now that entertainment doesn't interest me right now.  For awhile I thought well maybe it is the physical exercise but as I progress, I realize I can't take a step without this Blues People culture because it was the culture that produced my grandmother, Momma Jones, the patron saint of this project.  

Every moment I ever spent with her was spent hip  deep in the Blues tradition.  I am realizing now that the experiences Mom had with her going to see shows and listening to music in the 30s and the 40s in Harlem was much like the experiences I had with her as a child except that I was her companion of the 50s and 60s.  She was constantly taking me to a church, or a show, or a concert, constantly playing music, dancing with me or for me, and encouraging me to dance.  Her first ambition was to be a dancer but she wasn't allowed to continue to pursue it by her family.  She pursued it until she got married though.  She talks about winning every dance contest she ever entered with Mr. Morrison, her second husband, and performing in shows at the Lafayette Theatre or wherever she could get on.  MJ's youth was in the 20s and from her pictures you can see that she was a real flapper, body and soul.   We think that when she died that Mr. Morrison took the scrapbook with her dance pictures in it, since he probably took a lot of those pictures and was probably also in those pictures.   I am going to try to find his family and see if these pictures survived somewhere.

When I was quite small, before I entered grade school, and we were still living with MJ on Edgecombe Avenue, she use to take me to church at the children's church in the basement of the Convent Avenue Church on the corner of 145th Street and Convent Avenue.  In the Baptist Church, Baptism is reserved primarily for adults.  In the service, the congregation is encouraged with music and prayer at a certain point in the service to come to Christ, that is to come to the front of the church and accept Jesus.  Well, I watched this ritual every Sunday in the children's church with fascination, wondering what happened to the people who came forward.  I resolved that I would find out by going forward myself.  I had noticed that only adults did so (many young adults attended church downstairs with we children), which made it all the more interesting I guess.  

But once I had done this, the result was some consternation, which everybody was careful to keep from me.  The dilemma: I was 5 years old, surely too young to understand what I was doing, what coming to the church and being baptised really meant.  But with MJ's support it was decided that if I had come forward it was because I had been called, and to interfere with that would be to get in the way of something that was little understood by the adults who ran our lives.  My grandmother told me shortly before she died that I was questioned by the minister to test my comprehension of the process and apparently I passed the test.  This was the last conversation I ever had with MJ and she told me how proud she had been of me when I had chosen to be baptised. 

What happened then was one of the fondest, most exciting series of memories of my life (and I don't know why it is I remember all of this stuff).  A special white garment was made for me and I was prepared in various ways for the baptism ceremony which would take place in the big adult church upstairs.  That day, my grandmother accompanied me into the changing room with other adult women (or maybe Mom did or maybe they both did--it was a big deal!).  The thing I remember was how shocked I was to see an entirely naked female body for the first time and to learn that adult women had hair down below because needless to say, I had none.  Then I can remember I was briefed on the baptism itself, getting dunked and everything.  I was handed to the minister who was standing in a pool of water and then he lowered me into the water, backwards which was a  bit of a shock, three times I think.  I'll never forget it.  I was well and truly baptised not only into life but into the Blues People culture.  I have always felt like I was somebody special from that day to this.

Maybe five or so years later, I was baptised once again, this time into the Lutheran church, confirmed perhaps, where they sprinkle a few drops of water on you and call it a baptism.  We attended a Lutheran school.  During the week we were Lutherans, on weekends we were Baptists.  God I loved religion when I was a kid.  I always say I had enough of it growing up to last me a lifetime.  I love it all but I loved most the music.  

With that proviso, I turn now to Michael Jackson and the show I am about to do with Joyce Jones on WBAI-FM (99.5), Women and The Blues Part II, Suga in My Bowl, next Monday from 9 to 11 p.m. Mostly there will be music. Joyce and I will talk for a half hour one half hour into the show. If it goes well, we'll talk again for another half hour. Otherwise, there will be music, which she and I have chosen as a discussion between us. Music that we care about. This last Sunday we spoke about the fact that both of us wanted to insert the voice of one male among the women. The voice of Michael Jackson, for a lot of reasons, which I am sure we are both trying to formulate in words. In the meanwhile, let me direct your attention to one work of Michael's that I have been listening to since his death.

It is a piece called "They Don't Really Care About Us" that he did in 1991. And it is worth a listen I think. The video is good too. In the work of this period of History, Book II, Jackson gets a nice little soulful groove going with large groups of people singing, dancing, playing instruments. It is very Baptist Gospel Church Choir in its inflection and mood, which I find irresistible. Ironically, I also find it very bluesy.

And I am thinking this. Words I could live with out. Or let's just say I could live a long time with anybody speaking directly to me. Sometimes I crave that particular kind of silence. But music I would die without. And there is nothing better than being in the presence of a large group of people singing, dancing and playing instruments. Failing being there live, it is not a bad thing to listen to on a recording or watch on a video. I've been around large groups of people singing and dancing all my life. It has been an essential aspect of the culture that made me, Soul Pictures, Blues People, Blues Music, all of that. I have been up to my neck in it all my life and I try to keep it that way as much as possible.

So let's see how this reads. I've probably left some stuff out. But I can start with this. All I wanna say is they don't really care about us. You ain't never lied about that!


Photo Essay: Faith's 6th Grade Graduation in 1942

Faith Ringgold, then Faith Jones, graduated from P.S. I86 then located on 145th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway in 1942. This is her class picture. She was 11 years old (her birthday in October). The principal she can recall was Dr. Bernath. Her best friend was Catherine English. Catherine and she went through Elementary, Junior High and High School together. Faith describes her teachers as mostly Irish Catholic, not racially progressive but excellent teachers nonetheless. The students, she says, were immigrants from China, Puerto Rico and Germany.

Their graduation ceremony in 1942 was suspended for fear that there might be an air raid during the ceremonies. WWII was still in progress.

Faith reports that the classroom instruction was often racist in its interpretation of history and culture but Faith had a mother (Willi Posey, Momma Jones) who was vigilante and attentive who accompanied her to school every day and who often interacted with her teachers in order to straighten out various misconceptions of African American history. She also says that all the teachers adored her mother who had a winning personality.

Although the student population was racially integrated, the neighborhoods they lived in were not. On the other hand, the neighborhoods were also smaller and probably all in direct proximity to the school. Faith says she never had any white friends until she went to college at the City College of New York which was right there in the same neighborhood.

Faith also describes the WPA Murals that decorated the auditorium. We all wonder what happened to them. P.S. 186 has stood vacant and in decrepit condition for decades now. Owned by the Convent Avenue Baptist Church, something prevents this magnificent building from participating in the architectural renaissance going on in the rest of Harlem, not sure what. Partly because of her experience of teaching in the public schools, Faith decided to never send my sister and I to public schools. The City College of New York was the first public school I ever attended. I began classes there in 1970 after a first semester spent at Howard University in Washington, D.C.


Photo Essay: Halloween at 409 Edgecombe Avenue 1980s

"Time Out" by Faith Ringgold.  All rights reserved.  Copyright Faith Ringgold.  Collection of Michele Wallace

How old is Teddy in this picture?  Perhaps three.  Dad, who was then about 59, took his second granddaughter Teddy to a Halloween party in the lobby of 409 Edgecombe where he had grown up and his Mom was still living.  So my guess is this is either 1988 or 1989.  It has always been one of my favorite pictures of the two of them.  Mother Faith accompanied them and took this picture.  

In fact, I wanted to use this picture on the cover of my most recent book Dark Designs but it was ruled out immediately for reasons that completely escaped me since nothing was ever articulated but over the years I have formed an opinion of what was being seen here that others found objectionable and inappropriate, but that I found highly seductive and irresistible.  Of course, it has everything to do with race, and the perception of what is expected of a person in terms of conforming to expectations of race, especially in terms of skin color. 

Not the least of which has me thinking about these matters lately has been the controversy over Michael Jackson's recent death and the difficulty people seemed to have with accepting him as he was or as he had become.  Also, the ongoing discussion of who and what our President is, mostly generated by the fact that he is of biracial birth and that his father was African and Muslim.  Clearly it makes people crazy.  It's his blessing but it is unsettling for some.  Not me but for some.  Is he or was he or will he ever be a real black man?  If not, what is he?  Answer: he is the President of the United States but that doesn't satisfy some. 

I cannot remember a time when I didn't know Burdette Ringgold.  We called him Daddy long before mother and he were married.  Not sure why but he was a close friend of my real father to begin with.  He was also good friends with my grandmother Momma Jones.  He knew Earl's mother as well, Momma T.  They were all Edgecombe people, as was my mother.  Almost a tribe they were.  He use to take us out a lot to the zoo, Coney Island, the circus (which he adored), walk us to death, babysit with us, help my Mom out, etcetera, which was part of the thing that made us all feel that he would make a good permanent addition to the family.  

But at a certain point, not sure what our age was, Barbara and I began not only to notice that he could be mistaken for white, we also began to ask him point blank in the manner that children will, "Are you white?"  I would imagine that this would have been soon after we had begun to notice that there were different races, which I can recall was not obvious to me from the very beginning.  But I can remember us asking him again and again, determined to get an answer, and he never answered.  

We could see that he was flustered and disturbed by the question but he brushed it off pleasantly and tried to distract us.  We discussed it among ourselves, what to make of it and could come to no satisfactory conclusion except to ask him again.  But he mentioned it to Mom and I don't recall how she got us to stop but I know she told us he was black, or rather Negro or colored as we use to say in those days (this is in the late 50s) and we finally lost interest in the question. 

 Before we get too deep into this, you need to know that both of his parents were racially black.  Obviously of racially mixed descent but all sorts of racial mixtures are by no means unusual in the Afro-American community mainly because we are descendants of slaves and the slavemasters had their choice of the women in the quarters, just generally.  The outcome was slaves who were biracial.  Sometimes the master freed such slaves or adopted them.  But obviously this was unusual as we can see from the variety of shades among Afro-Americans who were around when slavery finally ended in the first half of the 1860s.  

So the thing is this.  While this picture encapsulates my fondest memories of my family, to others the picture is both inconceivable and unacceptable.  It matters if you are black or white and looking white or not looking black enough if you are actually black is not one of the options.  So I am writing this as a present to Teddy who is the little girl in this picture.  This is your birthday present Teddy, something educational, constructive, character building, not pleasure seeking in the childlike sense because you are 24 years old now and I would like it very much if you were to point your nose in the direction of growing up.  If you were to really work at it.  Part of it is to understand your unusual legacy, having a grandmother who could take such a picture and a grandfather whose greatest joy was to take you to such a party.  In this picture you are having a time out because you had been having a little too much fun with those balloons.  I guess we should call this picture, Time Out.  

I love it.  We keep it in a silver frame that mother received as an award from Ms. Magazine in 1983 long before you were born.  


Photo-Essay: More with the Cake 1980s

More with the Cake, originally uploaded by olympia2x. Photo by Corinne Simpson.  All rights reserved.  Collection of Michele Wallace.

Marrying Gene was complicated. He ended up pretty much fully occupying the social aspect of my life from the time I first met him, which was in 1985 in California through 1999 when we began to live apart. We didn't actually get divorced until maybe 3 years after that so that's a total of about 18 years right plunk in the middle of my adult life. My best years, as some might put it.

Hearing him say that he wanted a divorce was one of the worse moments of my life. It came as a complete shock to me. I immediately asked if he would do a double session with my therapist. My hope was that it would turn into couples therapy and a healing of our marriage, that she might talk him into staying with me and giving it another try. But as I would subsequently realize, he had already given it several tries and I had not been able to make the compromises he needed me to make to make it seem worth his while.

I could not see a bit of that then, even after the double session with my therapist but I can see it much more clearly now. Maybe I am wrong but I think I was an impossible wife to have for a man like Gene (traditional, Southern, proud, gregarious and fun). Also, the situation we were in as a married couple, particular vis a vis my fairly frequent bouts of illness (lupus) were bound to run through the marriage and make it untenable in a decade or so.

Most importantly, I had manipulated him into marrying him. I say this with no shame at all. I thought this was what a woman was supposed to do. No man in his right mind would ever get married I thought so you had to prod him a little. We had been a couple for five years, during most of which we were living apart.  For the first two, I was living in Norman, Oklahoma teaching at the University of Oklahoma and he was doing his MFA in Theatre at UCSD in San Diego.  That was from 1985 through 1987.  Then in the winter of 87, I returned to UCSD to do a second stint as Visiting Professor in English in Sherley Anne William's position while Gene completed his degree and went for a season to the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.  Meanwhile, I had procured a post as an Assistant Professor in Women's Studies at SUNY Buffalo.  We decided that he would next move back to New York where he had a small apartment.  So then the two of us drove my car across the entire country from San Diego to New York City, with a stop in Norman, Oklahoma to say goodbye to everybody there and pick up my things in storage.
Another two years passed during which I taught at SUNY Buffalo, finished my M.A. with Professor at CCNY, and he did the actor thing in New York.  We were together either in Buffalo or New York as often as possible.  Then in the fall of 1989, I had landed the job at CCNY, with the first year at the Center for Worker Education running the Life Experience Program.  We got an apartment together in Brooklyn, and I've been at CCNY ever since.
When we married, I was the breadwinner. He was a freelance actor, caterer, a little of this and a little of that and very happy about it. He had learned how to be an actor in New York and live on very little and he had just finished his MFA in Acting at UCSD. His goal I think was to have a woman with full employment who had benefits and insurance while he pursued the more creative task of cobbling together a reputation and a living in the theatre, television and/or film.

Except the work was extremely unsteady and I simply was not convinced that acting was the right career for him. Arrogant I know but that was me. I didn't do boundaries well at all.  I pushed him and prodded him into teaching as an adjunct at CCNY and then pursuing a full time position as a professor. We masterminded the counter-job offers at SUNY Buffalo. If CCNY didn't hire him, they would lose me to SUNY Buffalo. I actually wanted to go to Buffalo. I hate New York but as an actor, New York was always the preference for him for obvious reasons.

As I see it now, once Gene had the full time job at CCNY, he didn't need me the way he had up until then. Added to this he wanted to buy a little house somewhere, a fixer-upper. But I knew I was not the fixer-upper type. I have very sensitive skin and I can't live in any kind of dust or filfth. Gene was a procrastinator. A broken metal bed frame laid by the side of our bed waiting for him to fix it until the day I left. When the housekeeper came, she would have to dust it.  It was a permanent part of the furniture. Which made me so mad I thought the top of my head was going to blow off? Just let me throw that crap away. But no. Mr. Green Jeans never wanted to throw anything away. These are the kinds of things you want to check before you marry somebody.
Also, he wanted to have a baby and as it turned out given that I was already in my late 30s by then, I couldn't get pregnant.  With the lupus, which I didn't fully realize I had until 1993, it might have been a disaster.  Then in 1994, I went back to graduate school, this time in pursuit of a Ph.D.  I was not then aware of the impact advanced degrees have on relationships and libido.  It's disastrous.  Soon he was also pursuing a Ph.D. but there was never any doubt I was going to get there first.
In any case, once Gene had the job and the pension and the paycheck, my behavior issues did not get better, they got worse.  School is stressful.  The discipline concentrated in one area isn't likely to lend itself to greater discipline in other areas.  First, I like to shop and I was controlling the bank accounts because he would never pay bills on time. I needed my bills paid on time so I could shop. He didn't think I ever needed to buy anything new, so I lied and hid new items.

Everything we ever bought I had to cajole and manipulate him into allowing it in the house. I often thought about how if it had been left up to him we would have had a bed and a chair and no other furniture because we couldn't afford it. He was right of course but I was somebody who believed in using credit, unwisely but with conviction.

Moreover, in a social context I was unpredictable, intrusive, nosy and often downright rude to his friends and family. I didn't mean any harm, most of it was good natured and in fun but he didn't like it.  In my family we are more confrontational and humorous and loud.  I realized this the day we met with my therapist when he complained about incident after incident in which something confrontational had ocurred with his friends or his family. Something or other he had begged me not to do or to say, which I had done or said anyway. As far as I was concerned, I had won every one of those debates but it seemed the point with the friends and family of the partner was not winning the debate but avoiding the debate to begin with. That day the scales began to be lifted from my eyes and they have continued to fall away to this day. I still don't like what I see but I know that that was, is me and that I probably can't change. I still find myself so amusing.   And I am thinking, more often than not, husbands just get in the way.  At 57 I feel comfortable admitting that.  God bless those who are willing to work with the brothers.  I gave it 18 years of my life.

So Gene was a darling, remains a darling. He stood by my side in sickness and health and we had a fabulous time most of the time. He also got me through my craziness for which I will always be grateful but I know I wore him out.  I kind of feel sorry for whoever follows me because I think I got the best of him. Not sure where he is now or who he is with but God bless both of them.


Divorce Follows Marriage Sometimes 1990s

Photograph by Eugene Nesmith.  All rights reserved.  Collection of Michele Wallace

This is sometime after 1993, after I had been diagnosed with lupus.  Totally covered in black and with a sun hat to protect me from the Florida sun at my mother-in-law's house in Naples, Florida.  I am not sure what year this is but we're getting close to the end of our union (1999). I can't say this little dance helped but I think I look marvelous, and I know I was having a good time.  Oh well. 

Photo-Essay: When I Got Married--1989

Photograph by Corinne Jennings. All rights reserved.  Collection of Michele Wallace.

It was December 1989. And almost everything about that wedding was a complete surprise to me, never having gotten married before. As soon as it began, I regretted that I hadn't held out for something much bigger but then my groom was quite skiddish. I had to reel him in when I could. My only advice is this: never marry a man who doesn't want to get married to you, no matter how much you think you love him. When one person isn't doing what he or she wants to do, it gets thin real quick. Actually, I have lots more advice but I will save that for another time.

In this picture from left to right is Dad (Burdette Ringgold), Mom (Faith Ringgold), Michele Wallace the bride, Gene Nesmith the groom, and Virginia Nesmith, the mother of the groom. Picture taken by Corinne Jennings.


Photo Essay: Black Macho and The Myth of The Superwoman 1970s

The inside first page of the cover story in Ms. January of 1979.  The double excerpt from BLACK MACHO AND THE MYTH OF THE SUPERWOMAN (The Dial Press 1979).

The picture by the celebrated and brilliant black photographer Anthony Barboza.  I have always wondered why he never exhibits this picture.  I guess he is ashamed of it.  But it is one of my prized possessions.  I got the people at Ms. to give me the print they used and one  day I gotta get Tony to sign it or whatever photographers do in a case like that.  The only stupid thing is that it was 11 x 14 which seemed to me awkward.  So what did homey do?  She cut maybe an inch or two off the bottom.  Stupidly, I think they call it these days. 

    In the summer of 1978, my first book BLACK MACHO AND THE MYTH OF THE SUPERWOMAN was at the publisher, receiving the final touches from my editor Joyce Johnson at The Dial Press and n search of a marketing strategy among the sales force. Meanwhile, MS MAGAZINE had purchased the first serial rights for a double excerpt that would (if I played my cards right and my hair, as it turned out) be featured on the cover of the magazine in January of 1979.

The way the game played out from then on until the publication was largely determined by two opposing forces, as I now see it 30 years later. On one side were the feminists at Ms. Magazine, and on the other were the anti-feminists at the Dial Press. Ms. Magazine was then run by an editorial collective which included most significantly for my cover, Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Robin Morgan and Mary Thom. That summer or perhaps a bit earlier Ms. Magazine hired Susan McHenry, fresh from a position with the editorial staff at Harvard University Press. She was young, about a year older than me (I was 26) and most importantly she was black. At the time, MS had no high level black editorial staff who was fully participant. Alice was crucial editorially for me and lots of other people but she was first and last a writer who was in the office maybe a day or two and always held herself far above anything ugly or pedestrian. 

Unfortunately, I wasn't quite wise enough to follow her judicious careful lead. In any case, Susan worked closely with me as I recall (and became from that day to this a close personal friend) along with in particular my old friend and associate Robin Morgan (but whom I haven't seen or spoken with in years).

Gloria also wasn't involved on a day-to-day level but I had lunch with her and Alice at least twice during this period. Moreover, they both generously participated in an advance public reading to the feminist community at The Feministfw Salon, which was then located at Wesbeth. Gloria was there as was every other significant luminary on the then New York Feminist scene. My good fortune was that my sister Barbara Wallace took meticulous pictures of the gathering and as such I have a perfect visual record of the whole event. Most of the people there I didn't know at the time. Over the years I've met them all.

Alice and Robin Morgan introduced me and I read excerpts from my book. At the time, Alice wrote me several deeply encouraging handwritten letters of support (which I still have) in which she did, however, give me some crucial advice about last minute changes I should seek in the final draft of the book.  As I recall the two particulars were to seek more knowledge of the history of struggle in African American communities via Vincent Harding in particular.  The other piece of advice was to write more about black women writers, in particular such figures as Pauline Hopkins and Frances Harper who were virtually unknown.  This advice was not followed although it has shaped my career as a writer, a feminist and intellectual ever since. 

The celebrated cover from the book which shaped my 80s and indeed all the rest of my life until this day.  

Not to excuse myself at all from responsibility for what was and was not in the book but the power struggle between these two constituent elements of feminists (white actually) was a determining factor in the kind of reception I got. The other side of the equation was the anti-feminists at The Dial Press, in particular one brilliant anti-feminist named Joyce Johnson who was my editor and who all but breastfed me through every stage of the writing and the completion of the book for publication. I call her an anti-feminist not out of any malice but I don't know how else to put it. She and the others opposed the use of the word feminist in connection with the book, on the publicity materials, on the book jacket, and in every aspect of the packaging or promotion of the book. Feminism they said would kill the book because feminism was finished and done with. 

There weren't going to be any more important feminist books so there wasn't any point in dooming my project to abject obscurity in this manner. The feminist movement was over, not that it didn't have some merits but the represenatives were clueless about everything that mattered. Women would find another way to pursue their rights, if at all. 

These white women seemed to be as convinced they were already liberated as a lot of black women I knew. Of course everything black, black women, black feminism, black whatever was sure death to a book because as everyone in publishing knew, black people did not read and they did not buy books. I was told this by one and all repeatedly.

The average reader and buyer of books was the little old lady from Pasadena, I think it was.. In any case, she was white. And to show you what kind of shape we were in in 1979, nobody really could prove otherwise. Blackness had come and gone with the popularity of black cultural nationalism, just as feminism had come and gone. Of course they were right about feminism, which I still don't understand. 

Blackness they seriously got that one wrong. And indeed my book would prove it. I probably had the largest black reading audience anyone had ever had for a first nonfiction book by an "unknown." Nevermind for a "black feminist." I was one of the people who broke that wall. I went out on one tour for the little old ladies in Pasadena. Then I went on another one that stretched out for six months to every major black reading market.  Nobody in the publishing industry seemed to know that there was even such a thing but they continued to clamour for me. The only bestseller list I ever really had traction on was the Washington Post Bestseller List, guess why? It got so I felt like I was practically living in D.C. I went there so much.  I often appeared at black venues generally. I almost never said no so that was no problem. 

I had quit my job teaching journalism at New York University at the end of the spring 1978 semester.  I had some vague idea that I could make it as a freelancer.  My Mom's lecture agent, Lordly and Dame, who was then handling her, black feminist Flo Kennedy and a hot set of black luminaries, got me lecture dates which from that time provided at least half of my income until I began teaching full time at the University of California at San Diego as a Visiting Lecturer in 1984 as companion to my Mom who began her stint as Professor of Art there at the same time. But I am getting ahead of myself.

From the summer of 1978 through the spring of 1984, I would go all the way from alpha to omega.

Everything after that up until the initial release of the book was influenced by this fierce struggle, which at 27 and black, I felt powerless to address or to contain. Later on there got to be a third component in the struggle (my Mom) and almost immediately after that a fourth (the men I was dating) but that's completely in Act 2.

This is a polaroid from a story that a black hair magazine did on my hair, which was at the time pretty unique (I think it was just me in Bo Derek--I am kidding, no e-mails!).  My mother designed this hairstyle for me and the fixtures that made it possible.  These were my braids wrapped in that waxy black cord that African women use to make their twists with a bead knotted at each end.  I taught my favorite hairdresser who came to my house to do it.  I felt safest when my hair was like this but none of the publicity people of either camp like it.  Take it out!  Take it out!  The other thing I liked to do, which they hated was to wear a scarf over it.  Hate it!  I wore a scarf on the Today Show.  Okay so I was also chewing gum.  So shoot me.  I was interviewed by Tom Brokaw.  I bought my first tv so that I could watch it and my other television appearances.  It was my first book promo and it was crazy but I am getting ahead of myself. 

Anyhow I've kept these pictures all these years.  I love these polaroids.  Photographers always made them on shoots so I started asking for them because they usually threw them away.

This polaroid is from the Essence shoot.  There was a major story in Essence written by Marcia Gillespie who was then editor-in-chief.  Little did I suspect that she was going to tear me a new one.  She's somebody I had lunch with all summer before the book came out too.  (At least she didn't drop me after it was over like some.  Dropped me like a hot rock, like my sister likes to say).  But the pictures were great.  For some reason they shot me both in black and white and color and in two different dresses.  I forgot to say, Essence liked the braids.  In fact, the black folk liked the braids.  Thank god. Of course, I had my own make-up person who was also then doing Natalie Cole's make-up.  That was the most fun shoot I ever did.  We balled (as Aunt Barbara would say), at that shoot.  Was the photographer black or white?  Gotta check that.  Essence always used the best unlike our friends at Ms, who could be uneven.  

    Meanwhile here comes this excerpt, which I actually think is excellent now that I am re-reading it for the first time in 30 years, I mean really reading it. It's tight, it is to the point and I pretty much agree with everything in it. They shaved many a rough spot from the actual book, including a diatribe or two about this and that which I sincerely wish I had never written. Either that, or that somebody had prevented it from being included in the final book, including the crazy quote on the cover of the book with the statement about how black man and women hated each other. Yes I wrote it, but that damn cover design and everything on it was the nightmare vision of the cover depart, the sales force and publicity. More about the quote later.

But the cover of Ms. with the cover lines about the book that would shape the 80s, as well as the quotes from Robin Morgan, Alice Walker, and Alice Walker which graced the back of the book were Ms.'s brilliant invention all alone. Joyce and the others at Dial did what they did to slow it down. The first blurb that came in the door was from somebody I didn't yet know but who would become a pretty good friend, Ishmael Reed. He loved the book for all sorts of reasons including the fact that he was then raising a real homegirl daughter who he was trying to keep on the straight and narrow. He wrote the blurb from that emotional place and with that inimitable energy that is Ishmael Reed's alone. It came in the door first and The Dial Press wanted to go with it alone, a one shot blast covering the inside leaves, the back of the book, everything. He was Joyce's kind of writer and Joyce had been editor to Amiri Baraka's HOME ( collection of essays), Eldridge Cleaver's SOUL ON ICE and Harold Cruse's CRISIS OF THE NEGRO INTELLECTUAL. We spent many an afternoon when I was blocked with her telling me the stories about working with these guys, in particular Cruse whose book fascinated me then.

She was sick and tired of their crap about women and so was I so when I wrote BLACK MACHO first, which took me maybe a month or two (it just poured out) to write, she took one look at it and announced that instead of the 10 chapter book on black women I had planned, this essay would be the key and title essay with perhaps one other companion essay on black women. I called it The Myth of the Superwoman, and it took me the balance of two years to finish it. Rather Joyce finished it for me because she kept insisting that it wasn't finished and that it needed more work in this manner that editors will always do. More work, more work, more work. She wouldn't write a single word. This was her way of showing her respect for my writing abilities she said. In the end, I cried so hard about not being able to go on one day that she did a massive edit in particular on the second part of Myth of a Superwoman, which was one of the historical sections.

Joyce oversaw and supervised the battle against the citation of my sources in either a bibliography, footnotes or even an index. I still don't know whether they were just cheap or whether they were trying to destroy the rest of my life on purpose. But in any case, this was as it would be. But she would not have her way on the characterization of me a black feminist on either the publicity material or on the book jacket. The media did the rest.

Final story, although there is a million others. when we shot the cover for Ms., it was understood that I had only a rat's chance of ever seeing the color. I was nobody, black women were rarely featured on magazine covers then and my book had no news hook so it likely wasn't going to happen unless I followed every instruction and did exactly as I was told. At the shoot, instruction one. Take those braids out of your hair. They will ruin the cover. This the hairdresser did. But I didn't know what to do with my hair under such circumstances so you see instead that unruly hair style I had where my hair is being I am not sure what. If it looks like my face is covered with makeup, it is, as the makeup artist applied layer after layer of a various assortment of foundations trying, I can see now, to somehow brighten my hopelessly olive blackness. People say this is a beautiful picture but I can't see it. I hated it.

But there it was in December of 1979 on every newstand in New York with that inflammatory announcement that it would be the book to shape the 80s. I am not sure I will ever live that down but then I didn't say it. The person who did say it, Gloria Steinem, found a way to publically withdraw it by blurbing my Mom's autobiography, WE FLEW OVER THE BRIDGE with Little Brown in 1990.

And thus begun the craziest most exciting time of my life, the year of 1979. At the time, I had no idea whether it was going to be like that from then on or how whether it was going to be different, less more or what.

This is one of a series of pictures of me taken by the photographer for Emerge in January of 1979 in connection with a piece on the book written by Paula Giddings.  She tore me a new one too and then went on and wrote the definitive book on black feminism, WHEN AND WHERE I ENTER.  Still the classic I think.  Don't remember the name of the photographer but he was black and he said let's just go over the park (Washington Square Park--I lived in the village then) and shoot some stuff for the fun of it. It was cold as you know what and my hair was blowing.  I am thinking, this guy has got issues but let's just get through this.  It took about 15 minutes for him to shoot about a 10o pictures, the prints of which he gave me and which I still have.   Fun and this is me with normal make-up then, which was no make-up, or just mascara, eyeliner and lipstick.

Mom and Dad at Mom's surprise birthday party at 345 in Harlem.  October 8th, 1979, in the thick of it.  

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Michele Wallace

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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