Soul Pictures: Black Feminist Generations

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.


Critical Essay: American People: Die (1967) by Faith Ringgold

American People #20: Die by Faith Ringgold copyright Faith Ringgold.

 This was a discussion of Die I posted on my blog Soul Pictures: Black Feminist Generations in 2009 when Die was exhibited at the Art Galleries of Ontario.  There was talk then of them buying the painting, which makes it all the more wonderful that The Museum of Modern Art finally has, and is already showing it prominently as part of their collection from the 1960s.

Two really wonderful articles help to provide background for this extraordinary accomplishment, the first of these is in Art News today:

The second of these is by Anne Monahan and appears in NKA and is called "Faith RInggold's Die: The Riot and Its Reception. (See subsequent post).

My words concerning the Ontario exhibition and other master works of the American People Series are as follows. Including references to American People #18 and #19--The Flag is Bleeding and U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power, also dating from 1967.

Faith's mural Die is featured in an exhibition at the Art Galleries of Ontario, which has a post on the web at
I remember very clearly and very distinctly when Faith painted this diptych oil on canvas somewhat imaginative depiction of the "race riots" that had begun to plague the United States landscape every summer like clockwork.  I was fifteen and had just returned from a summer in Europe with my grandmother (MJ) and my sister Barbara.  I came home to find mother hard at work still on two of her three murals for her first one man show at the Spectrum Gallery scheduled for the fall.  

These riots were almost always in what we then called "black ghettos," and most participants were either black people who lived in the community, or white officers policing the black community, or white press attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to report on the action.  Faith's Die (1967) has grown even more fascinating to me over the years because I am more struck by the tension between her depiction, which portrays both whites and blacks bleeding and fleeing, males and females engaged in a free-for-all reminiscent of Picasso's Gernica (which we had been to visit so many times at the Museum of Modern Art when I was a child) whereas the actual riots were largely black men breaking into stores, battling the police who had guns with rocks or other objects, chaotic affairs.   

So the battle Faith's mural portrays is a conceptual one, revealing the undercurrents of what was really at stake in the riots of the 60s, which was black against white conflict mostly in urban cities.  Blacks (mostly males I believe) were registering their dissatisfaction with the restrictions of ghetto life, the lack of genuine opportunities for advancement and prosperity, and their realization that despite the absense of the obvious signs of Jim Crow segregation and restriction in the cities, the white power structure was still pulling the strings and keeping them in check. 

From this point on (in the late 60s), by the way, the numbers of black males incarcerated begun to increase exponentially even as other kinds of opportunities began to open up for black men who were educated and had bourgeois aspirations.  Up until today where we find ourselves with a black president, a black secretary of state, a black governor of New York, and it was a white Governor Rockefeller who caused the massacre at Attica and engineered the discriminatory incarceration practices (see my first book Black Macho [1979], which was all about Black Power, as well as subsequent editions and publications).

Aside from Die, there was also The Flag is Bleeding, which was entirely finished I believe, and U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power, which immediately became my favorite painting in the world. I was only fifteen so my thinking about it wasn't particularly deep. It was for the simple reason that it included 100 faces in a grid of ten faces by ten faces, with ten black faces in diagonal order representing their status as 10% of the population of the United States and all the rest of the faces were white.

What really held my attention as she painted this painting was the idea, which she shared with me, that the trick of it would be to make each of the faces somewhat distinct from every other and yet obviously more alike than different apart from the difference of skin color. This notion of difference was enthralling to me. Even more enthralling was that every day when I got up and looked at the painting, I would notice that one or more of the faces would have changed owing to the manner in which Faith was building up layer upon layer of paint in construction of these images. Each and every face was entirely different from every other ever so slightly but how? I would scan the surface looking for the slight differences of appearance, and how it was that I knew one face from the other.  I never grew tired of this exercise.

These many years later, I have learned of the fascinating work psychologists have done on the human memory for faces as well as the scientific verification we now have that each and every face, with its complex structure of muscles and tendons and emotions, is completely unique and goes much deeper than differences of skin tone or hair texture or gender. It is possible to have a stroke and have one's memory for faces knocked out, leaving other kinds of memory intact. Apparently the loss of the ability to distinguish one face from another and to recognize familiar faces is devastating.

The 60s were a complicated period about which there is a great deal more to say.  It is great to see that museums in Canada are taking on the political art of the 60s since our own museums in the United States have been largely unwilling to come to terms with the masterpieces of American political art of the 60s.  Of course, a lot of that art would be African American.  Could that have something to do with their reluctance?  I hope not.


Change Video 2--Rehearsal

Rehearsal video of Change Performance: 100 Pounds Weight Loss, 1988 with Joan Ashley on Drums. From Michele Wallace YouTube Channel.

Change Video 1

Family Scene from Change Video by Faith Ringgold, 1988. With Michele Wallace, Faith Wallace Gadsden, Teddy Wallace Orr and Burdette Ringggold.


Photo-Essay: Change: The 80s

The first half of the 80s:  when the challenge to change, particularly her weight begins--myriad performances and costumes: Faith and Burdette attending Barbara's graduation (abd in Theoretical Linquistics at the CUNY Graduate Center in 1981; Faith with her new granddaughter Faith Wallace Gadsden (now 30 years old, a Ph.D. candidate in Micro-Biology at the Tufts School of Medicine in Boston and a Board Member of her grandmother's Anyone Can Fly Foundation); a sculpture from the Women on a Pedestal Series.

After the weight begins to comes off in 1986

The two Faiths and Burdette on the Roof at 345 West 14th Street in 1986. Photographer C. Love

Honorary Doctorate Robes by Photographer C. Love. San Diego, California.

Photo-Essay: Change: The 1960s

Faith in various photos of her body throughout the 1960s as she continues to gain weight while married to Burdette.

Photo-Essay: Change Sets 30s

These images composes the first set showing Faith as a child from 1930 through 1939.  These photos are mostly by D'Laigle, Sr.  The images in bathing costumes were all taken in Atlantic City where they spent all of their summers.  Almost all of the pictures show Faith, who was the youngest with her older sister Barbara and brother Andrew. This was a preparatory composition slightly different from the way they were used in the final Change: 100 Pound Weight Loss Quilt.


Critical Essay: Declaration of Freedom and Independence: The Invisible Story

This essay was written by me in conjunction with the 50 Year Retrospective exhibition of Faith's work at Rutger's University, and published in the catalogue.

Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit.

W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

Primitive is a word I use in a positive way to explain the completeness of a concept in art. I like to layer and pattern and embellish my art in the manner of tribal art, and then, like a blues singer, I like to repeat and repeat it again. Fragmented, understated, or minimalist art forms frustrate me. I want to finish them. In the 1960s there was a minimalist aesthetic advocating “less is more.” To me, less is even less and more is still not quite enough. I was now using feathers and beads as never before.

I had been to the African source of my own “classical” art forms and now I was set free.

Faith Ringgold, We Flew Over The Bridge (1995)

In W.E.B. Dubois’ beautiful words on the cultural legacy of African Americans, which were written relatively early in a lifetime of struggle to uplift the race, one hears succinctly put the counter-claims of the African American experience in active contradiction with the utopian rhetoric of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. No, Dubois, seems to say, none of you who would call it your country have a claim that proceeds or outweighs the claim of the descendants of the slaves. It was the slaves, the kidnapped Africans who were here from the time of Jamestown in 1619 tilling the soil, contributing their flesh and sinew and ingenuity to build up this beautiful country, those 13 colonies, that the Founding Fathers would declare independent of the British crown.

It was the former slaves who would supplement the military forces of the colonies in the hopes of earning their freedom in a new nation. And for some time immediately after the Revolution, it seemed in some quarters as though slavery’s day was done. It was in this context that the Northern and Southern colonies struck the pact that would give slaveholders three-fifths of a vote for each of their slaves in the subsequent writing of the Constitution, helping to make their weight in national legislative bodies roughly equivalent to the non-slaveholders until the balance of power could not be maintained one minute more and the country itself faced a great Civil War.

Ironically, neither Dubois nor anyone else gave much thought to the potential for visual productivity among the slaves or even for the role of visual art in the lives of African Americans generally. When Dubois lists the African American contributions to the building of the land, the houses, the fences, the gardens and estates that the slaves made possible are considered unworthy of a mention. It follows then that it should be no surprise but when we turn to look for illustrations of the issues of race and gender in connection with the Declaration of Independence, we find precious little worthy of our respect and consideration. We find very little that can help enlighten us on the relationship of the Founders to their many slaves, and the future of those slaves. The women of any color were not even a thought.

Therefore when Faith turned last summer to the project of illustrating the Declaration of Independence, I took upon myself the task of finding what did exist among the images Americans invoke in celebration of the birth of the United States of America. I could find no visual images created specifically by African Americans in the 18th century at all bearing upon the rhetoric of the Declaration. Of the objects or images produced at the time of the American Revolution, I found some black artists: Joshua Johnston, the portrait painter who painted both blacks and whites, the slave potter from North Carolina known as Dave, the etchings by Scipio Moorhead (1773), among them one of the slave poet Phyllis Wheatley, the silhouettes of Moses Williams, who was a slave of Samuel Copley, the artist, including a silhouette of himself (in Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Addison Gallery of American Art 2006).

With little in the way of precedents, Faith nonetheless devised six original images, each one double-sided with an image taken from the struggle of the American Revolution paired with an image relevant to the African American struggle for freedom and justice which continued for another two hundred and fifty years after the Revolution. First she made paintings of them as the basis for a series of lithographs with the help of her favorite Master Printer Curlee Holton, with whom she had collaborated on the prints included in The Jones Road Series and in the limited edition of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Letters from a Birmingham Jail (2007).

From the outset Faith knew she wanted to emphasize African slavery since we know that slavery was a vital aspect of the colonies and would remain crucial to the productivity of the new nation. But her biggest challenge turned out to be not representing the plight of African Americans in relation to the Declaration, but rather the plight of women.

It is no secret to anybody who knows me that I love to watch films and I love to read books. There are a lot of great books about slavery, and the books that consider the issues of the 18th century and the Enlightenment in relation to slavery form a distinct category in the field of American History. In the past two decades since the unearthing of the colonial slave burial grounds in lower Manhattan, our picture of the lives of slaves and the role slavery played in the colonies, particularly in the North, has been irrevocably altered and enhanced. (This material resulted in among other works the epic New York Historical Society’s Slavery in New York edited by Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris, The New Press 2005).

Whereas when I was a graduate student in American Studies at Yale University briefly in the early 80s and studied the history of slavery and abolitionism there, the colonial period was interesting yet still sketchy in terms of readily available secondary sources, now the secondary sources are both provocative and fascinating with work on the slave trade, itself, on the piracy on the high seas that resulted from it, on the development of abolitionism and African Diasporic contributions to the movement to end slavery, as well as such special works as Annette Gordon Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, University of Virginia 1997, in which we learn about the fascinating connection between a family of slaves and the family of the most prominent of Founding Fathers.

I drew upon my background readings in the field to advise my Mom, such as most significantly the incomparable Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford UP 2006) by my former teacher at Yale, arguably the most distinguished historian of abolitionism in the world today—Professor David Brion Davis. But Faith would insist upon visual sources, regardless the arguments I might make for the supremacy of concepts and ideas, and for the visual we turned together to the recent documentary work in the field. The best of these were the following:

Slavery and the Making of America Series produced by Thirteen/WNET New York 2004, Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery Series produced by WGBH Boston 2006 and The Middle Passage produced by HBO 2003. But with precious few antecedent illustrations, paintings and sculpture to draw upon, no photographs and little in the way of a visual imagination, the palette of these documents remained largely monochromatic. Their artistic strengths lay largely in their use of music, in particular Slavery and The Making of America for which the celebrated African American musician Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote the score and performed much of the music, some of it with the help of her multi-talented daughter Toshi Reagon. I acquired as well the extended cds Reagon wrote and produced to accompany the production. Since the world of the slaves she is creating is as much a mystery in its musical composition as it is in its visual composition, Reagon uses her considerable knowledge of the history of African American music in the 19th and 20th century to reconstruct the music the slaves of the 18th century might have made, or might have understood if they had heard it. In the process, Reagon produces one of the most beautiful compilations of music I have ever heard, which served as an inspiration, albeit in the abstract, to Faith’s wonderful work.

Faith was particularly struck by Reagon’s rendering into song, WEB Du Bois famous words on the founding of the American nation, “Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here,” which he addressed to his white readers in The Souls of Black Folk (1903).

But perhaps my fondest memory of our whole interaction during her completion of the project was viewing together the docu-drama of the life of John Adams produced by HBO that spring. From this riveting experience came Faith’s interest in the letters Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John Adams who was one of the signers of the Declaration. Sadly, this was as close as any woman in the 18th century got to having a verifiable impact on the contents of the Declaration.

In the second of her illustrations of the Declaration, Faith used a painted portrait image of Abigail Adams as her model, rendering it in black and white and juxtaposed it with a carte de visite photographic portrait of the 19th century black feminist orator Sojourner Truth. On these images Faith superimposed in turn the handwritten words by Abigail Adams in the 18th century concerning the rights of women and the words Truth spoke in her defense of the vote for women (which were not successful) at the conclusion of the Civil War.

Faith’s first image juxtaposes King George III against a background of the British Flag. He is walking on the heads of the American Colonists. King George III was the person to whom the Declaration of Independence was addressed. His response was extremely dismissive, which set off the American Revolution. Next to King George, Faith has set an image of a slave ship in which there is superimposed a diagrammatic portrayal of how the slaves were packed in the holds.

In the water are slaves either being dumped or jumping to their deaths, recalling most famously JW Turner's 19th century masterpiece “Slaveship.”

The third illustration "Absolute Tyranny" juxtaposes the portrayal of the Boston Massacre in which Crispus Attucks, an African American was the first to fall (a version of the images printed and circulated by Paul Revere) with a lynching scene in the American South.

The fourth illustration juxtaposes a rendition of The Boston Tea Party with an image taken from the famous photograph of the Civil Rights Confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge some two hundred years later.

Illustration 5 juxtaposes an image of Benjamin Franklin pleading the case of the new nation before the British Crown after the American Revolution in 1776 with an image of Frederick Douglass addressing a hypothetical abolitionist meeting under the trees in the period after his escape from slavery in the 1830s.

Wherever the slave ships traveled on the high seas, there was an ongoing blood bath of contending forces. There was no justice. There was no peace.

Faith’s final image juxtaposes Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence at his entirely slave-built estate in Montecello, Virginia with Martin Luther King writing Letter from a Birmingham Jail in his cell in 1963.

The Enlightenment was full of contradictions, including the Declaration of Independence which was arguably the first world historical document to result from Enlightenment ideas: equality yes but for rational, civilized human being, which as everyone knew included only white adult land-owning males. This was such an implicit assumption at the time of the writing of the Declaration, that these terms need not even be explicitly stated, leaving perhaps the loophole of the next two centuries which find us now with a President who descends from Africa and from America combined.

Of course, Thomas Jefferson, the most revered of our founding fathers and the author of the Declaration of Independence, thought that Africans were culturally inferior based upon some rather fanciful observations culled from existing readings of African cultures and his close observation of the African slaves he owned and carefully managed. His Montecello estate, where Faith pictures him quietly writing the Declaration, still stands today as a celebration of the beauty and careful design that he and his well trained and skillfully trained artisan slaves constructed. He kept his slaves and their families with him for life, if his finances didn’t interfere, and he also chose to have each of his slaves educated in a useful trade or craft contributing to the self-sufficiency of the beautiful Monticello. But they were still slaves, and even Sally Hemmings, whom it is widely thought bore him children, was sold to cover his debts when he died.

Thomas Jefferson was one of the masters of enlightenment thought, which has been remembered for its rationalism based upon observation, its banishment of confusing and useless emotionalism as well as religious intolerance. Yet Jefferson’s pristine intellect remained tainted by his own complicity in the horrifying ordeal of European and American cooperation in the slave trade in Africa. As such, his dream nation remains haunted by the psychological and historical traumatization of slavery's middle passage.



Chronologies and Documents: Interview with Mme. Willi Posey

Michele Wallace interviews Willie Posey, her grandmother, in 1980 at her appartment in Harlem. Topics are her early life in Palatka, Florida, the death of her father, her move to Harlem, her relationship to her mother and siblings. She is 77 at the time of the interview and she resides in Harlem at the Lenox Terrace. A former fashion designer, she also collaborated extensively on the art of her daughter Faith RInggold


Photo-Essay: Faith Ringgold: On The Necessity of Primitivism to the Blues Tradition

This is Faith describing how she made the superstructure for her mask of Aunt Edith. Barbara Wallace, my sister took this picture at her talk at Rutger's.

This image links to more photos of the masks Faith Ringgold made with her mother's help before either of them had been to Africa (early 70s I think). I think Momma Jones (Willi Posey) may have gone to Africa first. Both were always intrepid travelers.

Faith has done a great deal of soft sculpture and masks in the course of her 50 year career as an artist. This work is well documented in the writings of art historian Lisa Farrington and in Dancing at the Louvre edited by Dan Cameron (University of California Press 1990) and others, but not necessarily widely seen otherwise. This soft sculptural work, which can be seen now at ACA Gallery in Chelsea, will be featured in exhibitions coming up this year and next year at ACA, Rutger's University and other venues.

Photo copyright Faith Ringgold and photo by Barbara Wallace at ACA GAlleries.

All of which I mention in order to provide the necessary background for understanding this quote from Faith's autobiography, which seems particularly appropriate to the topic of Blues People:
I came back from Africa with ideas for a new mask face, more primitive than any I had ever done before. Primitive is a word I use in a positive way to explain the completeness of a concept in art. I like to layer and pattern and embellish my art in the manner of tribal art, and then, like a blues singer, I like to repeat and repeat it again. Fragmented, understated, or minimalist art forms frustrate me. I want to finish them. In the 1960s there was a minimalist aesthetic advocating "less is more." To me, less is even less and more is still not quite enough. I was now using feathers and beads as never before. I had been to the African source of my own "classical" art forms and now I was set free.

Quotation from WE FLEW OVER THE BRIDGE by Faith Ringgold
Artist, Children's Author and mother of Michele Wallace, Your Teacher

Photo Collection: Anne Porter Modelling 1950s

Anne Porter Modelling 1950s, originally uploaded by olympia2x.
This image is part of a set of photographs of Anne Porter at

Photo Collection: Anne Porter & Yvonne Mullings Modelling in the 50s

Anne Porter Modelling 1950s, originally uploaded by olympia2x.
These were two of my grandmother's models, her particular favorites. They are wearing dresses designed by Mme. Willi Posey in the 1950s, maybe mid-50s. I love the contrast in their height. They were both such lovely sweet women. Verna Photographers. Brooklyn 10017.


Photo-Essay: Change Sets Forties

Change Set--The 40s, originally uploaded by olympia2x. Detail from Change Quilt by Faith Ringgold. Copyright exclusively by Faith Ringgold.

The 40s Change Set is composed of photographs including Faith in each year of the decade, to show her body but there are many other narratives besides.  Faith used photo etchings then printed on clothe, then quilted as the Change: 100 Pound Weight Loss Story Quilt (1986).
In final version above included photo of Earl and Faith as boyfriend and girlfriend 1946 on Edgecombe Avenue. Slight rearrangement from originals below. 

Photos mostly by D'Laigle.  Atlantic City Photographer Unknown:

1.  Faith with her mother and Barbara's husband Jo Jo in 1949 (19) after church on Easter Sunday.
2.  Faith in 1947 (17) 
3.  Faith with her cousins--Frieda and Jimmy 1940s (not sure of year). My guess 1948 (18)
4.  No Date Given but I think this is 1946 when Faith was 16. Photo part of Set by D'Laigle Sr.
5. Faith on boardwalk in Atlantic City/6 & 8. Faith on boardwalk with friends--same photographer. Same date (sometime in the 40s) 
7. High School Graduation Picture--Morris High School 1948 (18)
9. Barbara, Marie Reeves (dance teacher) and Faith at Dance Recital in 1940 (10).
10. Faith on day of graduation from high school 1948 (18) 
11. Barbara, Willi and Faith (1946)--Part of D'Laigle set also 4) 


Photo-Essay: Change Sets 50s

Change Quilt 50s Photo Collage, originally uploaded by olympia2x.
This is the 50s as portrayed in the Change Quilt with photos by George Hopkins and H. D'Laigle Sr. One of seven photographic montages printed on clothe. All rights reserved (1986).

Aunt Barbara's Wedding and Faith Modeling
Faith having her babies Michele and Barbara, graduating from college
and continuing with the fashion shows.

Photo-Essay: Change: Soul Pictures 1940s through 1950s

“Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Story Quilt” January 1, 1986. 
All rights reserved. Faith Ringgold Archive.

Faith’s older sister: this is Barbara’s official portrait as she was graduating from Morris High School in 1943 at the age of 16. She had begun kindergarten at three because on the first day of school (1930), the principal felt sorry for my grandmother (later Mme. Willi Posey) who seemed to have four small children (although one of them was her sister’s daughter). Faith was then a new born. Copyright Faith Ringgold Photo Archive. All rights reserved.

Faith and Earl as teenagers on Edgecombe Avenue.
It was 1946. Faith was 16 and Earl was 19. He was a musician and attended college at the New School and Julliard from time to time. They say he was very smart. Copyright Faith Ringgold Photo Archive. All rights reserved.

Faith and her friends in the 40s on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Strolling in what was largely a segregated town then. Faith says they looked forward to staying all summer and enjoying the race movies at the local cinema. Faith Ringgold Photo Archive. All rights reserved.

Faith’s high school graduation photo. Faith graduated from Morris High School in 1948 and begun studies in Art Education at the City College of New York at a time when girls were still not admitted to the school of liberal arts, and when black students were practically non-existent. Faith Ringgold Photo Archive. All rights reserved.

Barbara remained ahead of her cohort educationally until she graduated she completed college at NYU in Home Economics. This is the day of her graduation with her mother. Photo taken by Cardoza Posey, her mother’s older brother who had helped with the expense. Copyright Faith Ringgold Archive.

Aunt Barbara's Wedding Series:
Photographs by H. DeLaigle Sr.

Arriving at Aunt Barbara’s wedding: Mme. Willi Posey, Mrs. Brown, Barbara, Faith and Grandpa Andrew. Posey and he are no longer married. Divorced since 1946 (also featured on the cover of Dark Designs and Visual Culture, Duke University Press 2004). Faith Ringgold Photo Archive. All rights reserved.

Aunt Barbara and Groom after the wedding. Faith Ringgold Photo Archive. All rights reserved

Aunt Barbara's ladies in waiting including her younger sister Faith on her right in the large flowers. Faith is 19. Faith Ringgold Photo Archive. All rights reserved.

Wedding Party including Earl (my father) and Faith (my mother) months before they were married and two years before I was born. 1950 at 363 Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem. Faith Ringgold Photo Archive. All rights reserved.

Uncle Andrew, Faith and Barbara's older brother, dressed for Aunt Barbara’s wedding. Faith Ringgold Archive. All rights reserved.

Mme. Posey (Faith’s mother) and her friends Lottie Belle and tba at 363 Edgecombe Avenue for Aunt Barbara’s wedding. Faith Ringgold Photo Arhive. All rights reserved.

Mme. Willi Posey business card. Faith Ringgold Photo Archive. All Rights Reserved.

Mme. Willi Posey fashion pose in dress of her own design. Photos by Thomas Morrison at 363 Edgecombe Avenue in 1950. Faith Ringgold Archive. All rights reserved.

Aunt Barbara modeling coat made by Mme. Willi Posey in apartment at 363 Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem. All rights reserved. Faith Ringgold Archive.

Critical Essay: Soul Pictures: Mid 1940s Through Early 1950s

Soul Pictures: Black Feminist Generations--
Mid 1940s to Early 1950s
Michele Wallace

By 1986, Faith Ringgold was even somewhat ahead of her plans for artistic success. She had been unrelenting in her choice as a black woman artist to do that which no one had ever seen anyone do, which was to render herself a world class visual artist, somebody her peers regardless of race, gender and ethnicity would know, respect and recognize. Failing that—because it didn’t look much like anything anybody else of her race and gender could do in 1959 when she started out after grad school—well at least she would have pursued every possibility, produced as much first rate work in as many ways as she could imagine.

In 1986 she had achieved her 50-year landmark and then some, despite the burden of two daughters who didn’t always appreciate the importance of her goals and two husbands. Her second husband (Burdette Ringgold) had been extremely helpful in terms of providing security both for her and the girls.

Faith had thus become a relatively well known artist in cultural circles all over the United States and abroad via her travelling exhibitions of tankas (sewn clothe frames around acrylic paintings, which included her Slave Rape Series, her Political Landscape Series, and her Feminist Series), her soft sculpture (including sewn and beaded dolls, sculptures and masks) and her performance pieces in which she read to college audiences from the text of her autobiography in-progress wearing a variety of costumes and masks she had made with the help of friends and various artist assistants. [1]

By this time she had major league representation in a gallery in SoHo and she had received an appointment as a full Professor at the University of California in San Diego where the position granted her a large studio to work in, spending six of the coldest months of the year in California. Now she retained artist assistants in both New York (Lisa Yee) and California (Gail Leibig) to handle the increasing commissions, to do the intricate needlework her projects required, and to leave her time to continue to pursue her further developments in her own art even as she still engaged in college tours and college teaching. She had always had a lot of energy and an indomitable spirit. Such qualities were to rise particularly to the surface in the 80s. Her New York address remained in Harlem in the apartment where our family had come to live in the early 1960s.

But the single aspect of her work that would account for bringing her the most attention in the 80s was the development of the story quilt. Quilting she had learned from her mother (Mme. Willi Posey), who had learned it from her mother (Ida Matilda Posey) and her grandmother (Betsy Bingham) in Palatka and Jacksonville, Florida, who had learned it from their female forebears who had been weavers, quilters and seamstresses for their families and their communities.
When Faith’s mother Willi Posey died in 1982, it was a setback for the entire family but especially Faith because she was still in the early stages of pursuing the quilting collaboration with her mother prompted by an invitation to participate in an artists/quilters collaborative show which begun at the University of Texas in San Antonio.[2] Out of that collaboration had come “Echoes of Harlem (1980),“ and then “Mother’s Quilt (1983),” which was made by Faith from pieces cut by Posey shortly before her death.
In 1983, when Faith was producing her first story quilt “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?” she was doubtful of its artistic value or legitimacy in the beginning, not sure of what it was she had.

Image One--Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima? By Faith Ringgold (1983). Private Collection. All rights reserved. Story Quilt Acrylic Painting framed in tie-died quilted fabric. Tie-Die by Marquetta Jones.

Image Two--Detail of Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima? Handed beaded and painted images of Aunt Jemima as a modern middle aged woman with dignity and ambition. Faith's first story quilt.

Faith hid this quilt under an extra bed because she wasn't sure she had done anything worth being seen. Moira Roth came to stay with us at 345 West 145th Street. I was then living with my parents. Moira who would offer the job of the professorship at UCSD wanted to see her work in preparation for writing about her for a catalogue for her 20 Year Retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem when mother confessed that her newest work she had hidden under her bed. Of course Moira asked to see it, loved it. She and Mary Schmidt Campbell (who was then Director of the Studio Museum) insisted that it be featured on the cover of the catalogue (which I edited) and on a poster advertising the show. Both the catalogue and the poster can still be found on sale at the Studio Museum.

Made up of heavily embroidered squares of all the characters in the story, in particular several versions of Aunt Jemima, Faith centered the art work around a fictional narrative in dialect describing the rise to economic glory of Aunt Jemima and her happy marriage followed by her death and the African funeral her children then gave her.[3]

Image Three--“Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Story Quilt” January 1, 1986. All rights reserved. Faith Ringgold Archive.

At that point, Faith’s major writing experience had been in the context of her autobiography in-progress, which had not yet found a publisher. Indeed, she read from the autobiography and began to write on her quilts as a way of publishing despite the rejection of publishers.
Of course, in 1988 Faith would do what is still her most famous story quilt, «Tar Beach», which is currently in the Collection of the Guggenheim Museum, as part of her Women on a Bridge Series of story quilts featuring as well «Sonny's Quilt.» which featured her childhood friend Sonny Rollins practicing his saxophone on a bridge. It was someone who admired Tar Beach who first came to her with the idea of making a children’s book out of it. That book had such success among children and adults that it won the coveted Caldecott Prize.

Nonetheless in 1985, Faith was still lugging one very concrete vestige of the grief that had descended onto her shoulders after the unexpected death of her mother in 1981 (Posey was 78) and the equally unexpected death of her sister, and her only remaining sibling, Barbara (she was 58) in the following year. It had been a sad business indeed but it was now time to shed that burden, which had taken the all too tangible form of a precipitous weight gain. In the course of this struggle, Faith produced a work of art unlike any she had done before or has done since. It was a joyful and mostly light spirited work of art (probably the lightest she had done yet) that would draw heavily upon the story of her family as represented by the huge photographic archive my grandmother and her mother Mme. Willi Posey had painstakingly composed in the course of her lifetime. This new work in story quilt form would summarize and comment upon her travails as a black woman up to and including the present (Faith was 58 at the time, the same age I am now). The purpose of the work, which was clearly stated in the work, itself, was to support her in her effort to lose the weight she had gained over the decades.[4]

Change: 100 Pound Weight Loss Story Quilt was anchored around yet another version of a story quilt, this time based on Faith’s life and her relationship to food in 7 rectangular sections composed each of a photo/collage of pictures of herself and family transferred to a white muslin surface in a then experimental printing technique with matching text panels hand printed by Faith telling stories about the role food had played in her life in that particular decade. The panels were then sewn together and quilted.

Since this story quilt seems to me to provide such a pivotal turning point in the development of our life as a family and in the development of Faith’s work as an artist, I have decided to use its gathering of pictures and family memories to organize the story of the women in our family.

Their black feminist legacy was curiously shaped out of many things not ordinarily thought of as feminist, such as fashion shows, weddings, cocktail parties, club dances, and trips to Africa and Europe, although these activities are often thought of as markers of striving for upward class mobility, particularly among the black bourgeoisie. What I would like to suggest in this case is that it is visually impossible to distinguish the aspirations of women for improvement in their status as nonbeings in a world dominated by men from the more problematic characteristics of striving for what Thorsten Veblen called invidious class distinction.

From the mid 1940s, when her daughters finished high school and 1960, Posey was heavily engaged in the life of a fashion designer (self-employed Harlem seamstress) and active in a variety of national women’s clubs and local organizations, many of them formed by her and her close friends. These were also the years in which Posey divorced her husband (Andrew Jones) who had financed Faith’s childhood, took back her maiden name (Posey) and moved from 222 West 146th Street to an apartment on the 4th floor of 363 Edgecombe Avenue on Sugar Hill.

Change Text: Part II by Faith Ringgold (copyright 1986)

“1940-1949 (Transcription)
By the 1940s we all had to clean up our plates for the starving children. That of course was right up your alley since you never left anything anyway. It was in those years that you discovered chocolate candy bars. They were a nickel then and as big as the ones that cost 50 cents today. All you really thought about in those years were chocolate candy bars, boys, make-up and clothes. Actually you never really pursued your chocolate addiction past your teens, except for the time you thought of making chocolate candy as a business. You found it’s quite easy to make chocolate candy and even easier to eat it all.
It’s lucky for you that you never learned to make pastry. The few times you tried it, the results were more useful as bricks you could throw in a real pastry shop window. Some people would call that a sacrilege, and give you two to four years time. But you wouldn’t have minded if you could do it in a bakery. Some ideas are so bad you wonder how you entertained them even for a minute—like the one you had about making all your pastries so that you would at least have good nutrition. You made a pound cake that weighed more than you did. Industrial strength pound cake. You needed a saw to cut it. And you ate it. You had to steam it first, but you ate it.”

Change Part II: 1950-1959 Text by Faith Ringgold (transcription) “Women in the 1950s had to get married to leave home. Barbara was married first. Her wedding was beautiful; however, both of you marriages were terrible mistakes. You were still in college when you and your two daughters moved in with your mother after your divorce. All through the 1950s you were scantily clothed in tight, revealing dresses with matching three-inch heels, a size too small; and often amazed onlookers by falling down whole fights of stairs without injury.

You also modeled for your mother in her many fashion shows, and was her master of ceremonies, which was more appealing to you. Being a model seemed an unnatural thing to do. You were a connoisseur of pork chop sandwiches—that was natural to you. Birdie, (your soon to be second husband) often brought you a pork chop sandwich and some tutti frutti ice cream made from whole milk and cream when he came to call. That was love.

Pork chop sandwiches cost 75 cents. They were greasy and fried—better than steak. A date was to go to the movies or a concert for a dance and then dinner at Sherman’s Barbeque or the Red Rooster on 7th Avenue for fried chicken and a drink. The next day after a date you were always sick with asthma. As a matter of fact, many times you got asthma before the date and had to go to the hospital instead; or you went out and got asthma on the way home and had to be carried upstairs. That was romance in the 50s.”

[1]For information concerning Ringgold’s work during the 70s and the 80s, refer to Dancing at the Louvre: Faith Ringgold’s French Collection and Other Story Quilts edited by Dan Cameron et al. University of California Press 1998 and We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold, Duke University Press (originally published by Little Brown 1993) 2005. For more information concerning Faith’s earliest mature works, mostly oil paintings on stretched canvases, see Lisa Farrington’s Art on Fire: The Politics of Race and Sex in the Paintings of Faith Ringgold, Millenium 1999 and her more recent monograph on the work of Faith Ringgold published as part of the Pomegranate Series edited by David Driscoll.

[2] See Declaration of Independence: Fifty Years of Art by Faith Ringgold, May 17-June 26, 2009 curated by Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin, Essays by Tanya Sheehan and Michele Wallace, Mason Gross School of the Arts Galleries, Rutgers University, Institute for Women and Art, New Brunswick, NJ.
[3] "Whose Afraid of Aunt Jemima?" was featured on the cover of Faith Ringgold: Twenty Years of Painting, Sculpture and Performance edited by Michele Wallace, The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1984. One of Faith's favorite stories is about how she asked me to write the text of Whose Afraid of Aunt Jemima and that I declined, saying that Aunt Jemima wasn't my story, that I ran several miles a day in order to avoid that story. So Faith took up the pen and wrote her own story and put it on her quilt for the first time. In the following year, Faith composed a story quilt series called The Bitter Nest, which has said in both her autobiography and elsewhere was in response to the difficulties of her relationship with me at that time.
[4] Faith Ringgold Change: Painted Story Quilts, January 13 through February 7, 1987, Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. All rights reserved. Essays by Moira Roth,Thalia Gouma-Peterson.


Photo-Essay: Momma T, Momma Jones and Me 1952

This is a photograph probably taken by a local photographer of Momma T, Momma Jones (my two grandmothers) with me probably the day of my christening at the home of my parents, Faith and Earl Wallace, at 365 Edgecombe Avenue. I was christened by Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. at the Abyssinian Baptist church in 1952.

Momma T (Theodora Grant) was on a visit home (to see me I think) while stationed in Guam with her second husband whom everybody called Sarge, although my sister and I always called him Chiefie. I was Momma T's first grandchild and Momma Jones' second. I don't think anybody has ever had two more beautiful grandmothers. And the two of them guided my early childhood on Edgecombe Avenue, hand-in-hand, although I am realizing now that my mother wasn't always aware of just how much I saw of Momma T. and my father. My father was left handed and so was I. This was not the only thing I inherited from him and the Wallace-Rhino brood.

Photo-Essay: Faith Jones and Earl Wallace Back in the Day

This is Faith and Earl when they were first going together. They are standing together on the park side of Edgecombe Avenue in 1946. She is 16 and he is 19, having already returned from his brief tour in the Navy.

Earl was never particularly happy at home. He was an only child and his mother had to work hard in the garment district in order to support the household. His father, who had come to the United States from Jamaica in the early 20s, while being an obviously brilliant and learned man, was not of a strong psychological disposition and had little tolerance for the racism that was endemic in American society. Grandpa Bob (as I knew him) had a reputation for being an iconoclast and a musician who only worked as much as he needed to keep body and soul together. Marrying my grandmother Teddy was no doubt a mistake on his part. Having a child with her (my father) was probably even more of an accident.

Momma T (my grandmother) had immediately sent her grandson home to Jamaica to be raised by her mother (or maybe it was grandpa Bob's mother-- never been entirely sure about this). In any case, Grandpa Bob was never able to support his son or his wife. Momma T soon found a replacement whom I called Chiefie. They were ultimately married but Earl did not get along well with him at all.

I am told at one point that Grandpa Bob's sister Sissie had tried to bring Earl to live with her family in Queens but for some reason he was not allowed to do this, probably because of the stubbornness of Momma T's sister, Doris Rhino who never had children of her own and never married. It was she who had the bright idea to bring Earl from Jamaica to live with his mother. She hoped that having him in the U.S. would help to reunite Momma T. and Grandpa Bob, which of course it did nothing of the kind.

In any case, in his misery Earl had enlisted in the navy at 16, lying about his age in order to get in. He had taken their aptitude tests and passed them all with flying colors. The tests said he should do something technically advanced but since he was black, and the military was still quite race crazy, it was not possible for him to actually have the job. It wasn't long before he was AWOL and dishonorably discharged and back on Edgecombe Avenue again. I am not exactly sure how or when he completed high school but he did spend some time attending both the New School and Juilliard so I imagine that a high school diploma wasn't much of a challenge. He probably got it at George Washington High School, which seems to be where all the kids from Edgecombe went then.


Critical Essay: The Other Side of Harlem

This post originates at SOUL PICTURES:

This blog has been devoted to interweaving the visual artifacts of my family, in particular the women, narratives and explanations of how they came about. In the process, one aspect of my family experience has been very consciously excluded: that of my father's family. It wasn't because I didn't or don't know my father's family or didn't know my father. It was rather because the rupture that took place between my father and mother's family when their marriage was annulled in 1956 was so profound and so unhealed even these sixty-five years later, that I conceived of the Soul Pictures project as solely a portrait of the transmission of culture via my maternal ancestry.

I thought to myself that I would leave my father's family to another time, a time when my focus on my father's family, their strengths and weaknesses, and the many photographs I have access to of them, would give less offense to the people who really raised me (in particular my stepfather Burdette) and took responsibility for me as a child.

But something very dramatic has happened since then related to this split between the maternal and the paternal sides of my legacy and ancestry. Also, some of the developments around the progression of the Soul Pictures project as a book about the women in my family has moved to the next stage, making it more conceivable to devote some space to my father's family in this blog afterall.

The dramatic thing that happened was the profile of Mom (Faith Ringgold) as part of a group of young people who began their careers as artists as children on Edgecombe Avenue, which recently appeared in the New York Times. Featured as a visual accompaniment to this article, is the multimedia presentation as part of the New York Time's new multimedia offerings at

My father Earl Wallace, who was a classical and jazz pianist, was one of the young people who grew up on Edgecomb Avenue, at 365 Edgecomb Avenue in fact, and Edgecomb Avenue is where Earl and Faith first met and played together. His parents were from Jamaica, West Indies as were the two other people featured in the article about Faith. Both Roy Eaton and Cecelia Hodges were of West Indian ancestry and, no doubt, knew my father Earl.

Granted Earl didn't survive or become distinguished, as was probably true of many of their generation of both Southern and West Indian ancestry, but the main point I want to make is this: there were two distinctly different black migrations to New York which contributed substantially to the concentration of talent in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem in the thirties, forties and fifties when my Mom was a young woman.

 There was a West Indian migration (from most of the islands of the Caribbean, of which my father's parents and extended family were part) and there was a Southern migration, which brought Faith's mother and father to Harlem. Both migrations were massive and both contributed substantially to the fame and cultural vibrancy of the area.  Although the relative dimensions would be hard to determine since we rarely acknowledge the fault line between the West Indians and the Southerners.

At least if my family stories are any indication, and my own experience of having served as the only bridge along with my sister between the two families since we were infants, there wasn't a lot of love between the West Indians and the Southerners. Although I need to acknowledge here as well the efforts of my maternal grandmother, Momma Jones, Mme. Willi Posey, and her determination to foster our connections with my father's family. As a result of her efforts, I saw a great deal more of my father and his family than I think my mother has ever been aware of.

It is hard to tell how my family experiences relate to the larger picture for the area in general though but I do know a great deal about the ancestry of my father's family and this area mapped out as Sugar Hill in Harlem is precisely where they were then. Thanks to a meticulous family history (not formally published) including many photographs written by a cousin named Robert Tomlinson (an artist now who lives in France) on my father's side of the family, I have extensive information about the members of this family lineage and where in Harlem they were concentrated.

Of course, I think the story gets a good deal more interesting and instructive to current audiences if it is allowed to go beyond the production of the reputations of the people who became world famous and gets more into the historical and cultural particulars--the nature of their practices.

The list of people pointed out as having emerged to flower, or having lived in Sugar Hill, I find particularly frustrating and am hoping that it will simply be a beginning to which flesh and blood can be added over time. Chronologies and Maps are wonderful audio visual tools when the layers are allowed to build. All in all, I am so happy this happened.

And now I will tell you about my father's family because my father, my Mom and my stepfather were all very good friends on Edgecomb Avenue and the second marriage issued almost seamlessly from the first marriage. Unfortunately, my father died in 1966 when I was 14 and he was an only child but as an adult I have come to know that he had an interesting and accomplished family of origin. He, himself, got swept away by the plague of heroin addiction that settled upon the jazz community in the 40s and 50s and then branched out into a full scale plague by the 60s and 70s.


Women's Magazine - January 18, 2010 at 1:00pm | KPFA 94.1 FM Berkeley: Listener Sponsored Free Speech Radio

Women's Magazine - January 18, 2010 at 1:00pm | KPFA 94.1 FM Berkeley: Listener Sponsored Free Speech Radio

This is a deep little gadget and it still works. Anyhow, I pressed a button enabling me to post on my blog an audio file of this women's program from KPFA 94.1 Berkeley broadcast at 1 p.m. on January 18th. I occupy about fifteen minutes of a highly worthy show with Kate Raphael. Aside from a discussion of Haiti with a biographer of Aristide, Raphael interviews me about the history of black feminism, the fallout from Black Macho and The Myth of the Superwoman and the writing I've done since. As I was going on about the global dimensions of feminism, as I have learned from many of my other black feminist colleagues, including Beverly Guy-Sheftall, we ended up with a few minutes on Precious and how it fits, if it fits. All these months (since July really), I've been honing my spiel on Precious and I got it just right right here. Maybe I can make my little speech at the Academy Awards. I guess Monique is sure to win. Are the nominations out yet?


Photo Essay: The Faith Ringgold Society


Can't believe how long its been since I posted but it is necessary to explain that I have in the interim really transformed the way the work on Soul Pictures is going. I did two public presentations of work from Soul Pictures, the first at Broadway Housing at the Dorothy Day Residence, which was composed of about 130 images about the life and work of Faith Ringgold. I used the powerpoint application, which I have never really mastered. Also, in the process, I poured water into my laptop causing the memory board to have a breakdown (I think that is what my computer person called it).

My computer person is Linda Conoval who has a lovely little helpful business called Mac Solutions in downtown Englewood. She is also an artist and a photographer and somebody who is as fascinated as I am by film and by the life's work of Faith RInggold. She is my first real New Jersey friend who actually lives and feels comfortable in New Jersey.

In any case, overcoming great difficulties, I presented an extended powerpoint focused upon CHANGE: THE 100 POUND WEIGHT LOSS QUILT AND PERFORMANCE, which Faith composed in the period from 1987 through 1991. In the first of the story quilt, she constructs photographic lithographs of each of the decades her life in order to document the progress of her body and her process of weight gain.

This is the first photographic panel with pictures of Faith as a child in the 30s when she was
quite thin as a result of the rigorous diet her Mom (Mme. Willi Posey) put her on in order to control her allergies and her asthma.

These are two details from the first panel. My talk was composed of an illustrated lecture explaining the relationship of this work to Mom's entire career and work. I did a second talk as well, but this time focused in particular on the years from 1978 through 1983, which was includes the years immediately following the death of her mother, and which were transformative for Ringgold's life and career. Yes, she lost the weight and gradually hit upon a new arrangement whereby food would no longer be controlled entirely by her impulses but there were many other developments woven into the story of this quilt, including a change in style, materials and focus. It is a moment of great revelation in her life and mine. Of course, I was there.

In the process of doing these talks, I was so impressed with the audience they drew that I decided I need to set up someway of continuing this feedback in perpetuity. So I founded the Faith Ringgold Society to study her life and work primarily on facebook. Yet I am painfully aware that I know many people whom I cherish who don't make time in their lives for facebook. It is afterall largely a careerist network. In the meanwhile, I've seen my neice Baby Faith who has helped me to construct a website for The Society. The address is

If you wish to be a member in this mostly research oriented society, please follow the link to register and sign up for our activities and publications.

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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