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: 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.  

Friends of Soul Pictures

Michele Wallace

Post Archive

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