Listen to the Recess! Clip
Faith Ringgold is a remarkable African American artist and writer, and Black History Month is a good time for every child to become familiar, if they aren’t already, with her stunning work. Her artistic career began with pictures that drew their energy and subject matter from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and she was soon expanding the palette of her ideas into textile sculptures inspired by the traditional designs of African weavers and mask-makers. But then she added the dimension of quilting to her creative vocabulary and began producing large story tapestries that combined painted pictures on cloth, written text, and elaborate quilted borders.
One of her best known quilts is a tribute to the great jazz saxophonist, Sonny Rollings, who practiced his music anywhere he could — in Faith Ringgold’s quilted portrait of him he is playing on the Brooklyn Bridge. In the portrait, Ms. Ringgold sought to fuse two of the art forms that African Americans have invented: jazz and the quilt.
Born and raised in Harlem in the 1930s, Faith Ringgold returned to her childhood there for her first book for young people, Tar Beach, which was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1992. Tar Beach is the name that the main character of the book, Cassie Louise Lightfoot, a third-grader, gives to the rooftop of the Harlem apartment building, where she and her family spend warm summer evenings, her parents playing cards with their neighbors, while Cassie and her brother watch the sky from the blanket they’ve spread, and Cassie remembers how, in her words, “the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above the George Washington Bridge” — and because she can fly, she tells us, “that means I am free to go wherever I want for the rest of my life.”
And Faith Ringgold has continued to take her young (and older) audiences flying with her in a flock of other books that paint and stitch together her own experiences and personal history with the heroic history and creative resilience of her people — astonishing books like Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky, If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks, and My Dream of Martin Luther King — books that in setting the record straight, set the imagination free, like Cassie’s, to soar.