A previous article in the SPY on Faith Ringgold highlighted her art in support of civil rights and women’s rights issues that she continues to explore today. This article for Chestertown’s Legacy Day celebrates the contributions of three African American legends: Faith Ringgold, artist and writer; Sonny Rollins, jazz musician; and Josephine Baker, dancer and singer.
Ringgold received her Masters of Art degree from The City College of New York in 1959: “I got a fabulous education in art—wonderful teachers who taught me everything, except anything about African art or African American art, but I traveled and took care of that part myself.” Visiting Europe in the 1970’s, she was inspired by African masks and Tibetan Buddhist thangkas (large cloth banners hanging from dowel rods). She embraced the idea of framing her painted canvases with cloth and hanging them from rods. This approach allowed her to introduce traditional cloth patchwork quilting she learned from her mother. Cloth is much lighter than framed canvas under glass, can be rolled and shipped at less cost, and is easier to handle and hang. She acknowledges this approach has allowed her to exhibit in more galleries, because they were willing to accept work that was less expensive to ship and easier to display. These “story quilts” were a distinct departure from the traditional woks on canvas, produced by white male artists.
Walter Theodore Rollins (b.1930) and Faith Ringgold were the same age, and grew up together in Harlem’s Sugar Hill district. She tells the story that when they were 12 or 13 they kissed in a game of Post Office. Sonny came by with his saxophone and played, and “once or twice” she sang while he played. “Sonny’s Quilt “(1986) (91”x72”), is one of several in Ringgold’s “Bridge Series.” From 1959 to 1961, Rollins was on a self imposed break: “I was getting very famous at the time and I felt I needed to brush up on various aspects of my craft. I felt I was getting too much, too soon, so I said, wait a minute, I’m going to do it my way. I wasn’t going to let people push me out there, so I could fall down. I wanted to get myself together, on my own. I used to practice on the Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge because I was living on the Lower East Side at the time.” Rollins went each night to the Williamsburg Bridge to practice the saxophone in order not to disturb his Grand Street neighbors. He would practice for 15 to 16 hours a day, no matter the season.
Rollins’s nightly practice inspired “Sonny’s Quilt.” On the quilt Rollins is high in the sky on the bridge and blowing tenor saxophone. The girders and spans of the bridge direct our eyes up to him. Ringgold has painted the sky and water a bright blue. The Manhattan skyline is gray and the bridge spans are painted white, but glued on to these flat colors are brightly colored cloth patchwork pieces. The frame is made entirely of cloth patches highlighting the colors in the quilt, especially the red. We hear the notes and feel his passion as these color patches create a jazz rhythm. In November 1961 he said, “I could have probably spent the rest of my life just going up on the bridge. I realized, no, I have to get back into the real world.” Rollins’s comeback album in 1962 was titled “The Bridge”, and in 2015 the recording was introduced into the Grammy Hall of Fame, one of the many honors he received.
Sonny Rollins was mentored by Thelonious Monk and befriended by Miles Davis when they hung out together in Harlem. Davis wrote, “People loved Sonny Rollins up in Harlem and everywhere else. He was a legend almost a god to a lot of the younger musicians. He was an aggressive, innovative player who always had fresh musical ideas. I loved him back then as a player and he could also write his ass off…” During his career Rollins made over 60 albums, one of which was titled “Global Warming” (1997). He played Carnegie Hall (1957), won two Grammy Awards (2000, 2004), and received the Grammy Life Time Achievement Award (2004), among others. In early 20ll, President Obama presented him with the Medal of Art “on behalf of the gods of music,” and in 2015, he received the Jazz Foundation of America’s lifetime achievement award. On receiving the Kennedy Center Honors award in 2011, he said, “I am deeply appreciative of this great honor. In honoring me, the Kennedy Center honors jazz, America’s classical music. For that, I am very grateful.”
Freda Josephine McDonald (b.1906 St. Louis, Missouri – d. 1975 France), grew up poor with only her mother looking after her. At the age of eight, she was in domestic service, and by age thirteen she was a waitress, living on the street, and dancing on street corners for money. Her first marriage at age thirteen ended within a year and in 1921 she married Willie Baker. The marriage ended in 1925, but her career had gotten started, and she decided to keep the Baker name for the rest of her career. That same year she was in a dance troop going to Paris. One year later, in 1926, she was “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw” remarked Ernest Hemingway. Ringgold’s quilt “Jo Baker’s Bananas “(1997) (80.5’’x76’’), illustrates her almost instant rise to fame. In 1927, dancing at the Folies Bergere in Un Vent de Follie, wearing nothing more than a skirt made of 16 plastic bananas and a necklace of beads, she was a living icon.
In the quilt, Ringgold repeats Baker’s figure five times as she shimmies and shakes across the quilt. The original background for her performance was a tropical setting of greenery with yellow and orange flowers that Ringgold duplicates with the painted patchwork background. Paris had fallen in love with American Jazz, African art and Jo Baker. Two African American jazz musicians and a multiracial audience drinking complete the story. The cloth patchwork frame complements the yellow bananas and the orange and greens of the background. The quilt is full of movement and almost dizzying energy. “Jo Baker’s Bananas” is on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and it is one of twelve in the series “The French Collection”, inspired by a recent visit to France. Other titles in the series include “Dancing at the Louvre” (1991), and “Jo Baker’s Birthday” (1993).
The quilt is as vibrant and exciting as was Baker. She was loved in Europe, but not in America. Jo Baker and her bananas became an iconic image and a symbol for the Jazz Age. In 1934 she took voice lessons and stared in the opera La Creole by Jacques Offenbach. Shirley Bassey remarked, “I swear in all my life I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer.” Baker came to American on tour in 1936, and she refused to perform for segregated audiences. Most performances went well, but Americans were cruel to her. She returned heartbroken to Paris in1937, and became a Naturalized French citizen. “I have two loves, my country and Paris.”
When WWII broke out in 1940, she joined the French Resistance. Her star quality allowed her to attend parties and receptions for officials from many countries, and she was so charming they talked to her and told her things. She could travel anywhere in Europe, and she passed information written with invisible ink on the backs of her sheet music or pinned inside her underwear, betting no one would strip search her. They never did. In 1941 she traveled to the French Colonies in North Africa for her health. When she recovered, she organized and paid for an entertainment troop for the American, British and French troops stationed there. After WWII she was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Military and named a Chevalier in the French Legion d’honneur by Charles de Gaulle. She was the only American woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral.
She never stopped loving America, and she donated to the Civil Rights Movement. She stood with Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, and she made a short speech while wearing her Free French uniform and the Medal of the Legion d’honneur. “I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents, and much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.” After Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, Coretta Scott King offered Baker an unofficial leadership position in the movement. She thought it over carefully be declined, saying her children were “too young to lose their mother.” She had one daughter and adopted 11 orphans whom she called “The Rainbow Tribe.” Subsequent visits to America to play at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere were successful. She received numerous awards from Paris and several American cities, streets were named after her, and she was honored by the NAACP and other African-American organizations.
Faith Ringgold is widely known for her art, but she also is a well known writer. In an interview in 1999, she stated that the story quilts grew from the many rejections by publishers who refused her autobiography: “I figured, I can’t get anything published, so I might as well write my story with my art.” Many of the story quilts were painted with acrylic on canvas and included text, often telling a story from her life or one she made up. Not all of the story quilts include written text as can be noted from the three pictured in this article, however, each still tells a story without words. “Tar Beach” (1988) (74.5’’x68.5’’), is setting is on a tarpaper roof top of an apartment in Harlem. Laundry is drying on a line, a few potted plants are scattered about, and a nearby table contains food, including a watermelon and wine. Two families are playing cards and two children are stretched out on a quilt and looking up at the stars. In the background is the lighted Manhattan skyline, and above it is a large lighted span of a bridge. At the very top is a girl in a white dress flying with the stars in the sky. As the title indicates, they are pretending they are at the beach.
Tar Beach is the title of one of Ringgold’s best known books, and the series of bridge quilts and the book were both inspired by “Sonny’s Quilt.” “I will always remember when the stars fell down around me and lifted me above the George Washington Bridge.” Tar Beach tells the story of Cassie Lightfoot an eight year old girl who lived in an apartment in Harlem in 1939 during the depression. Cassie has the ability to fly and has big dreams. When she and her brother Be Be, are flying one night they meet Harriet Tubman and find out about slavery and Aunt Harriet’s underground railway. Still in publication, Tar Beach remains a resource for teachers and guides for teaching it are on-line today. The book received the Caldecott Medal (1992), the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustrators (1992), the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award, a New York Times Best Illustrated Book, and winner of the Parent’s Choice Award among others. In all Ringgold has authored and illustrated 17 children’s books. In 1995 her autobiography We Flew Over the Bridge was published. She is the recipient of over 75 awards and 23 honorary doctoral degrees.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.