Faith Ringgold’s Searing Portraits of a Racially Divided America
Faith Ringgold, The American People Series #20: Die, 1967. Photo by Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images.

Faith Ringgold, The American People Series #20: Die, 1967. Photo by Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images.

In 1963, tensions between black and white Americans grew feverish. Though the momentum of the Civil Rights movement peaked that summer with the March on Washington, racism remained at the core of American society. For many black residents of cities across the country, frustration over the stagnation, exclusion, and violence that racism wrought on their lives boiled over into rage—and in 1964, they began to riot.

Born and raised in Harlem, New York—one of the neighborhoods convulsed by the race riots—artist, writer, and educator Faith Ringgold was in her early thirties at the time, and focusing on painting landscapes. The daughter of culturally engaged parents, she had been making art since her childhood. Despite making their home in a neighborhood that had become the seat of black art and literature during the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century, and despite its location in one of America’s most progressive cities, Ringgold and her family were touched by racism, too.

In the 1960s, opportunities for black artists in the mainstream art world were close to zero and, in a double blow for Ringgold, women artists were also barely allowed in. Persisting in the face of these challenges, she brought her landscape paintings to the gallerist Ruth White, hoping for a show. White told her that, as a black artist, she should not paint landscapes during such a charged time.

“Some people might have been upset or hurt by it,” Ringgold said. “But I was happy that she had the courage to tell me that.” Channeling her own anger at the injustices she experienced and saw around her, she set aside her landscapes and began work on what would grow into a defining series of 20 paintings, titled “The American People,” with canvases populated with black and white protagonists that represented a society riven by racial division, and black people both caught within and striving against its constraints.

“It was what was going on in America and I wanted [people] to look at these paintings and see themselves,” she explained.

Portrait of Faith Ringgold. Photo by Melanie Burford/Prime for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Portrait of Faith Ringgold. Photo by Melanie Burford/Prime for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

The first composition in the series, The American People Series #1: Between Friends (1963), depicts a black woman and a white woman who lock eyes across a red-orange cross that divides the painting in two. They appear to be stuffed into the painting’s cramped, shallow space, pushed close to each other and to viewers. But it’s hard to tell from the women’s stilled bodies and inscrutable expressions if their physical closeness reflects an emotional bond, and we are left wondering about the relationship between these friends.

Does Ringgold’s title refer to their intimacy? Or does it suggest that the color of their skin comes between them and their ability to develop a true connection?

Ringgold makes racial barriers more explicit in works like The American People Series #7: Cocktail Party (1964) and The American People Series #8: The In Crowd (1964). In both, black and white faces are piled into compositions full of social tension. A single black man emerges from the crowd in Cocktail Party. Though he is dressed identically to the white men, he appears distinctly isolated from them.

In The In Crowd, Ringgold goes a step further. Three black men stand among white men with whom they form, as the painting’s title indicates, an elite group. But the white men have their hands on the black men, pushing down two of them and covering the third’s mouth. The artist suggests that this is what the introspective young black boy, who appears neatly dressed and seated by himself in The American People Series #14: Portrait of an American Youth (1964), can expect in his own future: a conditional advancement.

The race riots had not yet ended when Ringgold brought “The American People” to its climactic end with The American People Series #20: Die (1967). It is the only painting in the series in which she directly addressed the riots. “One of the most difficult things that I ever painted in my life was this picture, because of the blood,” she recalled. “If [the media] did show a photograph or a picture of any kind of riot, they never showed the blood…So I wanted to make sure that I put the blood in there, because I knew that blood meant death, and that’s what happened at those riots.”

In the other works from the series, Ringgold depicted figures in taut suspension. But in Die, all hell has broken loose. A frenzied spectacle of violence unfolds across this large-scale painting. Professionally dressed black and white men and women bloody each other with weapons or their own hands. Two children—a black girl and a white boy—cower underfoot, clinging together.

The young pair serve as a reminder that prejudice is not innate, but learned. “Children have to be taught that some other people who don’t look like them are not right,” Ringgold has said about these small figures, symbols of innocence amidst the barbarism and indictments of adults who have become consumed with hatred.

Karen Kedmey