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.