Tribute to Faith Ringgold: Inspiring Young Minds

Artist, teacher and storyteller Faith Ringgold passed away on April 13 at 93. Ringgold was a pioneering artist across mediums, and her innovative use of quilting and storytelling techniques revolutionized the art world by bridging the gap between fine art and African-American craft traditions. In her 60s, she found yet another outlet for her creativity, becoming an award-winning author of more than 20 dazzling children’s books, ensuring her work will continue to inspire and captivate young minds worldwide.

Born and raised in Harlem, Ringgold began her training in painting by pursuing an education degree with a focus on art at City College. She taught art in the Harlem public schools for 18 years while working to establish a career as a painter. “Children are so creative, imaginative, and wonderful artists,” she said about those years. “I found the kids so inspiring.” Her work with children showed her that “creativity has much to do with a willingness to take risks. Think about how children play. They run around the playground, they trip, they fall, they get up and run some more. They believe everything will be all right. They feel capable; they let go.”

Ringgold broke through in the 1960s with a series of paintings called “The American People.” In the 1970s, she took her art in new directions and began making tankas—a type of Tibetan art featuring a painting framed with silk brocade—as well as soft sculptures and African-inspired masks. In the 1980s, thinking about the themes of liberation and self-expression, Ringgold turned to creating a series of “freedom quilts” that combined almost folkloric scenes painted on cloth with quilted fabric borders. One of these story quilts showed a family picnicking and stargazing on their apartment roof in Harlem, with the newly built George Washington Bridge looming in the background. The quilt inspired her first children’s book, Tar Beach, which won over 20 awards, including the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award.

Tar Beach is not just a story; it’s a journey through the imagination where the boundaries of reality are blurred, and dreams take flight. Through her vibrant illustrations and compelling narrative, Ringgold invites readers to soar with her protagonist, Cassie Louise Lightfoot, as she transforms the rooftops of Harlem into her paradise. Cassie is eight years old and dreams of being free to go wherever she wants for the rest of her life. One night, lying on a blanket on “tar beach,” her dream comes true. The stars lift her, and she flies over the city. She claims the George Washington Bridge and the skyscrapers as her own—even the Union Building, so her father won’t have to worry about not being allowed to join anymore. As Cassie learns, anyone can fly. “All you need is somewhere to go; you can’t get to any other way. The next thing you know, you’re flying among the stars.”

For many children, Tar Beach is a gateway to creativity, empowering them to explore their dreams and aspirations. It’s more than just a bedtime story; it’s a window into the rich tapestry of African-American history and culture, providing valuable lessons in resilience, determination and the power of the human spirit.

In a world where representation matters, Ringgold’s work is a beacon of hope and inspiration for young readers of all backgrounds. Through her artistry and storytelling, she reminds us that every child has the potential to reach for the stars and to fly above difficult circumstances. You can see her original painted story quilt, Tar Beach, in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. To see her read Tar Beach aloud, click on this link:

Let us be grateful for artists like Faith Ringgold, whose legacy will continue to inspire future generations. Her bold storytelling encourages young readers to embrace their heritage, celebrate their culture, and spread their wings and soar, just like Cassie on her magical “tar beach.”