Since the 1970s, Harlem-born artist Faith Ringgold has been on the front lines of the fight for African American and women artists to receive equal representation in American museums. At 82-years-old, her famous story-quilt paintings hang in the permanent collections of some of the country’s most prestigious museums, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After being honored as one of the women who “Make America” by the AOL/PBS MAKERS series, EBONY.com caught up with this beacon of African American history to discuss her legacy and her continued passion to see African American artists prominently featured in their own wings across the country.
EBONY: You’ve mentioned that because of World War II and women joining the work force, your mother was able to become a fashion designer in her own right and also divorce your father. As a young person, what impact did seeing your mother achieve these previously unheard of things?
FAITH RINGGOLD: I didn’t realize that my mother and father were separated, really, because in those days, fathers and husbands had to take care of their families still. In more ways than one, he was always there, I thought, and my mother didn’t work. It’s very interesting being brought up in the 30s and 40s. When the war in Europe started and men went away to war and women went to work, and my mother could actually divorce my father and have a job, that was very, very interesting to me and it was fascinating because she had always done work at home, she had made clothes for her family and friends but now she could go out to work.
EBONY: Is seeing your mother working outside of the home what sparked your later feminist activism?
FR: Yes, I would think so. She wanted learn how to use the electric sewing machine so she could work at a factory. And she did it! She wouldn’t stay on a job if it wasn’t beneficial to her she’d leave it and go get another one. I loved that about her. There were people who would complain about their jobs and my mother would walk away from that job I liked that a lot about her. She was a very, very creative woman and eventually she stopped working outside the house and she just had her own customers whom she made clothes for.
EBONY: Because you were a woman artist, and a Black woman artist, particularly, you had a very difficult time getting your work into museums and were met with so many obstacles in the art world from people who did not want your work to be showcased. So how were you able to keep going with your work in the face of all of that opposition?
FR: I just never stopped. I was functioning in a time when people were struggling and they knew they had to struggle and I was a part of that struggle. It wasn’t just women. In the beginning, I thought it was just African Americans that we couldn’t get our art in. And then I realized that the demonstrations that we did would get the other African American male artists in, and I’d still be on the outside. So, then I said, “I think I better champion a cause that is more to the point!” and so I became a feminist. You’re Black, yes, but you’re also a woman. And you’re not getting anything special for being a black woman, you’re getting something less. And that’s when I opened my eyes.
EBONY: Today, it seems many Black women shy away from the Feminist Movement or the term “feminist,” even after the great strides you’ve made, your daughter [Michele Wallace]’s work, bell hooks’s work, because historically it’s been a movement mostly White women have reaped the benefits from and African American women have not. What would you say to Black women today to encourage them to embrace feminism?
FR: I would say the same thing to them that I would say to them. Black women have never embraced feminism. They didn’t embrace it in the 50s and 60s, they’re not embracing it now. That’s not new. I think it’s a tendency among women in general not to be supportive of each other. It’s quite obvious that African American men have a better deal than African American women. It’s obvious to me. It doesn’t mean you’re against anybody, it means that you’re for yourself. I’ve got to be for myself. I’m doing all of this work and I’m still outside. I don’t want to be outside. And I do want to be supportive of other women and African American women especially. What’s wrong with that? One of the most wonderful I love the way they love each other’s work, they support each other in so many