Although New York was spared in 1967, anxiety was rampant that “the disorder was the beginning of a ‘black revolution,’” as one reporter put it.(2) His comment was grounded in a rhetorical tradition that included Malcolm X, who spoke of revolution in 1963 and 1964; LeRoi Jones (soon to change his name to Amiri Baraka), a profound influence on Ringgold and leading light of the Black Arts Movement, who asserted in 1965 that “a Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it”; and H. Rap Brown, who announced during the Long Hot Summer that “Black folks built America. If America don’t come around, we’re going to burn America down, brother.”(3) Even the famously nonviolent Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1967 that “all our cities are potentially powder kegs…. Many in moments of anger, many in moments of deep bitterness engage in riots.”(4)
In this fraught climate, Ringgold devised the last and largest of her murals, American People Series #20: Die (hereafter Die, as it was known at the time).(5) Over its twelve-foot span, the painting envisions the collapse of the contemporary social order in the form of ten more or less life-size, well-dressed adults—almost evenly divided between black and white—who flight, flee, or die as an interracial pair of children cowers unnoticed in their midst. Red spots resembling blood at a crime scene unify the composition and register as more “real” than the stylized figures, who are racial types, either brown-eyed, curly-haired brunettes or blue-eyed, straight-haired blonds. The exception is the precariously held, bloody baby at left, whose light skin, brown eyes, and curly, light brown hair combine elements of both types. Pointedly, Ringgold identifies neither the instigators of the violence nor the causes of their animus, emphasizing instead the adults’ collective blindness to the needs of the next generation—a lesson that presumably fit her priorities as a mother and schoolteacher.(6)
That moral is somewhat overwhelmed, as are the children who embody it, by the canvas’s depiction of spectacular bloodshed at cinematic scale, which encourages viewers to fixate on the conjunction of race and violence. Ringgold’s implication that such mayhem can strike whites and blacks alike undercut widespread preconceptions about riots, which were then identified with the black and, to a lesser extent, Latinx communities that bore the brunt of the casualties and devastation.(7) Somewhat contradictorily, the bloodshed also resonates with the language of the nascent Black Power movement and its more established creative arm, the Black Arts Movement, which invoked racial violence as a form of retributive justice. To the extent that she devised Die to address a segmented audience at frequencies each would hear, Ringgold’s project represents a canny negotiation of her position as a black woman in an art world then still largely segregated by race and gender.
Fig. 2. Faith Ringgold. American People Series #20: Die (detail). 1967
The neutral ground compounds the confusion. Because Ringgold omits cast shadows, it is difficult to gauge whether the figures are standing (alive) or supine (dead or dying) or even to judge their relative depth in the pictorial field. Those ambiguities amplify the chaos, even as they obscure the import of racial difference in the narrative. The uncertainty is plain in the group at upper right: is the knife-wielding man protecting the woman from the gunman’s intraracial attack, or launching his own attack motivated by self-interest, group psychosis, or interracial hostility?
The title is equally open-ended. Grammatically speaking, “Die” is an imperative that implies both commander and commanded, an unstated “you.” Yet Ringgold offers no clue to the identity of either party. Certainly, “die” can be understood as something the painting’s figures say to one another, or, to extend the chessboard metaphor, as an order to them from an invisible hand. Taking a different tack, the title can also represent the artist’s address to viewers, in which case Die qualifies as a kind of prophesy or premonition—wishful or cautionary—of the dimensions and dynamics of the promised revolution.
(1.) Faith Ringgold, We Flew over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold (Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1995), p. 156.
(2.) “Mayor [John V.] Lindsay Responds to the 1967 Riots,” http://www.wnyc.org/story/mayor-lindsay-responds-1967-riots/. My thanks to Marilyn F. Friedman for bringing the mayor’s leadership to my attention.
(3.) Malcolm X, “The Black Revolution,” edited by Imam Benjamin Karim, June 1963, http://www.malcolm-x.org/speeches/spc_06__63.htm, and April 8, 1964, http://malcolmxfiles.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-black-revolution-april-8-1964.html. LeRoi Jones in “The Task of the Negro Writer as Artist: A Symposium,” Negro Digest 14, no. 6 (April 1965), 65; reprinted as “State/meant,” in Jones, Home: Social Essays (New York: William Morris & Co., 1966), p. 251. H. Rap Brown’s speech of July 24, 1967, quoted in Hugh Pearson, In the Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus, 1995), p. 139.
(4.) Martin Luther King Jr., “The Other America,” Speech at Stanford University, April 14, 1967, quoted in Arica L. Coleman, “A Riot Started in Newark 50 Years Ago. It Shouldn’t Have Been a Surprise.” Time (July 12, 2017), http://time.com/4854023/newark-riot-1967-lessons/.
(5.) Ringgold, We Flew over the Bridge, pp. 157–59. Here the artist implies that she finished the murals that summer. In her recent public conversation at The Museum of Modern Art, “An Evening with Faith Ringgold,” December 7, 2016 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fq6jgQ6HrDo), she explained that she used the summer to lay out the compositions in the gallery, where she could stand back and evaluate the design, then finished details in her home studio that fall.
(6.) Ringgold, who taught art in the New York school system from 1955 to 1973, bore her daughters Michele and Barbara Wallace eleven months apart in 1952. She annulled her marriage to their father, Earl Wallace, in 1956 and married Burdette Ringgold in 1962.
Read more about Faith Ringgold, American People Series #20: Die, and more works by the artist in the full book, Faith Ringgold: Die, part of MoMA’s One on One series.