Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach, A Literary Review

by Mallory Sweeney

Many times in children’s literature, the audience is targeted through a variety of simplistic yet effective methods.  Children are the main characters and they live in a world in which they exert ownership.  Any parent or teacher is familiar with the read aloud session in which his or her audience, no matter what size, comments on the story from their point of view, or discusses how they are like the characters in the book.

“She has a brother! I have a brother too!” or “If I were him, I’m not sure that I would try to trick the monster.”

Children want stories they can relate to, yet magical elements are also craved as an escape from reality only to find that the imagination is the child’s best friend, helping him or her to truly celebrate the power of self-actualization.

Faith Ringgold, foremost famous for her status as a highly influential black female artist, accomplishes capturing the power of a child’s imagination in her now children’s classic, Tar Beach.  Ringgold, who wrote Tar Beach in 1991, was initially renowned for her art, particularly how she portrayed the black female in America, through a series of quilts she called “Woman on a Bridge,” which debuted at the Guggenheim.

Ringgold, who was born in 1930, grew up in Harlem where the book takes place, and incorporated the idea of the story quilt into the lively illustrations of Tar Beach while simultaneously weaving in semi-autobiographical details concerning a young girl growing up during the Depression.  It is the story of eight year-old Cassie Lightfoot, a young dreamer who uses the roof of her Harlem apartment (the tar beach) as the launch pad for her imagination and her own personal gateway to New York City.  Through her imagination, Ringgold allows her heroine to travel places that segregation would not allow her to go, with the freedom of a child.

When the hot nights come and the apartment building’s occupants gather on the roof to picnic, Cassie lies on a mattress, listening to the adults talk and flies over the city streets. “I will always remember when the stars fell around me and lifted me up above the George Washington bridge,” she says and with Cassie’s power of flight also lives her power of ownership.  Everything she flies over she claims with the simplicity of a child taking proprietary in the world around them: she states that she will wear the bridge as a necklace and even declares an ice cream factory as her own so her family can indulge every day.

But Cassie is also aware of her world in another way.  Ringgold makes it clear that even as a child, she knows her skilled father (who helped build the George Washington Bridge) is not allowed in a labor union, because his grandfather was not part of one.  Ringgold’s childish cadence in language also offers the feeling of flight to the reader–but again makes Cassie conscious of her world: she knows that certain people simply see her father as colored or a half-breed Indian.  Cassie however, flies over the union building and claims it for her father and continues her journey, undaunted.

Overall Tar Beach is a story quilt, yet it is woven with autobiographical information, narrative and a universal wish.  Meanwhile, the book is a work of fiction, but Ringgold includes details from her own memories.  Tar Beach is dedicated to Ringgold’s mother Mme. Willi Posey, a seamstress who taught Ringgold to sew and the Honeys, a couple who enjoy the evening up on tar beach with the Lightfoots, are Ringgold’s personification of the childless couples who she grew up in contact with, named thus because as Ringgold describes, “It was always honey this and honey that.”  Above all, Cassie’s flight is deeply rooted in black history, as Ringgold herself explains that it is connected to the flight of escape taken by many slaves to freedom and the flight from oppression Cassie, her family, and other black Americans would eventually take.

Tar Beach, although Ringgold’s first book, won critical acclaim as well as a Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration, and it continues to be a favorite among children and adults alike.  The message here is welcome and fresh and allows the book to endure–freedom is available to anyone who dares to dream–and Ringgold’s writing is superb and bolstered by the floral patches of fabric and delightful paintings.

The tale ends with Cassie taking her little brother Be Be on a flight with her and they soar across the sky with Cassie insisting, “…anyone can fly.  All you need is somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way. The next thing you know, youre flying among the stars.”

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