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Faith Ringgold Tar Beach Essay

A Harlem-born artist expands on one of her distinctive "quilt paintings" to create a marvelously evocative book that draws on her own imaginative life as a child. As explained in a concluding note, Ringgold's "Woman on a Bridge" series, including Tar Beach (reproduction included), is now in the Guggenheim. Combining the traditional association between flying and the escape of slaves to freedom with her own fantasies as a child who delighted in the sense of liberation and empowerment she felt on a rooftop from which she saw stars twinkling among the lights of nearby George Washington Bridge, Ringgold has fashioned a poignant fictional story about eight-year-old Cassie, who dreams that she can claim the bridge (and freedom and wealth) by soaring above the city; she can even own the Union Building that her skillful father helped to build--though he is often out of work because he is denied membership in the union. The triumphant soaring of imagination over reality is beautifully expressed in Ringgold's bold, vibrant paintings, newly rendered to tell this story, and with details from the quilt's glowing patchwork as a delightful continue along the bottom of each page. Beautiful, innovative, and full of the joy of one unconquerable soul.

Welcome to Tar Beach, where the sand is more of a flat black area and the ocean is…well, there is no ocean. There's also no sunbathing, because Tar Beach only opens after the sun goes down.

See, the thing about Tar Beach is that it's not a beach at all—it's actually the rooftop of the apartment building where eight-year-old Cassie Lightfoot lives with her fam. They call it Tar Beach because they like to go there to relax during the summer.

Best. Staycation. Ever.

While Mommy and Daddy drink beer and play cards with the neighbors (hi, Mr. and Mrs. Honey!), Cassie chills with her little brother Be Be on their roof mattress. What is a roof mattress, you ask? Well, it's a mattress that they keep on the roof.

Often, while she's lying on her mattress, Cassie likes to look up at the stars. Sometimes the stars reach down and lift her up into the dark, and then she's flying through the New York City sky. One important note: Cassie's not really flying. She just has a very active imagination.

Tar Beach isn't a story where regular events happen in order. It's more like a bunch of childhood memories combined with dreams. Cassie combines her real history with her fantasies to give us a sense of what her life was like when she was a child. Every now and again, she hints that there was trouble in paradise. Daddy had trouble getting work—so much so, that he eventually left the family, and never came home.

Probably. The thing is, Cassie jumps back into dreamland, so it's hard to tell exactly what happened.

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