faith ringgold - harlem airlines

 

IMAGINE BOARDING HARLEM AIRLINES to journey back in time to the 1920s when the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. This mesmerizing prospect is the premise of artist Faith Ringgold‘s latest children’s book, “Harlem Renaissance Party.” The story begins with an open invitation written in the sky, “Come one! Come all! To a party today in Harlem. Celebrate the great men and women of the Harlem Renaissance. Everyone everywhere is invited!” Unable to resist the historic opportunity, a young boy named Lonnie pleads with his Uncle Bates to allow them to go. Soon the two are boarding Harlem Airlines to fly to the uptown party where Lonnie hopes to meet his favorite poet Langston Hughes.

Once they are airborne, Uncle Bates speaks proudly about what Lonnie should expect. “We’ll see musicians, poets, novelists, painters, activists, philosophers, and scholars,” he says, “wise men and women, giants standing tall above the crowd, sharing the dreams of a better life for all black people.”

faith ringgold - harlem renaissance partyRinggold authored and illustrated this fictional tale of an important period in American history. A critically recognized artist, Ringgold’s early paintings in the 1960s and ’70s responded to the civil rights and feminist movements with provocative images influenced by Cubism and African sculpture. In the decades following, she became well known for her painted story quilts. Her solo exhibition “American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s” was on view in 2013 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and last year her work “Groovin High” was featured on a billboard along New York City’s High Line park.

The author of a dozen children’s books, including the award-winning “Tar Beach” (1991), Ringgold was born in Harlem and currently lives in Englewood, N.J. Published earlier this year, she dedicated “Harlem Renaissance Party” to “all the people I knew growing up in Harlem in the 1930s.”

In the book, Lonnie and Uncle Bates embark on a magical adventure in her beloved Harlem, visiting Well’s Restaurant for “the best fried chicken and waffles this side of heaven.” Uncle Bates, it turns out, is old friends with Jack Johnson and they plan to meet the first black heavyweight boxing champ at the restaurant.

In addition to Johnson, in their pursuit of Hughes, Lonnie and his uncle run into all the giants of the day, Marcus Garvey, Alain Locke and Carter G. Woodson, among them. The pair passes Madame C.J. Walker’s Beauty School and chats with Paul Robeson at the Harlem Opera House.

At the NAACP’s Crisis magazine, W.E.B. Du Bois suggests they might find the famous poet at the Africana Art Gallery. There, paintings by William H. Johnson, Henry O. Tanner and Aaron Douglas are on view alongside sculptures by Augusta Savage and Richmond Barthe. They later encounter Hughes at the Schomburg Library where Zora Neale Hurston is giving a reading.

Paintings by William H. Johnson, Henry O. Tanner and Aaron Douglas are on view at the Africana Art Gallery alongside sculptures by Augusta Savage and Richmond Barthe.

When young Lonnie asks how he generates ideas for his poems, Hughes says he gets them from jazz and blues and “from my people.” Then he tells Lonnie that if he writes, then he is a writer too. Hearing this from Hughes, Lonnie is beside himself with pride.

More adventures ensue on the way to the party at the Savoy Ballroom, each page vividly illustrated by Ringgold. Her hand is evident in every stroke of paint with the texture of the canvas emerging through the images. She depicts the people in the story in style similar to the figures that appear on her quilts—flat and two-dimensional almost like cut-outs, yet full of life and character which emanates from her enthusiastic use of color and attention to detail.

The upbeat story offers young readers a primer on the historic, bold face names of the Harlem Renaissance. Throughout the book, Lonnie demonstrates his familiarity with the key figures he engages. His knowledge is impressive, particularly for a child. When he meets Robeson, Lonnie informs him that he is a “great singer, actor, and athlete.”

When Lonnie meets two famous women, he says: “Miss Florence Mills, you played on Broadway in “Shuffle Along.” And you, Miss Jo Baker, went to Paris to become a star. The Harlem Renaissance didn’t just stay in Harlem.”

 

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Further educating readers, the book concludes with a four-page glossary explaining the people, places and terms, such as jazz and the fox-trot, referenced in the story.

Lonnie draws a poignant lesson from the once-in-a-lifetime experience. He surmises that the Harlem Renaissance, which spanned about 1918 to the mid-1930s, is important “because black people didn’t come to American to be free. We fought for our freedom by creating art, music, literature, and dance.”

Lonnie surmises that the Harlem Renaissance is important “because black people didn’t come to American to be free. We fought for our freedom by creating art, music, literature, and dance.”

His uncle responds that everywhere you look now “you find a piece of our freedom,” a direct reference to mainstream America’s embrace/appropriation of black culture, generation after generation.

Interestingly, Lonnie bears no resemblance to his uncle and is far fairer than anyone else in the story. He has pale pink skin, blue eyes, and a bush of fiery red-orange hair. Perhaps his appearance, which page after page begs explanation, is a comment from Ringgold about the diversity of black people, who come in all hues, and the myriad circumstances of 21st century families.

“Like Marcus Garvey, I am so proud to be black,” Lonnie says on the plane ride home. “One day, I will be a famous writer just like Langston Hughes.” CT

 

“Harlem Renaissance Party” by Faith Ringgold (Amistad, 40 pages). Published Jan. 27, 2015 | Ages 4-8, Preschool to 3rd grade.