Memories of “Tar Beach”

I experienced a déjà vu moment recently while viewing Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach quilt, which is part of the Identity

Tar Beach

Faith Ringgold, (American) 1990

Shifts exhibition at VMFA. Many years ago, I lived in New York City and served on the board for Children’s Museum of Manhattan, a great organization. I vividly recall a wonderful exhibit at that museum called Tar Beach, which was based on Ringgold’s story quilt and her book of the same name (which is available in the VMFA Shop).

In Tar Beach, the artist tells the story of an eight-year-old girl named Cassie Lightfoot, who lives in Harlem with her family. Because the story is set in the early 1930s when public beaches were segregated, Cassie’s family couldn’t go to the area beaches. Instead, her mother, father, and little brother would go up to the roof of their apartment building to escape the summer heat inside. (The asphalt roof made it “tar beach.”) While the parents would play cards with friends, Cassie would lie on a mattress, look up at the stars, and imagine she could fly.

I’ll always remember the part of the story when Cassie flies through the sky, imagining the lights on the George Washington Bridge as her sparkly, diamond necklace. I had the privilege of escorting Faith Ringgold through the Children’s Museum exhibit, which looked like the roof top of a high-rise building, only this one had reading nooks and play areas galore. Faith Ringgold felt honored to have an exhibit based on her work at such a fine museum.

I felt honored to be in her presence. On a recent visit to Virginia Beach, I observed people of different ethnic backgrounds walking along the boardwalk. That inspired me to tell the story of Tar Beach to my own little girl.

- Gail Busby, VMFA Executive Assistant for Advancement