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Analyze the Following Artworks in Terms of Their Iconography: Tar Beach, Faith Ringgold, 1988. Acrylic on Canvas, and Pieced Cloth

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Quilting is an art form

African-American women are credited with the beginning of quilt-making in America. Making quilts was part of their duties as slaves and they made them for the plantation owner’s family. Quilts were part of Faith Ringgold’s family tradition.

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TAR BEACH, by Faith Ringgold, is a beautiful picture book with imaginative illustrations. The story is told from the point of view of eight-year-old Cassie Louise Lightfoot. During the summer Cassie and her family play at the “tar beach,” which is the rooftop of the apartment building where she lives in Harlem. Cassie lies on the “beach” and imagines herself flying through the sky over the rooftops. She dreams about being free—to go where she wants without any boundaries, or anyone to tell her she can’t. And so begins the story of Cassie’s flying adventure

The notion of flying has wonderful and magical connotations in the African American culture. Historically, flying was symbolic to African Americans for freedom from slavery and the opportunity to return to their native land. In TAR BEACH, flying symbolizes freedom in Cassie’s world. In her flying dreams her father owns the buildings he looks up to rather than down from buildings he builds as a construction worker. Cassie’s mother has the privilege of laughing and sleeping late into the morning like the well-to-do neighbors. And best of all, her family eats ice cream every day! You’ll notice that the border on the illustrations resemble a quilt. Originally, the author wrote this story on a quilt that she sewed and then used as a canvas for paintings. The actual quilt is part of a series called, “Woman on a Bridge.” They are on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Although TAR BEACH is an older publication, it’s still in print—and continues to give a taste of what can be done in the classroom to teach African American culture, language, and history. Hopefully, these lessons will spark awareness in the students and provide some background knowledge for future lessons.

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On the whole, Ringgold recounts the dream adventure of eight-year-old Cassie Louise Lightfoot, who flies above her apartment-building rooftop, the 'tar beach' of the title, looking down on 1939 Harlem. Part autobiographical, part fictional, this allegorical tale sparkles with symbolic and historical references central to African-American culture. The spectacular artwork resonates with color and texture. Children will delight in the universal dream of mastering one's world by flying over it.

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