Radical Acts

Faith Ringgold. American People Series #20: Die. 1967 486

Oil on canvas, two panels, 72 × 144" (182.9 × 365.8 cm). Acquired through the generosity of The Modern Women's Fund, Ronnie F. Heyman, Glenn and Eva Dubin, Lonti Ebers, Michael S. Ovitz, Daniel and Brett Sundheim, and Gary and Karen Winnick

Kerry Downey: First stop,1960s America. But this scene could just as easily be happening today.

Artist, Faith Ringgold: Hello. My name is Faith Ringgold, and we're looking at my work, American People Series No. 20: Die, painted in 1967. There was a lot of spontaneous rioting and fighting in the street and undocumented killings of African-American people, and great racism. Everybody knew. Everybody talked about it, but I would never see anything about it on television—nothing.

How could I, as an African-American woman artist, document what was happening all around me? I want to show a kind of abstraction of what the fights were really all about. And they had a lot to do with race and class, and no one was left out. It was to make sure that certain people on the bottom don't get to the top.

So you can see they're all dressed in business suits, and they're all hooty-dooty. But they're fighting for their position in life, in America, to be retained. And then there's people who have already attacked somebody, and they're trying to beat them down. And then there's people looking for somebody, running after each other and screaming and carrying on against that background. And those squares really represent the sidewalk, which basically was always the background of a riot because everybody is going to fall on the ground.

Having women with children there was very important because women are going to protect their children no matter what. These children, they're in the center, they gravitate toward each other. They don't know each other, but they're going to try to help each other. They are the innocent victims here.

I had the courage to go ahead and speak out. I want you to be upset. You're not supposed to see people rioting and killing each other or even know that they're hating each other without being upset. This was going on then; it's happening again now. And every time I see one of those big riots in the street here today, I think back to Die.

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