On a sweltering summer night in Harlem, the young Cassie Louise Lightfoot, created by Faith Ringgold, takes flight over the dazzling New York City. With arms spread wide, she hovers above the George Washington Bridge. From her vantage point, Cassie can see her family, including her parents, their neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Honey, and even herself and her baby brother Bebe, all relaxing on the tar-paper-covered rooftop of their apartment building, gazing at the stars. Her vivid imagination allows her to soar beyond that place, to transcend the physical boundaries of her world as she flies over the city like a superhero. This vibrant, magical scene is captured in Tar Beach, 1988, the first quilt in Ringgold’s series called “Women on a Bridge,” which combines folklore-inspired visuals with lines of text written in Lightfoot’s voice, guiding us through the artwork. A few years later, in 1991, Ringgold published a children’s book directly inspired by the work of art.
The flying metaphor is significant and symbolic in African American art and literature, representing themes of liberation, freedom, and empowerment. It has often been used as powerful means to embody dreams, struggles, and aspirations, a message of hope in the face of adversity.
It was hard not to think of Tar Beach last week as the 2 Train barreled towards 125 Street Station in Harlem. Making a trip just to see a single work of art that I’ve always wanted to see (it’s been there nearly thirty years!) brings this dependable wave of emotions: a rush of adrenaline, a time distortion where moments seem to move in heart-pounding seconds, and ultimately there is this sense of vulnerability. The butterflies in my stomach of whether this will be worth the trip. On the train, this is all coming a mile a minute. And then there it was. Smaller than I pictured. Ringgold’s MTA mosaic Flying Home: Harlem Heroes and Heroines, 1996, is flying past me. And then I got off the train, and my heart skipped a beat. As a small handful of subway passengers shuffle through the existing turnstiles, it’s suddenly just me, alone, with one of the most beautiful works of art I’ve ever experienced.
In her day, 125th Street was the center of it all. Born in Harlem in 1930, the neighborhood was at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance and still the zenith of African American culture and creativity. The women and men who shaped these artistic and intellectual reawakenings were stars, and Ringgold revered them. For the #2 and #3 lines of the New York City subway system, she presented her memories of these times, her memories of those that brought so much richness to the community.
Ringgold took the title from the 1939 Lionel Hampton song Flying, which virtually gave birth to rhythm and blues. According to legend, Hampton was a member of the Benny Goodman band at the time, and in 1939, he would have to take his first flight. The young Hampton was terrified to fly. Waiting for the plane to take off, he began whistling a melody. Goodman asked what the song was, and Hampton casually said its title was Flying Home. That’s what Ringgold’s figures are doing in her mosaic. She portrayed the era’s essence by depicting historical figures in flight above the iconic landmarks.
The murals are composed of 10 panels, 5 on the Uptown platform and 5 on the Downtown platform. Uptown starts with the legendary Apollo Theater. The music hall began in 1914 as a “White’s Only” burlesque theater before reopening in 1934 as the Apollo we think of today. It holds a special place for its pivotal role in launching the careers of numerous legendary artists and its syndicated variety show, Showtime at the Apollo, which played on televisions across the country, like mine, and brought new talent to the world. Here Ringgold depicts a number of celebrated flyers: Dinah Washington, Florence Mills, Ralph Cooper, Billie Holiday, and the group, The Ink Spots: Jerry Daniels, Deek Watson, Billy Bowen, and Bill Kenny.
The Harlem Opera House was built by Oscar Hammerstein in 1889 and was the first theater in the city. Soaring above the theater are Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson.
Dubbed “the Aristocrat of Harlem,” the Cotton Club was a glamorous cabaret frequented by New York’s elite. A cornerstone of the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, the Cotton Club gained fame for its exceptional floorshows featuring top-notch performances. We see Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith flying above.
Although Yankee Stadium is not in Harlem, it was the site of two infamous boxing matches that were focal points for African American pride in the 1930s. Flying above the stadium are Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis. In 1938 there was a highly anticipated rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling for the heavyweight championship. Sporting significance aside, the match carried heavy political implications. Louis was seen as a symbol of the liberated black man. Max Schmeling was portrayed as a representative of Adolf Hitler’s Aryan race. Accompanied by a Nazi party publicist, Schmeling’s camp propagated newspaper stories, asserting that a black man like Louis could not defeat him. The fight took on a more significant symbolic meaning, reflecting the times of racial tensions. The bout lasted an astonishingly brief 124 seconds (Louis won by knockout).
The Studio Museum in Harlem was founded in 1968 by artists, community activists, and philanthropists who sought to address the underrepresentation of African American artists in mainstream museums and galleries. The founders believed that the community should include a museum as part of its everyday experience and to reflect their interests. High above the museum are: Augusta Savage, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden holding a paintbrush, Norman Lewis, and Aaron Douglas.
Heading back downtown, there is a panel that pairs the Olympian Jesse Owens floating above Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. Owens has been recognized as “perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history.” He achieved international fame at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin by winning four gold medals. Owens is placed alongside Madame C.J. Walker, the trailblazing entrepreneur. Walker developed a hair-care product for African American women and became recognized as the first female self-made millionaire in the U.S.
Tracing its history to 1809, the Abyssinian Baptist Church congregation helped lead a protest against racially segregated church seating. By 1930, the church had 13,000 members, making it the most prominent African-American church in New York and the most prominent Baptist congregation worldwide. Above the church flies Marcus Garvey and one of their many prominent ministers, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
95 years ago, the Schomburg Center was founded, initially established with the collections of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Since then, it has been dedicated to the collection, preservation, and accessibility of materials that document the experiences of black individuals in America and across the globe. The center has played a vital role in promoting studying and understanding the rich history and culture of people of African descent. Here the mural showcases the contemporary facade of the center, flanked by representations of African American literary giants. Among them are Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Zora Neale Hurston.
The NAACP played a crucial role in the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural component of the New Negro Movement. NAACP officials W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and Jessie Fauset provided aesthetic guidance, financial support, and literature to the cultural awakening.
Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was an American educator, philanthropist, womanist, and civil rights activist who founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. She brought together representatives of 28 different organizations to improve the lives of black women and their communities.
Once called the Waldorf of Harlem, the Hotel Theresa was known as a hub for Black society and culture in the 1940s and 50s — and for a few interesting political moments in the 1960s (such as Fidel Castro meeting with Malcolm X in 1960). Floating above the hotel are Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.