Learning About Self and Others Through Art: Lessons

Based on the Art and Writing of Faith Ringgold


by Lucy Andrus, MSED, ATR





Faith Ringgold is well known for her story quilts, art that combines painting, sewn fabric and storytelling, a format for visual expression that she began developing in the early 1980's. Since her career began in the sixties, however, she has produced a wide-ranging and prolific body of work, including paintings, masks, dolls, costumes, and performance, all drawn from a broad reserve of intellectual, emotional and social concerns. She has traveled, exhibited and lectured across America and in Europe, received National Endowment for the Arts awards, fulfilled major commissions and remained steadfast in her activism. Faith Ringgold has been a prominent force in the endeavor to create a more global art community, bridging artworlds of Euro-American modernism, postmodernism, and African-American artistic contribution to western culture.


With the publication of her first book, Tar Beach, in 1991 Ringgold diversified her storytelling methods and broadened her audience to include children and parents. She has received several awards for her contribution to children's literature which now includes six books. In 1995, Ringgold published her memoirs, her first adult book.


Faith Ringgold and The World of Art


Faith Ringgold, whose career began as a painter over thirty years ago, was born in Harlem, New York in 1930. As a young child, Ringgold suffered from asthma and art became a major pastime as she sketched in bed for hours while her mother designed and sewed dresses nearby. Ringgold completed high school and married at age twenty while majoring in art at City College of New York. She graduated in 1955 while raising her daughters, Barbara and Michele, and began teaching art in New York City public schools which she continued to do until 1973 when she quit to pursue her artistic career full-time.


Along the way, Ringgold was divorced from her first husband, completed her master's degree in art, and visited Europe for the first time in 1961 with her mother and her daughters where she toured the museums of France and Italy. This trip strengthened the artists' affinity for Europe, a love co-mingled with the tolerance for people of color that she witnessed in the African-American expatriate community. Three decades later, Ringgold would explore her relationship to European modernism and that part of her cultural heritage that is French in her story quilt series, the "French Collection".


During the sixties, the artist married Burdette Ringgold and developed her first mature painting style as she began the "American People" series, work that reflected Ringgold's social activism. Racism, sexism, and concerns of the marginalized art community become the focus of these large paintings. As a black women artist, Ringgold struggled to find her place in the prevailing artworld and among a community of artists dominated by men.


In 1966, Ringgold participated in the first exhibition of African-American artists in Harlem since the 1930s. Ringgold began to meet prominent African-American artists including Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Betty Blayton. Her activism continued, particularly focusing on women's issues with a notable contribution to the effort to include in the Whitney Sculpture Annual exhibition, Betye Saar and Barbara Chase-Riboud who were among the first black women ever to exhibit at the Whitney Museum.


During the seventies, Ringgold moved on to the next creative phase in her development. Influences of family, African-American culture, and memories of Harlem where she lived most of her life, become intertwined with political statement as Ringgold's art begins to chronicle her personal experience as a woman artist of color living in the United States. The artist's mother, Willi Posey, a fashion designer and dressmaker, becomes a profound influence during this period. In 1972, mother and daughter begin their collaboration as Ringgold moves away from her earlier large paintings, deciding to make easily transportable soft paintings on lengths on cloth for which Willi Posey designed and constructed fabric frames. Working side by side with her mother no doubt recalled the artist's childhood memories of drawing in bed while her mother sewed dresses.


Coinciding with her decision to work with cloth was Ringgold's decision to create art that centered on women's experiences. She began to make masks, dolls and soft sculptures whose content and meaning were motivated by her desire to create a closer connection between her art and everyday life. Blending traditional African design with modern feminist ideas, Ringgold combined these artforms in installations to which she then added performance in 1976.

Ringgold's work with Willi Posey continued until their last collaboration, "Echoes of Harlem", a quilt completed just before Posey's death in 1981. This joint effort was especially meaningful since Ringgold and her mother created this piece for an exhibition of quilts by women artists working in collaboration with women quilter's. "Echoes of Harlem" reflects African-American family traditions both in content and in execution for it was Ringgold's great-grandmother, Betsy Bingham, a former slave and a quilter, who taught the artist's mother to quilt.


This stage of her artistic journey culminated in the creation of Ringgold's first story quilt, "Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima" (1983), a work illustrating Ringgold's ability to unflinchingly aim truth at the viewer through a unique blend of narrative, wit, personal experience and social commentary. With the completion of the "Aunt Jemima" quilt, Ringgold's artistic journey takes another turn as she begins to focus her creative energies on making story quilts, combining painting and sewing with complex narrative in ways that transform perceptions of black people and challenge the dominant culture's view of reality (Gouma-Peterson, 1998).


Ringgold's 1988 "Women on A Bridge" story quilt series yields the "Tar Beach" quilt, made famous through publication of her first children's book, the beloved Tar Beach in 1991. Five more children's books follow including the most recent, The Invisible Princess (1999) that Ringgold wrote in response to her granddaughter's inquiries about the absence of African-American princesses in the fairy tales she would read them.


Throughout her career, Faith Ringgold has entered many artworlds, some uninviting others overlooking her uncommon gifts or misunderstanding the methods she used from early on, many of which, such as collaboration and use of the vernacular, are in artistic vogue today. (Tucker, 1998) Her tenacity and courage have allowed her to successfully navigate these worlds in spite of obstacles encountered. Much like one of her story quilts, Ringgold pieces these experiences together from a uniquely personal vantage point, transforming and reconstructing them through an alluring blend of fact, fiction and fable that offers an alternative view of life, history and culture.


As Marcia Tucker, director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City, so aptly states, Ringgold has created a "stunning visual History of Histories -her own, her family's, that of the African American artist in the United States and abroad, of social activism and feminism...., and the history of historical omission by virtue of race and gender...". (1988, p.ix)

During the eighties and nineties, Ringgold began to achieve the widespread recognition she so richly deserves as a major contributor to contemporary American art. Her work has been widely exhibited and she has received numerous awards and honorary degrees. She is currently professor of art at University of California, San Diego, living half the year in California and the other in New Jersey. Her activism, teaching and artmaking continue, and in talking with Faith Ringgold, one gets the impression that there may yet be another medium through which the artist will continue to tell her story. 1



1 During a personal conversation with Faith Ringgold on March 5, 1999, Fredonia, New York, the artist, in discussing what the future holds, expressed her wish to be able to write music.



Artist as Author


In considering Faith Ringgold's achievement as an author, Dan Cameron, curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art where Ringgold exhibited her "French Collection" series, describes two characteristics that account for the artist's success in this medium. He notes that Ringgold's books possess a "formal and conceptual continuity with the rest of Ringgold's art" and a "remarkable capacity for stirring the reader's empathy." (1998, p.8). The connections among Ringgold's personal life and history, cultural experience, artmaking and social activism resound in each story as the reader quickly recognizes the narrative voice in Ringgold's books as the artist's own. She is masterful at inviting young readers to explore an idea or topic through the eyes of an artist while imbuing each story with a sense of magic, wonderment and ultimately hope. Such ingenuity allows the greater message contained within each story to be more accessible and to impact the reader in a way that generates understanding and empathy for the important social concerns Ringgold is addressing through her characters and their adventures.


Very much like her art, which she intended to be accessible to everyday people, Ringgold's storybooks touch the human spirit in a way that allows the reader to identify with the characters and their adventures, whether it be searching for one's identity, struggling against the odds, discovering the richness of one's cultural heritage or daring to dream and imagine "what if...". The beautiful illustrations that fill Ringgold's books strike a similar cord in their ability to convey meaning and stir the reader's aesthetic sensibilities in a most compassionate manner.







Gouma-Peterson, T. (1998). "Faith Ringgold's journey: From Greek busts to African American dilemma tales" in Dancing at the Louvre: Faith Ringgold's French collection and other story quilts, Dan Cameron (ed.), New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art.


Cameron, D. (1998. "Living history: Faith Ringgold's rendezvous with the twentieth century", in Dancing at the Louvre: Faith Ringgold's French collection and other story quilts, Dan Cameron (ed.), New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art.


Tucker, M. (1998). "Foreward", in Dancing at the Louvre: Faith Ringgold's French collection and other story quilts, Dan Cameron (ed.), New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art.




First Lesson: Future Hero Self-Portraits




This lesson is inspired by the children's book, Dinner at Aunt Connie's House (1993), written and illustrated by artist, Faith Ringgold. The book itself is based on one of Ringgold's painted story quilts, "The Dinner Quilt" (1986), which was exhibited at major museums and is now housed in a private collection. An image of "The Dinner Quilt" is reproduced in the book and is accompanied by the artist's statement describing the connection between the quilt and the book.


Dinner at Aunt Connie's House, Ringgold's third children's book, is a testimonial to the achievements of great African- American women as well as a tribute to women artists though the character of artist, Aunt Connie. It is the story of cousins Melody and Lonnie who discover through art, storytelling, and a bit of magic, newfound pride in their cultural backgrounds as African Americans.

The story of Dinner at Aunt Connie's House


During a summertime visit to Aunt Connie and Uncle Bate's for the beloved family tradition of a special dinner and showing of Aunt Connie's new artwork, Melody is greeted with two surprises. The first is the great news that Aunt Connie and Uncle Bates have adopted a son, Lonnie, whose brown skin, red hair and green eyes immediately captivate Melody. Aunt Connie has a second surprise in store for the children who, while playing a game in the stairwell, hear voices beckoning to them. Climbing to the next landing, they proceed to discover twelve portraits of women painted by their Aunt Connie hanging in the hallway. The magic continues when the portraits speak to the children and Lonnie and Melody come to learn who these twelve women are and the contributions they made to American culture and history.


As each painting speaks, Lonnie and Melody are both amazed and inspired by the lives of the women, from Sojourner Truth to Bessie Smith to Rosa Parks. The children come to realize that these women are heros who accomplished remarkable things with great courage regardless of the obstacles in their paths.


The story continues as the children help to bring the portraits downstairs and hang them on the dining room walls so all the family can see Aunt Connie's big surprise. As the family enjoys a delicious dinner made even more special than usual, Aunt Connie begins to speak about each of the women in the portrait, but her voice begins to fade into the background as another magical thing happens right before everyone's eyes. The paintings are no longer on the wall but are sitting in the chairs around the table as dinner guests. Each proceeds to tell her own story as the family listens enthralled.


The children learn about their heritage within the warm and loving circle of family, as history and culture continue to be passed from one generation to the next. Dinner at Aunt Connie's House ends with Lonnie's and Melody's declarations of their own aspirations as future heroes of the world.


"The Dinner Quilt", the artwork upon which Dinner at Aunt Connie's House is based, was originally meant as a story for adults where Ringgold hoped that viewers would recall their own childhood memories of good times gathering with family and close friends. Approximately 6' by 8' in size, "The Dinner Quilt" incorporates painting, sewing and storytelling. The focal point of the quilt is a large rectangular table set with a specially prepared feast of foods. The beautifully set table includes place mats that have each been embroidered with the names of the notable women who also appear in the book. Family members are painted dressed in their 'Sunday best' and are seated in chairs around the table, all facing out towards the viewer. They include Aunt Connie, Uncle Bates, Melody and Lonnie who all appear later on in Dinner at Aunt Connie's House.


The quilt story is written in black on pieces of white fabric that are placed one at each corner of the rectangle serving to balance the composition of this inner space. Surrounding the rectangle of table and family members are two borders, with the inside border composed of quilted squares pieced together from tie-dyed fabric in darker shades of red, blue, green, brown and gray and the contrasting outside border that edges the quilt made from a red and white printed fabric. The complimentary colors of red and green figure prominently in the table setting and chairs, and the quilt is richly textured through the use of color and pattern.


As Ringgold began to transform the story of "The Dinner Quilt" to a story for children, the twelve African-American women, appearing only as names in "The Dinner Quilt", become portrait paintings who speak to Lonnie and Melody in the book. Ringgold says that she "added this element of magic to commemorate the courage, vision, and creativity of women who have made great contributions to American history but have been largely unknown." (Ringgold, 1993, no page number).


A supplemental children's book that helps support a main objective of this lesson is Ringgold's, My Dream of Martin Luther King (1995). Filled with Ringgold's vibrant and dramatic paintings, this story helps to underscore the ideas that dreams and aspirations can begin in childhood, and we are never too young to imagine doing important things for humanity when we take our place in the world as adults.


Access Information


Dinner at Aunt Connie's House (1993). Published by Hyperion Books for Children, 114 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY 10011. The book also contains a color reproduction of "The Dinner Quilt", pictured at the end of the story with a description by the artist.


My Dream of Martin Luther King (1995). Published by Crown Publishers, Inc., Division of Random House, 201 East 50th Street, NY, NY 10022.


Faith Ringgold Website: www.anyonecanfly.com




Lesson Plan



Title Future Hero Self-Portraits for elementary and early middle school levels


After reading and viewing Faith Ringgold's story, Dinner at Aunt Connie's House, the students will be asked to envision themselves as future heroes who will make a positive contribution to their neighborhood, the community, and/or the larger world. Inspired by Ringgold's artistry, the students will combine narrative with elements of painting, drawing and fabric to create their portraits.





        The students will understand that artists often serve as conveyers and preservers of important cultural and historical information.


        The students will become more aware of narrative in art and the power of combining written and visual imagery to communicate important ideas.


        The students will understand that, despite obstacles encountered, anyone can grow up to do things that make a difference in the world, from the humblest act of kindness to a neighbor, to the bravest of deeds that impact the larger world.


        The students will learn that artists are among those who can make a difference in society.


        The students will gain a greater understanding of the contributions made by African-Americans, and particularly African-American women, to the history and culture of America and the world.


Student Activities


This lesson was originally taught to second grade children participating in Art Partners, a multicultural art education program. It can easily be adapted to other grade levels.

Begin by asking students what and who they think a hero is. During this discussion, note that heroes come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages and genders. Explain that a person who makes an important contribution to others can do so right in their own family, neighborhood, and/or community as well as in the larger world. Ask students if they know of any heroes that share the same cultural ancestry as they.


Recall the idea that through their work, artists tell us about our world and the people in it, including our heroes. Two ways they might do this are by painting a portrait of the person and/or making pictures that tell us the story of the person and why they are considered a hero. Have you ever seen an artwork about a hero or person who has done something great in the world? Older students can be asked why they think artists might make heroes subject matter for their artwork.


Introduce Faith Ringgold, an African-American artist and storyteller who has been greatly inspired by the heroic efforts of her ancestors, and whose own artwork is often dedicated to informing others about the contributions made by these often unsung heroes.


Display a reproduction of "The Dinner Quilt" and explain Ringgold's method of creating large quilts that combine painting, sewing and storytelling, informing students that Ringgold is famous for originating this artform in America. While many of the students might be familiar with Ringgold as author of the book, Tar Beach, point out that before beginning to write and illustrate children's books, Ringgold told and still tells her stories through these magnificent quilts that have been exhibited all over America.


While briefly viewing and discussing "The Dinner Quilt", some possible questions to ask the class depending on their level are:


        What is going on in this story quilt?


        What special traditions do you have in your family? OR Do have a special occasion in your family everyone comes together to share a meal?


        Why would Ringgold think that such subject matter is important enough to make a work of art about it? (As a way to preserve family history; as a means to share something important about everyday life that others can identify with)


        What is a way you and your family preserve and tell about your family history? Do you use artistic ways to do this? (Examples are photo albums, collages, family trees, reciting family legends.)


        Where do you think Faith Ringgold learned about sewing and quilting? (She learned from her fashion designer mother, Willi Posey, and in fact, collaborated with Posey to create her very first story quilt. Make the point that the artist's mother was an inspiration and a hero to Faith Ringgold.)

Briefly explaining Ringgold's idea to transform "The Dinner Quilt" from a story for adults to a storybook for children, students should proceed to read/hear the story and view the illustrations in Dinner at Aunt Connie's House.


For older students: Read the artist's statement at the end of the book then ask the students to reflect on why the artist thought it was important to expand her original quilt story based on her personal family experience to a storybook that also tells about heroes from her ancestral "family", especially women. Some points to keep in mind for discussion are:


        The artist as conveyer and preserver of important and diverse cultural and historical information.


        Reaching a broader audience through the medium of writing and publishing; bringing art to the ordinary person who may not necessarily be a consumer of fine art. (Can a book do this more effectively than a work of art installed in a museum?)


        Reaching people while they are young, and inspiring children to embrace a more inclusive American culture while envisioning their own place in the world as productive members of society.


Future Hero Self-Portrait Activity


Present the ideas that we all have the capacity to become heroes in many ways, large and small, and that such a process begins in childhood with our own dreams and ambitions for the future.


Motivation: To help stimulate students' thinking in this direction, ask them to envision themselves as future heroes who will do something good for the people in their neighborhood, the community, and/or the larger world. Such a range allows students to accept that heroic actions are within the realm of possibility for everyone. For example, you might become the hero who discovers the cure for a disease but you can also be the hero in your neighborhood who helps to keep the environment clean by picking up trash. Young children can be heroes in their own families by being the one who voluntarily and consistently performs a task that helps the family.


Provide some examples as students' age and backgrounds dictate, discouraging choices of superstar athletes, musicians and celebrities. It is important for children to recognize and espouse actions such as kindness, compassion for others and civic responsibility as important and even heroic.


Technique: To motivate and stimulate young children's thinking, it can be helpful to have them "day dream" in a guided imagery exercise as they envision themselves as future heroes. Students close their eyes and imagine as the teacher verbally guides them: How will you be a hero in the future? What will you do to help others/the world? Will you be the one who...(provide a range of appropriate examples being sure to include the artist in some way). Following a few minutes of day dreaming, ask the children to open their eyes, stretch up their arms and breath in deep, and then proceed to the work area for creating their portraits.

Art Production: Following the motivational activities, the students are now ready to translate their mental imagery into a future hero self-portrait. Explain that they will use materials and methods inspired by Faith Ringgold, including painting, drawing, writing and fabric.


Students are each provided with a sheet of medium weight 12x14" white paper with a 2 inch pre-drawn border around the paper's perimeter (this preserves space for adding a fabric border and provides a guide for writing a description around the portrait later on). Older children can draw their own borders. Students begin by using a fine-tip permanent black marker to draw the outline of their self-portraits (head-torso) on the paper, being sure to stay within the drawn border, and filling 3/4's of the space. Portraits are then colored in with crayon. Adaptation: For children with certain special learning needs, it may help to delineate working space by lightly drawing an additional one inch border around the perimeter and outside of the 2" outer border (this will provide a clear visual guide for the writing component).


Once portraits are drawn, students will then use watercolors to paint a background color around the portrait. Students can also paint other areas of the portrait such as clothing if they wish.


The portrait is then "framed" by gluing pre-cut 2 inch by 4 inch strips of printed fabric around the paper within the outer 2" border space. Older children can cut their own fabric strips. Borrowing from quilting techniques, fabric strips can be cut from a variety of patterns and colors, including some multicultural prints reflecting students' backgrounds if possible.


The final addition to the portrait are the words describing who or what the students' future hero will be or do. Using the inner edge of the fabric border as their guide (or the pre-drawn pencil line described in Adaptations above), students should use the black marker to print or write their one sentence description around the perimeter of the portrait, beginning in the lower left-hand side of the paper and working up the left-hand side of the portrait. If necessary, students can use light pencil to write out their sentence before going over it with the marker.


Finished portraits are viewed and discussed by the class as students have the opportunity to share their dreams and aspirations.


Assessment Guides


Use the following minimum criteria to determine beginner, competent and advanced levels of performance in this lesson.


Students can:


        Name the artist/author, identify her cultural background, and name at least two media in the artist's story quilts (fabric, sewing, painting, writing).


        Describe one reason why the artist tells the stories she does in her quilts and books.


        Describe their idea of a hero, name at least one hero from the book and describe a way in which they, themselves, will be a future hero.


        Draw a self-portrait, paint in at least a background color, select and glue on the fabric border, and write/print a one-sentence description of themselves as future heroes in the designated space.


Art Supplies and Other Resources


Materials include medium-weight white drawing paper, pencils, erasers, ruler, fine-tipped black permanent markers, crayons, watercolor sets with brush and water container for each child, scissors, selection of fabric for border pieces (including multicultural prints reflecting students' cultural backgrounds if possible), white school glue with a shallow dish and a brush for application.


Extension Ideas and Interdisciplinary Connections


Areas addressed by the artist and her artwork that can be the focus of other lessons include women in art, family traditions, African- American culture, portraiture, artists who are illustrators, narrative in art.


Curriculum connections include social studies (culture, history, diversity, representation and treatment of minority groups), and language arts (reading, writing, narrative, blending fact and fiction, writing family and ancestral histories).



Second Lesson: Freedom Quilt of Safe House Signs





This lesson is inspired by the story and art in Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky (1992), written and illustrated by artist, Faith Ringgold. This is Ringgold's second children's book, bringing back the characters of Cassie Louise Lightfoot and her brother Be Be who first appeared in Tar Beach (1991). Cassie and Be Be continue their flight, but this time they learn of their great-great grandparents long journey to freedom as they travel on the Underground Railroad, guided by the voice of Harriet Tubman.


Collaborating with her daughter, Barbara Wallace who researched the life of Harriet Tubman, Ringgold discovered that during the end of her life, Tubman would have dreams of flying to freedom aided by a circle of women dressed in white. The artist incorporated this imagery into her story and illustrations, as well as the slave tradition of flinging a quilt over the roof of a house as a sign for good luck.


Painted on canvas paper, the images Ringgold created to illustrate the book are not unlike those in her other children's books. Intense color, richly textured surfaces and bright patterns combine with dramatic subject matter and personal narrative to draw readers in as if they were following right along behind Cassie Louise on this dangerous and exciting journey.


The Underground Railroad was not really a railroad but a network of routes, secret places and ways in which escaping slaves could find their way north to Canada and freedom. Conductors on the railroad were people of different races and backgrounds who helped the slaves by offering food, clothing, shelter and direction, and, as in the case of Harriet Tubman and others, actual accompaniment to the free North.


Although the Underground Railroad was operating as far back as 1787, Harriet Tubman, born a slave in about 1820, made her first journey in 1849 reaching freedom in Canada with the help of many "conductors". She returned to become a conductor herself and eventually escorted over 300 slaves to freedom, including her own family, without ever losing a passenger. For a list of resources on Harriet Tubman, see Access Information below.


The Story of Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky


Cassie and her brother Be Be are flying high up among the stars when they come across an old "ramshackled" train in the sky. Cassie and Be Be witness as hundreds of people appear and begin to board the old train when a woman wearing a conductor's apron appears on the platform, calling "all aboard". Cassie's adventure begins when Be Be jumps on without his sister as the train disappears quickly into the sky, leaving behind an ominous message in the clouds: Go Free North or Die!

As Cassie fearfully calls for her brother, the voice of the woman conductor whispers gently into her ear, introducing herself as Harriet Tubman, and telling Cassie of the story of slavery and the Underground Railroad. The next set of pictures in the book illustrate each of Harriet Tubman's descriptions as she speaks of the loss of rights and the terrible plight of the people who were taken from Africa against their will to be slaves on plantations in the South.


"Aunt" Harriet tells Cassie that every hundred years, as a commemoration, the old train will follow the same route that she traveled on the Underground Railroad so no one ever forgets the cost of freedom. Aunt Harriet tells Cassie that although Cassie missed this train, she can follow along until she reaches freedom in Canada where she will be reunited with Be Be. Aunt Harriet proceeds to advise Cassie on what to do, warning her that although she can fly, living in slavery "will suck you to the ground like quicksand". Cassie will have to make this journey to freedom mostly on foot as her great-great grandparents did, relying on the help of other conductors who operate safe houses along the way.

With Aunt Harriet's voice as her guide, Cassie re-lives her ancestors' experience as she makes her way and avoids capture by learning to read visual images as signs and messages, such as quilts flung out on rooftops whose designs indicate a direction to be followed. The adventure ends when Cassie makes it to freedom, flying over Niagara Falls to the "Promised Land". There she finds Aunt Harriet, her brother and the other passengers on the Underground Railroad, all in the embrace of many women dressed all in white flying in a large circle around them.


The story ends with people coming together for a big feast celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of Harriet Tubman's first flight to freedom. An anniversary freedom quilt appears in the sky as the people sing and thank Aunt Harriet for being the "Moses of her people".


At the end of the book, Ringgold offers a synopsis of the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman's amazing life, including her military service in the Union Army during the Civil War where she served as a nurse, spy and commander of intelligence. See below for other sources of information on Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.


Access Information


Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky (1992). Published by Dragonfly Books of Crown Publishers, Inc., Division of Random House, 201 East 50th Street, NY, NY 10022.


Faith Ringgold Website:


Harriet: The Moses of Her People by Sarah Hopkins Bradford. New York: J.J. Little and Co., 1886.


The Story of Harriet Tubman, Conductor of the Underground Railroad by Kate McMullan. New York: Dell Publishing, 1991.



Lesson Plan




Title: Freedom Quilt of Safe House Signs for elementary and early middle school levels


After reading and viewing the illustrations in the Faith Ringgold book, Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky, the children will be asked to imagine they are conductors who operate safe houses offering respite to escaping slaves. They will use their art skills and knowledge to create a sign that visually communicates an important message about their safe house. The message contained in the sign must be disguised so only slaves understand its meaning. Finished signs will be pieced together to form a Freedom Quilt.




        The students will learn that artists often serve as conveyors and preservers of important cultural and historical information.


        The students will increase awareness of art as narrative and the artist as storyteller.


        The students will develop their understanding of the power and importance of visual imagery as a means to communicate important ideas.


        The students will develop greater appreciation for the accomplishments of people of color and their and contributions to American art and culture.


        The students will develop a sense of social responsibility through awareness of the arts as vehicles for social change.


Student Activities


This lesson was originally taught to second grade children in Art Partners, a multicultural art education program. It can be easily adapted to other grade levels.


Begin by presenting the idea that many artists tell stories through their artwork, and some use their art to remind us about important times in our history that sometimes are overlooked or misunderstood. For older children, introduce the term, social activism, and the idea that some artists create art as a means to bring the public's attention to important issues such as racism and discrimination.


Introduce the artist and storyteller, Faith Ringgold, an African-American woman, much of whose life work has centered on revealing truths in the histories of accomplished women of color and the African-American cultural experience in America. The artist accomplishes this in two ways: through her story quilts for which she is renowned, and through her books for children to which she brings the same enthusiasm, purpose and aesthetic concern. To create story quilts, an art form that Ringgold developed in the early 1980s, the artist uses paint, sewn and quilted fabric and words to tell a story about a certain topic.


Explain that in order to make her stories more available to people of all ages, Faith Ringgold began to write and illustrate children's books, her first being Tar Beach, which is based on one of her a story quilts of the same name. Ask the students if they have read this book and if they can remember the name of the girl who flies over the George Washington Bridge in New York: Cassie Louise Lightfoot. Tell the students that the artist decided to send Cassie on another adventure in another story, a story that sends her back in time to learn about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad and how her great-great grandparents escaped from slavery.


Introduce Harriet Tubman and explain the Underground Railroad and the circumstances in American society that resulted in its establishment. What do you think it was like to be a slave, taken from your home against your will and forced to work on someone else's land for no pay? How would you feel about staying in such a situation? Freedom is such a precious and important part of being human that many slaves were willing to risk their lives to escape. And many people, of different colors and backgrounds, who were against slavery, helped them to do so. One such person was Harriet Tubman who brought over 300 slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad without ever losing a passenger.


The students should proceed to hear/read the story and view the illustrations, making particular note of the painting that shows Cassie finding a colorful quilt flung out on the roof of a safe house as she makes her way through the woods. Be sure the students observe the way in which the artist has painted her colorful illustrations, noting the effective use of texture and pattern and how these help to make the story come alive for the reader. Can you imagine being in this story with Cassie?


When finished, the students should discuss what they have seen and read, using the following questions as a guide:


        Besides Harriet Tubman, who were other conductors on the Underground Railroad? (free-born blacks, white sympathizers, Native North American people)


        What is a safe house and what did conductors who operated safe houses do for the people who were traveling on the Underground Railroad?


        How did these conductors use elements of art (lines, shapes, colors) to communicate a secret message to a slave who was hiding in the woods? Why did the message have to be secret?


        Why didn't the signs, quilts and other markers use words and sentences to give information? (Slaves were not allowed to learn reading and writing, so understanding lines, colors and shapes was very important.)


        Why was Harriet Tubman called "Moses" by her people and why was Canada called the "Promised Land"? (Bible stories were an important part of slave life, and many slaves found comfort in the story of Moses who delivered his people out of slavery to freedom in the promised land.)


Freedom Quilt of Safe House Signs activity


Present idea that students can go back in time, like Cassie, by using their imaginations to explore what it was like to be a slave and what it was like to be a conductor who could help those trying to escape.


Motivation: To increase understanding of oppression and human rights, ask the students to imagine they are slaves trying to escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad and what this might be like. What is your journey like? What is difficult, scary, terrible? Is your family with you? How do you feel?


To foster a sense of social responsibility for supporting tolerance and diversity, ask the students to then imagine themselves as conductors who operate safe houses offering respite to the weary travelers. What does your safe house have to offer? If you were escaping, what would you need to help you through? (For example, food, a bed for rest, new shoes.) A list of the students responses' should be made on a large display paper, one response per line, leaving room on the paper across from the response word). Remind the students to recall how they felt when they imagined themselves as escaping slaves, and encourage them to think of everything that might be needed by someone on such a journey (this can also include non-material things like comfort, love, spiritual activity).


When the list is completed, recall the use of the quilt in Ringgold's book, and suggest that the students could make a sign to hang out that will let an escaping slave know what their safe house has to offer. Remind the students of two crucial factors: one, the "message" contained in their sign must not include words, and two, the message must be disguised so that slave catchers and bounty hunters cannot understand it. (Mention that the slave tradition of creating quilts filled with lines, shapes, colors and patterns makes slaves more attuned to "reading" visual imagery.)


Creating a Safe House Sign


To reinforce the power and importance of visual imagery, using a cut paper collage method, the students will use basic art elements and principles to create an abstract safe house sign containing a disguised message for those traveling on the Underground Railroad. Borders will be decorated with Adinkra prints echoing the use of African design by slave quilters and further protecting the message from spies and slave catchers since the meaning of this culture-specific imagery is not readily accessible to them. Explain that our "quilting" method has been inspired by Ringgold but that paper collage will be used to make our pieces.


Working as a group and using the list of students' ideas displayed on the board, have each student decide what his/her safe house will offer. Then have students name an object that symbolizes the offering and chart this across from the corresponding word on the list. For example, the offering may be food so objects to show this could be a bowl and spoon.


The next step presents a challenge to students so group work with the class as a whole should continue. Now the students must figure out a way to abstract the objects into their simplest shapes and lines. Select a listed object, demonstrate how to abstract it up on the board next to the list, and then ask a student(s) volunteer to come up and demonstrate again with another object. Now students are ready for the next challenge, which is to use their abstracted objects to create a design that communicates its message in a disguised manner.


Have the children recall principles of repetition and pattern and explain/demonstrate how these, along with an arbitrary use of color, will help to convey the message without giving it away. Using the bowl and spoon example, the abstract bowl image might be repeated twice and placed in the middle of the black background paper with one bowl mirroring the other. The spoon symbol can then be placed around the center bowl image in a radiating fashion. Additional shapes and lines can be added to the design.


Remind students that to a slave catcher, these signs will simply look like pleasant designs often seen in quilts while to escaping slaves, they will convey important messages. Students proceed to create their designs, cutting their shapes from colored paper and gluing them in the desired manner onto black paper backgrounds and within pre-drawn one inch borders around the outer edge of the background paper. Border lines can be drawn using a white or light-colored pencil.


To complete their safe house signs, the students will then use white tempera paint and eraser stamps that have been pre-carved with African Adinkra symbols to print a design inside the pre-drawn border space surrounding their designs.

The final step is to create a Freedom Quilt by piecing all the individual collages together and gluing them down to larger paper (Taping two sections of mural-sized paper together works well for a large background). If the class is large, more than one quilt can be made. Students can also make two signs so that one can go home and the other can be contributed to the group quilt.


Until there is time for gluing the final Freedom Quilt together, a temporary version can be made by taping the individual pieces onto the board with edges touching. The students should discuss their Freedom Quilt and note the ways in which their classmates used the elements and principles of art to convey a disguised message.



Assessment Procedures


Use the following minimum criteria to determine beginner, competent and advanced levels of performance.


Students can:


        Name the artist/author and identify her cultural background.


        Name two ways in which the artists tell stories (story quilts and children's books).


        Describe a social and/or historical concern that influenced the artist to write and illustrate Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad.


        Define the Underground Railroad and describe Harriet Tubman's involvement.


        Describe how visual imagery was used to help travelers on their journey.


        Design and create an abstract cut-paper collage that visually communicates a safe house offering using elements of shape, line, color and principles of repetition and pattern.


Art Supplies and Other Resources


Large display paper and black marker, colored construction paper, 9x12 inch sheets of black construction paper for each student with a pre-drawn one inch border around perimeter, scissors, glue sticks or white school glue with dishes and brushes, set of Adinkra symbols carved from erasers, shallow dish for white tempera paint, masking tape.


The Adinkra Dictionary by W. Bruce Willis is a most comprehensive source. Also, Adinkra symbols can be found in many books on African design, such as the book, Brown Bag Ideas From Many Cultures by Irene Tejada.




Extension Ideas or Interdisciplinary Connections


The map provided at the end of the book, Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky and a call to the local historical society can determine if students live in an area where there may be actual Underground Railroad sites that can be visited.


Collaborate with the classroom teacher or social studies teacher to integrate this art lesson with a unit on American history. Language arts can also be incorporated as students might be asked to write the story of what happens when an escaping slave sees their safe house sign and seeks refuge.