"Faith Ringgold: Coming to Jones Road"

Q&A with the Organizer

Bergen Community College / Gallery Bergen
(Responses from Tim Blunk, Director, Gallery Bergen)

What was the genesis or inspiration for this “constellation of projects?”

It began with a flower delivery. My wife and I have a floral design business. We got an order to be delivered to Faith Ringgold in Englewood. I recognized the name, did a double take, and delivered the arrangement myself. With a foot in the door, I asked Faith’s daughter Barbara if Faith might be willing to show in my gallery at Bergen Community College. She immediately said, “Of course!” I was taken aback but ecstatic. I followed up with her gallery in Chelsea, and decided on the “Coming to Jones Road” series based on Faith’s fraught move to Englewood.

I wasn’t aware of this story, but thought that it was a crucial story to be told in this county. Then COVID happened and we postponed the show. It gave me time to think about how we could use this 5-star exhibition to anchor a number of other projects. This has always been important in a commuter school where a gallery show is just not much of a draw, no matter how significant the artist. We also see the gallery as a center for curriculum. The ideas just proliferated, and we had a chance to apply to a number of grant sources for funding. We were successful beyond our best imaginings. 

Tell us about Faith Ringgold’s significance to New Jersey, and to the Bergen area.

I think that Faith will always be thought of as a Harlem artist. New Jersey is always an afterthought - just industrial suburbs, the shore, plus Bruce Springsteen. In many ways, I think that New Jersey was/is more important to Faith than Faith is to New Jersey. Most of us have/had no idea she lives here.

Her move was part of what she describes as the destination of her Ancestor Journeys that brought her to a garden studio on a wooded hillside. The stuff of dreams deferred. That she received such a hostile welcome is also part of the story, and has been since New Jersey was colonized and became a state. Part of what we wanted to surface in “Coming to Jones Road” is the history of slavery, particularly in Bergen County. Virtually every Dutch name, every street sign you see here was associated with slave owners. It is not a story that is told in schools or explored in art. We wanted to change that.

It was also important to us not to be afraid of telling complex stories: this same county that supported slavery well into the Civil War and after saw two of its municipalities—Teaneck and Englewood—become the two first towns to voluntarily desegregate their schools following the Brown v. Board of Education decision. These towns became places where many Black artists and musicians came to raise their families. This became a sort of “Harlem West” for artists and entertainers like Dizzy Gillespie, Nat Adderley, Thad Jones, Ben E. King, George Benson, Wilson Pickett, the Isely Brothers and Jimi Hendrix.

What were your goals for the exhibit and its accompanying programs?

Our goals were to celebrate Faith - her art, her activism, her teaching, her children’s books - and to tell these myriad complex stories through her experiences while connecting them to the stories and histories of our students and people in the Bergen County/north Jersey community. We loved the narrative aspect of her “Coming to Jones Road” story quilts and understood her intention to engage her viewers in a way that would help them summon their own families’ Ancestor Journeys.

Faith’s particularly serious attention to children was also inspirational. It is a part of her art practice that can’t be underestimated—just in the way that she sees children and their art, their world as always being underestimated. She has always challenged the art establishment with this position. We wanted to address this with the Children’s Makerspace.

Another important goal for us was to challenge the narrative about New Jersey as being “the North” and a destination for the Underground Railroad. Bergen County was a slaveholding county and New Jersey was the last state in the Union to ratify the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. The Underground Railroad, for the most part, took a wide berth around New Jersey because the state observed the Fugitive Slave laws. This is largely unknown or unspoken in New Jersey public education, but it is part of our collective legacy.

We saw this project as a form of cultural reparations on two levels: redressing the wrong done to Faith Ringgold when she moved here, and more broadly, in surfacing and examining the comforting false histories we have collectively told ourselves about our relationship with slavery and African American people.

Tell us about your approach to infusing numerous humanities approaches alongside the arts? How can these two disciplines complement each other?

In some ways, this was easy: we followed Faith Ringgold’s lead. Her activism is as essential to her life as her art. Her story quilts in the “Coming to Jones Road Series” were the guideposts for how to construct the project. Each has a fictionalized/based-in-truth narrative painted around the border of the piece that describes in first person the journey of Faith’s ancestors along the Underground Railroad from the Deep South to Englewood. Other pieces, like “Tar Beach” or “Dancing on the George Washington Bridge” depicted views of a young girl growing up in Harlem who could see Bergen County from her apartment rooftop. We wanted to elaborate the factual history behind the quilt narratives, and we chose the vehicle of oral history.

The testimony of our neighbors and students recounted their own family histories that resonated alongside Faith’s. Turning those stories back into art in the form of verbatim theater completed the circle. Art -> History -> Art.

In the end, any form of history is storytelling, and we used the tools of research and theater to get closer to the story of African Americans migrating to Bergen County. The Children’s Makerspace allowed young people to embrace these stories in their own visual language. Rufus Reid’s masterful response with his NEA-commissioned “Coming to Jones Road Suite” also anchored this history as a contemporary example of African American artists living in New Jersey, composing and performing their own history.

How did the exhibit and programs explore themes of racism, discrimination, slavery, and the African American heritage in Bergen County?

The key way we addressed these issues was in the organization of the project itself. We understood that our African American colleagues on the faculty and in the community were the leadership in this. We immediately reached out to the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and to the Black Child Development Initiative that was started by faculty on this campus many years ago.

The research of redlining and police violence in the Black community was led by Dr. Maureen Ellis-Davis, and the Children’s Makerspace where Faith’s children’s stories were read and where we made artwork were led by the BCDI. The entire premise of the show was to explore this one incident in Faith’s life—her “coming to Jones Road”—but it emblemized similar struggles documented at length in the oral history archives of the Teaneck Public Library and through the testimony we recorded from our students and broader community. 

How did the community respond to the exhibit and programs?

The community response was far beyond what we ever imagined. Gallery Bergen has never had so many people from the community coming to visit the space. This was directly a result of having involved so many deeply rooted community organizations in the planning and articulation of the project.

Many years of community organizing experience teaches that projects like this succeed in direct proportion to the community’s investment and ownership. The press had to pay attention and did so. Our Children’s Makerspace received buses of students from 12 different school districts over the course of the exhibition. Our April 27 verbatim theater/jazz performance played to a sold-out house at the college’s Ciccone Theater. 

We are reluctant to speculate too much about the long term impact of one project such as this. We can say that it has set a new standard at our college for basing our curriculum in the community through partnerships like we were able to build. This is what we can see at this point. One of our goals was to enhance the experience of African American students and faculty on our campus. We will need to keep working to ensure that this is realized. We are also coming to understand that it is important to take children—their art and their storymaking—seriously as Faith has done. 

We hear that your institution has plans for another project in the future. What can you tell us about it?

Our immediate future plan is to develop another work of verbatim theatre that is connected to both students and our local community here in Bergen County. Our tentative title is “More Than One Story,” as we are using the BCC Common Read book A Map is Only One Story as a springboard for collecting the stories for this work.

Verbatim theatre is a form of documentary work that is based on the spoken words of real people. Verbatim theatre-makers use real people's words exclusively and take this testimony from recorded interviews or other related texts.

The purpose of verbatim theatre is to provide a platform for the silent or marginalized in society and to provide an audience who are prepared to listen. By using oral histories and interviews with various community organizations and immigrant rights advocates, we will devise a script that uses the words of Bergen County community members as well as BCC students and their families.

As with the Coming to Jones Road piece, this new project connects to the local community: it attempts to make visible the stories of those who live in the areas surrounding Bergen Community College to both the local community and beyond. We will use the TheirStory platform to collect narratives from those who came to Bergen County and develop those narratives into a verbatim theatre performance.

In addition, this project is interdisciplinary in nature as it directly connects with the 2023-2024 Common Read, A Map is Only One Story: Twenty Writers on Immigration, Family, and the Meaning of Home, as well as the Fall 2023 Bergenstages production of The Laramie Project, a groundbreaking work of verbatim theatre by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project. The Spring 2024 verbatim theatre workshop will be held in Gallery Bergen in conjunction with the (proposed) CeCe Carpio art exhibition. In September 2024, we plan to present a more formal version of this work in the 300-seat Ciccone Theatre on campus.

It sounds great. We can't wait to check it out!

for Information about submitting a nomination for next year's Prize, visit https://njhumanities.org/about/katz-prize/nominations/