Cassie Louise Lightfoot can fly. When she and her brother and parents spend an evening on the rooftop of their New York apartment building–“tar beach”–she soars above the neighborhood, then the whole city. She feels “rich, like I owned everything I could see,” including the George Washington Bridge, the union building her dad is working on, the ice cream factory.
In Tar Beach, the genius of Faith Ringgold’s telling is that there is no rabbit-hole moment for Cassie, no perceptible divide between the logic of the “real” adult world and Cassie’s fantastical experience. The only clue that flying might be accessible to children and not adults is that Be Be, Cassie’s younger brother, watches her as she flies, while her parents and their neighbors play cards “as if nothing was going on.” A child having Tar Beach read to her lives completely inside Cassie’s head.
In my last post, I wondered where all the read-aloud books were that featured protagonists of color and rich, child-directed fantasy. For the youngest readers, Tar Beach is the ur-example of that sadly sparse genre. Cassie’s fantasy is wholly her own, but is also particular to the visions of freedom and adulthood handed down to her by her community. The freedom that flying confers on Cassie means that she, although only “eight years old and in the third grade” is “free to go wherever I want for the rest of my life.” It’s a freedom conflated with an adult power that’s even greater than the power she sees the real adults in her life having: flying, she owns the bridge her father helped build and grants him the union membership racist policies deny him. Flying, she gives her mother relief from worry that her father won’t find a job. And because Cassie is a ruler who knows that the little things matter, she gives the family a steady supply of ice cream for good measure.
In blending Cassie’s childlike fantasy with altruism and justice, Ringgold highlights not only one child’s ability to use play to prepare for the stresses of the adult world, but also the power fantasy maintains even for adults when it comes to seeking justice and defining freedom. Flight may be a typical childhood dream, but it’s also a deep motif of resistance in African-American folklore. (In 1985, author Virginia Hamilton packaged that motif expressly for young readers in her gorgeous collection The People Could Fly.) While Cassie’s dress changes color above the George Washington Bridge, the page is bordered with pieces of Ringgold’s story quilt–in which Cassie’s story originally appeared–a testament to the idea that the dream/memory is not only Cassie’s, but that of an entire community. Meanwhile, Be Be watches carefully, “his eyes like huge floodlights.” Like so many little brothers, he’s tracking his sister. Here’s another moment that honors the seriousness of childhood imagining: in sharing her flight with him, Cassie is teaching her brother what she knows, so far, only through play: how to own things, how to travel, how to make wrong things right, how to make her parents happy. She’s practicing, in good health, what D.W. Winnicott called the “reality principle”—how to accept the world’s terms without losing a sense of her creative self. It might be what some educational theorists call “grit.”
As an adult, I read books with characters like Cassie and applaud the way they mirror the hard work children do to negotiate the space between a world that refuses to adapt to their existence and the world they have brought into being through their creativity. Cassie bridges that gap with an easy logic, with a wide-angle view of the city she alone can have. It’s Winnicott’s “creative living,” cooking not by the book, but by feel. “I have told [Be Be] it’s very easy, anyone can fly,” she says. “All you need is somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way.”
But what do children think of seeing what is supposed to be their own fantasy played back to them? It seems to depend on how well children have been able to hold onto that second kind of world, the one they’ve created. Once I taught Tar Beach to a group of Detroit third graders, Cassie’s age. I came once a week with a colleague to teach poetry lessons. I read them the book before asking them to write poems or paragraphs that began with Ringgold’s opening line “I will always remember.” I asked them if they thought Cassie really flew. “No,” they said knowingly. They were already old enough to have been taught that a text is a mystery you decipher, that fiction is a tree of code, and that the truth is made of facts. So she didn’t really fly, I ventured. But she says she will always remember when the stars fell down and lifted her up above the George Washington Bridge. Do you think she really remembered it?
The room became uncomfortably quiet. How could you always remember something that objectively couldn’t have happened? Something adults told you was impossible, and that was that? The kids offered correctives to my question: she really dreamed it, maybe. She really wanted to fly. They were familiar with superpowers, those behavioral equivalents of escape pods–a way to become something totally other than what you were. The poems they wrote were memories they clung to, which might have been moments of superpower in different ways: one boy’s birthday party with his whole family and all the presents he got; the day a girl’s mother surprised her with a puppy; the solemnness of a grandmother’s funeral, believing she was in heaven. But no one, at least in writing, remembered anything that might be called a fantasy, anything another child–or the teacher–might accuse of being a lie. They might have considered themselves too old to remember such things, now that their lives were filled with real memories. (But so, I thought, was Cassie’s–those “real” memories were the essential fabric of her fantasy.)
Before the year was out, the students we worked with would have three different teachers, the best of whom was removed from her classroom to be a “math specialist” struggling students were sent to. My teaching partner and I mourned her absence. Once, when we’d written on the dry-erase board, line by line, Lucille Clifton’s poem “why some people be mad at me sometimes” (they ask me to remember / but they want me to remember / their memories / and i keep on remembering / mine), we heard her take a sharp breath at the back of the room, as if she’d seen a ghost. Her replacement was a man who yelled, in whose presence a quiet, troubled boy in sweats buried his face in his desk and stayed absolutely still. How could Cassie Louise really remember flying?
One day we had the kids draw portraits of each other. A girl came close to tears because she said her partner had drawn her nose too wide and her lips too big. I came over to their shared table, expecting a ghoulish caricature. When I saw the other girl’s paper, my heart sank. The drawing was faithful, and an eight-year-old girl shined out of it. It was nothing like the white-looking, straight-haired cartoons some other girls had drawn. On the paper, I could see with what beautiful attention the girl’s partner had seen and remembered her friend’s face, and on the living face I could see what trespass that had been. “BE must come before DO,” writes Winnicott. The human must be able to say “I am” before she pursues her impulses. Who would these girls say they were when no one was watching? What impossible things would they always remember?
Image: “Tar Beach” story quilt by Faith Ringgold, from her “Women on a Bridge” series.