At home in Harlem: The politics of domesticity in Faith Ringgold's The Bitter Nest

Hitting home: representations of the domestic milieu in feminist art

  • Debra Hanson Faculty Affiliate, School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond.
Keywords: Story quilts, domestic politics, mother-daughter relationships, the Black family, the Harlem Renaissance


The Bitter Nest, a sequence of five large-scale story quilts created in 1988 by Faith Ringgold (American, b. 1930), probes the dynamics of an imagined Black middle-class family, their home in Harlem, and the connections they forge within it. Originally conceived as a performance piece, the quilted series likewise expands on its themes of home, family, mother-daughter relations, and Black female creativity. Bringing together storytelling and quilting traditions prominent in the artist's family, the African American community, and across the African diaspora, The Bitter Nest extends the concept of home to encompass Harlem itself, connecting its residents and neighbourhoods across multiple generations.

Celebrated as a visual artist, author, educator, and lifelong advocate for social justice, Faith Ringgold, is among the most influential cultural figures of her generation. While major exhibitions showcasing the scope of her achievements have recently generated a welcome outpouring of new scholarship, The Bitter Nest remains surprisingly overlooked in literature on the artist. In examining the series' representation of the politics of domesticity, home, and family, this article aims to remedy this oversight as it expands the scope of critical discourse on the work of a major American artist, and directs renewed attention to Ringgold's powerful reimagining of the Black home and family in this series and throughout her oeuvre. Drawing on the artist's commentary on The Bitter Nest and related topics, the visual evidence of the quilts, and late twentieth-century and more recent feminist theory, this essay provides a foundation for further research into The Bitter Nest and its many contributions to the evolving story of Black women and families in America.