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Chase-Riboud, Barbara 1939–

Barbara Chase-Riboud 1939

Artist, novelist

Worked as Artist, Novelist

Faced Controversy Over Hemings Novel

Courted Controversy

Continued Her Creative Output

Selected writings

Sources

In her massive sculptures, Barbara Chase-Riboud fuses elements from several different cultural traditions to create a transglobal art. In her fiction, she strives to give witness to historys forgotten characters, the men and women who, often, were unable to read, and thus did not leave their written stories for posterity. Though she is acclaimed for her work as both sculptor or novelist, she has attracted the greatest public attention as the woman who challenged media mogul Steven Spielberg in a court case that accused his company of plagiarizing her 1989 novel, Echo of Lions, for the 1997 feature film Amistad.

Chase-Riboud was born on June 26, 1939, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her mother, Vivian Braithwaite Chase, was from a Canadian family descended from runaway slaves. A talented child, she was given piano lessons and ballet classes by her supportive parents, and was also encouraged to develop her artistic talents, which began to display themselves early on. A gift for language skills also came easily to Chase-Riboud: at the age of ten, she wrote a poem as part of a class assignment, but her teacher accused her of copying it from another source. She was sent to the principal when she wouldnt confess. Her mother found another, more encouraging school for her daughter-at home. As a young woman, Chase-Riboud studied art at Philadelphias Temple University, and after graduating in 1957 went to Rome on a John Hay Whitney Foundation fellowship for further study at the American Academy. As she recalled in a 1989 Boston Globe interview with Marian Christy, Chase-Riboud said that it was in Italy, away from the racial tensions of the United States, that she first tasted liberty. Thats the ultimate liberty: feeling that the space around you is expandable.

Worked as Artist, Novelist

Chase-Riboud was accepted into the prestigious Yale Graduate School of Art, where she earned her MFA in 1960. Yet she was still moving in a world that was not quite fully integrated. Once, she was mortified when she stopped at a bar with some fellow students and was refused service. Realizing that there was a more liberated world outside of the United States, with its laws against interracial marriage and refusal to extend equal rights to all citizens, Chase-Riboud began to travel. She spent time in several exotic places, and found inspiration for her early sculpture from the mix of materials used in ceremonial masks in Africa. While in London, she traveled to Paris for a weekend, fell in love, and moved there permanently after marrying photojournalist Marc Riboud in 1961. She is now a dual citizen of both France and the United States.

Chase-Ribouds work was shown at Paris galleries by 1966, and by 1970 was included in group shows such as that years Afro-American Artists at Bostons Museum of Fine Arts. Her work quickly began to gain international acclaim. Chase-Riboud was fond of working with unusual, though tactilely rich materials, such as a combination of hand-knotted silk, bronze, and layers of wax, this last element shaped using a blowtorch.

At a Glance

Born on June 26, 1939, in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of Charles Edward (a building contractor) and Vivian May Braithwaite (a medical assistant; maiden name, West) Chase; married Marc Eugene Riboud (a photojournalist), December 25, 1961 (divorced, 1981); married Sergio G. Tosi (an art scholar and dealer), July 4, 1981; children (first marriage): David, Alexis. Education: Temple University, BFA, 1957; Yale University, MFA, 1960.

Career: Sculptor, poet, and novelist. Exhibited art in group and solo exhibitions, mid-1960s.

Memberships: PEN; PEN American Center; Century Association; Yale Alumni Association; Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Selected Awards: Janet Kafka Award for Best Novel by an American Woman, 1979, for Sally Hemings; National Foundation for the Arts; Carl Sandburg Poetry Award for Best American Poet, 1988, for Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra; Van der Zee Achievement Award, 1995; Chevelier de lOrdre des Arts et des Lettres, France, 1996; American Library Association, Best Fiction Award, 2004, for Hottentot Venus.

Addresses: Agent Alexandra Boutin, 3, rue Auguste Compte, 75006 Paris, France. Web www.chase-riboud.com.

She also began to write poetry, and by the early 1970s had found an editor at Random House, Toni Morrison, who liked her work. Her first collection, From Memphis to Peking, appeared in 1974. She spent the next few years researching and writing her first novel, Sally Hemings. Published in 1979 and a best-seller not without its share of controversy, the book was inspired in part by a 1974 biography of Thomas Jefferson that touched upon a possible romantic relationship between the third president of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence with a slave he owned, Sally Hemings. Hemings was the half-sister of Jeffersons own wife: Jeffersons father-in-law had sired both legitimate children, such as the future Martha Jefferson, and illegitimate ones with his slaves, as was common in the era. When Martha Jefferson died, Thomas Jefferson never remarried, but Hemings moved into his house, the Virginia estate Monticello, and may have bore him several children.

Shes a woman whos been erased from American history for no good reason except that she was inconvenient, Chase-Riboud told Los Angeles Times writer Edmund Newton, who noted this titillating story of sex, slavery and the President has been gossiped about, indignantly dismissed and periodically resurrected since 1802, when a Virginia newspaper reported scandalous charges of miscegenation during Jeffersons first term in the White House. It was Americas first presidential character controversy. On this topic and her other works, Chase-Riboud recalled a favorite quote from eighteenth-century French philosopher Voltaire: There is no history, only fictions of various degrees of plausibility.

Faced Controversy Over Hemings Novel

Sally Hemings was a best-seller, but Chase-Riboud was criticized by historians for using an actual personage from history, and then inventing dialogue, inner monologues, and other characteristic devices of fiction. Moreover, some scholars contended that the alleged children did not belong to Jefferson but were instead sired by a relative, and that the actual Hemings was probably far too young to have been romantically involved with Jefferson. A major network was reportedly interested in making Chase-Ribouds book into a movie, but was urged by Jeffersons official biographer to shelve it, according to Chase-Riboud.

Jefferson, who established the University of Virginia and is considered a founding father of the country, had also written against miscegenation, or relationson or off the booksbetween blacks and whites. Why was miscegenation ever a crime? Chase-Riboud wondered in the Los Angeles Times interview. Because it went against the myth that the races were pure. Fictitious or not, the putative romance between Jefferson and Hemings as chronicled in Chase-Ribouds book struck a chord that has endured; the biracial romance even made its way to the screen in the 1995 movie Jefferson in Paris. Yet Chase-Riboud was also keenly interested in showing that the American character owes much to both black and white culture and the once-covert ties between the two, and whether the events that occurred in Sally Hemings life were real or not, such deeds and links have been an integral part of American history. White and Black mean nothing by themselves but only in relation to each other, she pointed out to V.R. Peterson in Essence.

Chase-Riboud continued to write not historical fiction, but rather fictionalized history in the tradition of E. L. Doctorow and others, with works such as 1986s Valide: A Novel of the Harem. Set during the peak of the Ottoman Empire in Eurasia, it presents a biography of a Martinique woman sold by pirates to an actual sultan for his harem. Renamed Naksh-i-dil (Embroidered Tongue), she becomes a favorite of the rulers, gives birth to a son, is made one of his official wives, and when her son becomes sultan in 1807, is elevated to Valide, the highest achievement for a woman in such a society. As such, she was given charge of the harem, and Chase-Riboud interweaves into the narrative discussions of feminism, women as chattel, and the impossibility of true romantic love in a society where women and men remain inequals legally and economically. New York Times Book Review writer Wendy Smith faulted the baroque trimmings garnishing Valides prose in some passages but termed Chase-Ribouds themes provocative. Particularly intriguing is Ms. Chase-Ribouds analysis of the harem, a much more vivid character than any of the books individuals.

Chase-Riboud penned a continuance of sorts to the Sally Hemings tale with a 1994 novel, The Presidents Daughter. In it, she presents a fictionalized biography of Harriet, daughter of Hemings, whom Jefferson had arranged to be sponsored in Philadelphia by a French émigré. He gave Harriet $50 when she left Monticello, but actual history loses her at this point; Chase-Riboud recreates what might have occurred since Harriet was allegedly fair-skinned enough to pass as a white. In The Presidents Daughter, she does pass and receives a college education, marries a wealthy manthen his brotherand is able to witness some great historical events of the mid-nineteenth century.

Courted Controversy

Chase-Riboud took great pride in her work and acted vigorously to protect it from copyright infringements. She proved that Philadelphia playwright Granville Burgesss 1987 play entitled Dusky Sally infringed on her historical novel, Sally Hemmings. In 1991 a judge agreed that Dusky Sally shared too many similarities to passages from Sally Hemings, and barred the play from further production or publication. When you make a big leap of imagination based on historical events, it is not fair that this kind of imaginative effort pass into the public domain just because historical figures are involved, she told New York Times writer Roger Cohen.

Though by now a well-respected visual artist and acclaimed writer, it was Chase-Ribouds 1989 novel Echo of Lions that would catapult her to the front pages in the late 1990s. The work chronicles the actions of one Joseph Cinque, the real-life leader of a slave rebellion on board a Spanish ship in 1839. After he and several other captives broke from their chains and killed the officers of the slave ship LAmistad (Spanish for friendship), one surviving officer tricked them into sailing to America, where they were arrested and tried. John Quincy Adams argued the case before the United States Supreme Court on behalf of the Africans and won it. Cinque and the others received their manumission. As Chase-Riboud explained to Paula Giddings in Essence, she felt the story had too long been just a footnote in history, and merited greater notice.

Prior to its publication, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday, liked Chase-Ribouds work so much that she sent the manuscript to film director Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Entertainment production company. Amblin flew Chase-Riboud from Paris to Los Angeles, met with her, then declined to offer her a deal for the movie rights. Chase-Riboud said they never returned the actual manuscript. Dustin Hoffman later legally optioned Echo of Lions from Chase-Riboud and hired a screenwriter to adapt it, David Franzoni, who asserted he never read it, wishing to fictionalize the story himself. Several years later, after Hoffmans option expired, an executive at Spielbergs new studio, Dreamworks SKG, met with Debbie Allen, who had long known about the Amistad incident and had been trying to drum up financing for a fictionalization of it. Spielberg eventually committed to directing a film version of Franzonis screenplay after another writer improved its first drafts dialogue and scenes. Like Echo of Lions, the screenplays story was told through the voice of Cinque.

Chase-Riboud learned of the movies production in late 1996 and hired a prominent attorney who had won Art Buchwalds plagiarism case against Paramount Studios for the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America. She obtained the script and found several similarities, including the wholly fictional character of a black abolitionist printer (in the movie played by Morgan Freeman), a discussion between Adams and Cinque that has no historical basis for fact, and a line where a prisoner on the ship compares its mast to the shape of a Christian cross. In response, Dreamworks SKG hired a prominent entertainment lawyer Bert Fields, who claimed that Chase-Riboud had lifted passages from a 1953 book on the Amistad rebellion, William A. Owens Black Mutiny. Chase-Riboud argued that the similarities were based on passages from John Quincy Adamss journals, a valid historical document. Copyright law allows the creation of characters and events based on actual historical fact, but to use fictional characters or elements from one work in another, without giving due credit, is a violation of the law. There was no historical evidence, for instance, that Adams and Cinque ever spoke privately, yet both Echo of Lions and Amistad had such scenes.

Chase-Riboud made headlines when she filed suit trying to block the distribution of Amistad just before Christmas of 1997. Scratch any screenwriter, that perennial victim of intellectual-property rape, and youll hear cries of Go girl! for Barbara Chase-Riboud, noted New York Times editorial columnist Frank Rich. This time, a Federal judge failed to find sufficient cause to block the release of the film, but did set a hearing on the disputeChase-Riboud also asked for $10 million in damagesfor January of 1998, noting that serious questions were raised by a reading of both texts. Rich pointed out in his column that the credited screenwriter for Amistad, David Franzoni, gave differing recollectionsof just how little he knew about Ms. Chase-Ribouds novel (which he says hes never read) and when exactly he didnt know it.

Several days later, the New York Times then ran a story alleging that Chase-Riboud had taken passages from a 1936 book about harems for her novel Valide, and an African studies major in New York City came forward with similarities she found in The Presidents Daughter and a 1929 book titled Passing. In her defense, Chase-Riboud explained once more that she had borrowed from historical documents, not copyrighted creations from other artists. My quarrel with Dreamworks is that they used my fictional eventsmy vision of Cinque and John Adams, my sequence of events. And they plagiarized them, Chase-Riboud told Margarett Loke of the New York Times. Lokes article contained two factual errorsone terming Chase-Riboud the plaintiff in the 1991 suit against Dusky Sally which were corrected in the December 25 edition of the paper. In February it was announced that Chase-Riboud had settled with Spielbergs Dreamworks SKG for an undisclosed sum.

Continued Her Creative Output

In the meantime, Chase-Riboud continued to write, publishing Hottentot Venus in 2003. The historical novel tells the fictionalized story of an aboriginal South African woman named Sarah Baartman whose physical shapeenlarged buttocks and genitaliaintrigued freak show and circus audiences throughout Europe in the late eighteenth century. Upon her death, a French scientist studied her body in an effort to scientifically prove the racial superiority of whites. ALA honored Hottentot Venus with the best fiction award in 2004.

Chase-Riboud still pursues her art from abroad. She divides her time between an apartment in the Montparnasse section of Paris, a house on the island of Capri, and a Renaissance-era palazzo in Rome. She married for the second time in 1981 to Sergio Tosi. She has two children from her first marriage. In 1996 she participated in a group show at the Studio Museum of Harlem, Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945-65. After the Amistad case, she was working on winning approval for a planned work of monumental scale: Harrar, a proposed work commemorating the eleven million victims of the Middle Passage. Chase-Riboud conceived the work as two massive bronze obelisks with a chain wheel of bronze between them; eleven million links would make up the chain, and the obelisks would be engraved with the geographic place-names and African clans from where people were captured for transport as slaves. In 1998 she was commissioned to create a monument, titled Africa Rising, for the African Burial Ground Memorial at the U.S Federal Building in New York.

In 1999 Chase-Riboud became the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition of drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Chase-Ribouds work in the permanent collections of, among others, the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY), and Museum of Modern Art (NY).

Selected writings

From Memphis and Peking (poetry), Random House, 1974.

Sally Hemings (novel), Viking, 1979.

Albin Michel, 1981.

Valide: A Novel of the Harem, Morrow, 1986.

Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra (poetry), Morrow, 1987.

Echo of Lions (novel), Morrow, 1989.

The Presidents Daughter (novel), Crown, 1994.

Egypts Nights (poetry), 1994.

Hottentot Venus (novel), Doubleday, 2003.

Sources

Books

Black Writers, first edition, Gale, 1989.

St. James Guide to Black Artists, edited by Thomas Riggs, St. James Press/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, St. James Press, 1997.

Barbara Chose-Riboud: Sculptor. Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

Periodicals

Art Journal, Vol. 59, No. 3, Fall 2000.

Boston Globe, April 2, 1989, p. B13.

Critique, Vol. 4, Summer 1995, p. 258.

Entertainment Weekly, December 12, 1997, p. 18.

Essence, February, 1989, p. 30; December, 1994, p. 56.

Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1994, p. E1; October 24, 1997, p. D5.

New York Times, August 15, 1991; December 13, 1997, p. A15; December 19, 1997, p. A1; December 25, 1997, p. A2; February 10, 1998, p. A10.

New York Times Book Review, August 10, 1986, p. 22.

New Yorker, December 1, 1997.

Publishers Weekly, February 16, 1998, p. 105.

School Arts, February, 1996, p. 31.

Smithsonian, March, 1996.

Washington Post, February 26, 1989, p. X8; March 9, 1989, p. C3; December 25, 1994, p. X7; December 20, 1997, p. F2; December 21, 2003.

Carol Brennan and Sara Pendergast

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Chase-Riboud, Barbara 1939–

Barbara Chase-Riboud 1939

Artist, author

Global Travels

Incited Controversy

Increasing Success as Writer

The Amistad Case

A Front-Page Story

Selected writings

Sources

In her massive sculptures, Barbara Chase-Riboud fuses elements from several different cultural traditions to create a trans-global art. In her fiction, she strives to give witness to historys forgotten characters, the men and women who, often, were unable to read, and thus did not leave their written stories for posterity. In the publics eye, Chase-Riboud is the woman who challenged media mogul Steven Spielberg in a court case that accused his company of plagiarizing her 1989 novel, Echo of Lions, for the 1997 feature film Amistad.

Chase-Riboud was born into a Philadelphia family in 1939. Her mother, Vivian Braithwaite Chase, was from a Canadian family descended from runaway slaves. A talented child, she was given piano lessons and ballet classes by her supportive parents, and was also encouraged to develop her artistic talents, which began to display themselves early on. A gift for language skills also came easily to Chase-Riboud: at the age of ten, she wrote a poem as part of a class assignment, but her teacher accused her of copying it from another source. She was sent to the principal when she would not confess her mother found another, more encouraging school for her daughterat home. Asayoung woman, Chase-Riboud studied art at Philadelphias Temple University, and after graduating in 1957 went to Rome on a John Hay Whitney Foundation fellowship for further study at the American Academy. As she recalled in a 1989 Boston Globe interview with Marian Christy, at this point in her life Chase-Riboud said she first tasted liberty.Thats the ultimate liberty: feeling that the space around you is expandable.

Global Travels

Chase-Riboud was then accepted into the prestigious Yale Graduate School of Art, and earned her M.F.A. in 1960. Yet she was still moving in a world that was not quite fully integrated. Once, she was mortified when she stopped at a bar with some fellow students and she was refused service. But she found a greater world outside of the United States and its odd lawsin many states in 1960, interracial marriage was still illegal, and the Civil Rights Movement would unleash violence and bring political assassinations throughout the decadeso Chase-Riboud began to travel. She spent time in several exotic

At a Glance

Born June 26, 1939, in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of Charles Edward (a building contractor) and Vivian May Braithwaite (a medical assistant; maiden name, West) Chase; married Marc Eugene Riboud (a photojournalism, December 25, 1961 (divorced, 1981); married Sergio G. Tosi (an art scholar and dealer), July 4, 1981; children (first marriage): David, Alexis. Education: Temple Univ., B.F.A., 1957; Yale Univ., M.F.A., 1960.

Career: Sculptor, poet, and novelist Began exhibiting work in France in mid-1960s; solo exhibitions include; the MA Inst of Tech., 1970; Berkeley Museum (California), Detroit Institute of Arts, Indianapolis Art Institute, and Kunsthalle of Freiburg, Germany, all 1973; Musee de lArt Moderne de la Ville, Paris, 1974; Bronx Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Syney, 1980; Chase-Ribouds work in the permanent collections of, among others, the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY), and Museum of Modem Art (NY).

Selected writings: First book of poetry, From Memphis to Peking, published in 1974; first novel, Salty Hemings, published in 1979.

Awards: John Hay Whitney Foundation fellowship, 1957-58; Outstanding Alumni Award, Temple University, 1975; Janet Kafka Award for Best Novel by an American Woman, 1979, for Sally Hemings; Academy of Italy Award with gold medal, 1978; National Foundation for the Arts; Carl Sandburg Poetry Award for Best American Poet, 1988, for Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra; Van der Zee Achievement Award, 1995; knight of the Order of Arts and Letters of the French Republic, 1996. Honorary degrees include a Ph.D. from Temple University, 1981, an L.H.D., from Muhlenberg College, 1993; Connecticut State University, 1996.

Member: PEN, PEN American Center, Century Association, Yale Alumni Association, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Addresses: AgentAlexandra Boutin, 3, rue Auguste Compte, 75006 Paris, France.

places, and found inspiration for her early sculpture from the mix of materials used in ceremonial masks in Africa. While in London, she traveled to Paris for a weekend, fell in love, and moved there permanently after marrying photojournalist Marc Riboud in 1961.

Chase-Ribouds work was shown at Paris galleries by 1966, and by 1970 was included in group shows such as that years Afro-American Artists at Bostons Museum of Fine Arts. Her work began to gain international acclaim. Chase-Riboud was fond of working with unusual, though factually rich materials, such as a combination of hand-knotted silk, bronze, and layers of wax; this last element she shaped herself using a blowtorch.

She also began to write poetry, and by the early 1970s had found an editor at Random House, Toni Morrison, who liked her work. Her first collection, From Memphis to Peking, appeared in 1974. She spent the next few years researching and writing her first novel, Sally; Hemings Published in 1979 and a best-seller not without its share of controversy, the book was inspired in part by a 1974 biography of Thomas Jefferson that touched upon a possible romantic relationship between the third president of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence with a slave he owned, Sally Hemings. She was the half-sister of his wife (Jeffersons father-in-law had sired both legitimate children, such as the future Martha Jefferson, and illegitimate ones with his slaves, as was common in the era). When Martha Jefferson died, her widower never remarried, but Hemings moved into his house, the Virginia estate Monticello, and may have bore him several children.

Incited Controversy

Shes a woman whos been erased from American history for no good reason except that she was inconvenient, Chase-Riboud told Los Angeles Times writer Edmund Newton, who noted this titillating story of sex, slavery and the President has been gossiped about, indignantly dismissed and periodically resurrected since 1802, when a Virginia newspaper reported scandalous charges of miscegenation during Jeffersons first term in the White House. It was Americas first presidential character controversy. On this topic and her other works, Chase-Riboud recalled a favorite quote from eighteenth-century French philosopher Voltaire: There is no history, only fictions of various degrees of plausibility.

Sally Hemings was a best-seller, but Chase-Riboud was criticized by historians for using an actual personage from history, and then inventing dialogue, inner monologues, and other characteristic devices of fiction. Moreover, some scholars contended that the alleged children did not belong to Jefferson but were instead sired by a relative, and that the actual Hemings was probably far too young to have been romantically involved with Jefferson. A major network was reportedly interested in making the Chase-Ribouds book into a movie, but was urged by Jeffersons official biographer to shelve it, according to Chase-Riboud.

Jefferson, who established the University of Virginia and is considered a founding father of the country, had also written against miscegenation, or relationson or off the booksbetween blacks and whites. Why was miscegenation ever a crime? Chase-Riboud posited in the Los Angeles Times interview. Because it went against the myth that the races were pure. Ficticious or not, the putative romance between Jefferson and Hemings as chronicled in Chase-Ribouds book struck a chord that has endured; the biracial romance even made its way to the screen in the 1995 movie Jefferson in Paris. Yet Chase-Riboud was also keenly interested in showing that the American character owes much to both black and white culture and the once-covert ties between the two, and whether the events that occurred in Sally Hemings life were real or not, such deeds and links have been an integral part of American history. White and Black mean nothing by themselves but only in relation to each other, she pointed out to V.R. Peterson in Essence.

Increasing Success as Writer

Chase-Riboud continued to write not historical fiction, but rather fictionalized history in the tradition of E. L. Doctorow and others, with other works, such as 1986s Valide: A Novel of the Harem. Set during the peak of the Ottoman Empire in Eurasia, it presents a biography of a Martinique woman sold by pirates to an actual sultan for his harem. Renamed Naksh-i-dil (Embroidered Tongue), she becomes a favorite of the ruler, gives birth to a son, is made one of his official wives, and when her son becomes sultan in 1807, is elevated to Valide, the highest achievement for a woman in such a society. As such, she was given charge of the harem, and Chase-Riboud interweaves into the narrative discussions of feminism, women as chattel, and the impossibility of true romantic love in a society where women and men remain inequals legally and economically. New York Times Book Review writer Wendy Smith faulted the baroque trimmings garnishing Valides prose in some passages, but termed Chase-Ribouds themes provocative. Particularly intriguing is Ms. Chase-Ribouds analysis of the harem, a much more vivid character than any of the books individuals, she continued.

Chase-Riboud penned a continuance of sorts to the Sally Hemings tale with a 1994 novel, The Presidents Daughter. In it, she presents a fictionalized biography of Harriet, daughter of Hemings, whom Jefferson had arranged to be sponsored in Philadelphia by a French emigre. He gave Harriet $50 when she left Monticello, but actual history loses her at this point; instead, Chase-Riboud re-creates what might have occurred since Harriet was allegedly fair-skinned enough to pass as a white. In The Presidents Daughter, she does just that and receives a college education, marries a wealthy manthen his brotherand is able to witness some great historical events of the mid-nineteenth century.

By now Chase-Riboud sued a Philadelphia playwright who penned a 1987 work for the stage titled Dusky Sally. She claimed copyright infringement, and in 1991 a judge agreed that Dusky Sally shared too many similarities to passages from Sally Hemings, and barred the play from further production or publication (the playwright had actually sued her for damages resulting from her accusation). When you make a big leap of imagination based on historical events, it is not fair that this kind of imaginative effort pass into the public domain just because historical figures are involved, she told New York Times writer Roger Cohen. Though by now a well-respected visual artist and acclaimed writer, it was Chase-Ribouds 1989 novel Echo of Lions that would catapult her to the front pages several years later. The work chronicles the actions of one Joseph Cinque, the real-life leader of a slave rebellion on board a Spanish ship in 1839. After he and several other captives broke from their chains and killed the officers of the slave ship LAmistad (Spanish for friendship), one surviving officer tricked them into sailing to America, where they were arrested and tried. John Quincy Adams argued the case before the United States Supreme Court on behalf of the Africans and won Cinque and the others received their manumission. As Chase-Riboud explained to Paula Giddings in Essence, she felt the story had too long been just a footnote in history, and merited greater notice.

The Amistad Case

Prior to its publication, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday, liked Chase-Ribouds work so much that she sent the manuscript to film director Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Entertainment production company. Amblin flew Chase-Riboud from Paris to Los Angeles, met with her, then declined to offer her a deal for the movie rights. Chase-Riboud said they never returned the actual manuscript. Dustin Hoffman later legally optioned Echo of Lions from Chase-Riboud and hired a screenwriter to adapt it, David Franzoni, who asserted he never read it, wishing to fictionalize the story himself. Several years later, after Hoffmans option expired, an executive at Spielbergs new studio, Dreamworks SKG, met with Debbie Allen, who had long known about the Amistad incident and had been trying to drum up financing for a fictionalization of it. Spielberg eventually committed to directing a film version of Franzonis screenplay after another writer improved its first drafts dialogue and scenes. Like Echo of Lions, the screenplays story was told through the voice of Cinque.

Chase-Riboud learned of the movies production in late 1996 and hired a prominent attorney who had won Art Buchwalds plagiarism case against Paramount Studios for the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America. She obtained the script and found several similarities, including the wholly fictional character of a black abolitionist printer (in the movie played by Morgan Freeman), a discussion between Adams and Cinque that has no historical basis for fact, and a line where a prisoner on the ship compares its mast to the shape of a Christian cross. In response, Dreamworks SKG hired a prominent entertainment lawyer Bert Fields, who claimed that Chase-Riboud had lifted passages from a 1953 book on the Amistad rebellion, William A. Owens Black Mutiny Chase-Riboud argued that the similarities were based on passages from John Quincy Adamss journals, a valid historical document. Copyright law allows the creation of characters and events based on actual historical fact, but to use fictional characters or elements from one work in another, without giving due credit, is a violation of the law. There was no historical evidence, for instance, that Adams and Cinque ever spoke privately, yet both Echo of Lions and Amistad had such scenes.

Chase-Riboud made headlines when she filed suit trying to block the distribution of Amistad just before Christmas of 1997. Scratch any screenwriter, that perennial victim of intellectual-property rape, and youll hear cries of Go girl! for Barbara Chase-Riboud, noted New York Times editorial columnist Frank Rich. This time, a Federal judge failed to find sufficient cause to block the release of the film, but did set a hearing on the disputeChase-Riboud also asked for $10 million in damagesfor January of 1998, noting that serious questions were raised by a reading of both texts. Rich pointed out in his column that the credited screenwriter for Amistad, David Franzoni, gave differing recollections of just how little he knew about Ms. Chase-Ribouds novel (which he says hes never read) and when exactly he didnt know it.

A Front-Page Story

Several days later, the New York Times then ran a story alleging that Chase-Riboud had taken passages from a 1936 book about harems for her novel Valide, and an African studies major in New York City came forward with similarities she found in The Presidents Daughter and a 1929 book titled Passing. In her defense, Chase-Riboud explained once more that she had borrowed from historical documents, not copyrighted creations from other artists. My quarrel with Dreamworks is that they used my fictional eventsmy vision of Cinque and John Adams, my sequence of events. And they plagiarized them, Chase-Riboud told Margarett Loke of the New York Times. Lokes article contained two factual errorsone terming Chase-Riboud the plaintiff in the 1991 suit against Dusky Sally which were corrected in the December 25 edition of the paper. In February it was announced that Chase-Riboud had settled with Spielbergs Dreamworks SKG for an undisclosed sum.

Chase-Riboud still pursues her art from abroad. She divides her time between an apartment in the Montparnasse section of Paris, a house on the island of Capri, and a Renaissance-era palazzo in Rome. She married for the second timein 1981 to SergioTosi. She has two children from her first marriage. In 1996 she participated in a group show at the Studio Museum of Harlem, Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945-65. After the Amistad case, she was working on winning approval for a planned work of monumental scale: Harrar, a proposed work commemorating the eleven million victims of the Middle Passage. Chase-Riboud conceived the work as two massive bronze obelisks with a chain wheel of bronze between them; eleven million links would make up the chain, and the obelisks would be engraved with the geographic place-names and African clans from where people were captured for transport as slaves.

Selected writings

From Memphis to Peking (poetry), Random House, 1974.

Sally Hemings (novel), Viking, 1979.

Albin Michel, 1981.

Valide: A Novel of the Harem, Morrow, 1986.

Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra (poetry), Morrow, 1987.

Echo of Lions (novel), Morrow, 1989.

The Presidents Daughter (novel), Crown, 1994.

Egypts Nights (poetry), 1994.

Sources

Books

Black Writers, first edition, Gale, 1989.

St. James Guide to Black Artists, edited by Thomas Riggs, St. James Press/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, St. James Press, 1997.

Periodicals

Boston Globe, April 2, 1989, p. B13.

Entertainment Weekly, December 12, 1997, p. 18.

Essence, February, 1989, p. 30; December, 1994, p.56.

Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1994, p. E1; October 24, 1997, p. D5.

New York Times, August 15, 1991; December 13, 1997, p. A15; December 19, 1997, p. A1; December 25, 1997, p. A2; February 10, 1998, p. A1O.

New York Times Book Review, August 10, 1986, p. 22.

New Yorker, December 1, 1997.

Publishers Weekly, February 16, 1998, p. 105.

School Arts, February, 1996, p. 31.

Smithsonian, March, 1996.

Washington Post, February 26, 1989, p. X8; March 9, 1989, p. C3; December 25, 1994, p. X7; December 20, 1997, p. F2.

Carol Brennan

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