Magazine Feature

Color Lines

A Chicago art class challenges the racist assumptions behind the color wheel.

In elementary and high schools in the U.S., teaching about color usually begins with color wheels and value scales. This paradigm of instruction emphasizes a systematic and experimental approach to the "effects" of color. It may also reinforce assumptions rooted in racism.

The students are analyzing the "Childhood" and "Manhood" paintings in "The Voyage of Life" series by the 19th-century American artist Thomas Cole. In "Childhood," a boat bearing a golden-haired baby, accompanied by an angel in white with a glowing halo, emerges from a dark cavern into a serene dawn landscape.

In "Manhood," the child has lost his youthful innocence -- his hair has turned dark. It is no longer smooth sailing -- the water has grown dark and treacherous; the upper sky is ominously dark; the fiery lower sky is streaked with inky rain. Far away, the angel of light is hidden from the desperate man by a ring of dark clouds.

The students discuss the emerging patterns of symbolism. In "Old Age," the man -- now white-haired, near death -- rests in his battered boat on dark waters as the dense, dark clouds part and rays of light engulf him. A guiding angel of light gestures towards other beckoning white angels, each smaller than the last, disappearing into unfathomable distance, into the glowing white space which is, presumably, Heaven.

For many years I used Cole's intricate American landscapes to introduce students to symbolism and allegory in painting. Students saw how the artist used the time of day, the season of the year, and the darkness or lightness of sky, vegetation, hair and water to construct meaning. In Cole's allegory, light and white are associated with innocence, joy, beauty and transcendence; darkness symbolizes trouble, sin, fear and evil.

Studying this work, students learned a pattern of symbolism that is useful for interpreting much Western art and literature. I now believe they were also learning a pattern of interpretation that has deep symbolic and actual connections to the tradition of Western racism.

Consider, for example, Joseph Conrad's classic novel of a European's encounter with Africa, Heart of Darkness. In the colonial worldview that Conrad examines, darkness is associated with the unknowable, the irrational, the primitive and the chaotic; light is a symbol of reason, order and progress. Such associations created the historical concept of "the white man's burden" to bring order and reason to "dark places" and thus the justification for the dominance of White cultures over peoples of color.

In those years, the students and I never even questioned the fact that in Cole's allegorical series a White man represented all of humanity. We never even thought about how the meaning of the paintings would shift and become unclear if the artist had used a Black woman to represent the stages of a human life.

Art teachers are keenly aware that Black people aren't black and White people aren't white. We struggle -- and we watch our students struggle -- at mixing colors to create the subtle variations of earth tones that are the actual colors of people's skin.

The term "people of color," though often useful in describing contemporary social reality, is itself tied to the tradition of racism. Through it White people are set apart -- described as pure and deracinated -- separate from and above the majority of the people of the world -- all those colorful "others."


Teaching Color Symbolism

In elementary and high schools in the U.S., teaching about color usually begins with having students paint color wheels and value scales. This paradigm of instruction, based on the color theories of Josef Albers, Johannes Itten and others, emphasizes a systematic and experimental approach to the "effects" of color.

There is a strong tendency for teachers to continue speaking in the language of scientific certainty when discussing the symbolic meanings of colors. Blue is described as peaceful and soothing, red as stimulating, yellow as cheerful and eye-catching. Black is said to mean somberness and death; white is viewed as the essence of purity.

Particular color preferences and associations are thus validated in the students' minds as not merely habitual and customary, but as natural and instinctive. While scientific evidence may confirm some such propositions -- yellow, for example, is at the middle of the visible spectrum and thus does draw our attention -- there is no anthropological or biological evidence confirming the universal validity of commonly taught color symbolism.

Opening our classrooms to learning about other cultural constructions of color meaning may sometimes provide surprising information. Recently in a class discussion, a student shared her discomfort with the use of yellow in a design because in her native Korea a strong, bright yellow is associated with unease and foreboding. The other students were shocked to discover that their sunny and cheery yellow associations were not universal.

When students learn that brides do not wear white in all cultures, that white is associated with mourning in India, or that in the Mexican festival of Día de los Muertos bright colors are used to celebrate the dead, they broaden their understandings of the symbolic use of color. However, these alternate color associations are still often perceived as invented iconography in contrast to the more familiar, seemingly natural, symbolic associations of Western culture.

Students (and many other people) will argue that the privileging of light over dark is not culturally determined, but is a universal tendency. The "black is beautiful" slogan of the 1960s and '70s Black Power movement brought the racial implications of this symbolism to public consciousness and reinforced Black pride by challenging the symbolism of value. Unfortunately such challenges to the habitual devaluing of blackness did not result in overall cultural change in the way dark and light are symbolically perceived.

As a teacher today, I am faced with a dilemma. Deliberately avoiding teaching artwork utilizing dark/light symbolism leaves students unprepared to understand much traditional and contemporary culture; uncritically teaching such work encourages students of all races to internalize and perpetuate a symbol system of racial hierarchy that supports cultural, political and economic injustice.

Even if we succeed in dropping all art and literature that include offensive color symbolism from the school curriculum, our students will still encounter such symbolism daily in cartoons, traditional fairy tales and everyday expressions. The solution seems to be to help students understand the history of color symbolism and to deconstruct its use in contemporary culture.


Whose Culture? Whose Connections?

Sometimes it is difficult for White students and teachers to understand how culturally specific their color associations and reactions are. In bell hooks' fascinating essay "Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination," she describes her terror as a Black child having to traverse a White neighborhood and the relief of seeing her dark-faced grandfather sitting on his porch waiting for her. hooks discusses how presenting a Black perspective causes anger in some White people "because they believe that all ways of looking that highlight difference subvert the liberal conviction that it is the assertion of universal subjectivity (we are all just people) that will make racism disappear."

Hooks believes that this suppression of difference, of not acknowledging widely varying responses to a situation, is yet another form of oppression. She quotes film critic Richard Dyer from his book about the representation of Whiteness in visual media, White: "Power in contemporary society habitually passes itself off as embodied in the normal as opposed to the superior." Thus, say Dyer and hooks, unexamined and unchallenged assumptions about the normalcy of color associations become a vehicle for reinscribing racially charged symbolism into current consciousness.

The Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo, by Tom Feelings, vividly presents another sensibility regarding dark/light symbolism. Feelings spent 20 years creating a stunning series of drawings that tell the story of the capture and enslaving of African peoples and their terrible enforced journey across the Atlantic Ocean. All of the images are black and white shaded drawings that skillfully reinterpret conventional Western black and white symbolism from an Africanist perspective.

There are no words in The Middle Passage. Its story is told in pictures alone. Tom Feelings explained this choice: "If you pick up a dictionary, there are over 90 negative connotations for the word 'black.' It's the opposite for 'white.' I wanted to see if, as an artist, I could use images to get past the racist programming." In the context of this story, it makes sense to students to see blackness as symbolizing the sympathetic and familiar and to associate whiteness with the alien other who brings fear and destruction. The inversion helps students begin to question the naturalness of rigid iconographic conventions.


Subversive Colors

A few years ago, I worked with 8th grade classes at Washington Irving School on Chicago's West Side to explore whether middle school students could use current methodologies in art and cultural studies to study the symbolism of black and white in contemporary culture. During the first two weeks of the residency, students studied value -- the darkness or lightness of a color. The students drew geometric solids and then used their knowledge of making value gradations with oil pastels to create convincing three-dimensional forms.

In the second phase of the project, we began the study of value as the criteria by which people judge the worthiness of objects, ideas and even other people. Our focus question was, "How does this culture value value?"

We began by thinking of ourselves as investigators, detectives looking for clues in the popular movie and children's book The Lion King. We discussed the difference between imputing significance to an isolated example of color use and seeing significance in the use of color in a number of related instances.

Over and over, we discovered that lightness is associated with good and darkness with evil. Simba and his father, the true king of the lions, have light manes; the evil brother who wants to usurp the throne has a black mane and nails. We contrasted the good light animals with the threatening dark ones; the high chroma kingdom with the dusky and fearsome land of the marauding hyenas. We considered what this means in a story that opens with the notion that "every living thing has its place in the great circle of life." Of course, we could not help but hear an echo of the traditional racist exhortation to "know one's place."

We mixed colors to match Simba, the hyenas and the various lions. Then we painted projected versions of the drawings in the "wrong" colors. As we spent time looking at these new images, we considered whether the different values caused us to see the story differently.

The students made lists of familiar cultural icons and everyday sayings that utilize dark and light symbolism and then drew silhouettes and pictograms of the various language images: angels, horses, witches, cowboys, birds, airplanes, etc. Each image was painted in black and in white so that we were able to experience the psychological impact images in different values had on our consciousness.

The final presentation of the project, called "It's Not Just a Black and White Issue," consists of four large canvas banners that hang permanently in the school's hallway. This display draws other students and teachers into the discussion of color symbolism in popular and school culture. The banners include stories about racism and resisting racism based on interviews students conducted with adults in the community.

For me, the most touching aspect of the project is the use of everyday urban language to describe real-life issues of external and internal racism. The effect is quite different from that of the Disney movie in which the moral voice of the lions (who, according to the students, "talk like the teachers") is contrasted to the clever, colorful street slang of the wicked hyenas.

One section of the banners includes student responses to the question, "What effect does this symbolism of dark and light have on children?" The Mexican, Puerto Rican and African American youth discussed the implied messages about their potential. Several students mentioned that they had been uncomfortable with this imagery in the past but had not known how to articulate or discuss what they were seeing. It was particularly fascinating to hear these students of color discuss the way in which White children would be affected: "It might make it seem natural to them if they are in control or have more advantages."


Shades and Complexities

It's relatively easy and comfortable to investigate value symbolism in popular culture; it may be less comfortable to examine the nuances of language within our own classrooms. In a typical art education curriculum, students studying value scales are taught to call dark values "low values" and light values "high values." What messages are we sending our students? It is important to remember that being oblivious to the racial implications of situations or language is a luxury of being White in a society that privileges Whiteness.

In Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall's complex, layered text and image paintings, he reduces the great variety of African American skin tones to a uniform black. Marshall's artworks comment on the inability of some people to see the uniqueness of individuals in the African American community because they are blinded to any other difference when they see "black" skin.

Marshall recalls his reflections on black and white symbolism as a thoughtful youth: "The bad guy is wearing black, but then I see these people going to a high class social affair and they tell me that that's a black tie affair -- that I can't go in unless I'm dressed in black. That must mean that it's more complex. I thought, 'How can black be elegant and no good at the same time?'"

For Marshall, complexity is the key to both undermining false symbolism and engaging young minds in the process. "Simba, the white lion of the jungle, Tarzan king of the jungle -- one White man beats up a whole tribe of Black people -- well, that all seemed so absurd," he observes. "If I see how ridiculous all of that is to start with, maybe I'm less inclined to be particularly angry about those representations when I see them. I saw it from when I was a kid. There's something more to this than what I'm hearing about."

Teachers are sometimes concerned that students may become angry or upset when directly confronting negative color symbolism in class discussion. I believe students lose faith in a system of education that ignores the obvious racial implications of the language of color in our race-conscious society. By contrast, they respond creatively when the school environment gives them the tools to understand and analyze how familiarity and "otherness" are created in culture. This is multiculturalism that goes beyond "studying" diversity from the mainstream White perspective to helping students see art … culture … life from a range of subjective positions.

W.E.B. Dubois' dictum that "[t]he problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line" is still alarmingly relevant as we enter the 21st century. We cannot erase color lines by trying not to see them, but we can color our students' visions of the future.

We all see so much negative color symbolism, it sometimes seems to be hardwired into our brains. By showing that this is culturally constructed meaning, art teachers model that such meaning can also be culturally deconstructed. Together, we can paint what Langston Hughes called the "America that never was but yet could be."