we call laws of color, obviously, can be no more than fragmentary,
given the complexity and irrationality of color effects."
The Art of Color
by Johannes Itten
"The problem of the twentieth century
is the problem of the color line."
The Souls of Black Folks
by W.E.B. DuBois
"From that time I looked out through
other eyes, my thoughts were colored..."
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
by James Weldon Johnson
The students are analyzing
the Childhood and Manhood paintings in The Voyage of Life series
by Thomas Cole.
In Childhood, a boat emerges
from a dark cavern into a serene dawn landscape. A golden haired
baby, accompanied by an angel in white with a glowing halo of light,
holds out his arms, joyfully welcoming the glowing, beautiful world.
In Manhood, the child has
lost his youthful innocence--his hair has turned dark. The verdant
landscape has given way to bare rocks and black, gnarled trees.
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, near death, the now whitehaired man in his battered
boat rests 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,
For many years I used Coles intricate American landscapes
to introduce students to symbolism and allegory in painting. Students
see 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 Coles 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
Consider for example, Joseph Conrads classic novel of a Europeans
encounter with Africa, Heart of
Darkness. Here 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 mans burden to bring order
and reason to dark places and thus the justification
for the dominance of white cultures over the civilizations of people
Teaching Color Symbolism
In American elementary and high schools, teaching about color usually
begins with students painting color wheels and value scales. This
paradigm of teaching, based on such color theories as those of Josef
Albers and Johannes Itten, emphasizes a systematic and experimental
approach to studying 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 eyecatching. 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 that confirms 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 college seminar, 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 connections.
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 Dia 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 movements 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 quandary.
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.
We could easily drop Thomas Cole paintings from the curriculum,
but can we exclude Goyas The
Execution of the Third of May in which the brightly lit,
vulnerable and individualized victims are contrasted to the firing
squad of dark, menacing, undifferentiated figures? Even if we exclude
from the school curriculum all artworks and literature that rely
on offensive symbolism, our students will still encounter such symbolism
daily in cartoons, traditional fairytales, and everyday expressions.
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 darkfaced 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 Richard Dyers (1988) observation in
White that, Power in contemporary society habitually
passes itself off as embodied in the normal as opposed to the superior
Thus, 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 twenty years creating
a masterful series of narrative 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.
The book shows scenes of the encroachment of white terror on a peaceful
black village, vulnerable black bodies before a looming white fort,
white clad African collaborators with the European slave trade,
and Yemaya, the comforting dark spirit mother of the sea, cradling
her black children enclosed within the horrific pale slave ship.
One of the especially interesting cultural twists is a re-working
of Goyas Third of May
composition in which dark humans are victimized by the lightbathed
There are no words in The Middle
Passage. Its story is told in pictures alone. Tom Feelings
explained this choice: I realized that there were inherent
problems in dealing with words to describe the Black experience.
If you pick up a dictionary there are over 90 negative connotations
for the word black. Its the opposite for white.
I wanted to see if, as an artist, I could use images to get past
the racist programming (p. 6). Feelings images help
students to rethink the naturalness of conventional black and white
Click here for
Page 2 of "Drawing Color Lines"
All pictures from The
by Tom Feelings
A limited number of copies of The
Middle Passage are available through