"What 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, presumably, heaven.

For many years I used Cole’s 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 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. 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 man’s burden” to bring order and reason to “dark places” and thus the justification for the dominance of white cultures over the civilizations of people of color.

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 Goya’s 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” (p.340).

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 Goya’s Third of May composition in which dark humans are victimized by the lightbathed enslavers.

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.’ It’s 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 symbolism.

Click here for Page 2 of "Drawing Color Lines"

All pictures from The Middle Passage
by Tom Feelings
A limited number of copies of
The Middle Passage are available through

Thomas Cole, American, 1801 - 1848

The Voyage of Life: Childhood, 1842
The Voyage of Life: Youth, 1842
The Voyage of Life: Manhood, 1842
The Voyage of Life: Old Age, 1842
oil on canvas, 1.343 x 1.953 m
(52 7/8 x 76 7/8 in.)
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

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