Contemporary Languages of Color: Cultivating Nuance and Complexity

It’s relatively easy and comfortable to investigate value symbolism in popular culture or literature. It may be less comfortable to examine the nuances of language within our own classrooms. For example, in a typical classroom, students will be disappointed to receive low marks; pleased to discover that they have achieved a high standard. In a typical art education curriculum, students studying value scales will be taught to call dark values “low values” and light values “high values.” What messages are we sending our students?

Some may argue that analyzing language in this way is getting too touchy, that I am too quick to look for insult and injury where none is intended. Yet 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. It is precisely this covering of difference that as artist educators we must investigate and foreground.

Kerry James Marshall creates complex, layered text and image paintings that reflect upon the lived experiences of African American people. The skin tones of all of his figures are a saturated black. Marshall describes his work as a “reclamation project.”

"It’s a reductive strategy, but it’s also an idealizing strategy after a long period of black people thinking and assuming that to be called black was a negative designation. In that way a lot of people fall into Eurocentric notions that black is bad."

"I chose that blackness as an emblem. It’s not a negative reduction because when you look at the images they are not drawn in a simplified, flattened way. I always try to imbue the figures with incredible resonance and density so that they seem to have a certain kind of life force. Their differences are articulated even as they are reduced in terms of color to a single cipher. They’re not all the same. They may look all the same at a distance--they are not all the same." (personal communication, March 1996.)

Discussing his reflections on black and white symbolism as a thoughtful youth,
Marshall commented,

"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?'

"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. 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."
(personal communication, March 1996)

Marshall’s words point to the importance of drawing our students into conversations that enable them to critically examine the full complexity of their observations and insights about how symbol systems create meaning in our lives. Teachers who ignore the obvious racial implications of the language of color in our race-conscious society, risk inadvertently teaching students that the language of art and symbolism taught in the artroom is not relevant to their lived experiences.

As art teachers, we educate students to be attentive to nuance. We enable students to understand artworks through careful observation and by contextualizing the works within a range of appropriate associations. To do this work effectively, we as teachers must be alive to the many currents of cultural meaning that flow through our classrooms and our discourses. 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 or suppresses the resonance and echoes of complex cultural issues in subject matter.

In my experience, students are reassured when the school environment gives them the tools to understand and analyze how familiarity and “otherness” are created in culture. Ultimately, students, parents, and fellow faculty from the school’s diverse communities, feel respect for art programs that express their commitment to multi-culturalism, not as merely studying diversity from the point of view of “mainstream” white America, but who see multi-culturalism as teaching students to see art and culture from a range of subjective positions.

W.E. B. Dubois’s dictum that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” is still alarmingly relevant in of the twentyfirst century. We cannot erase color lines by trying not to see them. We can color our students’ visions of the future. Students can understand, analyze, and resist divisive messages from the media and “high culture.”

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.

We can construct a colorful and color blind culture, what the great African American poet Langston Hughes, called the “America, that never was, but yet could be.”


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1. The Lost Boys by Kerry James Marshall
2. Brownie by Kerry James Marshall
3. Bang by Kerry James Marshall