It’s Not Just a Black and White Issue

Title:  It’s Not Just a Black and White Issue

Site: Washington Irving School
749 South Oakley Boulevard, Chicago

Artists:  Olivia Gude

Community Participants:  Eighth graders at Washington Irving School

Sponsors:  Chicago Public Art Group and Neighborhood Arts Program of the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Chicago

Year:  1995

Scale:  4- 84 inch by 44 inch banners

Materials:  Acrylic on canvas

Information: In recent years, CPAG artists have painted banners as a forum for community art with a more experimental content, as well as a vehicle to investigate complex social issues. Olivia Gude’s It’s Not Just a Black and White Issue fits both criteria. In the project she continues to explore with youths issues of race and difference by “using the theoretical tools of the time.”

Black and White, a series of four banners on the theme of racism and symbolism, was designed and painted by eighth graders at Washington Irving School, where Gude served as an artist-in-residence in the fall semester of 1995 with the support of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Neighborhood Arts Program and CPAG.

The banners were created in a workshop composed of 32 African-American, Puerto Rican, and Mexican-American students. They first studied the concept of “value”—the darkness and lightness of colors—in art and culture, and then explored how people judge the worth and worthiness of people and objects based on color gradations. The main question they asked themselves was, “How does this culture value ‘value’?”

The project grew out of a couple ideas, explains Gude. “How do we do work about the issues of a multicultural society which isn’t just illustrating the notion of a harmonious multicultural society? How can we do work which brings about that kind of society by critically investigating the patterns of culture which support divisiveness and prejudice?

“The kickoff question was, ‘Does making a picture of happy people of different races together make it true?’ Picturing happy people together isn’t enough, because it glosses over the problems and thus works against the possibility of a racially just society.”

Gude and the 13-year-olds investigated how society’s consciousness of race and color are often created within a visually symbolic language of coded color systems. Focusing on the use of dark and light in the movie The Lion King, Gude urged the students to act like detectives and look for clues about the meaning of color in the process. “It’s a popular Disney movie that a lot of kids have seen, and it’s set in Africa,” Gude says.

Over and over again, they discovered that in the movie, lightness is symbolically associated with good, and darkness with evil. For example, Simba and his father, the true king of the lions, have light manes; the evil brother who wants to usurp the throne has a dark mane. Simba speaks in a white, middle-class manner (“like a teacher,” the students told Gude), but a pack of dark marauding hyenas talk in clever, colorful street slang. “It demonizes urban children of color in popular media,” Gude says.

What does this teach in a story that opens with the lines: “…every living thing has its place in the circle of life”? “Think about the message that it’s sending kids,” says Gude. “It seems natural to white children that they would be in control of society and have access to more wealth. The symbolism of the cartoon tells children of color that whiteness is naturally better, the moral superior. Beauty is always associated with whiteness in popular culture.”

The team also thought of examples where dark and light symbolism plays a role in everyday sayings: Which witch is the good witch? Which horse has a better chance to win? Which angel is the devil? “It’s amazing how psychologically ingrained this color symbolism is,” comments Gude. “It’s not natural symbolism, but it gets hard-wired into our consciousness. It’s culturally coded.”

The students discussed how gradations of color within racial and ethnic groups affect other peoples’ judgments of worth: Fairer-skinned people of color are sometimes perceived of as being better or prettier than the darker-skinned. The students noticed how the dark characters in The Lion King tend to blend into their environment—subtly reinforcing a stereotype that they’re unable to escape their station in life. “It makes you feel no good, that you have no chance,” says Gude.

The center two banners were created out of silhouettes. We see each image in black as well as in white—making us think about our different responses to the same drawing in different values (a dark Simba, light hyenas, etc.). The reversed images look bizarrely unfamiliar. One banner includes a color chart in which the students tried to mix as many different skin colors as possible from earth tones. Among other questions, the text asks: “Why do people draw color lines?”

The two outer banners are based on interviews students conducted with adults from the community. Based on a questionnaire developed with their social studies teacher, Joe Perlstein, the students wrote accounts of things they learned about a relative or friend’s experience with prejudice. The images accompanying these voices are in the form of cartoons, with a variety of bright colors representing diverse peoples.

Gude hopes that the presence of the banners in the school’s hallways will continue to give students and teachers pause. She also believes that the semester-long art education project has made a profound and positive impact on the youths.

“These kids will never watch a movie again without reading the symbolism of color,” she says. “Knowledge is power in that sense. People who are aware of the cultural creation of racism will not be as constrained and the project has had the effect of alerting kids that racism is a cultural issue that can be investigated and unlearned.

“If racism is culturally created, it can be culturally uncreated.”