Quite coincidentally, right on the heels of our recent discussion on language and thought, Sukrita Paul Kumar sent me the following essay in which she muses over the issue of color. Color also came up tangentially in the comments section of the language post. Sukrita's is a literary approach - no Sapir-Whorf there. Her thoughts also touch upon this discussion here. (Sukrita has used Indian / British spelling. Hence colour)
COLOUR AS NATURE?
Sukrita Paul Kumar
When Orhan Pamuk spoke on the making of his novel My Name is Red , someone asked him if the use of colour red in the title was symbolic. His reply is what I want to start this piece with. He said “I use colour as texture, not as symbolism”. And I wondered, is it at all possible to disassociate one’s self from the culturally, and even politically, defined symbolic ramifications of different colours as we may use them in writing, painting or during the course of everyday living. Some of Pamuk’s other novels such as The White Castle, The Black Book and Other Colours too, forefront some colour or the other in the title as is evidenced. It is a sure feat of creativity to be able to shake off cultural labels from the colours, to perceive them phenomenologically and present them with pristine innocence. Mind you, not naiveté .
In fact how refreshing it would be if innocence could be recreated, if one could go centuries back in history, cleanse our brains, eliminate genetic memory and regain our ability to see colours in the freshness of their own texture without any baggage of cultural prejudice and meaning. Or any historical symbolism, infested with political tension and psychological oppression. The human mind today is enslaved by orientations of a society that is certainly not colour-blind in its perception of the white, the black , the yellow or the brown people, perpetually fanning issues of racism ironically, even through endless articulation of its denouncement.
Nor are we able to disengage ourselves from the religious symbolism of colours. In fact in our part of the world, ‘saffronization’ of education is a term thrown up by recent history, when a major political party in power was perceived to be attempting to give a specific ideological colour to school text books in history and philosophy. The colour saffron today languishes in a very insular political prison house rather than blossoming in the fields out there.
The question to ask is, can an individual triumph in releasing colour from the oppression of cultural identity, when we do not today live as much by nature as by nurture. How have some colours been nurtured in the context of the colour of skin? I am reminded here of an example of a white couple who adopted a black son precisely to free themselves of racial prejudice. They did not realize the existential cultural dilemma they put this child into. Years later, despite his loving parents, he recorded how he passed through intense moments of alienation and anguish repeatedly because as a black child and then as an adolescent, he received not-so-subtle messages from all around that convinced him that he was different, unacceptable and inferior. His black skin endowed upon him identity ascriptions different from his own identity-claims as a child grown up in a white household. He had to actually undergo therapy to overcome his dilemma.
The blacks are compelled to remain together to empower each other with energy to combat an all-pervasive racism, nurtured over times immemorial. We know then why there aren’t any white ghettos. Identity politics have laid out the superiority of the white in the hierarchy of power. Culture actually becomes an accident of birth if identity is so dependent on the colour of the skin or the race one is born into. When recorded history or visible history constantly reinforces the myth of the superiority of a particular race, poets such as Derek Walcott lament :
Where are your monuments,
your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs
In that gray vault. The sea. The sea
Has locked them up.¡¨
From “The Sea is History”
Thousands of gray vaults will have to be retrieved from the sea and then opened to excavate the history of “the wretched of the earth”, for the wretched to turn the tables. Remember what James Baldwin said “I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the colour there”.
To move on to a demonstration of an absurd example of the internalization of “white is superior, and also indeed more beautiful”, let me go closer home to my country, India, and scan the matrimonial advertisements in the newspaper dailies. Ninety percent of the girls being advertised for marriage are described as “Fair” or as they put it with greater clarity of expression, “Fair complexioned”. The cult of the worship of the white goes on perpetuating itself on its own in a land where some gods themselves - Kali, Krishna and even Shiva - are dark in colour. Political history obviously plays a more emphatic role than mythology or even religion in the building up of definitions of beauty or in the evolving of cultural aesthetics.
Referring to my personal history at this point, whether in Kenya where I was born and brought up or in India later where I gradually wrenched myself out of a colonial hang over, the colonizer was the distant, white devil, someone to hate but also attractive enough to emulate subconsciously. It took years of adult thinking for me to strip the Anglicized cultural veneer from myself to be able to find my forked tongue for a natural expression in English, my English, not that of the white British. This reminds me of another poem of Derek Walcott¡¦s lines:
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
Well I did not choose to be born into it, but I did choose to make it my own, and fill the language with my own cultural symbolism. Colour serves as a vital perceptual tool for visual cognitive operations but when these operations rest heavily on the deeply embedded political orientations that distort, pervert or abort natural identity, new palettes need be created for the remixing of old colours and the creation of natural colours for natural identity.