Color proofing is a well-known concept in publishing. It is the process of making a test print of an illustrated book to preview the colors before the final print is printed. I will appropriate this term again-color proof—to discuss a common misunderstanding of how human diversity can be achieved in children’s book art.
Continued observation of children’s book art (particularly Western children’s book art) reveals that many creators rely solely or heavily on the specter of brown and black skin as visual evidence of the black human presence in storybook worlds. As they continue to use aesthetic principles and artistic traditions developed over the centuries in societies, art institutions, and aesthetic cultures where black people are traditionally excluded or simply not present, children’s books are increasingly adding melanin.
What this means is that black people are often represented in children’s book art using formal artistic attributes, taste judgments and architectures of expression that come from outside of black environments, communities, history and culture. To a large extent, the illustration, design and aesthetic packaging of children’s books still reflect the foundation of the field of hegemonic Eurocentric ideologies and epistemological systems that claim universal validity and unquestionable acceptance.
The truth is that we cannot color-proof children’s book art against centuries of Eurocentric dominance. Art that rests on the fragile foundation of skin color has never – and never will – capture the black human presence faithfully, unconditionally and inspiringly. The foundation must be much stronger. French artist Henri Guérin has remarked that “color is the charm and the seduction of art – a siren against whom the cautious should beware.” There is indeed a dangerous appeal to the idea that diversifying children’s book art is as simple as darkening the complexion of human characters.
Fairly portraying and honoring the black human presence in children’s book illustrations requires illustrators to embrace a lifelong education in the rich, long, ever-expanding lines of art created by people of African/African descent. In addition, the children’s book industry must be willing to engage in a candid, committed and respectful conversation with the cosmology of black people, which Matthew Karangi defines as ‘the way Africans perceive, conceive and contemplate their universe; the lens through which they see reality, which influences their value systems and attitude orientations.”
Of course, the experiences of black people vary widely around the world, but our ancestral roots shape how we inhabit the world. Science has proven that memories are passed down from generation to generation, and, as Glenn Chambers, former director of the African American and African Studies Program at Michigan State University, points out, “it’s impossible to understand the numerous similarities in art, kitchens, religion, community organization. , speech patterns and worldview that pay tribute to the legacy of the African experience” in the black diaspora.
Susan M. Vogel, former director of the Center for African Art, has identified key features of African aesthetics. A growing body of research examines the highly evolved, culturally idiosyncratic aesthetic frameworks that African and African artists have developed over countless generations. African aesthetics communicate subjective, metaphysical, existential truths about the black experience in the world that art rooted in other cultural and stylistic positions cannot and cannot. Moreover, African aesthetic frameworks are intertwined with the lived histories of African peoples in the world; without these frames, children’s book art implicitly reinforces harmful stories about black people as ahistorical.
Illustrated children’s books are representative constructions, pictographic structures and their aesthetic frameworks must provide the basis, support and structure with which black cultures can stand strong in their own identity. It is no longer a time for the aesthetics of children’s books to broadly reflect and articulate the cultural, conceptual and perceptual specificities of African heritage, knowledge, values, beliefs, identity and imperatives. After all, this is the definition of art.
Summer Edward is an editor for young readers.