Ruth Wivell tackles the tricky subject of race in a reading of Dahlov Ipcar’s 1963 Black and White, a beautifully illustrated book for children inspired by the civil rights movement.
In an era when (particularly white) parents are nervous to speak of race to their children for fear of encouraging racism, Dahlov Ipcar’s Black and White may offer a chance to begin that conversation. Originally published in 1963 in the USA, it was inspired by the civil rights movement and is an allegory for idealised race relations. From the perspective of two dogs, it envisions a beautiful and unified world of coexisting difference. It evokes Henri Rousseau in its naïve illustrations, and the prose flows dreamily along: A little black dog and a little white dog were friends and they stayed together and played together all day long and each dreamed a dream when he fell asleep . . .
Studies have shown that from the age of six months, children recognise skin colour differences, and that they are already trying to understand what these differences mean. At nearly three years of age, my son will use whatever ordering system is most apparent to him to group objects and people. In the case of grouping people, it is most frequently that, “They match—they have prickles!” (beards), but now and then, friends of ours or other passengers on the train have been grouped by colour—sometimes of clothing, sometimes of skin.
So it was not a big surprise when, during the first readings of Black and White, he pointed out that the black dog belonged to the black house, and the white one to the white house. And the black dog liked the black cat and the white dog was friendlier with the white whale. All of a sudden, I became aware of how binary this paradisiacal world was. All the effort I had put into encouraging language that allowed for fluidity of ethnicity, gender, and ability, was being pressed by and reduced into black and white categories.
In a recent review of The Big Letter Hunt, Anna Ridley noted how the author, like her own mother, respected the child’s ability to ‘differentiate subtleties of colour and provided … the vocabulary to … articulate those differences’. However, in Black and White, dark animals are simply labelled black and others white. Zebras and antelopes are both, and, well, I’m not sure where all the multi-coloured parrots would belong. Ipcar misses the opportunity to give language to difference where it actually exists and matters.
For the adult reader who thinks she knows her animals, it is extremely distracting—it was the black elephants that did it for me. After more research than I care to admit to, I have learned that there is no such thing as a black elephant, not even by name. They come in a range of greys, reds, and browns, but not black. Ipcar’s agenda is to unify the world, but Black and White breaks the world arbitrarily into two categories—categories that children wouldn’t necessarily use in an ‘animal-ordering-system’. In doing so, she makes caricatures of individuals like the elephant.
And so it is that Black and White sits uncomfortably within contemporary race rhetoric. As designations of ‘black-ness’ and ‘white-ness’ are social and political (as much as, if not more than they are shorthand descriptions of physical colour), is it appropriate then, to use this language at all with respect to the animal kingdom, given it is arguable whether animals have culture? Furthermore, while small children do see the difference in skin colour, they are still figuring out how race, and its inherent issues, is associated with it. This is to say that Black and White teaches both a literal colour-blindness and abstracted notion of race.
That said, this edition of Black and White is beautiful. The canvas-wrapped cover and the creamy matte pages remind me of treasured children’s books in my grandmother’s personal library. Ipcar has said that “it’s very important for children to have good art,” and her illustrations in this book are indeed striking. Typical of Ipcar’s work, the animals all appear to be one with their environment: butterflies flutter amongst delicately-coloured flowers, while heavy elephants lumber through the dark jungle with their tusks and trunks echoing the broad leaves surrounding them. Flying Eye has done a masterful job in their reprinting, using modern techniques to reproduce the layers and textures of the original four-colour separation method. The result is a well-crafted object that is a pleasure to hold, and whose pages are very satisfying to turn.
Black and White is certainly a beautiful work, but I wonder how much value it has today beyond being a piece of nostalgia? Its capacity to begin a conversation about race (whether in the UK, or in its homeland, the USA) is limited, as it does not explicitly call out difference for what it is. Its message is constrained to ‘we can all be friends’ and this is too vague to help a young child recognise and negotiate concrete difference. If the reader chooses to ignore Ipcar’s underlying agenda, reading it less as a utopian view of society and more as a wandering dream of animals, the question still remains: why so black and white?
The article ‘Black and White’, by Ruth Wivell, was first published in July 2015 on the wonderful Look/Book – a website reporting on the visual art of children’s books.
Many thanks to Ruth Wivell, and to Anna Ridley.
All photographs copyright Look/Book