The Boy Who Painted Christ Black by John Henrik Clarke is a short story dealing with the themes of racism, discrimination, societal perception, power, dignity and triumph. The setting of the story is a school, with a black principal at the helm of affairs. Clarke, was a pioneer in the integration of African studies into universities in America. He was also a lecturer during the years of the Great Depression. His experiences during that time shines through in this piece. Clarke uses descriptive observations, narrations and dialogue in this story. The descriptive observation is the most prevalent- it is important to note that the story revolves mainly around a young student named Aaron Crawford, but it is told in first-person through an unnamed narrator, who is another student in the same class. This outside perspective of Aaron, the principal, and the situation in general provides an unbiased and very matter-of-fact view of the incidents. The main It was published in the 1940s, just about a decade before the Civil Rights Movement- therefore, racism was more rampant than ever.
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The Boy Who Painted Christ Black | Summary
The Boy Who Painted Christ Black is a story is told by an unnamed narrator, set in Muskogee County School for coloured children. It begins with an introduction to Aaron Crawford, a black student who is exceptionally brilliant and talented, praised by teachers and students alike. The narrator can never quite understand him- he looks earthly and natural, and is an amazing artist. For every occasion, he draws matching images on the blackboard, and this makes him the most popular coloured boy in the town. The principal, a black man himself, has high regards for Aaron Crawford, predicting that he would be a great painter someday.
The children and teachers receive a slight shock when, on the teacher’s birthday, Aaron presents her a painting of Jesus Christ. It is not the gift itself that surprises them, but the fact that Aaron had painted Jesus black. The teacher tries to hide her confusion and thanks Aaron for his present. Aaron explains that his uncle had told him that black people were once the most powerful on Earth, and nobody had ever proved whether Christ was black or white. Christ’s kind and forgiving nature had given Aaron the feeling that he was black, so the student decided to paint him that way. Aaron is proud of his painting. On further look, the narrator realises that the paint he used is quite inexpensive, and that Christ in this painting looks very different from the ones hung up around his Sunday school- here, he looks sadder and more pleading. Of course, the painting becomes the talk of the town. It is hung up in the assembly room in a place of honour.
One day, when Professor Danual visits the school, it catches his attention. Professor Danual is a revered supervisor of all city schools. He is a distinguished-looking white man, and his presence causes nervousness amongst the teachers of the school. There is a welcome speech for him, and a couple of choir performances. But it is only when the supervisor’s eyes graze the wall of handiwork in the assembly room that his expression changes. He turns to the principal and demands angrily to know who painted the picture of Christ. Aaron Crawford hesitantly raises his hand
He says nervously that the principal had told him he has as much a right to paint Christ black as he did white. But then, he glances at the principal and falls silent, as if realising he had put the principal in danger. However, the principal steps forward and tells the supervisor calmly that he did indeed encourage Aaron. He defends the painting and supports the possibility that Christ could have been black, just as much as he could have been white. The supervisor is dumbfounded and furious, spitting that he is not paying the principal to teach students things like that- and then, he demands the principal’s resignation.
Principal George du Val exits the hall silently. A few days later, the narrator hears that the principal accepted a job as an art teacher for the summer in a small high school in South Georgia. He is going to take Aaron along with him, with his parents’ permission, so he can continue his painting. The narrator catches sight of them once, briefly, just as he is heading home and they are leaving the office. Principal du Val says goodbye to the other teachers and carries his briefcase out, his arm around Aaron’s shoulders.
The narrator notes that neither the principal nor Aaron look upset about the situation. The Principal does not seem broken-hearted at having lost his job. He does not look back once as he leaves, and the narrator senses an air of triumph from him, as though he had done something great. He and Aaron are talking seriously and sincerely, and even in the distance, the narrator can see the dignity in their poise- they walk away victorious.
The Boy Who Painted Christ Black | Analysis
In the very beginning of the story, the narrator talks about the brilliant and talented Aaron Crawford- a coloured boy. The theme of internalized racism comes out very blatantly when the teacher says, “If he were white he might someday, become President.” There are a couple of layers to this statement. One is that it is clearly a norm for white people to be in power. The President is the highest level of office in America, and from the teacher’s statement, she does not even consider the fact that a black person may be able to achieve that status. She does not say ‘he could be the first black President’ or even ‘he is skilled enough to become the President someday’. Instead, she emphasises that he could be worthy of the role, but it is quite impossible to achieve it because he is not white. This dialogue provides an insight to the social and political situation at the time. Further, she means this as a compliment, and it seems to be taken as a compliment by everyone else, as well. This casual and normalized marginalization implies that even without meaning to, offhand racist remarks are ingrained into people’s mindsets.
Another thing to note was the importance given to Aaron’s physical appearance. The narrator took the time to describe him completely, from his features to his skin to his aura. Would so many lines be dedicated by the narrator to a white character whose appearance was similar to everybody else’s? We may never know. But what we can see from this is how much attention is given to someone’s appearance when they look different, whether that attention is positive, negative, or neutral. This is once again an implication of the norm of society– the town is more used to seeing white people. The roots of racism stem deep, and last all the way to the superficial tips.
The bond between the black principal, Principal George du Val, and Aaron Crawford seems to be born from a mutual understanding- after all, they have similar experiences in the society. We can see this from the way Principal du Val likens Aaron to Henry O’Tanner while talking about his painting. O’Tanner is the first ever African-American painter to gain worldwide recognition for his work. In his words, the Principal encourages Aaron by subtly reminding him that the colour of his skin does not mean he is any less. This is a stark contrast to the teacher, who says his skin is the reason he cannot be the President. The Principal tells Aaron about a great, accomplished professional who was black, to remind him of the skill and poise of the African-American community.
An aspect often overlooked is personality. A majority of the focus in the beginning of this story is about Aaron’s skill and appearance- people are so focused on the outside that it takes them quite a while to get to the inside. Aaron seems to be an extremely kind and affectionate boy, which is implied in the way he painted a picture specially for his teacher’s birthday. Usually, he draws on the blackboard for festivals, but this time, he took the effort of buying the paint he could afford and creating something on paper. This shows the gratitude and respect he had for those around him, despite the casual and even unintentional discrimination he possibly faces on a regular basis.
We can also see that he is a boy of strong will and mind. He is able to think about what his uncle told him:
“He said black folks were once the most powerful people on earth. When I asked him about Christ, he said no one ever proved whether he was black or white. Somehow a feeling came over me that he was a black man, ‘cause he was so kind and forgiving, kinder than I have ever seen white people be. So, when I painted his picture I couldn’t help but paint it as I thought it was.”
This dialogue of his is extremely important because it proves his pride for his community and identity. Despite the comments he may hear, and the fact that many other children look different from him, despite the fact that he is a minority, he maintains his love for his community.
We do not know the race of the narrator- however, from the way they describe Aaron, and from the shock they had at seeing the black-painted Christ, we may assume they were white. The theme of internalized racism and societal perspective is seen once again here. While Aaron stands tall as he explains his intention, the narrator peers at the painting and thinks thus :
“This picture of Christ looked much different from the one I saw hanging on the wall when I was in Sunday school. It looked more like a helpless Negro, pleading silently for mercy.”
Aaron painted the picture with the idea of kindness and forgiveness in mind- yet for the narrator, the colour blinded them and created a stereotyped lens through which they viewed the painting. The narrator also noticed the cheap quality of the paints. That also may have added to the way they viewed Christ in the painting.
The following part of the short story, when the supervisor- Professor Danual- visits the school, there is more narration than dialogue. The only main dialogue is the interaction between Aaron, the supervisor, and the principal. Even then, the lines are short- the principal’s dialogue is the longest. This is a clever structure, as it centers the focus completely around the reaction of Professor Danual. All the other details act as supporting build-up elements to Professor Danual’s angry outburst, which builds the nervous anticipation in the readers as well. Professor Danual is a distinguished-looking, grey-haired, blue-eyed, white man. He seems to be the typical white man in power, from the way he strides into the school and induces fear amongst all the teachers. His authority over the principal represents the power difference between the white people and the African-Americans. His anger at seeing the painting of Christ painted black also highlights his belief of his own race’s supremacy– he cannot accept the idea of Christ possibly being black.
When Aaron speaks up and the principal comes to his defense, it is clear that they have a bond between them. When the principal says, “The artists of all other races have painted whatever God they worship to resemble themselves. I see no reason why we should be immune from that privilege.”, he points out directly that African-Americans should have the same privilege as everybody else, and the immediate fury from the supervisor is symbolic of the socio-political situation at the time. With Aaron being a coloured child in such a society, Principal du Val likely took the role of making him feel comfortable in his own skin and proud of it. He always encouraged Aaron’s painting, determined not to let discrimination squash down such a bright, young talent. True to Aaron’s personality, he was very careful about what he said, for he did not want to compromise the principal’s position in the school. However, the supervisor uses his authority to fire the principal- once again, a show of power.
One might assume that this leads to a sad ending, but that is quite untrue. In fact, the ending is more hopeful than ever. This is where we see themes of dignity and triumph– Principal George du Val and Aaron Crawford carry themselves with poise from beginning to end. When the narrator sees the principal leaving, he thinks thus :
“He has already said good-by to all the teachers, and strangely, he did not look broken-hearted.”
The reason for this is simple: the principal was not broken-hearted. The principal recognized that he was removing himself from a stifling and discriminatory environment. This was not a loss– it was a chance to walk forward into greater opportunities. The narrator also notices that he “does not look back” which signifies a sense of closure. The principal no longer has or wants anything to do with this school. He walks forward with no thoughts or regrets of the past.
Aaron’s bond with the Principal is once more made clear- he will be accompanying Principal du Val to South Georgia to continue working on his art. The Principal’s faith in Aaron’s skill is extremely high. As they walk away together, the narrator thinks thus :
“Even from this distance I could see they were still walking in brisk, dignified strides, like two people who had won some sort of victory.”
Just like the principal, Aaron does not look at this as a loss. They left their mark on the school, after all. It is possible that before Aaron’s painting, nobody in the school even thought about the possibility that Christ may not have been white. They put across the point they wanted to- a call for equality. Equal opportunity and equal privilege. They showed that there is nothing to be ashamed of, for the colour of their skin represents kindness and forgiveness.
Hence, they are both victorious, and they are aware of it. They will move on with their lives and accomplish greater things, leaving the little school behind. But they brought to light the underlying injustice and discrimination within the actions of the school, the mindset of the society. They showed other students and teachers a new way of thinking- open-minded and inclusive. It is especially towards the end where we feel the importance of the outsider narrator. Someone who does not know the inner feelings or thoughts of Aaron, especially at those moments of difficulty. Someone who does not know what the principal was going through personally. The narrator can only speak about what they observe, and if that is dignity and triumph, then Aaron and Principal du Val have indeed emerged victorious.