We’ve all seen the coloring books—in bookstores, in grocery stores, in gift shops—that purport to make you “mindful” through coloring. These books are everywhere, and come in all sorts of themes (Alice in Wonderland, butterflies, the “original mindfulness” of mandalas). Coloring, these books argue, is not just for children anymore (as usual, the best way to insult something is to argue that it’s “just for children” and to say otherwise is to “reinvent” it better than before). One advertising blurb I read said claimed that Colour Yourself Calm was “The original mindful colouring book for adults, from the author of the bestselling Little Book of Mindfulness” and could be used to “Relax, meditate and banish stress. Release unconscious knowledge and calm thought through painting and colouring.” Unconscious knowledge. Amazing.
Now, I’ve nothing against coloring as an activity; thanks to an artistic aunt, my brothers and sister and I colored (and painted and drew and made papier-mâché) long after the age we were supposed to find it fun. And even today, I take my sketchbook and pencils when I go to an art museum and make dreadful copies of paintings or wonky sketches of sculpture, all the while cursing the fact that I wasn’t born a rich Victorian girl (or at least Amy March) with a drawing master and a Grand Tour of Europe. But the kind of “mindfulness” that the rash of adult coloring books now out advocate is a very different kind of coloring for mindfulness in coloring books of the 1970s.
In the late 1960s, Black Power movements consolidated and the Black Panther organization was growing, not just in America, but all over the world. Radicalism in Black community movements increased following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Many police forces, local as well as national, feared the rise of violence and became more oppressive in their enforcement tactics. This included the American FBI, who in 1968 posted The Black Panther Coloring Book to white-led households to discredit the organization. The coloring book had “beautiful black men” being urged to “kill the pigs” in fairly brutal fashion. It’s unclear what effect the coloring book had, although some have argued that it helped widen the gap between Black and white in America.
Most of the commentary I have found online is about white reaction to The Black Panther Coloring Book, but this is not to say that non-white communities were unaware or indifferent to the book. In fact, radical Black Power-influenced groups rejected the FBI’s attempts to infantilize the Black Panthers, not by making an adult coloring book of their own, but by using the coloring book as a teaching tool for children. Two examples, one from Britain and one from Guyana, show how Black Power ideals were being taught to children through the medium of the coloring book.The first of these was not necessarily intended as a coloring book, but it was designed as a book for children to use. Made with paperboard covers and stapled together, with black and white line drawings, Getting to Know Ourselves was produced by Bogle L’Ouverture Press, an independent Black British Press, as their first children’s book, in 1972. Jessica Huntley, the publisher, had commissioned the book from Bernard and Phyllis Coard specifically to teach Black children about their heritage. Bernard Coard had a PhD in African history from the SOAS in London; Phyllis Coard was a child psychologist. Both were concerned with the damage to self-image that the British education system was having on young Black children, who were routinely excluded from classrooms and/or placed in classes for the “Educationally Sub-Normal.” The book they produced taught Garveyite/Black Power principles of self-love and Pan-Africanism. The first mention I saw of it as a “colouring book” was in Margaret Andrews Doing Nothing is not an Option, a biography of Jessica Huntley and her husband Eric. I was not sure about the designation—there’s no mention of it as a coloring book in the Huntleys’ archive—but I saw it in action at last summer’s Dream to Change the World exhibition at the Islington Public Library, about radical Black publishing in London. At the end of the exhibit, coloring pages were put out for children to complete—photocopied pages from Getting to Know Ourselves.
Seven Stories, where I’ve been working over the last year, has recently acquired material from Rosemary Stones, the writer, editor and publisher of children’s books such as Mother Goose Comes to Cable Street and the anti-racist Children’s Book Bulletin. In amongst her books was another coloring book from the same period as Getting to Know Ourselves, this time from Guyana. We are One: They Came from Asia is “A Co-operative Republic of Guyana Coloring Book” produced in 1973. The text was written by Allan A. Fenty and the illustrations done by Victor Dawson. Like the British publication, We are One focuses on history and self-image, but extends these Black Power principles out to Asian Caribbeans. I suspect the coloring book may have been part of a series (I can envision a companion, We are One: They Came from Africa), but I’ve no evidence of this (if anyone reading this can help, please do comment).
The key message from both these coloring books is one that counters The Black Panther Coloring Book: not vengeful hatred of others, but love of self. And not, like today’s mindfulness coloring books, a love of self that gazes inward to calm passivity, but a love of self that calls for activism. To be mindful in these books is to be aware of your connections, past and present, to other people, and to do something positive to enhance these connections—and we could all do with a little more of that kind of mindfulness. Skip the unconscious knowledge–let’s release a little more conscious knowledge, crayons at the ready.