From a very early age, Crayola provided me with a tutorial on seeing the world, a transformative ability to name features in my universe surpassed only by the scene where Anne Bancroft teaches Patty Duke about the name for “water” in The Miracle Worker. Without Crayola in my childhood, I would have grown up being able to see only those colors that guys can see: red, blue, yellow and maybe brown.
Without Crayola, how else would I have learned about “apricot,” a fruit we never ate but a color which saturated remodeled kitchens in the ‘60s—a color which continues to exist only in boxes of crayons, the vegetative world, and dress shops selling gowns for bridal parties? How about “maize”? That wasn’t a word thrown around my Brooklyn household on any kind of regular basis. Without Crayola, I would have understood even fewer of the “what-you-call-maize-we-call-corn” references littering various business, political, and post-colonial-theory treatises. Without the 64 box, I never would have known how to see “magenta” in a sunset or in the weave of a silk pillow; I would have never recognized “aquamarine”; I would have forever lost the pleasure that the very word “periwinkle” has afforded me because of its vaguely effete, not to say degenerate, sound.
Let’s not forget that the names of colors--as illustrated in America by the Crayola folks--are not only the mirror but the lamp of our world: they’ve changed their colors over the years to reflect various cultural shifts. They’ve provided not only the colors of the rainbow but the colors of the Zeitgeist. “Indian Red” created in 1958, and referring not to Native Americans, but to a color of dye found in Southeast Asia, was, nevertheless, renamed “Chestnut” in 1999... just in case. When the crayon “Flesh” was created in 1949, nobody seemed to blink their (presumably all-white) eyelids. Then along came the Civil Rights Movement, and, by 1962, “Flesh” was renamed “Peach.”
What if we were determined to produce colors suitable for the creation of a picture of our own experience, filtered as it is through the pages of books, images on screens, and the voice of the poet crying in the wilderness?
I mean, Crayola gives us “Sea Green” which is perfectly fine, but wouldn’t a student of Irish literature in general (and James Joyce in particular) want to see the shade’s moniker transformed into the more intensely evocative “Scrotumtightening Sea Green”?
I mean, even if, like so many of us, you’ve pretty much stopped reading Joyce's Ulysses after the famous first page in order to get more quickly to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end, you would recognize that image. In the same manner, you don’t need to be a huge fan of Hawthorne to imagine the bitter, thwarted color called “Young Goodman Brown.” Wouldn’t it have been better for Crayola to have turned to the literary community rather than going with “Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown” as they did in 1998?
Perhaps the Crayola people might be worried by the fact that not everyone would understand the context for literary colors. “We want our colors to be drawn from the ordinary world around users,” they might say. Fair enough.
But if a concern with the familiarity of terms were indeed paramount, what were they doing when they decided to offer “Manatee” as a crayon in 1998? “Lemme have the Manatee already” is not a cry overheard in most classrooms.
In contrast, I would argue that even our 18-year-old first-year college students could identify a crayon called “Clockwork Orange,” and distinguish it easily from, for example, “Amy Tan.” Wouldn’t it have been preferable for the manufacturers to have adopted Burgess’s title rather than allowing names such as “Atomic Tangerine” to enter the lives of the young? (
Can’t you just imagine “Badge of Courage Red”? It would sit in the box beside “Pimpernel Scarlet” and “Letter Scarlet.” And what would the difference between those two crayons be? With one you would draw a swashbuckler and with the other you’d draw an unbuckler. You’d have “O’Hara Scarlet” as well, but the color would disappear quickly, what with being gone with the wind and all.
Can’t you just imagine the cool, crisp luminosity of a Crayola called “Girl in Hyacinth Blue”? Wouldn’t that make a wonderful contrast to the unnecessarily complicated and heavy eyesore presented by “Prose Purple”? Can’t you imagine its magnificent contrast or the self-reflective and spiritual density of “Graham Green(e)”? Or to “Anne’s Gables’ Green” for that matter?
When sentiments of vague defeat and interminable boredom dampen even the slightest possibility for joy and renewal, then only the crayon called “Dorian Gray” will do. You’d find folks in literature departments all over the country trying to purchase whole boxes of crayons exclusively in that one color.
Look, if the all-powerful Crayola people can name a crayon “The Color Purple” and present it to Oprah Winfrey on camera, we should be able to get them to design one especially designed for those with a taste for literature.
That crayon would be named “Well Read.”