The Boy Who Painted Christ Black by John Henrik Clarke
In The Boy Who Painted Christ Black by John Henrik Clarke we have the theme of race, freedom, pride, arrogance, connection and dignity. Narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator the reader realizes after reading the story that Clarke may be exploring the theme of race. Aaron’s painting of Christ causes problems for him and the principal George Du Vaul. These problems are based solely on the fact that Aaron has painted Christ black and not white as Professor Danual believes Christ to be. It is as though Danual believes that black people are inferior to white people and as such have no right to claim Christ as being black. However it is noticeable that George stands up for Aaron and suggests that all Aaron has done is paint Christ in Aaron’s own likeness. Something that painters have done for generations. George is also an interesting character. Even though he loses his job after Danual demands his resignation, he continues to support Aaron.
This may be significant as by supporting Aaron George allows for Aaron to be proud of his painting and more importantly proud of his heritage. At the time the story is set black people would not have been treated as equals to white people with segregation being the remedy of the day. George dispels this notion by showing Aaron his support, even if means he will lose his job. In fact George is so supportive of Aaron that he takes him to South Georgia so that he can continue painting. This too is significant as it suggests that George has belief in the young Aaron and in black people in general. He is fully aware of the racial prejudices that Danual displays and at great risk still supports Aaron. Who is identified throughout the story as being intelligent and talented? Something that Clarke may be deliberately doing to highlight to the reader that black people are just as good as white people.
There may also be some symbolism in the story which might be important. The chair that Danual sits on sticks out from the other chairs in the room and Danual instinctively sits in it as though it was meant for him. This suggests an arrogance on Danual’s behalf. He believes himself to be better to the other people in the room, who are all black and as such he should have the best chair. The painting itself is also symbolic as it highlights Aaron’s connection with Christ. As mentioned he has painted Christ in his own likeness and identifies with Christ. Something that is more noticeable when the narrator describes Christ as looking like he is ‘pleading silently for mercy. Which may very well be how Aaron feels due to how white people treat him.
The end of the story is interesting as there is a slight battle of wills between George and Danual. George in reality stands up to Danual even though it costs him his job. However the narrator describes George as walking with a ‘soldierly stride’ as he leaves the school. He remains defiant and has his dignity still intact because he knows he is in the right. Christ could quite easily have been black. How supportive George is of Aaron is also noticeable by the fact that George puts his arm around Aaron as they are walking down the street. This is the last image that the narrator has of George and it is a significant image as it suggests that George is not only continuing to remain dignified but he also continues to support Aaron in his creative endeavours. Helping to make Aaron the best person he could possibly be by allowing him to be free to express himself.