Marlon Banks Publishes
The Permanent Light of Black
Defining the Beauty of Black
Clockwise from upper left: First three panels are from Marlon Banks’ book;
Marlon Banks with his book; The cover of The Permanent Light of Black
spot. She would say, ‘Yeah, you haven’t heard about the blue-black man” Well this man was so dark that he was able to reflect the blue from
the sky above.’ And the bully was like, ‘Really?’ It would give him pause and he would start listening to my grandmother. And I was listening
because I knew she was making it up. She said, ‘Someday, this man is going to appear and you are going to look at him. And when you look in
his eyes, all you are going to see is yourself and the reflection of your own ugliness.’ And the bully got kind of scared.”

Banks is a gifted artist who received his undergraduate degree from Carroll College, his teaching certification from UW-Milwaukee and his
MFA from UW-Madison. His MFA show featured African American subjects painted almost in the style of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It
created problems.

“There were a number of professors who were a little uncomfortable with having an African American student — particularly an African
American male — with rendering skills, with skills to render realistically,” Banks said. “I remember this one professor basically said, ‘Okay, I’
m not racist, but what are you trying to make us feel guilty about.’ This was one of my professors when I was at UW-Madison. I was like, ‘What
are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Well, they’re Black. The people in your paintings are Black.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m Black.’ I didn’t know that
some people think that if you are a Black painter or a Black writer, you automatically want to talk about race. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But actually, in the paintings that he was looking at, there were love stories. I’m not interested in painting realistically just for the sake of
making something look real.”

Since he received his MFA, Banks has been a special education teacher in the Madison Metropolitan School District. And he has experienced
the difficulty that some African American students have had dealing with their own blackness where white is the connotation of good and
beauty.

“I used to teach elementary school before this before I switched over to middle school,” Banks recalled. “I remember this one student, a
second grader, who seemed to like reading at the beginning of the year. But by mid-year, he said that he hated reading. I said, ‘Why would you
say that? You’re a great reader.’ He would say, ‘Everything bad in every book is black.’ He pointed out examples. He said, ‘When we read this
book, the bad guy had the black hat or they had a black horse.’ It seemed that everything that he pointed out was black. He asked why that
was. I told him, ‘A lot of writers are lazy. A lot of writers fall into those traditional ideas of good versus bad. Black is always bad and white is
always good or pure. And so, I gave him this idea. I said, ‘How about we cut up some Post-Its. Every time you see the word ‘black,’ post over
it and you can write your own word that you think it should be instead of accepting what the writer says about black.’ He said, ‘We can do that?’
I said, ‘Yes, you’re not writing in the book. You can always lift the Post-It out and return the book back to the library. But for now, when you are
reading it or anyone else in the class is reading it, we can put our own word for black for ourselves. You get to create your own definition for
black. You are helping these writers develop their vocabularies.’”

Banks switched to middle school where students were still grappling with their blackness.

“This middle school student had the same concern that this elementary student had,” Banks said. “I said, ‘Well one idea of the blackness, as
an African tradition where the word black is thought of in terms of soil, the blackest soil is the richest and produces the best crops.’ And then I
said, ‘In a lot of African sculpture, white is used as ash or the color of death.’ I didn’t try to say anything antagonistic about white people. But
there was a white teacher in the library who heard me say that and she was very upset. Ironically, there would be no problem with the
continuation of the word black and how it is continuously depicted.”

Through art, essays and poetry, Banks tries to deal with the Black aesthetic in his book “The Permanent Light on Black.”

Next issue: A look at The Permanent Light on Black
Part 1 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling

Marlon Banks — educator, artist and author — has been
confronting conceptions of skin-deep beauty since his early
childhood. Banks is a dark-skinned African American. And in a
race-conscious world that consciously or unconsciously places
value on lighter skin tones, Banks had to deal with it often.

“I remember one time when I was on the porch and I was being
teased by one of the neighbors who had the nerve to come up to
my grandmother’s porch and tease me about how dark I am,”
Banks recalled. “He was fairer-skinned than I am. He said that I
was so black that I looked like street tar.  My grandmother
heard him and came out onto the porch and said, ‘Who’s out
here teasing my grandson … Haven’t you heard about the blue-
black man?’ I was like, ‘My grandmother is making this up. No
one had heard about this story. There she goes again. She
knows there is no such story.’ But she would make it up on the