A Brief History of Blue
by Dawn Denham
Blue is the color of sea and sky. The two largest natural features on earth. Some scientists believe the first people to inhabit our planet were colorblind, seeing only black and white and then red and yellow. (Skin.) These people had no words for what they could not see.
I have words for what I could not see. I was blinded by Love. Can Love blind you? Make you un-see? Or is Love blindness itself, as in the state of being blind? What I chose: to believe I knew who my husband was. That he was not doing the things he was doing. I didn’t see. I wouldn’t see. I chose blindness. I chose Love.
The Egyptians were artists who first gave us the blue they painted on crude pitchers called juglets. They learned to turn one thing into another. Quartz sand and copper-containing materials azurite or malachite heated until glass, then crushed and mixed with moisture, probably egg whites. Then a light, dusty color like the shades of blue I lived among in the American Southwest when I was younger and not yet a mother and only five years married. Think the blues we chose for our walls and floors and sheets and pillowcases. Of the malachite necklaces I strung and sold in a desert gift shop. A muted blue; but muted is another word for grayed or dulled or desaturated and nothing about the Egyptian color reads decay or neutral.
By the sixth century, a darker blue, lapis lazuli; some call it the true blue. Lapis lazuli is closer to the blue of my wraparound porch attached to an old house in rural Mississippi and reminds me of the small stones my sister and I beaded into our necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. The pigment was more precious than gold. Who knew blue was a luxury? That artists went into debt to procure it, which happened to Vermeer, the Dutch painter? He risked all to give the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” a vibrant head wrap.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Italian traders carried ultramarine, lapis lazuli ground fine into powder, from the Middle East to Europe. Ultramarinus is “beyond the sea” in Latin. “Blue has no dimensions. It is beyond dimensions,” the artist Yves Klein said. “It takes viewers outside the canvas itself.”
Navy blue is the darkest blue. Think military, beginning with the British Navy. Think bruise. It is strict. It is non-yielding (unlike teal or azure or turquoise, all the colors in my blue house on a hill in Mississippi). It is final. There’s little room for much else with navy blue. It’s nearly black.
One night when my new submariner husband was out to sea, I imagined the long, sleek metal tube in which he slept, a toy suspended in darkness. I sat up and wrote the word untethered into a poem.
The new dye indigo, first planted in South Carolina in 1739, a dye most recognized as blue jeans, meant violence, torture, suffering. Blue came at a great cost.
Six thousand years, and blue continues to evolve. A new shade discovered just ten years ago.
Four hundred years, and we do not.
At the end of my thirty-year marriage, I moved into this sky-blue house in Mississippi’s hill country, seventeen miles from my dad, still living in the 600-square foot cabin he and my mom bought in the early ’90’s. Until then, I’d never wanted this: Divorce. Mississippi, this place I disdained and rejected. (Me. A self-proclaimed on-my-way-to-woke-ness white woman who is telling you I’ve done some work.)
I won’t remember indigo until I’m standing on the west bank of the Mississippi River just outside of New Orleans in Wallace where the Whitney Plantation Museum tells the story through the enslaved people’s eyes. Where I unscrew assumptions I’ve been carrying around my whole life: the South meant cotton and cotton was king; therefore, the only crop grown, harvested, and commodified. But cotton was only one iteration and came later.
I didn’t know that the first people forced to live and slave along America’s lower Atlantic coast believed the pale, sweet, powdery blue they made from indigo leaves warded off evil spirits. I didn’t know the Gullah Geechee once painted their porch ceilings, doors, window frames, and shutters the same light blue now covering my house. They believed that ghosts and boo hags rising at night intent on murderous flight mistook the color for water, which they could not cross, or sky, which fooled them into thinking they’d flown too fast and too far.
The Gullah knew blue inside their homes was just light blue, but on front doors, sills, porch ceilings, and window frames, it was haint. Haint is family to haunt and awfully close to my former name, the one I took in marriage. It’s just a twist of words and regions in many mouths. Haint is not so much a color as a belief, humming on entrances and exits, and is about terror, missing, losing, and hiding in plain sight. Like memories.
(Don’t forget that blue also lends itself to bruises and melancholy, which literally means low in spirits.)
I didn’t know that indigo’s oval-shaped leaves, once fermented and pressed, turned from green to blue. I didn’t know the color was currency and more valuable to a man than his firearm. That this same man could buy a human being with one length of blue-dyed cloth. Or that this same blue, what some called devil’s dye, rose in the first American flag. Before rice, before cotton, before cane and pine, indigo demanded the transatlantic slave trade grow. I didn’t know the plant was both protector and doom.
It takes viewers outside the canvas itself.
Southern planters forced slaves to practice Christianity. They called the Gullah superstitious but found their light blue pretty anyway, and painted it on porch ceilings and doors, saying the color deterred spiders and wasps from nesting there. This explanation endures. Science has yet to prove the color’s effectiveness. Science couldn’t prove the three-fifths compromise either.
Hasn’t it always been? Antebellum houses and mansions, their porch ceilings a soft robin’s egg blue telling a story that was not theirs? Those sleeping inside, unaware of how their own spirits rose and took flight.
According to Appalachian historian Dave Tabler, haint is “an undefinable something that scares the bejeevers out of you.”
Architects fell in love with Prussian blue; we’ve all seen it, one way or another. That light-ish but distinct blue in copies of maps, mechanical drawings, and plans. In fact, this is why we say blueprint. One way to look at it is this: a model or a guide. A detailed plan of action.
I had no plan of action the day I fled my thirty-year marriage. No blueprint for moving into a house of grief.
In 2006 scientists discovered that Egyptian blue glows!
That pigment emits infrared radiation!
Blue is scientific!
It will burn the skin right off you.
But blue might save you.
For the longest time, I said sky blue. But I look up color swatches online and try to identify all the blues I see in my new home. I want to name these colors. I want to understand what makes one different from the other. I want you to see what I see. Even if a long time ago, blue meant to so many people only one thing.
I shuffle through small cardboard paint strips in Lowe’s and Home Depot. I hold them up in the light, in the story, trying to imagine laying one atop the blue wall on the west side of my kitchen or on my front door. I don’t ever match the colors. I can’t call any one of them what they are. I wonder who decides what they are. Who names them.
I sit at my distressed white dining room table and turn to the floor-to-ceiling bay windows, look out and down at the long green front yard. The sky today looks exactly like the color of my house.
I live in a blue house in a small town in a state I thought I’d never live. I swing on the porch as the sun rises and sets. At night, I sleep in a bed I bought myself and watch, through more floor-to-ceiling windows, the moon glide across the sky. I am well and I am fragile. This house holds me when I cannot hold myself.
Tiny dried and reddish mounds rise from the tops of my porch eaves. Inside, mud wasps squeeze through slim gaps between the white planks of the original shiplap ceilings. They don’t charge or sting. Sometimes there are so many, I simply swat at them and catch their falling bodies in a dustpan.
I did not fly too fast or too far; I chose here. I fled—but in daylight and after a marriage gone on too long let me go. What I know now is that anything can be turned: Body to spirit. Free to enslaved. Love to sick and broken.
Because the exterior of my house from its base all the way to its silvery tin roof is painted light blue, I believe I’m wrapped in safe harbor.
I didn’t know there would be so much love.
Dawn Denham’s work has appeared in Brevity, Zone 3, Literary Mama, Past Ten, Poets & Writers, and is forthcoming from Barnstorm. Her essay “Aleatorik” won the Solstice Magazine essay contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She writes and teaches in north central Mississippi and is completing her first memoir, The Blue House.