Sunday, November 6, 2011

Colgate Optic White

I find it impossible to decide what’s more plausible: that the name Colgate Optic White is the work of a snarky creative type who’s read Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952), or that this new toothpaste just happens to share its name with one of that novel’s most important tropes of color and invisibility. Either way, I’m buying a tube as soon as possible to remember this odd intersection of art and commerce.

In Ellison’s novel, Optic White is the signature product of Liberty Paints, where the narrator, adrift in New York City, has gone to see about a job. Optic White suggests a range of matters: appearances (color as what meets the eye), invisibility (Lucius Brockway, an African-American genius of paint, mixes Optic White in the factory basement), masks (Optic White will cover anything, even a chunk of coal), the melting pot (a black liquid stirred into the paint leaves a grey tinge), whiteness as what’s officially American (Optic White is used on government buildings), and xenophobia (“Keep America Pure with Liberty Paints” is one company slogan). Brockway had a hand in another slogan: “If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White.”¹ Gosh, that’d make a great toothpaste slogan too, wouldn’t it?

¹ The slogan reminds the novel’s anonymous narrator of “a childhood jingle”: “If you’re white, you’re right.” Ellison in a 1954 Paris Review interview:
Q: Can you give us an example of the use of folklore in your own novel?

A: Well, there are certain themes, symbols, and images which are based on folk material. For example, there is the old saying among Negroes: If you’re black, stay back; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re white, you’re right.
Related posts
Barack Obama and Ralph Ellison
Invisible man: Louis Armstrong and the New York Times
Invitation to a dance (A passage from Invisible Man)
Three inaugural moments (“when white will embrace what is right”)

comments: 2

Pete said...

That is just too weird. And I doubt that any of the suits at Colgate-Palmolive even know who Ellison is, let alone pay tribute to him with one of their brands.

Michael Leddy said...

It’d be a mighty strange tribute. Lots of people read Invisible Man in college — maybe it’s unconscious influence.