White is Glorious!
PROPAGANDISTS KNOW that anything repeated often enough and loudly enough will eventually become accepted as gospel. How long will it be, then, before BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL becomes part and parcel of our thought patterns? Another ten years? Twenty years? Fifty years? A hundred years?
But contrary to all expectations this catchy and alliterative slogan is encountering tough sledding. Unforeseen and unprovided for in the propaganda manuals is the existence in the very fiber of our language of an ingrained psychological polarity that very strongly favors white over black. Although we may hear and see BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL a hundred times a day, we never really come to believe it, for the white-black polarity built into our language and our literature, imbibed with our mother’s milk and inherited from hundreds of generations, continuously constrains us to believe the exact contrary.)
Throughout the whole group of Indo-Germanic languages white is used in an appreciative sense and black in a pejorative sense. Since white is the color of daylight and black the color of night, it appears that nature herself has established the grand dichotomy between the two colors.
Those who would argue that these values are relative or acquired rather than absolute, that we have conceived our prejudices on other grounds, real or imaginary, and transferred them to the colors have the weaker side of the argument. For the truth, apparent to all, is that our spirits expand with the rising run and wane with the setting sun. Instinctively we rejoice in the light and instinctively we fear the darkness; these natural feelings can be reversed only by long training, if at all. If we lived under conditions of continuous illumination or continuous lack of illumination, we might well have different feelings; but the physical world being what it is our minds are from birth predisposed to the dichotomous habit.
Consider the case of gold, silver, and platinum, the most precious of metals, and of diamonds, the most precious of gems; all are light-colored. Although it is true that much of their value is due to their purely physical properties, who would claim that their color has nothing to do with their universal appeal? Gold is the color of the rising sun.
(The Latin term could be applied equally to the dawn, the mineral, and the color; hence our modern derivations aurora, aureate, aureole, aurous, Austria, Australia, and east itself.)
The moon is described in terms of silver: “the silvery orb,” “the orbed maiden, with white fire laden,” “the silver crescent,” etc. Givers of light and life, the sun and the moon have been deified by all peoples; how natural then that their colors should be so universally preferred! Who can imagine a black sun? Or a black moon? The pattern applies even to clouds, When white and flocculent, they are symbols of joyousness and health. When black and lowering they bring gloom and presage disaster. Are not the Black Holes, currently subject of such intense study by astrophysicists, superbly named? The most forbidding spots in the universe from whose maw nothing, not even light, can escape! How could they be called anything else?
Since black is the color of night, it is by extension the color associated with evil, wrong-doing, fear, loathsomeness. In a sense it is a negative color in that it suggests emptiness or deficiency. At the same time, it contains the suggestion of horrible and powerful beings, often invisible, hence doubly fearful, lurking in obscurity. Hell is represented as a black, gloomy pit, its darkness limned in black; when one of them visits the earth on some errand, he is invariably dressed in sable. Satan, awakening in his lake of fire, contemplates
The dismal situation waste and wild,
A dungeon horrible on all sides around
As one great furnace flames; yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades…
His prison was ordained in “utter darkness,” “in horrid silence.” Hell is a “Stygian darkness,” a “gloom of Tartarus profound,” “a dark and dreary vale,” a “universe of death.”
In L’ Allegro all the evil associated with darkness is condensed in ten evocative lines:
Hence, loathed Melancholy,
Of Cerberus and blackest Midnight born,
In Stygian cave forlorn
‘Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sight unholy,
Find out some uncouth cell,
Where brooding darkness spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-raven sings;
There under ebon shades and low-browed rocks,
As ragged as thy locks,
In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell.
Heaven, in contrast, is a place of splendor, irradiated with light; angels are white-faced, robed in white, crowned with luminous halos. Consider the testimony of Joseph Smith [fictional, of course, but showing how we think of heavenly things]:
Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction…but just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun…a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air…He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen, nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant…Not only was his robe exceedingly white, but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning.
White is the color of purity, black the color of sin. Brides wear white, white flowers adorn the altar, white candles burn beside them. In the words of an old novel, “The bride’s virginal purity contrasted with the groom’s blackness of heart.”
White is the color of cleanliness, black the color of dirt. Snow is white, mud black. To clean an object is to whiten it; to sully it is to soil it; to soil it is to stain it with black. Immaculate connotes whiteness cleansed of all black spots. Nurses’ uniforms are white, as are cooks’ hats and aprons.
White is the color of intelligence, black the color of ignorance. An intelligent man is bright or brilliant — that is, having a mind the color of white light. A stupid person is dimwit, his eyes lack luster, his brain lacks fire. An informed person is enlightened, an ignorant person benighted. The intelligent individual makes illuminating remarks that throw light on the subject; he has a lucid mind, he elucidates a point and enlightens his auditors. The dullard is obscure, unclear, his meaning is indistinct, shrouded in mists, hidden in darkness; his thoughts are muddied, turbid. Southey was renowned for his transparent style, Hegel notorious for his density. “To see” is synonymous with “to understand.” Goethe on his death-bed cried out for mehr Licht.
White, black and other derivatives have penetrated so deeply into our language — and our thinking — that without them we would be tongue-tied. We blacken a man’s reputation, whitewash a political mistake. A den is a black sink of iniquity, war is a black crime against humanity. Englishmen were stuffed into the Black Hole of Calcutta. The loss of a football game is a black day for the Navy; to anticipate such a loss is to look on the black side of things. To fail to mow one’s lawn is to receive a black mark in the community. We are blackballed at the club, blackmailed by our onetime friends, and blacklisted by our enemies.
Concealed in Greek and Latin roots, black and white continue both to influence our mode of thinking and to reveal our natural prepossessions. To suffer from melancholy is to have black bile. To denigrate a person is to say black things about him. To take umbrage is to feel resentment at being denigrated. When we speak candidly, we speak honestly — that is, whitely. When we say that a pageant was splendid or a costume resplendent, we mean that it shone, like white light.
It is impossible that the human skin be excepted from this pattern of color preferences. According to anthropologist Carleton Coon (The Living Races of Man) virtually all cultures in all parts of the world regard, and seem always to have regarded, white skin as desirable and black skin undesirable. Dark-skinned women all over the world will go to any lengths to have children by White sires. While a White woman will repulse a Black suitor (like Pamina repulsing Monostatos), who ever heard of a Black woman rejecting a White petitioner? Aaron’s dramatic cry, “Is black so base a hue?” received no answer in the play (Titus Andronicus) and receives none today.
To swim against the current is always difficult, and those individuals who endeavor to point out that skin color has, or should have, nothing to do with physical, mental, and moral qualities find themselves struggling against a linguistic current as insidious as it is powerful. Defensive attempts by African negritude cultists to reverse the color relationship remain unconvincing. Attacking white as a pale, washed-out, diluted color, deficient in all vital qualities, they ring all the possible changes on the Black-Is-Beautiful theme. “Black is a beautiful color,” they chant, “black is the color of the earth, the color of strength.” Some African tribes represent the devil as white. The Togo poet Dr. Raphael Armattoe visualizes God as black, “Our God is black, the black of eternal blackness, with large, voluptuous lips.”
These partisans may be expected to refute the present article (should it ever come to their attention) by pointing out that anything can be proved by statistics, that the foregoing examples have been arbitrarily chosen, and that by skillfully selecting a quite different set of words and phrases one could present an equally strong case for the downgrading of whiteness and the glorification of blackness. What about white-livered, white with fear, pale as a ghost, showing the white feather, waving the white flag? But these instances, far fewer than their contraries, all have an explanation quite different from the ones commonly attributed to them. To show the white feather refers to a genetic mutation among game-cocks in which, by coincidence, a white feather in the tail was believed to be associated with inferior fighting qualities. To wave the white flag is to request a truce in fighting or to signal surrender by a beaten opponent. If we regard war as something noble, we will, of course, look upon its cessation as a mark of cowardice; but if we regard it as infamous, we will look upon its cessation benignantly. Throughout the annals of armed contest white has been the symbol of neutrality, arbitration, and clemency, while black has invariably been the grim and merciless symbol of death, destruction, and treachery. When laying siege to a city, Tamerlane ran up white flags above his hosts during the first twenty-four hours, guaranteeing clemency to the inhabitants if they would open the gates before the expiration of the term. On the second day he ordered the white flags to be hauled down and red flags to be run up, signifying death for the defending soldiery with clemency still held out to the civilian body. On the third day he replaced the red pennons with black ones. If by the end of that period the gates had still not been opened, no one within the walls, neither man, woman, nor child, could escape death. Black meant total annihilation.
The other instances in which white seems to have a negative connotation are based not upon any opposition between white and black but upon the contrast between two kinds of white: normal, healthy whiteness and the chalky whiteness associated with disease or death. The healthy skin is ruddy: white with a reddish tinge in the background. One becomes white with fear or white with rage when the blood is suddenly and dramatically withdrawn from the skin surface — something that can happen to people of any color, although the darker pigments disguise the process, just as they disguise blushing. The few negative connotations of white are all associated with extreme pallor — an abnormal or diseased condition. Recovery from this condition (and here’s where apologists for blackness totally miss the point) means a return not to black but to ruddy cheeks — healthy red blood coursing beneath a white skin. Albinism is similarly misunderstood. If, like left-handedness, it has acquired certain sinister overtones (“sinister” itself means left-handed), this is simply because of its rarity; it is something unconventional, out of the ordinary, egregious (“outside the flock”). When Melville chose as a symbol of evil the Great White Whale, he did so, not to stigmatize whiteness but simply to make this whale stand out from all other whales (which are dark-colored when viewed from above). If he had chosen a polar bear as his symbol, he would, for the same reason, have made it a black one.
Examples could be multiplied, but the point has been made. The existence in our language of a white-black polarity charged with meaning and emotion, sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious, cannot be denied. To destroy or nullify this polarity seems an impossible task: a whole new language would have to be constructed. But since language is, in large part, an attempt to describe and categorize the external world, would not the hypothetical new language come to contain essentially the same polarity? Can any language change the color of the sun, the moon, the stars, the clouds, daylight itself — or prevent the attachment of positive emotions to the words designating these objects? Can any language dispel our instinctive distrust of the obscure, our instinctive fear of dark places, and our instinctive identification of blackness with evil?
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Source: Instauration magazine, April 1980