Friday, 2 August 2013

Black - A Dark History

Darkness, Void, Nothing, Empty,
This is black.


Noun. Old English.
[The adjective used as elliptical or absolute.]

1A. Black substance; specifically (a) ink (obsolete)(b) black pigment, dye or varnish (frequently with specifying word)soot (dialectical). OE

1B. The credit side of an account. Compare with RED noun. E20

2. Black colour; a shade of this; blackness, darkness. ME

3. A black speck or particle; specifically (a) in plural fungus or smut attacking wheat etc.; (b) a flake of soot, a smut. ME

4. The pupil of the eye. Obsolete LME-M17

5. Black clothing or fabric, in plural black clothes or (archaic) hangings, especially as a sign of mourning. LME

6. (Also Black) A member of a dark-skinned people, especially of African or Australian Aboriginal ancestry. E17

7. A member of a party, faction, etc., adopting black as its colour. Compare with WHITE noun. L17

8. Elliptical. Anything distinguished by black colour, as the black divisions in roulette and rouge-et-noir, the black ball in snooker, a black postage stamp, a black horse, a black pigeon or duck, etc; (usually Black) the player of the black pieces in chess or draughts. M19

9. =BLACKMAIL noun. Slang. E20

10. A serious mistake or blunder (compare with black mark). Slang. M20

A black man from Poitiers, France
(photo by Ben Raynal)


[Old English blæc, blac- corresponding to Old Saxon blac ink, Old High German blah, black-; compare with Old Norse blakkr dusky, black, dun: ultimately origin unknown.]

I Literal

1A. Opposite to white; colourless from the absence of complete absorption of light. Also, so near this as to have no distinguishable colour, very dark. OE

1B. CARDS. Belonging to spades or clubs. L17

1C. Of coffee or (occasionally) tea: served without milk, cream, etc. L18

2A. Dark-skinned or dark-haired; swarthy. obsolete in general sense. OE

2B. (Also Black). Of or pertaining to any human group having dark-coloured skin, especially of African or Australian Aboriginal ancestry. LME

3. Wearing black clothing. ME

4. Deeply stained with dirt, soiled, filthy. ME

5. Characterised by the absence of light; dusky, gloomy; overcast. LME

II Figurative

6. Foreboding or threatening; angry, sulky; dismal; melancholy. LME

7. Foul, atrocious; wicked; hateful. M16

8. (a) Malignant, deadly; sinister. L16 (b) Macabre; presenting tragedy or bitter reality in comic terms. M20

9. Disgraceful, deserving censure, illegal. E17

10. (a) Of work, good, etc.: not (to be) undertaken or handles, because of an industrial dispute. E20 (b) Of or performed by blacklegs during a strike. M20

11. Contravening economic regulations. M20

Evil, Bad, Crossbow, Shield, Flag, Toy,
It's cold, dead eyes betray a horse of pure malevolence. That, and it's black.
(photo by Gorekun)


Verb. Middle English.
[from the adjective.]

1. verb intrans. Be or become black. obsolete. Long dialectical, rare. ME-M19

2 verb intrans (a) Make black; put black colour on. ME (b) specifically Polish with blacking. M16 (c) specifically Bruise or discolour (a person's eye). E20

3. verb trans. Defame, speak evil of. LME

4. verb trans. Blackmail. slang. E20

5. verb trans. Declare (good etc.) black in an industrial dispute. M20

Black is my favourite colour. I say that proudly as someone that has had black as his favourite colour for as long as he can remember; as someone that was challenged recently by a woman who emphatically stated that black cannot be a favourite colour, as black is not a colour. Furthermore, she opined that if black truly were my favourite colour, it would reveal dark things about my soul and state of mind.

I know - this is hardly an appropriate conversation for two adults, arguing over favourite colours and all that nonsense, but my compulsion to respond stems from one of my first memories in primary school. It was First Year, and the class had just acquired a brand new Lego set - it was a castle and had knights and horses and swords and bows, and it was all awfully exciting. I soon got into an argument with another boy, however, who said that my knight was a baddie, and his was a goodie. Distraught, I went to my teacher:

"Miss ... Craig keeps saying my knight's a baddie."

"Well what colour is his horse?"


"Well your knight is a baddie then."

And that was it. Based on nothing more than the colour of his horse, my knight was condemned as a baddie, forever destined to do whatever it is that bad knights do. I sulked off back to the play area, unable to understand why picking my favourite colour for my knight's horse now meant I had to play as the bad guy. And now, some thirty years later, my favourite colour somehow casts aspersions on my psychological profile, as if indicative of some pent-up rage that will one day explode in a violent and riotous orgy of black-hearted malevolence.

All this is incredibly trivial, of course, but it does prompt the question: Why does black have such sinister connotations, associated as it is with evil, darkness, secrecy, authority, death and mourning? And why are such associations drilled in from an early age? It wasn't just my teacher, of course. Darth Vader, childhood symbol of all that is evil, is completely clad in black, as are many of his dastardly, British-accented cohorts. And to reinforce the existing associations, there is the seemingly never-ending list of deeply negative black words: Black Death, black eye, blacklist, blackmail, black sheep and black widow to name a few.

Negative associations with black are not universal however. The Ancient Egyptians revered black, associating it with the rich black soil of the Nile flood plains; indeed during the time of the Old Kingdom, Egypt was known as Kemet, 'The Black Land'. With black being the colour of night and darkness, however, it's easy to see how it developed the connotations that it did: night is a frightening and uncertain time, and humans don't see well in the dark. The fear of the unknown, of what danger might be lurking in the shadows, makes us naturally flee from darkness and into the light where we can find security and reassurance, where we're naturally more capable with the senses we have.
"And I looked, and lo, a black horse. And he sitting on it had a balance in his hand."
Revelation of John 6:5 KJV

In Western society, however, perhaps black's sinister qualities have been reinforced to no greater extent than in the Bible itself, which repeatedly references darkness opposed to light, both in a spiritual and a literal sense. Famously, black is specifically stated as the colour of the third horse of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, commonly interpreted as bringer of famine and woe.

As well as the cultural connections made regarding the colour black, it's also of interest to note its use to describe people, their skin colour and their ancestry. Sadly, as would seem inevitable when discussing such things, colonialism and the slave trade have played their part in this, as obviously neither African nor Australian people would have referred to themselves as black in pre-colonial times, any more than Europeans would have collectively referred to themselves as white. Rather, they would apply descriptors to themselves relating to their ethnic and linguistic groups. 

On their arrival into the Americas, however, white people would generally not recognise these native distinctions, such as Igbo, Wolof or Ashanti. Therefore, they commonly came to be known as Africans, which is significant considering what a diverse continent Africa is and the enormous geographical and cultural range from which slaves were taken. In time, however, the term 'African' become problematic, if not completely inaccurate, to describe American-born people. In the 1800s, therefore, both colored and negro gained acceptance as words to describe black Americans.

Colored and negro continued to be used up until the 1960s and the advent of the civil rights movement. Previously, black was seen as having a negative connotation, but this ultimately reversed as demonstrated by James Brown's funk hit 'Say it Loud - I'm Black and Proud'.

It's interesting that both colored and negro (which comes from the Latin niger meaning 'black') sound embarrassingly outdated now, if not downright offensive, though both are still used by particular groups, notably the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). Outside of these specific or historical contexts, however, colored and negro are often considered offensive. Since the 1980s, the term African-American has also advanced, with some preferring it to black due to its historic and geographic accuracy. Surveys within the black population have been conducted in the US as to which term is preferred, but generally black and African-American can be used interchangeably, with African-American seen as the more formal of the two.

So there you go, Unnamed-Young-Woman and Long-Gone-(probably dead)-Primary-School Teacher: I will retain my right to still have a favourite colour in my thirties, thank you very much, and I will proudly declare that colour to be black. As I think I've shown, black is a profoundly interesting word, both culturally and linguistically, and I will continue to celebrate it for its beauty and depth, elegance and style, mystery and allure. So there.

Is your favourite colour black?

Does black have different connotations where you're from?

Do you have any thoughts on the use of black to describe someone's colour or ancestry?

Do please leave your comments below.


  1. Oh, the traumata of infants classes! I was the only girl in my class with dark hair so I ALWAYS had to be the witch in our singing games.

    Mind you, all the little fair girls had to take it in turns to be the princess, and I got a starring role every time.

    And where are all those little fair girls now?

    Toads. Every one.

    (Loud cackling laugh fading into echo...)

    1. Oh no! The witch in every game? Well, being the tallest in the class, I was cast as Giant Finn in the school play which ... umm ... kind of makes sense now that I think about it ... hmm.

  2. Poor little Ed. Sucks if you have to play something just based on what your favourite knight's horse looks like, doesn't it? That's how racism happens, and any other form of thinking in boxes.

    Although black, over here, is also considered to be a dark colour (both literally - duh - and figuratively speaking), I don't think that's right. Black is vivid, it's strong. Black is well defined, it has character. You know what colour would be better to describe all things bad? Grey. Grey's a stupid absence or presence of all colours, it doesn't know what it wants, and it looks so incredibly dull. There's nothing exciting about grey, all it does is make everyone around feel miserable.

    I plea for grey as the new black.

    1. You know, Bibi, I think you may be right. I don't mind when it's day, or when it's night, or when it's raining, sunny, hot or cold, but I *cannot* abide the overcast greyness we get in Ireland for weeks at a time. It is brutally depressing.

      As for Greys, they're aliens, aren't they? The little guys with big heads that are slowly infiltrating our governments and probing our cattle. I don't think anyone will object if their physical descriptor takes on a negative overtone.

    2. I wouldn't want to be the one to jeopardise our future intergalactic relationships by starting a discrimination based on the colour grey, though.

    3. Too late, Bibi. Look at what you wrote about them - it's shocking!

  3. When I was about four years old in a very multi-racial part of London, I had a friend called Jonathan. In my parent's kitchen, I told an adult friend of the family about Jonathan, and he asked me 'what colour is Jonathan?'

    I can still remember having absolutely no idea what the question meant or how to answer it.

    Recently I asked a small boy from Kenya what colour he thought my skin was, and he said 'peach.'

    Incidentally, I still have no idea what colour my friend Jonathan was, and it makes me sad to reflect that today, 30 years later, I would even be aware that there could be a difference.


    1. I can imagine the conversation:

      *little Clueless bouncing around the kitchen, boasting about his adventures with his friend Jonathan*

      Clueless: "... and then we found a worm and I ATE IT!! Jonathan said I couldn't do it, but I did!" (always a proud moment)
      family friend: "...What colour is Jonathan?"


    2. That childhood obliviousness is exceptionally sweet to see. There's nothing wrong in seeing differences in adulthood, though - no one can pretend that they don't see differences in colour or culture. The problems start when your mind automatically assumes: "OK, so he's X, which means he's also Y."

  4. That's pretty much it, although I wasn't made of rubber.


  5. Ah, I could've sworn all 4yos are in fact deformed bouncing balls, but it seems I was wrong. It should be: all 4yos but Clueless. My bad. :)

  6. Two years ago, one of my husband's colleagues was visiting the university in our small Greek town. She is British and black. We took her to the beach one Saturday morning. As I was walking with her, I could feel everyone looking at us with so much wonder, as if she had four heads. Then, as we passed by a father and his -very young- child, I heard him say to the child: "Did you see the black one?"

    I felt so disgusted and ashamed but at the same time I was very happy she can't understand Greek. Racism and narrow-mindedness in Greece is an enormous problem.

    1. I know various parents, Evi, who have deeply prejudicial views against different races and minorities. The thing that saddens me the most is the thought of them automatically, even inadvertently, passing those views on to their children. Racism is such a destructive and pathetic legacy to pass on to your children.

  7. I was born and bred in NZ, and never once thought of the Maori's as coloured or otherwise.
    They're Maori's.
    I lived in Australia for 5 years before coming to Canada, and never considered the aborigines as black or coloured. They're aborigines.
    So when I came to Canada, I was kind of shocked to hear people call others with a dark skin, black.

    I have a dark-skinned (see, I still don't say black!) friend who is a U.S. citizen.
    She abhors the term 'African-American.'
    She was born in the U.S., and insists she is American.
    I'm with her!

    1. In Britain and Ireland, the word 'coloured' is usually only heard from the older generation, at which point every person in the room under 40 shrinks in horror.

  8. I found this post and all of the comments so interesting! I have missed having time to read your posts.

    Ed, I had a similar experience as a kid. In grade 2, we were asked what our favourite colours were. When I said that my favourite colour was black, other kids argued in the same fashion as the unknown woman. "Black's not a colour! It can't be your favourite!" If I remember right, my teacher also looked at me a little funny.

    However, when you say that black doesn't indicate some pent up anger or darkness in your soul... I think may have in mine haha. I was a rather troubled child at times.

    Even though black is no longer my favourite colour (I also still have a favourite colour in my late twenties), I still appreciate its beauty and mystery as you said!

    1. It's always great to see you here, Kara, and I love your comments. It's interesting that the 'black's not a colour' mentality is cross-cultural, as the idea that having black as a favourite colour is a bit odd.

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