By Lawrence W. Rodgers,
In the 1992 Spike Lee movie “Malcolm X,” there is a scene where Malcolm Little, also known as Detroit Red or Red, is incarcerated. He meets the fictional Brother Bane character, a member of the Nation of Islam. In the film, he plays a large part in Malcolm’s conversion. Brother Bane challenges Malcolm to read the entire dictionary. When Malcolm does so, he discovers that words about whiteness, white things, or words having “white” in the prefix are almost always words for purity, innocence, and beauty. Malcolm contrasts this with the words for blackness, black things, or words having “black” as a prefix, which were almost always words for defiled, guilty, or ugly.
In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm only mentions reading the dictionary from front cover to back; he does not mention this rhetorical study of whiteness and blackness. Nonetheless, the problem exists within the English language where whiteness is deified and blackness is demonized. This problem within the English language makes the concept of white supremacy intrinsic in the language itself. Whiteness is more holy, pure; blackness or darkness is evil and bad. This linguistic consequence has been damaging to the religious psyche of black people, and has had implications for theological discourses. This essay will seek to examine the consequences of this English-language problem regarding whiteness and blackness, and how the language might be reoriented towards a less oppressive pedagogy.
Hip-hop black artist Dej Loaf released a single October 15, 2014 called “Try Me”. The single was a financial success, peaking at 45 on the Top 100 Billboard. In the song, the young woman rapper makes this statement:
You are an imposter, ain’t got no money/
Put the burner to his tummy, and make it bubbly/
I really hate n—–s I’m a Nazi/
Love wearin’ all black, you should see my closet/
Rock that all white, when I’m feeling Godly.”
These sort of lyrics are not uncommon in the rap music industry. These lyrics from Dej Loaf demonstrate how the English language assumes whiteness as pure, holy, and righteous while blackness is evil and accursed. These lyrics are revealing, because the artist talks about how she wears all black when she is killing people—but when she is feeling “godly” she wears all white. Dej Loaf uses God-talk in order to create a dichotomy between wearing black when she committing anti-social behaviors as she says in the chorus, “Let a n—a try me, try me, I’m going to kill his whole mother f—– family.” When she wears all white, it is because she wants to be “godly”; one can assume this means behaving in a less-violent and peaceful way. In fact, she outright says, “I really hate niggas I’m a Nazi”. Of course she is using the word “nigga” as an epithet against black people. There is no doubt that her self-loathing and her view of blackness are related.
The use of God-talk against blackness is not unique to gangster rap. In Kirk Franklin’s song “Jesus Paid It All”, he sings the following, “Sin had left a crimson stain…He washed them….Whiter than snow”. While the dichotomy in Franklin’s song is not between black and white, it still sets whiteness as the blessing of Christianity. The song states that the individual is washed and is made whiter than snow in a celebratory fashion. Franklin’s contemporary gospel song is very similar to the traditional Christian hymn “Nothing But Blood” lyric: “Oh, precious is the flow that makes me white as snow.”
This anti-black language is a regular part of Christianity. If Christians are viewing whiteness as the objective, beyond the argument that it is all figurative language, then what does it do to the black psyche and Christian mind? What are black Christians to believe when whiteness is constantly associated with holiness and purity?
One must contemplate what this sort of language has done to the mind of blacks. Carter G. Woodson says it is worse than lynching, “As another has well said, to handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching. It kills one’s aspirations and dooms him to vagabondage and crime.” Woodson states that teaching blacks that their blackness is cursed and that they cannot change their condition is worse than lynching. Woodson’s comment is a grave indictment on anyone who teaches that blackness is accursed. However, it should serve as especially reprimanding to black religious leaders who have not reoriented their language towards a healthy blackness. Woodson’s comment should inspire clergy to rethink their God-talk to make sure it does not reduce black human agency. Malcolm X once critiqued the black church in this regard. In “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, given at the King Solomon Baptist Church in 1964 with Rev. Albert Cleage present among others, he stated:
We suffer political oppression, economic exploitation and social degradation. All of ’em from the same enemy. The government has failed us. You can’t deny that. Any time you’re living in the 20th century, 1964, and you walking around here singing “We Shall Overcome,” the government has failed you. This is part of what’s wrong with you, you do too much singing. Today it’s time to stop singing and start swinging. You can’t sing up on freedom. But you can swing up on some freedom. Cassius Clay can sing. But singing didn’t help him to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Swinging helped him.
Malcolm X’s critique of government is noteworthy. Government has often told the black community their problems cannot be solved without the assistance of government. This lack of regard for black human agency is not just political; there is a theological lack of regard which expects members of the black community to rely only on prayer to solve their problems. This is what Malcolm X is critiquing when he says, “This is part of what’s wrong with you, you do too much singing. Today it’s time to stop singing and start swinging.”
Carter and X both have a high view of blackness and its agency. Woodson makes it clear the combination of teaching the black community that their condition is a hopeless one—which is a low view of their agency—combined with teaching that blackness is cursed, kills one’s aspirations and will lead to criminality. Dej Loaf’s lyrics could certainly be a case study in support of Woodson’s point. One does not need to agree with the extremity of Woodson’s statement in order to acknowledge that if black people believe their very blackness is accursed, that is not conducive to their mental health.
It was a show of self-affirmation and a form of resistance against this unhealthy theological perspective when James Brown famously shouted, “I’m Black and I’m Proud”. Blacks so often have not been proud of their very blackness due to racism. The social construct of whiteness juxtaposes blackness as everything whiteness is not.
So what is whiteness? Painter, in The History of White People, explains, “Those at the very bottom were slaves. Slavery has helped construct concepts of white race in two contradictory ways. First, American tradition equates whiteness with freedom while consigning blackness to slavery.” She goes on to write, “In the second place, the term “Caucasian” as a designation for white people originates in concepts of beauty related to the white slave trade from eastern Europe, and whiteness remains embedded in visions of beauty found in art history and popular culture.”
Many enslaved blacks would struggle with an unhealthy view of blackness. For instance, in the Autobiography of Kate Drumgoold, she says the following, “And what a glory it will be for all that have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb; and I know that two darling mothers have washed their robes and made them white, and to God be all the praise for the great love that He has shown to poor me, who feels so lonely on this lovely Lord’s day.” Here is a quote from formerly enslaved Phyllis Wheatley, “Let us rejoice in and adore the wonders of God’s infinite love in bringing us from a land semblant of darkness itself, and where the divine light of revelation (being obscured) is in darkness. Here the knowledge of the true God and eternal life are made manifest; but there was nothing in us to recommend us to God.” As progressive and as committed to abolitionist movement as Kate Drumgoold and Phyllis Wheatley were, engrained in both of their statements is the idea of whiteness as goodness and blackness as otherwise.
The enslaved learned this view of blackness from their captors. Alexander Hewat, a Presbyterian minister and historian, wrote in 1779, “The negroes of that country, a few only excepted, are to this day as great strangers to Christianity, and as much under the influence of Pagan darkness, idolatry, and superstition, as they were at their first arrival from Africa …” It is obvious that the influence of white clergy regarding blackness as accursed had a profound effect on society. Furthermore, the racialized pseudo-science of people like Blumenbach and others were not the only ones propagating the myth of blackness as evil. Clergy propagated the myth through teachings like the so-called “curse of Ham”. Emerson articulates, “Once again, I think this is a great testament to the power of Christianity, even though Christianity was being used to oppress blacks. Select passages of the Bible were used, like ‘slaves obey your masters,’ and there’s this erroneous ‘Curse of Ham’ idea that was promulgated at the time. It basically stated that the black race was cursed because of Noah’s son, Ham. But that’s an erroneous kind of thinking. Even though that kind of stuff was happening, you still saw blacks embracing Christianity and the gospel.”
So the question must be poised: Have blacks been slower to resist this myth because they have been taught by the English language that whiteness was pure and innocent, by religion that whiteness was God, and by pseudo-science that whiteness was biologically superior? In the 21st century, what must be done in order to reverse the damage done by these myths?
Nina Simone stated in a interview that:
“[You ask me] why I am so insistent upon giving out to them that black blackness, that black power, that black pushing them to identify with…black culture. I have no choice over it in the first place. To me we are the most beautiful [people] in the whole world…I mean that in every sense both outside and inside…So again…my job is to somehow make them curious enough or persuade them by hook or crook to get more aware of themselves, and where they came from, and what they are into, and what is already there and just to bring it out and this is what compels me to compel them and I will do it by any means necessary.”
What Ms. Nina Simone demonstrates is the need to reorient the conversation from blackness as ugly. Interestingly, the late rapper Christopher Wallace, also known as Biggie Smalls, once proclaimed, “He was black and ugly as ever”, but Nina Simone says blacks are the most beautiful people in the world.
What Nina Simone does from a sociological perspective must also be done from a theological one, by realizing the divinity of blackness and the power and beauty of blackness. This can be done by honestly reviewing the evidence surrounding blackness and creation. The most potent elements in nature are black, such as black soil, black seeds (such as cumin seeds) or blackberries. Blackness all throughout creation is powerful and strong. When one looks out into the universe, up into the stars, what does one see but a big black universe that birthed our world? Astronomers have yet to recognize any force stronger in the universe than black holes—and they are also just at the tip of the iceberg in understanding dark matter. So, while white supremacy has worked hard to teach blacks that blackness and darkness are evil and accursed, creation itself has always said otherwise.
Alton Pollard III published an article in the Huffington Post in 2015. In it, he says, “For as long as I can remember I have understood darkness to be a blessed and sacred gift.” He goes on to quote Psalms 139:11-12, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night … the darkness and light are both alike to Thee.” Pollard demonstrates, using Psalms 139:11-12, the fallacy of making darkness morally evil and light as morally good. Influenced by Thurman’s Luminous Darkness, Pollard writes, “For me, the luminous darkness is an authenticating experience that affirms the cosmos of the dark night and the melanin quotient of my own dark skin. It is a conduit to the extraordinary wisdom embodied in Black lives and embedded in every life. It is a creative encounter that embraces my Africanity and restores our humanity in common. It is a centering cognition that the contradictions of life are not final. It disrupts all manner of hierarchy, faction and dualism. It is a source of universal significance that makes one whole.”
Pollard talks about his experience of accepting the luminous darkness. He calls it an “authenticating experience”, and says it is affirming to correlate the dark cosmos with his “melanin quotient” dark skin. It is no doubt affirming when a black person who has been humiliated and condemned because of his skin realizes he is in fact beautiful and that darkness is divine. It is certainly inspiring when such an individual associates the beauty of the universe with his or her own. This is a revelation with both a spiritual and psychological benefit—spiritually, one can then incorporate their culture, their existence into god-talk without feeling contradictory or insecure. Psychologically, a person or a people can see themselves in God, and God in themselves. That creates a sense of purpose, pride, agency, and ability which is impossible when you see yourself as accursed, evil, and wicked.
Pollard states that this understanding of blackness or darkness is “a conduit to the extraordinary wisdom embodied in Black lives and embedded in every life. It is a creative encounter that embraces my Africanity and restores our humanity in common.” Pollard demonstrates the need for a reorientation of language and states three benefits from this reorientation. The first is “extraordinary wisdom”; the second is that it causes black people to “embrace [our] Africanity”; and third, it restores our humanity in common.” All three of these benefits are more than welcome, and can be attained by removing the stigma from darkness or blackness. Rather, we can accept it, and embrace it as luminous.
It gives everyone, especially black people but also all people, a wholeness that the English language’s definition of blackness and darkness cannot provide.
Pollard adds that the fourth benefit from reorienting one’s language around darkness is that “it disrupts all manner of hierarchy, faction and dualism. It is a source of universal significance that makes one whole.” This conversation about reorientation boils down to the fundamental destruction of the hierarchy between the light and dark, realizing they are both beautiful. It gives everyone, especially black people but also all people, a wholeness that the English language’s definition of blackness and darkness cannot provide.
In Ivorian and Senegalese, poet Bernard Dadie gives us a language to use regarding blackness. In his poem I Give You Thanks My God he speaks of the beauty of blackness, the prominent place of blackness in creation, and also the beauty of his African attributes, such as his nose, shape of his head, and his lips. He says this in the final stanza:
I give you thanks my God, for having created me black,
White is a colour for an occasion,
Black the colour of all days
And I carry the World since the morning of time.
And my laughter in the night brought forth day over
I give you thanks my God for having created me black.
The reorientation of blackness and darkness indeed provides reason to give thanks to God. Dadie demonstrates blackness as being there from the beginning of time. He appeals to the blackness of the universe as the carrier of the world since creation. He appeals to night, not as something scary and distant, but as something which brings about laughter and joy—and this joy and laughter of night is what brings about the day. Therefore, Dadie is grateful for being black.
If black people could let go of the false dichotomy of goodness and evil based on whiteness and darkness, as it relates to skin color, it could create a sense of embrace instead of loathing. The theology of the black experience would also be able to harness its power in a way that will resist the oppression of racial hegemony. Cone writes this about this power of the acceptance of blackness and the black experience:
“The power of the black experience cannot be overestimated. It is the power to love oneself precisely because one is black and a readiness to die if whites try to make one behave otherwise. It is the sound of James Brown singing, “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Aretha Franklin demanding “respect.” The black experience is catching the spirit of blackness and loving it. It is hearing black preachers speak of God’s love in spite of the filthy ghetto, and black congregations responding Amen, which means that they realize that ghetto existence is not the result of divine decree but of white inhumanity.”
Cone is right. The embracing of blackness and the resistance against the racist consequences of the English language will produce love for blackness and the black experience, which will cause one to be more apt to resist oppression and bigotry.
In conclusion, the English language has attempted to demonize blackness and darkness while deifying whiteness. It is up to black people or dark-skinned people themselves to resist this narrative and to protect their theology, ideologies, and self-image from a language that insists on denigrating them. Whiteness and darkness must not be morally juxtaposed. Darkness must be appreciated for its beauty and its goodness. What will follow is a pride and love of self, which prompts protection, restoration, and a theological purpose of blackness or darkness. To fail to recognize this problem of the language is to agree to the damage it has done, is doing, and will do in the future. It is paramount for English speakers to reorient the language towards wholeness; to be whole, blackness or darkness cannot be viewed as defective, defunct, or evil. This reorientation of language regarding darkness and blackness will have broad and important effects on theological perspectives, as well as the interpretation of the world and society of English speakers and other languages, which have adopted this unhealthy and dangerous view of darkness and blackness.
Cone, James H. A Black Theology of Liberation. 40th ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010.
Franklin, Kirk. Whatch Lookin’ 4 “Jesus Paid It All.” GospoCentric Records. CD. 1996.
Loaf, Dej. Try Me. Columbia Records. 2014.
Burton, Anna L., and Kate Drumgoold. “Chapter VI: A Slave Girl’s Story by Kate Drumgoold.” In Women’s Slave Narratives, 150-51. Mineola: Dover Publishing, 2006.
Dadie, Bernard. “I Give You Thanks My God” (Poetry Text). Poem. Accessed April 19, 2016. https://afrilingual.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/65/.
Malcolm X. Directed by Spike Lee. Warner Home Video, 1992. DVD. 2000.
Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
Pollard III, Alton. “‘Silent Night, Holy Night’: The Gift of the Luminous Darkness.” HuffPost Religion, Dec 21, 2015. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alton-b-pollard-iii-phd/silent-night-holy-night-the-gift-of-the-luminous-darkness_b_8845368.html.
Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” In The Antebellum South. Updated ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Smalls, Biggie. One More Chance (Remix). Bad Boy Records. 1995.
Woodson, Carter Godwin. The Mis-Education of the Negro. Charleston: Seven Treasures Publications, 2010.
X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.
X, Malcolm. “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Lecture, King Solomon Baptist Church, Detroit, MI, April 12, 1964. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/blackspeech/mx.html.
Lawrence W. Rodgers is the pastor of the Westside Church of Christ in Baltimore, MD. He has contributed articles to several sources including KineticsLive, Patheos’ R3(Race, Rhetoric, and Religion), Christian Century, The Afro and more. You can follow him @lwrdgrs or his website LawrenceRodgers.com.
This is part of our series on AfroCultures, God-Talk and the African World.
Join Our List
Stay up to date with the LATEST news from .Base