Black in history, culture, politics – a symbol of protest, a color of mourning and racism, and sporting greatness

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at an event on August 10 that there was “an attempt to spread the mentality of black magic”, but for people trying to do so, the “period of despair” does not would not end despite the black clothes. Modi did not name anyone, but was widely understood to be referring to Congress leaders and supporters who protested against inflation and unemployment on August 5, dressed in black clothes.

Congress Leader Rahul Gandhi responded on Twitter: “Stop demeaning the dignity of the Prime Minister’s office and misleading the country by talking about superstitious things like ‘black magic’ to hide your black deeds, Prime Minister- ji”.

Congress party communications secretary Jairam Ramesh posted a photo of Modi in black and mocked the prime minister for not bringing back the black money as he promised and lifting instead “meaningless” questions.

Senior Congressman Randeep Singh Surjewala spoke of the ‘dark clouds’ of high prices, unemployment and economic woes, and asked the Prime Minister to speak about the ‘darkness’ the government had spread to the instead of complaining about the opposition.

Why is black considered a marker for things that seem negative?

More than a century ago, in a book entitled “The Symbolism of Color” written in 1921, Ellen Conroy McCaffery claimed that science does not even consider black a color, since it does not reflect the light and absorbs it instead.

McCaffery wrote that by and large the Western world viewed the color as “simply the dark color of mourning, a sign that our lives have been robbed of the joy of the presence of a loved one. Perhaps this is the most depressing of all colors, physically, mentally and morally.” It is the color worn at funerals in many religions.

Black is also associated with the night, the depths, the unknown, and used in English often for its intensity in phrases like “going black with rage” and beating someone “black and blue”. There are also many terms associated with color, such as “black sheep” for someone who is the intruder, “blacklist” meaning to boycott someone, “black day” indicating a disappointing day, etc., color usually referring to an unpleasant event. All Indians know the reference to unaccounted money, on which no tax has been paid, as “black” or “kaala dhan” money.

But surely black doesn’t just have a negative connotation?

No. Quoting the English poet John Milton, McCaffery wrote that black was seen as the “hue of wisdom”, a more human hue compared to God’s luminous intensity: too bright/To touch the sense of human sight; / And so to our faintest sight / O’er covered with the black and wise tint of wisdom,” Milton wrote in the poem “Il Senseroso” (The Thinker).

White, on the other hand, is the total reflection of light, and the two are often contrasted to denote light and dark, good and evil, etc. But the notion of black being attached to negative or undesirable things may have to do with the perception of color by groups throughout history, as well as the stark, empty depth of color.

Writer Kate Carter says black “was the color of Anubis (left), the god of mummification and the afterlife”. (Source: Met Museum via Wikimedia Commons)

In ancient Egypt, black was considered a symbol of a good harvest, as the black soil of the region fed by the Nile helped to grow bountiful crops. Writing in The Guardian several years ago, writer and editor Kate Carter noted this black “was also the color of Anubis, the god of mummification and the afterlife, he was not a negative figure or an evil presence, but rather the one who protected the dead against evil. Thus black was the color of death, but also the color of resurrection”.

Google Arts and Culture, a platform of information gathered from museums around the world, says: “In Latin, the word ‘black’, ater, is associated with cruelty and evil. “Atrocious” and “atrocity” derive from this… It is therefore not surprising that in medieval paintings the devil is often painted black.

The Greeks, however, developed a very sophisticated technique for painting black figures on clay pottery, showing the early importance of color in art and culture. Color of elegance, clothing in black has become very popular over time.

How has “black” been used in modern culture and language?

In a Reader’s Digest article on subtle racism in language, a quote from therapist Dee Watts-Jones emphasizes that the use of the term black is not always unintentional.

“The English language is bedridden with racism, even though most of us are generally unaware of that fact,” she said, adding, “Everyday language reminds African Americans of concrete way that our color is linked to extortion (blackmail), discredit (black mark), rejection (black ball), banishment (black list), impurity (not snow chased), illegality ( black market) and death. Emphasizing how dark never means universally negative, she said: “Chasing black or dark while praising white or light is not universal, and regardless of the intentions of the user of these expressions, such use is conniving with racism.”

Closer to home, there is the expression “Muh kala karna” which connects culture and language. The Hindi phrase literally translates to having your face painted black and refers to being dishonored or having done something shameful. It is often linked to the casteistic punishment inflicted on Dalits by people from upper castes for violating hierarchy-based social rules, publicly humiliating them and stigmatizing them by painting their faces black.

The Greeks developed a very sophisticated technique for painting black figures on clay pottery. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Due to its intensity, the color was used in protests, as a simple black band on the arm. Its gloomy association is also suitable for demonstrations and other similar occasions. But it’s not the only color of protest – environment-related protests often see themes of green, or workers wearing red to signify unity around a cause during a protest.

In fashion, black is smart, stylish and universally trusted. A dark suit is the standard attire for formal business in the West, formal events are often referred to as “black ties”, and every fashionable woman is expected to have a “little black dress” in her wardrobe.

In sport, a black belt signifies the highest level of achievement in the martial arts, and the New Zealand All Blacks are the greatest rugby union team in history.

James V. Hayes