Black: the color of language

By Stephanie Ambroise

“Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionary and see the synonyms for the word black. It’s always something degrading, low, and sinister. Look at the word white. It’s always something pure, high, and clean. Well I wanna get the language right, tonight.” This is from Martin Luther King, Jr. It is rarely quoted, but it is a powerful statement about the use of language in race and race relations. It’s about how all of these different variables work together to create a divide and ranking system between two of America’s most discussed “races:” Blacks and Whites.

It’s why I don’t want to be called “black,” not in this society. The label “black” does not come from my skin color or “race.” First off, I have never met anyone that is black, ever. Not once in my life. Second, why are people from India, who are just as dark-skinned as I am, referred to as “brown,” whereas I, descended from Africans, am “black?” Likewise, I have never met a white person in my life – they simply do not exist. I’ve met many peach-colored people, but never a white person. These seem like trivial statements, but why those colors? In a world where humans judge people as soon as they first meet them, why did the people of his country decide to divide the world in black and white? Some may say this was not a conscious decision, but it was. The power is in the language.

In the Contemporary African-American Literature class I attended last semester, taught by assistant professor Emily Lordi, I learned something about the use of language in terms of segregation and exclusion. We learned that the use of the terms white and black are recent “inventions.” Ashraf Rushdy states in “Remembering Generations: Race and Family in Contemporary African American Fiction” that, “European settlers … began to employ the term “white” around 1680. They were Christians when they first met the non-Christian Native Americans, became free nationals when they started codifying in law the permanent and inheritable indenture of people of non-European descent, and became white when slaves became black.” These words and labels only seem to arrive when certain people want to distinguish themselves from another “race,” but even more so, to rise above them in any way, usually economically.

Furthermore, in an “On Being White… and Other Lies” by James Baldwin, the author explains how in America, white is a synonym for power. When immigrants from Poland, Norway and Germany came to America, they were referred to as Polish, Norwegian, Germans. He states, “no one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country.” He further states, “Americans became white – the people who, as they claim, ‘settled’ the country became white – because of the necessity of denying the black presence, and justifying the black subjugation.”

Looking closer, the Europeans called themselves “white” or “pure and clean” around 1680, around the same time Africans were brought to America to be sold as slaves. The word did not come into use until the Europeans felt the need to separate themselves from those they decided to subjugate. When people from other countries came to America, in order to assimilate with those who had the power, they began to refer to themselves as white. The word was used as a means to create this us-and-them mentality, in order to feel less connected to ones who were being subdued. They chose to label themselves “white,” while simultaneously labeling the Africans as “black.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I love being from African descent, which this society tells me is synonymous with being black, and there is progress being made in order to reclaim and re-define the associations of the word “black.” With the commencement of the Black Power movement in the 1960s, there was also its counterpart, the Black Arts movement, which was and still is a movement that has made important steps in showing what being African American or “black” is truly about.

Showcasing our struggles, our victories, and our physical beauty that carries attributes of those descended from Africans, artists and authors alike put their talents to good use by trying to reprogram the minds of both blacks and whites to see the “black people” and the “black race” in newer, less sinister and more positive ways. Through the means of art, this has proven very effective, which can be seen by the popularity of literary artists such as Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni, who have spread the message “Black is beautiful” to all parts of the country.

I don’t want to reclaim it. I want to have a label that comes from my own people. Black was something given to me by people long ago who never wanted to see it as anything but the negative weight put on it, and this negativity was passed down. One only has to pay attention to how many times they’ve heard someone’s shifty-eyed whisper of “black person” or “that black girl” when describing someone to know that the label is nothing positive. Although the Black Arts Movement has done a tremendous amount to try to fix the negativity associated with blackness, it hasn’t stopped the whispering.

The truth is, though, this won’t ever be corrected until people understand that racial prejudice isn’t only about the color of the skin, but also the color of the language.

Stephanie Ambroise is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]