Thursday, Oct 06, 2022

Black in history, culture, politics — a symbol of protest, a colour of mourning and racism, and of sporting greatness

Why is black seen as a marker for things that seem negative? How has it been used in modern culture and language?

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and party MPs wear black during a protest in New Delhi on Aug 05, 2022. (PTI Photo)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at an event on August 10 that there was “an attempt to spread black magic mentality”, but for the people attempting to do so, the “period of despair” would not end despite the black clothes. Modi named no one, but was generally understood to have been referring to Congress leaders and supporters who had protested against inflation and unemployment on August 5, wearing black clothes.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi responded on Twitter: “Stop lowering the dignity of the prime minister’s post and misleading the country by talking about superstitious things like ‘black magic’ to hide your black deeds, prime minister-ji”.

Jairam Ramesh, Secretary in charge of the Congress party’s communications, posted a picture of Modi in black, and mocked the Prime Minister for failing to bring back black money as he had promised, and instead raising “meaningless” issues.

Senior Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala referred to the “black clouds” of high prices, unemployment and problems in the economy, and asked the Prime Minister to talk about the “darkness” the government had spread instead of complaining about the opposition.

Why is black seen as a marker for things that seem negative?

More than a century ago, in a book called ‘The symbolism of colour’ written in 1921, Ellen Conroy McCaffery argued that science does not even consider black to be a colour, given that it reflects no light and instead absorbs it all.

McCaffery wrote that by and large, the Western world saw the colour as “merely the sombre colour of mourning, a sign that our lives have been bereft of the joy of the presence of a loved one. It is perhaps the most depressing of all colours, physically, mentally, and morally”. It is the colour worn during funerals in many religions.


Black is also associated with the night, with depths, with the unknown, and used in the English language often for its intensity in phrases like “going black with rage”, and beating someone “black and blue”. There are also many terms associated with the colour, like “black sheep” for someone who is the odd one out, “blacklist” meaning to boycott someone, “black day” indicating a disappointing day, etc., with the colour generally referring to an unpleasant event. All Indians are familiar with the reference to unaccounted-for money, on which no taxes have been paid, as “black” money or “kaala dhan”.

But surely black does not have only a negative connotation?

No, it does not. Quoting the English poet John Milton, McCaffery wrote of black being perceived as the “wisdom’s hue”, a more humane shade when compared with the bright intensity of God: “…Hail thou Goddess staid and holy/ Hail divinest melancholy/ Whose saintly visage is too bright/ To hit the sense of human Sight;/ And therefore to our weaker view/ O’er laid with black, staid wisdom’s hue,” 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 refer to 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 the colour by groups over history, as well as the colour’s striking, void-like depth.

Writer Kate Carter says black “was the colour of Anubis (left), the god of mummification and of 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 Nile river-fed region helped grow bountiful crops. Writing in The Guardian several years ago, the writer and editor Kate Carter noted that black “was also the colour of Anubis, the god of mummification and of the afterlife, he was not a negative figure or evil presence, but actually one who protected the dead against evil. So black was the colour of death, but also the colour of resurrection”.

Google Arts and Culture, a platform of information collected from museums the world over, says: “In Latin, the word for ‘black’, ater, is associated with cruelty and evil. ‘Atrocious’ and ‘atrocity’ is derived from this…It is no surprise, then, that in Medieval paintings the devil was often painted in black.”

The Greeks, however, developed a highly sophisticated technique for painting black figures on clay pottery, showing the colour’s early prominence in art and culture. A colour of elegance, clothes in black became to be greatly favoured over time.

How has ‘black’ been used in modern culture and language?


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

“The English language is in bed with racism, even though most of us are usually unaware of that fact,” she said, adding, “Everyday language reminds African Americans in matter-of-fact ways that our color is related to extortion (blackmail), disrepute (black mark), rejection (blackball), banishment (blacklist), impurity (not the driven snow), illicitness (black market), and death.” Pointing to how dark never means universally negative, she said “Casting aspersions on black or darkness while praising white or light isn’t universal, and regardless of the intentions of the user of these expressions, such usage colludes with racism.”


Closer home, there is the phrase “Muh kala karna” that connects culture and language. The Hindi phrase literally translates to getting the face painted black, and refers to being disgraced or having done something shameful. It is often related to the casteist punishment given to Dalits by upper caste people for violating hierarchy-based social rules, through publicly humiliating them and branding them by painting their faces black.

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

Due to its intensity, the colour has been used in protests, such as a simple black band on the arm. Its mournful association also suits protests and similar occasions. But it is not the only colour of protest — with environment-related protests often seeing themes of green, or workers wearing red to signify unity over a cause when protesting.


In fashion, black is smart, elegant, and universally approved of. A dark suit is the standard clothing for formal affairs in the West, formal events are often called “black-tie” affairs, and every fashionable woman is supposed to have a “little black dress” in her wardrobe.

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

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First published on: 13-08-2022 at 01:40:23 pm
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