Black

This is a word with a great and complex history, used in everyday language as

distinct from its racial and cultural meanings as an adjective to denote objects

that are chromatically black. In racial and cultural senses, the term could not be

more varied in its usages and meanings. To be black in Britain is not a monolithic

experience. As Lola Okolosie has observed, “My blackness is informed by whether or

not I am Nigerian or Jamaican or half-white, poor or middle-class. Blackness is not

one thing and it is not experienced as such.”25 Consultees have both acknowledged

the rich cultural heritage that is encompassed in the word and also expressed their

ambivalence about the term as a way of describing themselves.

 

It was only in the sixteenth century that the English word black started being

applied as a racial term to describe people from beyond the Mediterranean. Until

the age of exploration, calling someone black in England, generally meant they had

black or brown hair and eyes. This changed as Europeans began to travel and gain

colonies by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The complexity of Renaissance

usage alone is well demonstrated in Shakespeare’s play Othello where blackness is

not just a physical trait but a moral quality as is demonstrated by the slippage in the

following lines:

 

 Othello: My name that was as fresh

As Dians Visage, is now begrim’d and blacke

As mine owne face. 26

 

Thus Othello laments the loss of his reputation, honour and character. Yet in the

play, he himself only uses the word black twice (it appears eleven times in the play,

and Iago is the character who uses it most frequently). Notably, on the other occasion

Othello describes himself as black, it also denotes in him a lack or shortcoming.

Recent scholarship has suggested that Shakespeare may have based the figure of

Othello on the Moorish Ambassador to the English court, Abd-el Messouad ben

Mohammed Anoun, who was in London in 1600-1601.27 Given that he looked

like what we would now think of as an Arab, this further complicates our notions

of historical blackness. It suggests that for Renaissance Londoners, to be black was

to be non-European. The subsequent history of blackness – and associated racial

terms (which were frequently used as terms of abuse) – as a reification of human

individuals and systematic tool of enslavement and exploitation is well documented.

Fortunately, generations of thinkers, artists and activists – from W.E.B. Du Bois to

bell hooks, Fanon, to Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall, have forged varied notions of

political and cultural blackness. These ideas alongside movements of resistance and

equality are a source of pride, which has also attracted interest from groups which

may not traditionally have identified as black. This is related to the kind of postcolonial

solidarity brought forth in the Tricontinental movement and Bandung

conferences; for many Asians who have embraced the idea of political blackness it

has become a kind of proud subalterneity.28

 

For practitioners who might previously have been designated “Afro-Caribbean” the

term black is generally felt to be more open, direct and self-determined. Yet there

are thinkers, like Farhad Dalal, who insist that in English the associations of the

term black are inescapably linked with negativity, while the opposite is true of socalled

whiteness. As the discussion of race goes on to explore, just as no person is

literally black, nobody is literally white – the important concomitant realisation

being that these racial polarities are constructs.29

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