|Black is ascribed negative terms|
The Calamity Of Words: A Message to Blacks
When I was in High School (in the continent of Africa), I never realized that some of the English words, metaphors, and hyperbole I was learning (and was using) were carefully designed to subject me (and my fellow blacks all over the world) to nothingness. In fact, I learned (just as many students) to ridicule my race. That is, to use "black" as an adjective to qualify (describe) something sinister, tainted, unholy, and evil. Consider, among others, the following:
paint someone black; black sheep of the family; black book; black listed; black mail; blacken one’s character; Black market; black devil;blackguard; black maria; black-hearted; black death; black magic; black widow.
Who taught my educators those metaphors (hereafter, phrases)? From what fountainheads did those phrases (which have been, and continue to be passed on from generation to generation) come from? What were the intents of the people (who coined those phrases)? Were those phrases formed before my race was given the name "black," or was my race given the name "black" before those phrases were formed? Most importantly, why is it that we, the so-called "black" people, continue to use (and pass on) such phrases that outrightly demean, desecrate, and dehumanize us as children of God in spite of our current level of education?
While answers to the above questions are obviously important, I am not directly going to address them in this article. Instead, my concern here is to explore, rather briefly, the implications of the above phrases in our lives (because our perceptions of the world and its contents are influenced largely by language), and suggest that black men and women (all over the world) refrain from using them.
What are the implications of the above phrases in our lives? To say the least, the implications (and the impacts) are damaging, terrifying, and enormous. For space consideration, I will point out a few.
First and foremost, many blacks have, at the macro level, come to accept (consciously or unconsciously) that black people are "of no good." By using such phrases as "you have painted me black" or "you blackmailed me" is, ipso facto, an acceptance of the theory (of the people who formed those phrases) that we are evil. Consider our custom (especially in Africa) that compels one to wear black apparel (for some months) to mourn for the dead of one’s close relative. By observing this custom, we have, clearly and loudly, accepted that we are evil species in the human race. Consider again, the issue of "black on black crime" in the U.S. This is terrible! Similarly, many blacks have come to dislike their complexion, notwithstanding the slogan that "black is beautiful" (perhaps formulated as a counter attack to the centuries of caricature of black race).
In a wedding I attended in Houston, I overheard a black woman say to another lady sitting beside her, "I will not marry a man that black: he is too dark for me" (referring to the groom). As I looked at this woman, rather with a big disappointment, I discovered something strange in her complexion: her face and her arms were yellow while her fingers were as dark as charcoal. As you might have guessed, this ignoramus (who hated being black), allowed bleaching creams (such as Ambi or Venus) to transform her into a "white" woman. This is really sad!
Further, the image of Africa (the ancestral home of many blacks all over the world) has been tarnished. Many blacks in Diaspora (particularly, in the U.S.) do not have much regard for Africa. As we know, Africa has vacation resorts and beaches, yet the tourist attractions for many of our brothers in Diaspora is not Africa. Probably, their image of Africa is largely overshadowed by the contents of the Tarzan movie. While other nationalities in this melting pot (U.S.A.) are proud of their ancestral homes, our people here tend not to. One should never underestimate the power of words, symbolism, and language.
Most damagingly, blacks tend to distrust and disrespect their own people and trust others (of different race). Consider the perpetual tardiness among black people. In Africa, it is called "African time;" in the U.S., it is called "Colored people time." Notice that this tardiness (which I call selective punctuality) is not culture specific: black people attend meetings (called by other races) on time, but attend the ones called by their own people very late. This is really calamitous. Consider again, the unwarranted and dehumanizing search which blacks are subjected to in all international airports (including those in Africa, especially in Nigeria) while people from other races are, by tradition (and due to inferiority complex, I might add), exempt from such search. Please hear the story below:
When I was traveling to my home country, Nigeria, in December 1993, I happened to be sitting beside a white man (who is in computer business in Nigeria). As two of us were discussing about the problems in Africa, particularly in Nigeria, he told me that he could not understand why Nigerians trust foreigners and distrust their own people. As if I did not know what he meant, I asked him to be more specific. He said to me: "just watch how Nigerian customs will search you and how they will search me." Lo and behold, this man was not searched: his passport was simply glanced through while I was ransacked—I mean, ransacked! Ransacked!! And ransacked!!! -- by my fellow Nigerians as if I looted the country’s wealth. In fact, I was held hostage by my OWN people in the name of "searching for contraband" (that, in their narrow minds, could not be smuggled into Nigeria by foreigners). Not hiding my manhood, I shed some tears for what sheer ignorance can do to a people. This is a tragedy of the greatest magnitude.
Remedies and Conclusions
To restore a people’s respect and dignity after centuries of caricature and dehumanization (through the power of words, symbolism, and language) is not an easy task. The task is monumental. Nonetheless, such task is worth pursuing no matter how small.
My fellow black people, it has dawned upon me (and should be dawned upon you) that the word "black" has been cleverly used to describe anything ugly, bad, evil, and sinister. This, by implication, portrays us as ugly, evil, sinister, unlawful, stupid, ignorant, and sometimes plain dumb. As such, we should, as a matter of decency and urgency, refrain from using any word or phrase that dehumanizes, cajoles, and insults us as a race. How? We must embark on a revolution— revolution of words. That is, in our statements, we will never ever use the word "black" pejoratively. There are many substitutes. For instance, "black market" should be described (more appropriately so) as illegal market because (if you really think about it) black people are not the only participants in such market. Black is beautiful, just as any color.
By Bedford N. Umez, Ph.D.,
Professor of American Government, and the author of African Lifestyle and Problems of Development: The Nigerian Example (1995).