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This Naming of Things

‘Tis a complicated word, “black.”

Denotes on the one hand a people who have faced terrifying adversity with great courage and grace — and on the other, something to be dreaded and shunned.

“Evil, cheerless, sullen, and calamitous,” the American Heritage Definitionary says are its primary meanings, and readers see it used that way even in contemporary writing so frequently as to be unsettling, given the barbarism that has marked relations between blacks and whites the past 400 years in America.

It’s strange, to refer to individuals with a word that is synonymous with evil and gloomy. (Would our Chinese and Latino cousins go for that?)

The better question: What can wordsmiths in the schools and media do to work a change, long overdue?

Look carefully when whites and blacks converse, and one can see the complications and uncertainty that arise when the former use the word ‘black’ or ‘dark’ to convey censure and negativity. The raw nerve is often visibly and poignantly struck, especially amongst the young, despite the emotional armor handed down from their parents and grandparents.

We indeed are tied to a language that makes up in mixed messages what it lacks in style, as Stoppard suggests in “Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”

Hobbled with innumerable expressions like ‘blacklist,’ ‘blackmail,’ ‘blacken’ (to defame,) a ‘black mood,’ Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and etc., we seem stuck on the lopsided metaphor like Brer Rabbit on Tar Baby.

But examine that curiously sacrosanct image and watch it fall fast: A person deprived of sleep’s lovely dark recesses – for what, two days – will be a total wreck.

The interplay of light and dark is one of the most fundamental characteristics of our world. The printed page itself depends on it.

An aging white guy cooling his heels in city jail on a bogus rap was telling some of the inmates of a passage in The Sacred Pipe, and on hearing the author’s name, (Black Elk, the Lakota medicine man,) the eyes of one listener, a young brother, widened with interest.

Hearing the spiritual powers of the West described as ‘… blessed rest, revealing dreams, the gifts of the dark sacred night,’ he asked they be written down, as if to have proof that ‘black’ and ‘dark’ can be used favorably in this strange tongue of ours.

Let’s lose those ‘dark’ metaphors – and the quicker, the better.

Yet even progressive writers, educators, clerics, typically fail to reach beyond it for less burdened words, which takes so little effort: The substitution of just a letter or two can make all the difference – the pessimistic mood described as bleak; the glass seen out of dimly.

Make this smallest of changes and we begin to free ourselves of language that is stunted in moral development and deaf to its nuances that burden us with unintended doubt and distrust.

How to? Most newspapers and tv news stations give their staff a Manual of Style that frowns on this usage and that — publishing houses and school language programs could follow suit, along these lines, and we’re half way there. Language is that malleable – witness the sudden rise and fall of a word like ‘huge.’

Words are strong,” Sandburg wrote, “stronger than rocks or steel…” We absorb them like sponges do water, especially in our youngest years. They mold our very understanding of the world – they are, for the most part, our understanding of the world. But when they confuse the suggestion of inferiority with racial identity it does a disservice to all.

The stakes, seen from a reflective distance — a dislike for the language, diminished lives, abandoned dreams, an undercurrent of divisiveness splitting the human family – they are higher than we seem to realize, but their negative dividend is exacted every day in the courthouse, in the emergency room, on the evening news.

Jamaica Kincaid got it right: This naming of things, she writes, is so crucial – a spiritual padlock.

To break a shackle!

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Hayes Rowan lives in Cleveland.

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