Thursday, March 22, 2012

Black is also Good

How much of our attitudes owe themselves to language and how much of language owes itself to our attitudes? For example, we extend people a warm welcome. When you are broiling in the heat of Chennai, the last thing that you probably want is for your hosts to increase your temperature. Yet, you would not want them to be cold to you! The English language developed in far colder climes where warmth was welcome and, now, we think a welcome has to be warm!

In atavistic times, mankind feared the dark since dark is when their danger increased due to the limitations of their eyesight. The color black got associated to the dark and, thus, you found ‘Black as Night’ converted to ‘Black as sin’, ‘Black-hearted and the like. In effect, the color Black got associated with all sorts of negative qualities and, probably, more particularly with people who predominantly fair-skinned. (Ever wondered about the marked preference for blondes in the west of yore? Red hair, probably, reminded them of the fickleness and danger of fire in atavistic time. Even being black-haired, probably, begot the negative associations attached to the color.) We, more used to black-skinned people, were less likely to necessarily consider them in a negative manner but, then, the fairer you were the closer you thought yourselves to be to the powers-that-be of that day and the colonial hang-up has not let off yet!

Our own mythology does not carry this linkage of the color black to evil. To take but one epic – Mahabharat – you will find four characters who were, in all probability, black-skinned and these four are firmly associated with the side of the good. Krishna, the best-beloved of Hindu Gods, was black since the very name Krishna means ‘black’ (Not blue!!). Draupadi, whose beauty drew all the major kings of the day to her Swayamvar, was named Krishnaa (Draupadi only means Drupad’s daughter and Panchali only means princess of Panchal) and her color was – you guessed it – black. One of Arjun’s various names is also Krishna leading to the possibility that he, too, was dark-skinned though he apparently called himself Krishna out of love for his friend and lord. Lastly, Ved Vyas was named Krishna Dvaipayana Vyas and, quite probably, he was also black. (We did not have the sort of western humor that calls a giant ‘Little’ John!!)

The problem with the color ‘black’ is one of language. All metaphors of language associate the color with negative characteristics and, in a knee-jerk reaction, we react to the color black negatively. Great opportunity for fairness creams but pretty unfair (Yet again! The tyranny of language! Fair means just and fair also means white!!) to those who are born dark-skinned!!

If we actually thought about why we react the way we react to most stimuli, there would be a lot lesser sorrow in this world.