The Word “Black” Matters
Updated: Jun 13
Black Lives Matter
An undiagnosed sickness of racism
"I look above
to ask for help
Hello is someone there?
We need you;
I need you,
To create the heavens and earth again,
To give us light and no more darkness,
We need you to lead us, not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Recently, I found an old notebook with an article I began to write in 2017. The content delved deeper into the phrase black sheep. The story was inspired after meeting an Uber driver who drove me to San Leandro from Berkeley, California and told me his story. Finding this incomplete article was more than a coincidence. We currently live in a lost world, and when nothing helps, the power of words can.
This was a sign to write an ode to our community around the world, to break the cycle of using derogatory language, and be conscious of our actions when speaking to one another. If we want to be respected for the individuals we are, it is time we respect each other, within our families and our communities, through the power of language. Family, is our first introduction to community. If we cannot be mindful of how we treat each other, this behavior will transfer as we grow into other areas of our lives — our friend circles, peers, community groups, and our interactions with strangers.
I did not understand the usage of the phrase black sheep. In my conversation with the Uber driver from 2017, Daram, he shared with me that he was the black sheep of his family. He immigrated to the Bay Area with his family from Ethiopia when he was fifteen years old. After high school, he went to college, and dropped out after he discovered that his father was not paying rent and not feeding himself. After his mother found out that he had dropped out, she kicked him out of the house. At this point, he had no other option than to go back to school, to show his mom he cared about an education, and also to be close to his family again. He eventually graduated with an undergraduate degree from the Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) department at the University of California, Berkeley. While driving for Uber, he was also looking for full-time, permanent work. According to him, he was far less accomplished than everyone else in his family at the age of 25, and was labeled the black sheep by his entire family.
As he told his story, I found a lot of similarities between our two worlds. I too, had immigrated to the United States when I was fifteen years old with my family from India. I too, felt as if I was not as accomplished as all the doctors, healthcare workers, architects, accountants, pharmacists, researchers and many other professions, in my family. And while my mind spiraled with thoughts of our similarities, I decided to ask him to describe his understanding of the phrase “the black sheep.” Perhaps I was one too.
“You know, like they don’t want me.” “The one that makes a bad name for their family.”
I will never forget how his words devalued his experience, work ethic, and integrity. How his own family’s words devalued and dismissed their own kin. His definition of himself stayed with me far after I was dropped off. I began to think “was I the black sheep of my family?” “was I unwanted by my family?” Did Daram and his family righteously use this phrase to describe his skillset and aptitude?
black sheep /ˈˌblak ˈSHēp/ noun INFORMAL 1. a member of a family or group who is regarded as a disgrace to them. “the black sheep of the family”
The word disgrace had nothing to do with grace. This phrase put a damper on my internal peace. I cannot even imagine what it did to Daram’s self-esteem and self-actualization. Especially when your community, and the people closest to you, your own family, uses it to describe you. This derogatory phrase Daram and his family used, has been used for centuries, but as a community, we mindlessly use words out of habit. Instead, we should look deeper into the etymology and evolution of words and phrases, to understand if it even fits in the world we live in today. Words have power. Just as they can uplift you, they can also make you feel small.
Living in the United States, especially in recent times, has made us all aware of how our actions, words, and ultimately behaviors, can diminish what it means to be human. In Daram’s experience, the word black had a negative connotation to the phrase black sheep. “The literal meaning of the word black is without color, it comes from the same root that produced old english “blac” which means “bright, shining, glittering.” “…Old English retains both blac and blaec, although Bosworth-Toller’s Old English Dictionary implies that blac is limited to the Indo-European meaning (pale, livid) and that blaec picks up the Proto-Germanic meaning (burned). Toller’s study itself along with the Old English literature, suggests that the two forms were used interchangeably, with blac as the dominant spelling. Blaec means shining, pale as well as dark, black or swarthy…. Interestingly enough in the verb blaecan, Old English makes use of the Proto-Germanic blaikjan which means to make white.”
“It was not till the sixteenth century that the semantic broadening of black occurred- both figurative connotations as well as literal. From ‘blac, blake, bleaken, blaccen’ and their literal meaning ‘to bleach out or make white, blond or pale’ came the figurative meaning ‘to stain someones reputation, or defame’ or darken. Literally “blac” by that time came to mean night-like colour, dark. One can say a very dramatic shift indeed. It was also the era, when the Vandals and the Goths were busy writing themselves into history and writing out the European Mauros (melan-chros or melanin people) out of history.”
For example, during the Reign of Elizabeth I, the word black was associated to devils and was used to address Moors. “Part of the Christian mythology of the Middle Ages and early modern period was to see devils and demons as black men. Two fifteenth-century English mystics, Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, described devils as monstrous black men…..The view of devils as black men certainly influenced how actual Africans were viewed and treated.” They were called the Queen’s Black enemies, the blacca moors and finally just the adjective used as a noun, blacks.” “These additional meanings, however, was purely negative and as their influence broadened, the semantic shift of black began to mean having malignant or deadly purposes and even pertaining to or involving death.”
In my opinion, derogatory usage of the modern word black began with the onset of slavery and the triangle trade in 1562 when Great Britain was the leader of the slave trade. Blacks were traded as goods and materials. As the Europeans colonized the world, the definition of the word black changed, and matched the way they treated people — as goods & materials that could be traded, instead of humanizing the people behind the color, the color of their skin took over minds and behaviors. Our colonizers conditioned the minds of the rest of their communities, including black communities, to think the same. That they are “devils” or “demonic” or “have deadly purposes.” We continue to positively reinforce the behaviors of our colonizers when we use phrases that undermine the value of our experiences as human beings. The phrase black sheep is just one example of how our behaviors have not progressed over time.
“… ‘black curse’(1583), and from previous centuries ‘The Black Death’. Blac underwent a final shift as a K was added to the end of the word and it became a new insulting manner to address the Moors (today’s so-called Blacks) a people that had lived for thousands of years in Europe and around, but were now hated and hounded.” In 2017, Africans who moved to India to study at university were victims of brutal racism. There were instances where African students were beaten up by mobs of Indian people, who blamed African immigrants for crimes they did not commit. They were victims of India’s “undiagnosed sickness of racism.” These actions by my own motherland, India, were not actions by human beings, but something “more deep-seated.” Just like our usages of words without understanding the etymology of them, my motherland’s actions weren’t thoughtful. Instead it was something deeper, just like our usage of the phrase black sheep, our colonizers have made us believe that people who are of the color black, are seen as “monkeys,” “monstrous devils,” who are responsible for killings, and therefore should be criminalized.
We as a world do not see the color black as part of our world. Instead, we negatively associate the color to the people. People as caged animals, people who should be locked up because of the color of their skin. Our colonizers have taught us that each and every person of the black race are “monstrous devils” and should have “deadly purposes.” The Black Curse has never been lifted, and the word black will always be cursed. Moors still exist and continue to be hated and hounded. The Black Death is real and exists, all across the world, just because people are born into the color of their skin.
The old English definition of “blac,” which once meant bright, shining, glittering, shifted with the onset of slavery. The irony of slavery, people were traded as capital, and you would think their lives matter most. It is time for us to delve deeper into our actions and the language we use to describe them. Why do we have negative associations toward the color black? The answer is quite simple, yet very complex. The colonization of this new world, our thoughts, our behaviors, and the way we use language.
ANNU, OGUEJIOFO. “ETYMOLOGY OF BLACK AND MOOR .” Rasta Livewire, 4 June 2012, www.africaresource.com/rasta/sesostris-the-great-the-egyptian-hercules/etymology-of-black-and-moor-oguejiofo-annu/comment-page-1/.
Prabhu, Maya. “African Victims of Racism in India Share Their Stories.” India | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 3 May 2017, www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/04/african-victims-racism-india-share-stories-170423093250637.html.
Levin, Carole. “The Black Curse.” The Reign of Elizabeth I, by Carole Levin, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, pp. 40–50.
Joyce, Joyce A. “Semantic Development of the WordBlack.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 11, no. 3, 1981, pp. 307–312., doi:10.1177/002193478101100304.