by E. Patrick Johnson
The word “black” has a long and vexed history both inside and outside the United States. Typically used as a neutral reference to the darkest color on the spectrum, the word has also taken on negative cultural and moral meanings. It describes both something that is “soiled,” “stained,” “evil,” or “morally vapid” and people of a darker hue. The American Heritage Dictionary provides a typical example of this dual usage. One of the entries under “black” as an adjective is “gloomy, pessimistic, dismal,” while another is “of or belonging to a racial group having brown to black skin, especially one of African origin: the Black population of South Africa.” The slippage in the latter definition from “brown to black” highlights the ways in which the term’s negative cultural and moral connotations are racialized through reference to not-quite-white but also not-always-black bodies. This slippage maintains hierarchies among the races scaled from white to black. While the origin of this mixed usage of the term “black” is hard to pin down, negative associations of cultural and moral blackness with dark-skinned people appear regularly during the Renaissance, as in Shakespeare’s play Othello, in which the dark-skinned protagonist of the same name is referred to as a “Barbary horse” and a “lascivious Moor.” Over time and in opposition to the dominant discourses of their historical moments, people who belonged to these racialized groups have often followed Othello’s lead by reappropriating the term “black” to signify something culturally and morally empowering and, in some instances, a quality superior to whiteness.