The Burden of Being Black

Delta Winds cover 2004Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


The Burden of Being Black

George Austin

Sit a spell as I tell you a once upon a tale
The haunting story of a young boy waiting to exhale . . .
It didn't take him very long to sense the naked truth

To smell the stench of ghetto hood that smoked from every roof
He grew up in a world of crack and beer canned coated streets
Where twenty-one was old and wacked and college was unique . . .

But in his mind it wasn't lost, the one undeniable fact
That in a land of justice for all, he always would be black
This vivid truth held him inside his self inflicted prison
Afraid to peep out of his cave, afraid to share his vision . . .

--Author Unknown

"But in his mind it wasn't lost, the one undeniable fact/That in a land of justice for all he would always be black." During the 1300s, from Europe to Asia, a deadly disease known as the Black Death swept through, in some cases wiping out entire towns. Black magic is the "evil" practice of witchcraft; a black lung is a chronic disease of the lungs mostly associated with coal miners; the black market is filled with all kinds of illegal activity; and black humor or "sick humor" is humor that is perceived as morbid, nasty, psychopathic and twisted. Who in their right mind would choose to be the black sheep of their family and community? Let us not forget that no one would ever want to fall into a black hole from which even light cannot escape. What do these words have to do with the burden of being black? Everything! The English language itself is biased, and the process of learning the language teaches prejudice and passes on racist ideas through the society.

However, before dealing with the burden of blackness, let us dive into what race really is. Some believe that race is a biological term, understandably so. People with similar physical appearance, such as eye shape or color, could be assumed to be of the same heritage, but this is not always true. According to the authors of Intercultural Competence, "Contrary to popular notions . . . race is not primarily a biological term; it is a political and societal one that was invented to justify economic and social distinctions. . . . One's 'race' is best understood as a social and legal construction" (32). Since race is not inherent or "naturally ordained" but a social and legal construction, the use of this term is subjective. One's "blackness" or "whiteness" is dependent on how society defines it.

What are white and black anyway? As people of different origins and of different heritages, the average American is a "mutt" (of mixed ancestry). What defines what "race" the average American is or what race you are? The color you turn out to be? Is Stacy, a person who is ninety-five percent "white" and five percent "black," considered black because the genes in her happen to be stronger on the African-American side and show up more? What about Jared, who is of equal mixture and who turns out visibly "white"? What is he? The key is that the terms "white" and "black" are nothing but what society has created them to be and mean. Let's return to the issue of what's wrong with being black.

The problem is not with being of African descent or of having a certain skin color and hair texture, but being black. While searching through several dictionaries and thesauruses, I found a common feature, an interesting tone of negativity in words associated with the term "black": mourning, gloomy, dismal, cheerless, dark, bad, evil, wicked, sullen, angry, grim, villainous, hostile, sinister, threatening, soiled, dirty, unclean, grimy, filthy, obscure, slander, tarnish, immoral, unchaste, carnal, indecent, lascivious, vile, lustful, foul, nasty, depressive, discouraging, funeral, oppressive, coarse, raging, furious, rough, vulgar, ugly, joyless, cold, barbaric. And, as if the name-calling had not been bad enough, black is unholy too! However, not all societies operate with the same etymology and color associations. For instance, white is the color for weddings in western societies, but for funerals in Chinese culture; red is associated with rage in America but with happiness in China, illustrating that these meanings are not so much "written in stone" but are just cultural and societal inventions.

The words change, but the underlying meanings are the same from black, to nigger, to negro (which is Latin for black), to colored, to people of color, to persons of color, to Afro- American and to African American. While some of these words are extremely offensive and some are not offensive, all do the job of separation. Whatever the name is, underneath, the person of African descent is still black in society's eyes. These words and associations with color affect the well being of the person who happens to be black and affect the society that sees the person through a tainted vision.

We are sometimes taught that "sticks and stones may break our bones, but words may never hurt me." Although we wish that were true, sadly it is not; words can kill, words can soothe, words have power. The Bible says, "life and death is in the power of the tongue" (Proverbs 18.21). Literally, is that saying that you can murder someone by saying so? Of course not. But words do have a great influence on perception, self-worth and life. Entire wars have been fought and genocide has been committed on the passing of ideas through words. For example, Adolf Hitler led Nazi Germany into an attempt of total annihilation of a group of people. He did so with the power of words. Anyone who has been the victim of the sinful symphony of the words nigger, fag, kike, homo, spick, etc. can understand the power therein, the frustration caused, the hurt and the long lasting pain.

According to Annette T. Rottenberg, "[E]ven to a small child it is clear that ugly words are as painful as sticks and stones and that the injuries are sometime more lasting" (238). Words, however, are not the whole story, for they, like us, are just pawns in the game, just a part of the system of communication. Communication is highly subjective, through the eyes of society. Lustig and Koester state, "People must share a set of symbols, socially defined, learned representations for meaning" (137). They continue, "Symbols are words, actions, or objects that stand for or represent a unit of meaning. The relationship between symbols and what they stand for is often highly arbitrary" (207). There are two points that are quite interesting about the subjective nature of communication: first, it is socially defined, and, second, it is often highly arbitrary or unrelated to what it stands for. This brings up an interesting dilemma. If communication is socially defined and usually unrelated to what it stands for, then why does "black" have all these negatives meanings associated with it? What does it say about our culture? Could it be that some of our problems with discrimination have been indiscriminately passed on through concepts of negativity toward people of African descent? And how does that affect our schema?

The authors of Sociology For a New Century believe "Every language has its unique features and ways of allowing those who speak it to identify specific objects and experiences. These linguistic features, which distinguish each language from all others, affect how the speakers of the language perceive and experience the world" (Bradshaw et. al. 217). The essence of the message is that our views differ with experience, education, and language. Language is more than just a tool used to express; it helps shape the world we see. What if black were no longer the color of death, but white was? How would a simple change like that affect how we see the world? It could be imagined that it would greatly affect our world. Let us look at the word black once again. What would this country be like if the meanings of white and black were switched? If black were pure, clean, undefiled, and cheerful, how would that change the way we view "black" people? It is a huge mistake to believe that language has no role in our experience and view of our world, because it is one of the first teachers to dictate good and bad, positive and negative. Sadly, in our language, black has been given the short end of the stick.

Could our language reflect a greater dilemma within the societal structures of our "Great Nation"? Could this obvious dissent for black reflect years of past pain and injustice? Could this be a window into the "soul" of present-day America, to get past the propaganda of "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" and "all men are created equal"? Could this illuminate the inequalities built into the social structure of the United States of America? The answers are yes, yes, yes, and yes! Most people want to believe that they are unbiased, but the fact is we are all guilty either consciously or unconsciously. Our language teaches us to be. When we begin associating concepts with people, problems truly begin. Some may contend that they are immune and have the ability to move past these obstacles and not be affected. This may be true, but it may not be true.

Just like Pavlov's dogs, our minds can be "conditioned" to respond in certain ways, either consciously or subconsciously. The word black is synonymous with negative things in our culture, from death to dirty, from foul to unholy. This word, which is basically a curse, is then placed upon a whole group of people. Each time the negative associations are presented, we, the culture and society, become more and more "conditioned" to prejudice. Each time, we begin to subconsciously transfer the "evils" of blackness to the person and the group.

"Your thoughts are based on the language that you acquire through your culture, and this ongoing inner speech reflects higher-order cognitive process" (Gazzaniga and Heatherton 375). Simply stated, your language and all its flaws shape your thought pattern, including what is good or bad and who is good or bad. "Henri Tajfel argues that humans categorize themselves and others into different groups to simplify their understanding of people. When you think of someone as part of a particular social group, you associate that person with the values of that group" (Lustig and Koester). It's a process of association, a process of associating black, an abstract word, to negative meanings, of associating abstract meanings to something tangible: a real live person and a group of people.

W.E.B. DuBois articulated it well in The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois, the first person of African descent to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, a prominent civil rights leader of his day, spoke of a "duality" with African-Americans consciousness. This duality was a result of being "black" and "American," torn between two entities, one in which you are supposed "to have certain unalienable rights" and the other in which you are "perceived through the veil" as less than (DuBois 45). The problem is not just in the language. It goes much deeper. A word without meaning is just that, a word. A meaning without association to something tangible is just a meaning. The issue comes into play when associating the meaning of the word to something tangible, and, most important, associating the meaning to a human being. As the unknown poet said, illustrating how so many others feel: "But in his mind it wasn't lost, the one undeniable fact/That in a land of justice for all, he always would be BLACK."

Works Cited

Bradshaw, York W., Joseph F. Healey, and Rebecca Smith. Sociology for a New Century. Boston: Pine Forge Press, 2001.

DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Bantam, 1989.

Gazzaniga, Michael, and Todd F. Heatherton. Psychological Science. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003.

Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1996.

Lustig, Myron W., and Jolene Koester. Intercultural Competence. 4th ed. San Francisco: Allyn and Bacon, 2003.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary Online

Rottenberg, Annette T. Elements of Argument. 7th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003.