Appreciating the Joy, Beauty Revealed by Darkness

Joyful is the darkSpirit of the deep, winging wildly o'er the world's creation, silken sheen of midnight plumage black and bright, swooping with the beauty of a raven.

--Excerpts from the hymn "Joyful is the Dark" by Brian Wren

Once upon a time, my mother vowed that she would never buy her daughters Barbie dolls. The day came when she finally caved. I’m not exactly sure why, though I would hazard a guess that it was due in part to our family’s move to Bloomington, Ind., as a way to appease two rambunctious girls who were adjusting to life in a new place.

In any event, to her credit, she made sure that my sister’s first Barbie was Hispanic and that mine was African-American. And she was consistent. She made sure that the dolls my sister and I played with, including Strawberry Shortcake, Cabbage Patch and Holly Hobbie dolls, reflected an array of skin tones.

This was not necessarily an easy feat to accomplish back in the 1980s but she insisted on it. And though I don’t remember being particularly conscious of the importance of skin color at that age, I can only imagine how relieved she must have been by the fact that we loved our black and white dolls equally; the toys received equal wear and tear regardless of skin tone. Moreover, when my sister and I achieved some measure of independence, along with allowance money, we reached for the brown and black dolls as quickly as the white ones.

I mention this anecdote by way of referencing the cultural and even spiritual associations we make with the concepts of black and white, light and dark. And, by extension, how those associations manifest themselves in the value we place on colors, whether are speaking literally or abstractly, whether we are talking about things or people.

On too many occasions to count, I have heard colors--within the context of Christianity--characterized thusly: Blackness symbolizes sin and evilness; white represents all that is good and pure. This binary becomes especially problematic, however, given that these notions of good versus evil have found a seemingly permanent home in larger cultural contexts, independent of religious beliefs. Black men are animalistic and to be feared. White women are virtuous and pure. There are visual examples of these juxtapositions everywhere we look.

Given the aforementioned societal norms, I found the following statement in a recent sermon by Marilyn Rudy-Froese to be wonderfully astute: “There are some things that can only be seen in the darkness. There is a beauty that is revealed to us by the darkness, that is hidden by the light.”

The notion that blackness and beauty are related may not seem terribly groundbreaking in the year 2012. However, as a black person who is a descendant of other black people, some of whom were enslaved and brought to this country against their will, degraded and treated as the very antithesis of anything that was beautiful, I find reminders about the positive aspects of darkness—again, darkness as both a concept as well as the associations we make with it as a color--to be an important part of changing our shared perspectives about good and evil.

To water down a discussion about color as an example of extreme sensitivity/political correctness gone wrong is to deny the impact that the vocabulary and images we use can (and do) affect the way we think and feel about ourselves.

Even as an adult, I’ve come to recognize that my appreciation for my family is born out of necessity. I am close to my parents and siblings, aunties, uncles and cousins because they help reinforce the positive notions and associations I make with respect to my own skin color. They are concrete examples of how black, like white, represents goodness, generosity, safety, acceptance and normalcy. During this time of year, when we are seemingly shrouded in darkness, I encourage all of us to be mindful of the moments of joy and beauty that can be found outside of the light.