In Winthrop Jordan’s classic 1968 book, White Over Black, he describes the cultural and religious associations English people gave to the colors white and black in the late medieval and early modern period:
In England perhaps more than in southern Europe, the concept of blackness was loaded with intense meaning. Long before they found that some men were black, Englishmen found in the idea of blackness a way of expressing some of their most ingrained values. No other color except white conveyed so much emotional impact. As described by the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of black before the sixteenth century included, “Deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul…Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister…Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horrible, wicked…Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment, etc.” Black was an emotionally partisan color, the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion.
Embedded in the concept of blackness was its direct opposite—whiteness. No other colors so clearly implied opposition, “beinge coloures utterlye contrary”; no others were so frequently used to denote polarization…
White and black connoted purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, beneficence and evil, God and the devil.
There’s a longstanding debate about how exactly these associations mattered in the development of modern racial thinking. In any case, we do know that for much of American history many white Christians believed that blackness was literally a curse from God.
These attitudes have receded slowly and stubbornly. Their endurance is suggested by the frequency with which white evangelicals use whiteness and blackness as metaphor in the context of religion, without consciously realizing that they may be forming their racial imagination in the process.
In the fall of 1972, a white student at California Baptist College published a poem in the student newspaper. It’s a doozy:
These descriptions are not commonsense. They’re not the least bit natural. They’re informed by this young woman’s cultural, racial, and religious inheritance. Composing this poem was no doubt an act of sincere worship on the part of this student. That’s precisely what makes it chilling.
This is why African Americans in the civil rights era had to say “black is beautiful.”