In Praise of Darkness

Language matters, especially language we use without truly thinking about the implications, even the invisible hurt, of our word choices. This is far from an original observation, but these past months of our country’s election saga have reminded me of a particular misuse of the word “dark.”

After five days of vote counting, when Joe Biden was finally declared the winner of the 2020 election on November 7, many commentators across the media platforms of CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times and elsewhere said or wrote that light had finally broken through the darkness of recent years.

This week Joe Biden gave a speech saying that the insurrection at the Capitol building was a “dark day for America.”

Yesterday, I received a mass email of thanks that Senator-Elect Raphael Warnock sent to his supporters, in which he (of all people!) said, “It’s dark in this country right now.”

I respectfully disagree. January 6, a day that will live in infamy, was not a dark day—instead, it was a blindingly white day, a day of white supremacist ignorance, arrogance, and violence.

However, the day before, January 5, was indeed a dark day: a day of nurturing darkness, when the off-the-charts voting of people of color in Georgia—spurred by the herculean organizational efforts of Stacey Abrams—proved the decisive factor in returning control of the Senate to the Democrats (as they had also been in delivering Georgia’s sixteen electoral votes to Joe Biden in November).

I think it is well past the time to stop using the word “dark” as a stand-in metaphor for all that is threatening, disturbing and evil.

For over thirty years, I used a short excerpt from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon to illustrate to my Introduction to Fiction students how seemingly simple words are actually charged with meaning, if only you look closely enough:

“And talking about dark! You think dark is just one color, but it ain’t. There’re five or six kinds of black. Some silky, some woolly. Some just empty. Some like fingers. And it don’t stay still, it moves and changes from one kind of black to another. Saying something is pitch black is like saying something is green. What kind of green? Green like my bottles? Green like a grasshopper? Green like a cucumber, lettuce, or green like the sky is just before it breaks loose to storm? Well, night black is the same way. May as well be a rainbow.”

I was reminded of this passage recently as I read Jennifer Ackerman’s Birds by the Shore, where she describes (in detail that is clearly the result of years of observant experience) her evening wanderings along a cove near her home in Delaware:

The darkness of the marsh is not the close darkness of woods, where blackness pours up from between the trees, but a thin, liquid, open, far-reaching darkness that descends onto the grass.

Other cultures have their own take on what “dark” connotes. In one of my favorite books, In Praise of Shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki discusses how darkness—shadows—came to be valued in Japanese architecture:

The fact that we do not use glass, concrete, and bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain. A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room. The quality that we all call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover the beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.

My home office has three lights: a ceiling light; a lamp set on the corner of a small, glass-door book cabinet beside my desk; and a floor lamp, which has three settings, standing beside my reading chair. Throughout the day and evening, I turn the various lights on and off: sometimes for maximum brightness, but other times to create a particular mood of light and shadow. I often keep the lamp by my reading chair at the medium setting at night, with all other lights off: I enjoy the soft penumbra of light above me and the chair, while the rest of the room is cast in a comforting darkness. In writing this, I realize that in other rooms of the house, and without really thinking about it, I do much the same, guiding “shadows towards beauty’s ends.”

The complexities of darkness in the physical world, however, are nothing compared to those in one’s interior world:

and in the underworld of sleep
you can visit
all the shadows
of your different selves

–Miriam Sagan

Exhausted from the events of the day, we seek out the dark as we settle into bed and sleep. In that darkness our dream-life awakes, when deeper truths about who we are reveal themselves. Our imaginations exercise in the dark. And when day arrives we reap the benefits, if we choose to listen.

Every day we welcome the dark. The night gives us most of the parties we’ve ever been to, most of the concerts we’ve ever attended, and no movie or play can begin in a theater unless the lights are dimmed.

Using “dark” as a stand-in for anything negative perpetuates yet another insinuating connotation that people of color have to live with. It’s a linguistic monument waiting to be pulled down. Think of this past, tumultuous week. “Dark” people—people of color—were the driving force in helping perpetuate our democracy, while violent white people tried to stage a coup in the Capitol building. This contrast reminds me of a moment in Red Dust, a novel by the Cuban science-fiction writer Yoss. The narrator, a well-meaning, law-enforcement robot who tries his best to understand the ways of humans, watches his ally, Vasily, engage in a battle of forcefields with a dangerous criminal named Makrow:

It looked to me like Vasily’s field was navy blue, almost black, while Makrow’s was pinkish white—which for some reason I found almost shocking. Wasn’t the purest color supposed to be for the good guy? It’s hard to put any credit in archetypes after a surprise like that.


Poem by Miriam Sagan can be found here.


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    1. You’re right, of course, but as we know, metaphors like this are very deep and hard to root out. There are probably hundreds of everyday phrases that rely on light/dark. Here’s a poem I wrote in the very early days of the Trump, and mailed out to friends:


      White as night
      White as op
      White as might
      White as cop

      White as soil
      White as pit
      White as oil
      White as shite

      White as grave
      White as coal
      White as slave
      White as shadow soul

      White as bruise
      White as wrong
      White as ink that tells the news
      White as dreadful night is long

      White as race
      White as toxic offshore slick
      White as deepest lifeless space
      White as ravens ravenously pick

      White as plague, the feudal age
      White as tar, how stuck we are
      White as type on textbook page
      White as gravity’s collapsed, dead star

    2. Debra Frank says:

      Wonderful, Philip! I get migraines from bright light including the light from my computer screen–not a good thing for a writer. The migraines had been under control until November when I had a record number–10. And now more in December and January. I call them my Trump migraines. I’m hoping they get better after January 20, but I fear the aftermath of the Trump presidency will haunt us for a long time.

    3. admin says:

      Thank you, William, that is a perfect poem for these times. Or should I say, for all times of our country’s history, unfortunately.

    4. admin says:

      You remind me of my own migraines, in high school. Same issue: any light was piercingly painful. When I finally left my parents’ chaotic home to go to college, the migraines eventually stopped. Maybe something similar will happen to our country, after January 20.

    5. I just came across this and was reminded of this discussion. Cheers.

      Hatred paralyzes life;
      Love releases it.
      Hatred confuses life;
      Love harmonizes it.
      Hatred darkens life;
      Love illuminates it.

      Martin Luther King, Jr
      (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968)

    6. admin says:

      Perfect. More necessary wisdom from one of our country’s greatest patriots. Thank you, William!

    7. […] of the Beng witches’ night—complete with mysterious spaces known colloquially (with its undertone of racist imagery) as the “dark Web.” […]

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