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DARKNESS and LIGHT: Updated Personal Perspectives

By Hope Johnson

tea candles in a line on a dark background

I’ve been thinking a lot about how tired I am of hearing words that include black, dark, and more, used in a negative way even as we proclaim that Black Lives Matter. How much time and effort do we give to contextualizing our use of those words that have the power to turn them into phrases that truly spread the words into only negative ones?

Let’s look at the word “Dark”

Meaning:  dark

Synonyms:  dark, night, dusk, gloom, dimness, shadows, shade

As I reflect on the negative definitions of darkness I am struck by how easy it is to internalize them in many different ways.

For example, as the season turns from autumn to winter, I find myself gearing up psychologically for a season of cold. I still hate to leave the warmth for the cold. I am not excited about leaving the joy of sheltering in place in the warmth of my comfortable home.

May I now invite you to join with me as I explore words penned by UU Educator, and so much more, Jacqui James—one of my mentors?

DARK and LIGHT, LIGHT and DARK

Blackmail, blacklist, black mark. Black Monday, black mood, black-hearted. Black plague, black mass, black market.

Good guys wear white, bad guys wear black. We fear black cats, and the Dark Continent. But it's okay to tell a white lie, lily-white hands are coveted, it's great to be pure as the driven snow. Angels and brides wear white. Devil's food cake is chocolate; angel's food cake is white!

We shape language and we are shaped by it. In our culture, white is esteemed. It is heavenly, sunlike, clean, pure, immaculate, innocent, and beautiful. At the same time, black is evil, wicked, gloomy, depressing, angry, sullen. Ascribing negative and positive values to black and white enhances the institutionalization of this culture's racism.

Let us acknowledge the negative connotations of whiteness. White things can be soft, vulnerable, pallid, and ashen. Light can be blinding, bleaching, enervating. Conversely, we must acknowledge that darkness has a redemptive character, that in darkness there is power and beauty. The dark nurtured and protected us before our birth.

Welcome darkness. Don't be afraid of it or deny it. Darkness brings relief from the blinding sun, from scorching heat, from exhausting labor. Night signals permission to rest, to be with our loved ones, to conceive new life, to search our hearts, to remember our dreams. The dark of winter is a time of hibernation. Seeds grow in the dark, fertile earth.

The words black and dark don't need to be destroyed or ignored, only balanced and reclaimed in their wholeness. The words white and light don't need to be destroyed or ignored, only balanced and reclaimed in their wholeness. Imagine a world that had only light -- or dark. We need both. Dark and light. Light and dark.

Source: Been in the Storm So Long: A Meditation Manual, ed. by Mark Morrison-Reed and Jacqui James, Boston: Skinner House Books, 1991

THE BEAUTY OF THE DARK

Meanings:  dim, sinister, gloomy, night

Synonyms:  dim, shady shadowy, murky, gloomy

DARKNESS

Meaning:  dark

Synonyms:  dark, night, dusk, gloom, dimness, shadows, shade

As I reflect on the negative definitions of darkness I am struck by how easy it is to internalize them in many different ways.

Unitarian Universalist playwright and theater director, Patricia Montley reminds us to: “value the dark… sit in the dark (alone or with others) and think about the importance of darkness. Bless mushrooms that grow in the dark and honeysuckle that sends its luscious scents into the night. Be grateful for the darkness that soothes us to sleep, the darkness that animals require for hibernation. Give thanks for sheltering dark places: the rich earth where seeds germinate, the caves that harbored our ancient ancestors (and where some of our sun gods were born), the cellars that keep us safe from tornadoes, the wombs that provide our first nourishment. Acknowledge the darkness of suffering, which can deepen our appreciation of life and strengthen our connection to one another.

In the words of Janet Morley:

“and you held me and there were no words 


and there was no time

and you held me 


and there was only wanting and 
being held

and being filled with wanting


and I was nothing

but letting go and being held


and there were no words

and there needed to be no words


and there was no terror

only stillness


and I was wanting nothing

and
it was fullness

and it was like aching for God


and it was tough

and warmth and
darkness

and no time and no words

and we flowed and I flowed

and I was not empty 


and I was given up to the dark

and 
in the darkness I was not lost


and the waiting was like fullness

and I could
hardly hold it

and I was held

and you were dark and warm and without time

and without words and you held me.”

I believe that there are many different ways for fight for what’s right. So, friends, I’m not trying to get the world to change its vocabulary. The words “light” and “dark” and typical use of them have been around “forever”. We can’t change that now, but we can always try to improve our use of this language. Some of you might remember when James Brown, singer wrote “Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud" in 1968, he essentially gave many of us a new way of understanding “Black!” My hope is that by sharing some of my thoughts with you you will become more aware of more about me and my reactions to the words “dark” and “light.” I am mindful of those times when the use of the word “dark” is negatively impacting those of us who are Black and Brown. I need you to be mindful of those times too. I also am aware of when the use of the word “light” is also, negatively impacting those of us who are Black and Brown. I need you to be more mindful of those times too. We say we want to de-center whiteness. Let us incorporate that in our work now. We have the blessing of being in a Sankofa moment. Sankofa is the West African Bird whose body is facing forward though its head is looking back. It is at once a symbol of being planted in the present, taking the time to look back to the past to better understand where we come from, so that we can better plan for a collective positive future. Let us take time in this Sankofa moment to pay attention to the words we chose to use. Let us be thoughtful in what we chose to share—and make the time to say why when we need to set a context.

I challenge myself and others to become more conscious than ever of my use of the words “dark” and “light.” I promise to find a better balance.

Will you join me?

Yours, HOPE

About the Author

Hope Johnson

Hope Johnson will serve as Congregational Life Consultant for the UUA's Central East Region and the Southern Region. She brings specialties in conflict resolution and multicultural congregational development....

For more information contact cer@uua.org.