The Legacy of Language

Like many others around the world I have been soul searching lately.  I am a person of white privilege.  I think of myself as an idealist.  I want to live in a world of equality and compassion.  However, I am realising more and more, how naïve and sheltered I have been.  I live, and was brought up in, rural Shropshire.  It is not ethnically diverse.  I don’t think I’m racist, but I have been passive.  I need to actively engage.  I am re-evaluating what part I play in maintaining the balance of power – what I can and should do to support change.

As a storyteller, my life is all about language.  I think about words and the layers of meaning they encapsulate.  Over the past weeks, I have been re-evaluating the stories I tell; what stereotypes and prejudices I am passing on without realising.

When I was at school, I learned a counting rhyme.  ‘Eeny meenie, minie mow, catch a n***** by its toe, if it squeals, let it go, eeny meenie minie mow’.  It was not until years later that I learned what n***** actually meant.  I thought it was a fish and it was just a playful nonsense rhyme that the fish had a toe.  I was shocked and mortified when I realised what the rhyme was actually saying and the countless times I had mindlessly repeated it.

Language is resonant. It shapes the way we think.  It holds echoes of past customs and beliefs in everyday sayings and proverbs.  It creates assumptions, reinforces prejudices and manipulates the way we see the world, often without us knowing.  The old saying ‘sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words can never hurt me’ is blatantly untrue.  Words are powerful.  Echoes of words and taunts spoken can leave bruises that remain tender for years longer than physical bruises.

Storytellers use shorthand all the time.  Stories use archetypes – strong, symbolic characters that come up again and again, that represent more than they necessarily show on the surface on the story, that carry the weight of a thousand other stories with them. Archetypes carry a tide of meaning and resonance with them.  Traditional stories are so powerful because of the traditions and layers of meaning that have accrued over generations, so that a short, apparently simple story can carry a different meaning for each listener who hears it.

The problem is that sometimes a word or phrase can acquire a new meaning incompatible with the other layers of meaning, that sets up a dissonance.

This is what has happened with the word black.

It seems to me a terrible irony that we have ended up with the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ to describe skin colour, when we have almost every colour under the sun, but very rarely black or white.  The terms black and white are make it much harder for us to come together.  When we talk of black and white issues, the insinuation is that an issue is clear cut, there are two polar opposites and it is a way of saying that there is no compromise between two positions, no middle way.  Having the labels black and white applied to skin colour, sets up an expectation of utter difference, it places people as opposites with nothing in common, which is incredibly unhelpful as we seek to establish a collaborative equal society.

The associations of black and white in traditional British culture have dreadful connotations, which go back long before they were the terms used for skin colour.

Black is bad, associated with night and things that happen under the cover of darkness.  We have the black arts, black hearts, black souls. Black is bad, literally, it is associated with things going rotten, the colour of blighted crops.  White is good, associated with day and light.  We have white witches and unblemished souls.  Milk is white.  It is healthy, a symbol of a mother’s love, the most pure, non-sexual love.

It is hardly surprising that racism remains institutionalised and deeply embedded within our culture when it is constantly reinforced through the imagery of the language that we use waking and sleeping to communicate, think and dream.  It doesn’t matter that these images and connotations began before we decided to inflict these labels, and with them, their many layers of meaning, on people – it’s been done, now we need to find a way to extricate and slowly unpick and untwist all these negative strands that have taken centuries to weave together.

It is going to be task worthy of Hercules or Jack, but one that we have to begin – and the harder we try, the closer we may come to succeeding.  I’m determined to try, though I feel rather overwhelmed and it’s going to take time.

For example, there is a story I was given by Duncan Williamson, a traditional Scottish Traveller story, Jack and the Black Thief of Slain.  In the past I felt comfortable telling it.  We know he is an immensely powerful sorcerer, a people thief and keeps slaves in his silver mines.  No one can describe him, because no one who meets him ever returns.  In the past, I rather liked playing with the assumptions people made and when Jack finally meets The Black Thief, we discover that he is a great giant of a man, his skin pale and pallid, with a full head and beard of black hair and his body covered in coarse wiry black hairs.  But now, I am realising that it needs to change. Yes, The Black Thief is a white man, but while he is overtly called The Black Thief because of his hair, all the layers of association are meant – he is a master of the black arts, he has a black heart and a black soul.  His land appears barren, no crops grow above the surface in the light of day, instead his harvest comes out of the hidden darkness beneath.  In traditional story lore, all that is summarised in that brief title, The Black Thief of Slain.  Now, I was gifted these Traveller stories and I want to stay true to the heart of them, but I am beginning a journey of finding a new common shorthand. The stories still need to flow and not sound painfully contrived to avoid the word black.  It should be a subtle subversive shift, a change in the core thinking of the language.

I think in this story, that actually, the simplest thing to do is to simply remove the word black. It will require a little more work and perhaps for me to be a little more explicit, to unpick and spell out, the associations of mining in the ground and sorcery, to include more description, but now I’ve starting thinking and examining how to do it, I think it might make it more chilling and a better story.

So, I am embarking on a rethinking, reimagining, redefining of my similes, metaphors and word-imagery, going back to first principles.

The black arts are secret, hidden, power with a price, power used for selfish ends, associated with the Devil, darkness, often bought with another’s pain.  They are vampiric, feeding off others – whether it is sucking out pain, blood, soul or life.  If black is associated with food going bad, many other colours/senses are too…pale, grey, green, pallid, stench, slime…

Grey has a lot of potential. Grey could easily be the new faceless face of evil.  Grey is the colour of mist.  It fogs mind and vision.  Mist is unstoppable and relentless, impossible to fight.  Grey is the colour of mould and mildew.  Grey is what’s left when the colour is leached out.  Grey is the colour of ash, once the life and vitality of a substance has been burned away.  Grey is the colourless colour, the colour of depression and hopelessness. Grey is the colour of soulless suits, of corporate business without individuality.  Grey is the colour of stone hearts and souls of stone.

As a society, our vision of evil has changed, or at least my perception of it has.  When we think of evil now, I don’t think most people imagine witches cavorting with the Devil.  What terrifies me is the switching off, the lack of responsibility. It is the march of the machine, the need to feed the economy, the weight of profit against compassion, red tape and layers of beurocracy obscuring what are often very simple questions, which, when you pare everything back to a simple moral question, the path is usually clear.  Grey is uncaring, unheeding, unaware.

Even so, we can’t simply swap black for grey.  I think grey may be very helpful as an alternative metaphor, but it will need to be spelled out why.  And although we don’t have grey people in the way that we have black people, there is a certain connection with older people – the grey vote, etc, though it is not as deep-rooted or particularly used in a flattering way, I certainly don’t want older people, which I’m well on my way to becoming, to think that I am undermining their wealth of experience, wisdom and value and denouncing them as evil!

I am just beginning this journey.  I am sure I’ll make lots of mistakes.  At the same time, it is an opportunity.  A time of openness and questioning – even if there is discomfort and resistance to change. We have opened a discussion and I welcome that – ideas, suggestions, comments and constructive criticism – I’m listening and I’m thinking… and there is so much to think about: the difference between archetype and sterotype and the importance and weight of both; whether we should be actively constructing positive metaphor associations with the word black and vice versa for white to reduce the resonances of both words and, particularly for me,  where the balance lies between constructing a new descriptive language and honouring the heritage and tradition of Scottish Traveller lore.

image of writing for blog

@artscouncilofengland, @ace_midlands, @ace_national, @artyaml, @sfs_uk @scotstoryfourm @EU_SSSA @Stories4Society @BTBStorytelling @GEECStweets @TadHargrave

#storytellingapprenticeship, #ScottishTravellerStories, #DuncanWilliamson #Passingontradition #TheScottishTravellingPeople #EqualityMatters