Is Black/Dark = Devil/Ominous Universal?

I have had multiple conversations with people (black and white) and recently with my students about the black/white connotations with good and evil in contemporary society. Almost every white person believes it is a universal phenomenon. Unfortunately, many black people also believe this. It appears without proper historical context, European ways of seeing the world assumes a natural universal truthfulness.

I distinctly remember when I was growing up in the village, there was a kind of arms-length treatment of fair colored people because they were associated with sickness and general weakness. The darker you were, the healthier you were regarded and therefore a preferable mate. Chiefs and Imams, to the extent seen as worthy of taking on more problems than the regular person, would usually be the ones to marry very fair people in addition to my problematically seen albino sisters. I had a conversation a few years ago with a childhood friend (grew up with him in Tamale) who could not believe that fair hasn’t always been the norm. So, I felt like I may have been making up stuff to assuage my over-analysis of the impact of colonialism on the African psyche. But this is a historical moment I believe speaks to what I have known as a child.

So, in the history of Gold Coast, among the Southern ethnic groups, what color did they say the devil (abonsam or sasabonsam) looks like? Now let us see what the first Gold Coast historian, Christian Carl Reindorf had for us in one of the most arresting passages in which he described the first meeting of the Akyém Kotoku King, [Frimpong] with a European visitor quoted here in full.(Paragraph from a Facebook post of Kwaku Darko Ankrah)

1733—1742. The reign of the three kings of Akem, Bà Kwante, [Frimpong] Mansò, and Owusu Akém.

Numerous prisoners having been obtained by the Akéms and their allies, 500 of them were paid to Opoku. The Akéms neither sold nor killed their prisoners, as the Akwamus used to do, but retained and naturalized them; hence after some years they forgot their country.

They got the trade on the coast into their hands, and were [entrusted] with the protection of the Forts. [Frimpong] had charge of [Christiansburg], Bà Kwante, of Crevecoeur and James Fort. [Frimpong] therefore shaved his hair and put it with eight ounces of gold into the foundation of that part of the Fort which was then built. As protector he received a stipend of 32 [shillings] per month from the Danish Government. All the trade with the Danish merchants was placed in his hands. But he had never seen a white man; the reports he used to hear from traders, especially the Akwamus, were that the Europeans are a kind of sea-creatures.  He therefore expressed his desire of seeing a European, and Mr. Nicolas Kamp, the book-keeper, was commissioned to Da, the capital of the Kotokus, to be seen by the king. A grand meeting was held for his reception. In saluting the assembly, Mr. Kamp approached the king, took off his hat, and when bowing to salute him, he thought he was an animal who would jump upon him. The king fell down flat from his stool, and cried loudly for his wives to assist him. The drummer Adam Malm, whose native name was Kwabena Nyankum, and Noi Afadi, the government interpreter, did their utmost to convince the poor king that Mr. Kamp was a human being, and that his movements were the mode of Europeans in paying their respect to superiors. The king got up from the ground and sat on the stool, ordered his wives to sit between him and the European and his men. By this he could cool down his fears. Upon seeing the cue, i.e. a tail-like twist of hair hanging down the back of Mr. Kamp (as people were then in the habit of wearing as the Chinese do now-a-days), he said, “Dear me, all animals have their tails at the extremity of the trunk, but Europeans have theirs at the back of their heads!” The interpreters explained to him that it was no tail, but hairs so twisted. All this while the king’s wives were watching every movement of Mr. Kamp to know whether he was a man or an animal. Not being satisfied yet with all he had seen, the king requested Mr. Kamp to take off his clothes, which he declined to do, saying he might do so at home, when no lady was present. The meeting retired and Mr. Kamp went to his quarters, where a table was prepared for him. During the repast the king’s wives stood by peeping at him; some said, “He eats like a man, really he is a human being!” After all Mr. Kamp took off his clothes before old [Frimpong], who now could touch him, when he said, “Ah, you are really a human being, but only too white, like a devil!”

See pages 82-83 of Reindorf, Carl Christian, History of the Gold Coast and Asante: Based on Traditions and Historical Facts, Comprising a Period of more than Three Centuries from about 1500 to 1860. Basel. 1895. Print. (Find Softcopy on Archive.com).

Other than that pusillanimous ‘king’ using his wives as shields against perceived danger (☹️😂), what is clear from the above is that at least in Southern Ghana among the Asante, the devil (bad) was imagined as white. Whiteness therefore represented something ominous to them. This was without having contact with white people. This view wasn’t based on prejudice arising from years of contact and out of fear of a ‘perceived threatening other.’ It was just out of their local worldview unadulterated by external stimuli.

This doesn’t mean white=evil or white people are evil. Just like white people equating blackness with evil is not true. But metaphors and image making matters. It dictates how people respond to others perceived to possess those imagined and metaphorical qualities we imagined. As black people, we need to rediscover our own sense of imagining the world and our place in it. When we imagined the world with other people’s eyes—often developed through years of acrimonious contact—, we will always look down on ourselves. We will always be at the fringes because everyone (culture) is the center of the world.

Seeing the world through religious imagery is particularly harmful to the psyche of Africans—both Islamic and Christian. It is absurd seeing African/Ghanaian/Black pastors preaching with zeal about driving out darkness or evil as black as… Maybe we need to drive out evil as white as… Anyway, in the Bible and Qur’an, evil is always associated with black/dark while good is associated with white/light. Instead of seeing the light, we may need to see the dark. Anyway, we spend half of our lives in the dark. We rest during the night. We get refreshed through the dark. We wear clothes to shield us from the daily instruments including light, we build homes to shield us from the natural instruments including light. Light and darkness are complementary instead of antagonistic in nurturing life. Pitting them against each other as done in religious imagery is rather out of tune with nature and life. This has been accentuated by the taking advantage of this religious symbolism by European white supremacist since the colonial and slavery days.

At the end of the day, the point I want to make is that black/dark = evil and white/light = good isn’t a universal way of seeing the world. It is not even a logical way of seeing the world. As black people, rediscovering this might be the first move towards self-acceptance and healing from years of cultural imperialism and eventually living meaningfully happy lives in our own bodies.

NB: That King was a useless idiot. He gave the man he thought just a few moments ago was a devil two slaves to take away after his visit ☹️☹️

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