WINTHROP D. JORDAN White Over Black (1968)

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Englishmen found the natives of Africa very different from themselves. Negroes looked different: their religion was un-Christian; their manner of living was anything but English; they seemed to be a particularly libidinous sort of people. All these clusters of perceptions were related to each other, though they may be spread apart for inspection, and they were related also to circumstances of contact in Africa, to previously accumulated tradition concerning that strange and distant continent, and to certain special qualities of English society on the eve of its expansion into the New World.

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:

Everye white will have its blacke, And everye sweete its sowre.’

White and black connoted purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, beneficence and evil, God and the devil.

Whiteness, moreover, carried a special significance for Elizabethan Englishmen: it was, particularly when complemented by red, the color of perfect human beauty, especially female beauty. This ideal was already centuries old in Elizabeth’s time, and their fair Queen was its very embodiment: her cheeks were “roses in a bed of lillies.” (Elizabeth was naturally pale but like many ladies then and since she freshened her “lillies” at the cosmetic table.) An adoring nation knew precisely what a beautiful Queen looked like.

Her cheeke, her chinne, her neck, her nose,
This was a lillye, that was a rose;
Her hande so white as whales bone,
Her finger tipt with Cassidone;
Her bosome, sleeke as Paris plaster,
Held upp twoo bowles of Alabaster.

Shakespeare himself found the lily and the rose a compelling natural coalition,

‘Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white
Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on.

By contrast, the Negro was ugly, by reason of his color and also his “horrid Curles” and “disfigured” lips and nose. As Shakespeare wrote apologetically of his black mistress,

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks.

Some Elizabethans found blackness an ugly mask, superficial but always demanding attention.

Is Byrrha Browne? Who doth the question aske?
Her face is pure as Ebonie jeat blacke,
It’s hard to know her face from her faire maske,
Beautie in her seemes beautie still to lacke.
Nay, she’s snow-white, but for that russet skin,
Which like a vaile doth keep her whiteness in.

Reprinted from WHITE OVER BLACK — AMERICAN ATTITUDES TOWARD THE NEGRO, 1550- 1812, by Winthrop D. Jordan. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia. Copyright (c) 1968 by The University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

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Prepared by Deborah Mercer and Edith Beckett of the New Jersey State Library.
Copyright 2003 © by the New Jersey Historical Commission,
New Jersey Department of State.
All rights reserved.
Please direct questions and comments to Deborah Mercer.
Updated:Thursday, April 24, 2003