199 years old today Anna Sewell is the famous author of Black Beauty, one of the ten best selling childrens novels ever written. Born to a Quaker family in 1820 in Norfolk in England.
In 1807 the UK parliament passed the Slave Trade Act which banned slave trade but not slave ownership. In 1833 the UK parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act which banned slavery in the British Empire. Sewell lived to see the emancipation proclamation in the USA in 1863. She also lived long enough to see the Jim Crow laws passed in the USA ushereing in an age of apartheid to replace the age of slavery.
As a child growing up in Ireland in the 1960’s and 1970’s I was oblivious to the problems with the word “Black”. In that Ireland we did not have black people. Irish people left this island for opportunity abroad, nobody came here.
Besides, in the Irish language the black man “An Fear Dubh” is a nickname for the Devil. People with black skin were called Fir Goirme (Blue men).
Over time we have seen people struggle with how to address the issue of skin colour. The word Negro has fallen out of fashion, and yet the “N” word is used prolifically in Hip-Hop culture when people of colour refer to each other. It is only banned in the mouths of whites.
People of colour. African-american. Black african. They are all terms with issues. I heard a white American refer to a Black British work colleague as “African-American” and the British guy laughed when he heard. He said “I’m neither African nor American mate, I come from Birmingham”.
British black people, who were emancipated in the 19th century, appear to have fewer hangups than Americans. Ditto for the French black population. As far back as WW1 American Negroes who wanted to fight had to enlist with Canadian or French regiments. Those who enlisted with the French were astounded when they were treated as equals.
Black americans have never been treated as equals and quite rightly struggle with the word black. Black carries many negative connotations in the English language. Gloomy, dirty, angry, evil and wicked are all meanings of black. White by contrast represents purity, cleanliness, goodness, honesty, all the good stuff.
So the word black has developed many deep and symbolic meanings. Black power. Black lives matter. Black and proud. Blacksploitation.
I suspect if Anna Sewell wrote her book today the publisher might toy with the title. After all there is no “official” colour for horses that is black. A black horse is usually either a Grey or a Bay or even a very dark Chestnut. After all, look at the problems caused by the name of a dog in the Dam Busters movie. It has caused huge difficulties with a remake. It raises the important question: “Do we change historical facts to assuage modern PC sensibilities?” The danger is that we begin to rewrite history to suit modern attitudes, and that leads us to a 1984 dystpoia of alternative facts and post-truth.