“Black is Beautiful”
Song of Songs 1:1-8
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 27, 2015
University Baptist Church
As you know, we are spending this fall focusing on the colors of the rainbow and their presence in our world. We have already looked at Green, and Gold. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at red, orange, pink, blue, purple, even rainbow. For today, the color is black. Black as a color gets a bum rap. It’s not the color that is seen as beautiful. But I want us to consider the concept of black as beautiful.
Black and beauty are not culturally seen as synonymous, at least to some parts of our world. Part of this is the fault of darkness and light duality in John’s Gospel. In comics and in movies the good people wear white and the bad guys wear black.
But what happens when we extend this black is bad and white is good to our unconscious belief systems. Case in point is the youth in Texas who made a clock that he wanted to show his teacher. He took it to school and someone thought it could be a bomb. His name is Ahmed Mohammed, after all. But what if the clock was made by Christopher or Aaron or McKenzie? Would the school officials be so quick to wonder if that was a bomb?
Objectively, as a color, black ain’t so bad. Black goes with everything. You can only wear white for a few months of the year, but black is always in. It covers a lot of sins. It’s trimming. Someone from the bell choir asked me this morning if I had lost weight. I said, “No, I’m just wearing black.” You can eat spaghetti wearing black with a lot less concern than when wearing white.
What if we sang the praises of black as much as we do the praises of white? Think about our hymns. Imagine if we sang “All Thing black and beautiful all creatures great and small.”
Even our Biblical translators fall into familiar traps. Consider today’s scripture reading. The Shulamite woman declares, “I am black and beautiful.”
At my first church, in Hartford, CT, we had a visit from the contestants of the Miss West Indian Pageant. I preached on this scripture. I said that true beauty lies not in someone’s transient outward appearance, but in their strength of character, their commitment to justice and wholeness, their capacity to love and commitment to God. At the same time, I invited them to celebrate being black and beautiful.
Our fashion and entertainment industry has taught us well that in order to be beautiful, you have to be young, thin, wear expensive clothes, re-proportion yourself with silicon and make-up, die or straighten your hair and more often than not be white.
Unfortunately, our Biblical translators believed for centuries that it was impossible to be both black and beautiful. Most Biblical translators were white. King James authorized a translation of the Bible in 1611 making sure that the things he wanted got translated his way. So in the King James version, verse 1:5 says I am black but comely, or I am black but beautiful. As if to say, “in spite of the fact that I am black, I am still beautiful, or if you can just overlook the color of my skin, you can see that I am beautiful. The Hebrew word translated as “but” can also be translated as “and”. So as Bess sang, the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so.”
What is so is that the Shulamite woman was beautiful. She says it of herself and her lover says it of her, too. The Shulamite is the only woman in all of scripture who describes herself in her own words. And what does she use? I am black and beautiful.
In this day and time when we people take to the streets to declare that Black lives matter, we ought to redeem the biblical equation of black and beauty.
So much of beauty is sexualized. Female tennis players are seen as sex symbols in addition to athletes. And I have been perplexed that the Williams sisters have not adorned the covers of glamour magazines. If they are on the covers, they are seen as freaks. Too buff. Too audacious in their outfits. But I think they are graceful and beautiful. If they were blond sisters, what might our fashion industry have done with them? Might they have their own designs, their own tennis rackets, their own fitness empire?
The Shulamite woman from Song of Songs is an athlete. Her brothers have forced her to work outside, deepening her complexion in the hot desert sun. She claims herself as Black and beautiful. She claims her place. The Shulamite is not ashamed of her body, nor is her lover. No one questions her beauty or her confidence.
Renita Weems says, “the Shulamite steps onto the pages of biblical history to create a space for women like the wife of Potiphar and the Samaritan woman. She comes on the scene as headstrong and full of passion, and challenges our notions of female decency, respectability and honor…To think that her fantasies got preserved here in scripture without comment, without censure, and without criticism makes us want to know more about her. They also make us wonder about where we got our notions of womanhood.” (What Matters Most: Ten Lessons in Living Passionately from the Song of Solomon, 2004, p. 37)
I wonder what it might mean for us who are of fair complexion, who dominate the media, to recognize the beauty of people with darker complexion. We are not taught to see the beauty, except in a few people. What we are taught in subtle and not too subtle ways is to fear people of color…by the way, we are all people of color aren’t we? Calling people of darker complexion people of color is a privileged set of comments. Dang language.
I’m a Spike Lee fan. He pointedly makes dramatic reference to African-American self-hatred in his movies “School Daze” and “Jungle Fever”. In both of these films some of the characters try to change their appearance to look more white and thereby more attractive. What becomes painfully obvious, though, is that that their souls become uglier. The most poignant of all his films with this subplot is “Malcolm X”. In that film, Malcolm is shown putting lye into his hair to make it straight and helping him to look more white. Interestingly, the film depicts him washing the burning lye out of his hair in toilet water. The cinematic effect of this humiliation is staggering.
It was in prison, however, that Malcolm began for the first time to celebrate the fact that he was African American. He did not use the term black. His Muslim mentor gave him a “white man’s” dictionary and had him look up black and white. Malcolm then began to see how deep-rooted is the hatred of black people.
Certainly, the Bible he had said that the bridegroom in the Song of Songs was black but beautiful, not black and beautiful. It is high time that we reclaimed the Bible as a liberating document: a book which gives hope to all the world; a book which is read, not simply as people have always read it, but in a way in which our unique experiences in this society come into play. We need to be able to say that the Bible says that you can be black and beautiful. The Bible calls you to be who you are, not who others would have you be.
We need to reclaim the fact that many, if not most of the characters in the Bible were either black or had very dark skin. We need to remember, in spite of all the European artists’ depictions, that Jesus most likely did not have blond hair and blue eyes. We need to remember or even learn that many f the characters in the Bible were called Cushites. The land of Cush is the land of Ethiopia. And using the numerological Gematria, “Cushitess” is translated as “good-looking”. “I am black and beautiful, Oh daughters of Jerusalem”(Song of Songs 1:5)
I was at the Rochester/Genesee Regional meeting these past two days. We had the opportunity to speak a good bit about race and the rage of people who take to the streets to say that black lives matter. One African American physician and chaplain from St. Luke’s Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC (yes they are part of our region) described it like this: If you have been wounded by racism, you learn how to recover. And the wound eventually develops scar tissue. And you move on. But if the wound has not been properly cleaned, it will never really heal. Under the scar tissue are dirt and germs and toxins that fester. You see the scar and you are never fully comfortable in your skin. You remember the hurt from before that has not sufficiently healed deep down. And when it gets bumped, the scar comes off, the pus leaks out and the wound rages. The scars of racism are getting bumped by Trayvon Martin, by Ferguson, by Baltimore, by Charleston, by overt racism by presidential candidates, and disdain for our current president in often not so thinly veiled race-basis, by countless micro-aggressions that create even more wounds. And we hardly ever say that black is beautiful. What all these things say is that black is ugly, abhorrent and suspect. Imagine if we could see black as beautiful.
Maybe we ought to start by looking at scripture. The most poignant poem in the entire Bible starts out by saying “I am black and beautiful.” Imagine as you read Song of Songs that you are not talking about two white nymphs. Imagine you are reading the love poetry of black and beautiful people. Now that’s provocative. No wonder no one reads this book, except under the covers at Bible camp with a flashlight. It is calling someone black and beautiful.
The Song of Songs is full of sensuality, love, longing, lust and rapture. Unfortunately, we tend to read scripture through the lens of the Apostle Paul who seemed to have a disdain for anything bodily. In Greek thought there was a dualistic hierarchy. Light is better than darkness, the Spirit is better than the body or the flesh. In fact, flesh is evil goes the thinking. This has led to generations of stuck up and confused people. The message is: sex is dirty and bad. Save it for someone you love.
Phyllis Trible, in her book God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, writes that the Song of Songs is the redemption of the Garden of Eden. Whereas the third chapter of Genesis expels humanity from the Garden, Song of Songs welcomes us back with a come hither wink.
After Adam and Eve eat the apple in Genesis, they are ashamed of their nakedness. Not so in the Song of Songs. There is no shame at all. There is only joy and longing and excitement.
When the Hebrew Bible was canonized in the 90th year of the Common Era, its first book was Genesis and its last book was the Song of Songs. The Hebrew Bible began and ended in paradise.
So what does this possibly have to do with us today? Well everything. We were given to this world to have unity with creation, not disconnection with it. We were given to this world for love, not violence. We were given life so that we could share in God’s bounty and rejoice when others shared in it too. We were given life so that we could see God in the created order and each other and it would cause us to treat each other with the utmost of respect.
We are called to recognize beauty, especially the beauty of those we love. How do you express your longing, your desire, your lust, your hopefulness? What poetry might you be inspired to write or read?
Renita Weems said that well-behaved women rarely change history. Let us risk and imagine like the black and beautiful Shulamite woman. Let us give voice to our deepest desires and claim our partnership with God in creating and sustaining beauty.
It’s almost like what Jesus said, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” That which has been considered dirty and evil will be considered redemptive and attractive. Black is beautiful.
Pope Francis is wrapping up his visit to the U.S. fresh off his visit to Cuba. And while he has made his share of provocative visits to Congress, the U.N., the White House, even Philadelphia, I think his most hopeful visit was in Washington, DC. A special lunch was planned for him in the presence of power brokers. He was to meet with leaders of the House and the Senate right after his address to the Congress. But he didn’t show up. On purpose. He instead went to a homeless shelter and invited the leaders of the U.S. to come with him. He’d rather have a meal with the black and poor than the white and powerful. I think that was beautiful. Don’t you? “All things black and beautiful, all creatures great and small. All things wise and wonderful, our lord, God made them all.”
When I think of the Shulamite woman declaring that she is black and beautiful. I am reminded of Maya Angelou who reminded us all about beauty and power. I’ll close with her poem:
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Black is Beautiful.