AFRICANGLOBE – Is black a colour? No, say scientists. In the visible spectrum, white reflects light and so is actually a presence of all colours. But black absorbs it, sucks it all in. True black is the absence of colour. Black is what happens when no light at all reaches your eye. Except, of course, that we almost never see pure black. Unless you happen to have the misfortune to be gazing into a black hole, everything you perceive as black has some light, however small, bouncing back at you.
Throughout history, for many cultures and societies, black and white have stood as opposites: white the positive, pure light, black its negative counterpart. From the Greeks, who sat the god of the underworld, Hades, on a black ebony throne to the Romans – death, in Roman poetry, was the hora nigra, or the black hour – black was not a friendly colour.
The association with death, with symbolic as well as literal darkness, with funerals and the afterlife is a common theme throughout history, from Nordic legends to European paintings, where the devil was often painted in deep black.
Yet without the pigment black, where would we be? Not reading this, for a start – aren’t you reading this in black text on a white background? So instead of trawling through the negatives, let us revel in the absence of light – from cultures that celebrated it, to practical uses, to the future. Let us go back to black.
The Source Of Life
Most ancient cultures associated black with death. But while for the Greeks and Romans it was symbolically laden with all the worst things, for the ancient Egyptians this proved a more positive link. Black was the colour of the rich, alluvial soil watered by the Nile river that provided fertility and growth – the source of life itself.
And while it was also the colour of Anubis, the god of mummification and of the afterlife, he was not a negative figure or evil presence, but actually one who protected the dead against evil. So black was the colour of death, but also the colour of resurrection. Indeed, as the “inventor” of embalming, Anubis was worshipped – after all, by embalming, people were preserved that they might one day live again.
Black ink was invented in both Ancient China and India. In China, an inventor named Tien-Lcheu mixed soot from pinewood and lamp oils to create a dark pigment. In India, ink from burned bones, tar and other substances was used. But whatever it’s original source, without it, would anything be so legible? It is the extreme contrast between black ink and white paper – or black font and white screen – that makes it clearest to read. And when a new, easily whipped-up version of ink was created in the 15th century, it suddenly became possible to print things on a bigger scale – books, prints and engravings proliferated – and with them, ideas and thoughts could spread freely. From the Protestant reformation to propaganda pamphlets, print democratised ideas and gave them wings.
A Nice Silhouette
Black, surely, is the most flattering colour. Blue jeans might be iconic but black ones are so much more slimming – there is a reason why Chanel’s little black dresses have proved so popular since the 1920s. It’s also practical, rarely fades in modern fabrics and goes with everything – in fashion, black is not a negative but a neutral. In fact, it was the colour of choice for the chic and rich as far back as the 14th century, where rulers and courts began to wear the austere but elegant shade. It began – don’t so many trends? – in Italy, where the Duke of Milan, the Count of Savoy and other rulers began to don it. This quickly spread to France and then England, where under Richard II the whole court adopted the colour. It was, for rulers, a colour of power and dignity. I have no need of showy shades, says regal black – I have all the power I need here in my person.
Everyone knows that a black cat crossing your path is lucky. Everyone in the UK and Japan, anyway. Black was the top choice for a ship’s cat and some fishermen’s wives also kept black cats at home, for added luck. But why? After all, according to the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) there are 22 cat breeds that can come with solid black coats so can they be that rare, and therefore special? It’s a link back to ancient Egypt again – specifically to the cat goddess Bast. Eygptian households kept black cats in their households and looked after them in the hope of currying favour with the powerful goddess. In the rest of Europe, though, they can’t get past the suspicion that those felines are hanging out with witches, and therefore up to no good. Though in Germany, there is an oddly specific superstition that a black cat crossing someone’s path from right to left is bad, whereas left to right is good. Presumably it’s cheating if you dash across the road to reverse your perspective. Pity the poor black cats of the US – it has been found that black cats have a lower chance of adoption compared with moggies of another hue – and, in fact, black animals in general take longer on average to rehome. Let’s hope they do well on 17 August 17 – “Black Cat Appreciation Day”.
Black To The Future
In 2014, a British company, Surrey NanoSystems, produced a material so black that it can barely be seen. This new material, named VantaBlack, absorbs all but 0.035% of visual light – a new world record for black. It is made of carbon nanontubes, each 10,000 times thinner than a human hair. It is so dark, that it is impossible for the human eye to work out what it is actually seeing and shapes or folds in this material simply seem to disappear. The scientific applications are numerous – but perhaps on a more sinister note, so are the military applications. On that, the company have been silent. Presumably, it’s gone to work on some Black Ops.
By: Kate Carter