The Power of Words

We all know the connotations attached to words like “black” and “dark.” And what about Negro? The dictionary tells us that the word “negro” is derived from Latin: nigrum: black, dark, dusky, gloomy, unlucky, bad, wicked.

Words such as “negative”: harmful, unconstructive, depressing; “denigrate”: to blacken, defame.

Are we hypersensitive to it? I don’t believe we are. But, as writers, what can we do about it?

Well, I can only speak for myself. After researching America’s awakening to racial pride Marcus Garvey-style for The Color Line, and after digging into the psychosis of “passing” in Bluestone Rondo, I decided to go nothing but positive.

The Weight of a Pearl begins with some standard stereotypes about dark-skinned people. I like to explore the learning process in people, since we came from generations of self-hate. In the early chapters, Pearl (as a child) relates dark skin to her father who beats her, but when she meets her teacher, she begins to understand that color has nothing to do with good and evil.

In the chapters regarding the war in Spain, darkness and blackness carry the positive connation of safety, comfort, and fertility. Getting to Spain is Doc’s goal, so when he is finally close, the term “high, dark distance” symbolizes the nearing of his goal, his job, his destiny.

Enrique pointed into a high, dark distance. “Beyond that ridge we cross into Spain. Our outpost is a cave on the other side of the mountain…a good place to watch the town below. Everything we need is there.”

A few other random examples are:

The connection of the words black and dark to the words fresh, fertile, earth, hallowed, gentle, richness.

…the breeze carried the fresh smell of the blackfertile earth and the pines born here. If there was a hallowed spot left in Spain, this was surely it.

A man comes face-to-face with death. But it is not frightening or evil or gloomy, because he is fighting for innocent people, for his beliefs, and for the nobility of his soul:

The darkness that swallowed him was gentle and black

A man and a woman deeply in love are dancing slowly in a kitchen as the radio plays:

The room was filled with the richness and dark sexuality of Sarah Vaughan’s voice…

There is tremendous power in words. May we all use them with thought and respect for our ancestors.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Every word a note; every page a song.

    1. Thanks, Virgil! I hope that was for one of my books!

  2. I agree there is power in words, spoken and written. I love the way you consciously use words in a positive light in your books.

  3. 12 thumbs up!!! (A phrase I learned from my cats) Honestly, I never thought I could find a novel that I couldn’t put down! (And I mean that in more ways than one!) I have always preferred biographies or non-fiction to novels. When a friend told me that “The Weight of a Pearl” was different and convinced me to give it a chance, they were right – I was not able to “put it down” In fact, it made me realize something – novels can be great, if you read the right ones, written by the right author — like Walker Smith. This one was more than just right, though. IT WAS FANTASTIC! Where did Walker Smith come from? And why isn’t everyone talking about her yet? I carried this book around with me everywhere I went, just so I could find out what was going to happen to Pearl next. I felt her pain, and found myself constantly thinking about her and little Ronnie and Doc.
    When Ronnie was taken away by his abusive father, my co-workers thought something had happened to ME because I walked around the office with this “worried” look on my face. I had to get back to the book to find out what happened to him!! That’s how wrapped up I was in this story. Amazing work – I can’t wait to read what Walker Smith writes next!!

  4. Wow! I have long struggled, especially as an educator, with how to handle the undertones that weave through our language. But I’d never made the connection to denigrate and some of the other examples.

    Darkness as an archetype is woven throughout most languages of the world- reflective of our need for safety at night. The problem is in people conflating the cues that language gives them about dangers with people groups. Now, how on Earth does one address this with a bunch of fifteen years olds? 🙂 Thought provoking piece! One of my favorite things about the written word- getting to see the world through a myriad of lenses.

    1. That’s why I’m enjoying this blog! I get to read the thoughts and reactions of my readers! Writing can be a lonely business, sometimes harrowing, when a writer has no idea how, when, and if she is getting the deeper points across. History is filled with courage, drama, suspense, love, violence, and unity. May unity and love be the prevailing forces that see us through. Thanks, Teacher Taryn!

  5. Oh, and I love the intentionality of pulling out the positive connotations of these words. The resulting lines are truly beautiful!

    1. There is so much beauty in darkness! Here’s a quotation from The Color Line:
      “Thank God for the darkness!
      Because without it, the moon and the stars
      would remain hidden in the light
      and we would miss the birth of the new morning.”

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