I enthusiastically agree with the spirit of Khizr Khan’s courageous critiques of Donald Trump. I consider myself to be a member of the bipartisan audience that has been sickened by Trump’s harsh retorts to the Khan family and Trump’s defiant refusal to apologize.
But for all his heroic stands against Trump, the father of the Muslim American soldier slain in combat, is not beyond constructive critique. Outside of Trump and his supporters whose choice of words seem to always to be offending someone, Khan is not beyond critique.
Khizr Khan should have used a different choice of words on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. He should have found a different metaphor to convey Trump’s obvious lack of compassion and empathy. Because the metaphor he used had racist undertones.
Trump “is a black soul, and this is totally unfit for the leadership of this country,” Khan said. “The world is receiving us like we have never seen. They have seen the blackness of his character, of his soul.”
As an American who identifies as black, I felt offended by this statement—a statement that circulated far and wide the last few days. It was a racist statement that denigrated the one-third of American Muslims who are black—just as Trump’s Islamophobia has denigrated all American Muslims, including Khan and his family.
But I hesitate to directly compare Khan to Trump—a presidential candidate whose library of bigotry would overwhelm Khan’s two statements, a politician who certainly knows when he is being bigoted, who almost certainly knows when he is offending Muslims and Blacks and women and Latinos and immigrants and LGBTs and the disabled. The spirit of Trump’s campaign reflects he does not have “a moral compass” and “empathy,” to use Khan’s touching words.
Khan has a moral compass that steered him to speak out against Trump at the Democratic National Convention, and again and again in the last week. But sometimes the moral compasses of the most well-meaning Americans fail to steer them away from treacherous waters of bigotry that Trump is trying to ride into the White House.
I cannot fault Khan. I suspect he did not realize the racist idea underlying his statements about Trump’s “black soul” and the “blackness of his character.” I suspect he did not realize that the basis of racist ideas associating black people with negativity is associating the color black with negativity.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. derided these associations months before his assassination. “Even semantics have conspired to make that which is black seem ugly and degrading,” he preached on August 16, 1967. “In Roget’s Thesaurus there are some 120 synonyms for blackness and at least sixty of them are offensive, such words as blot, soot, grim, devil, and foul. And there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable, expressed in such words as purity, cleanliness, chastity, and innocence.”
King was addressing the eleventh annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Convention in Atlanta. “Maybe the English language should be reconstructed,” King preached, “so that teachers will not be forced to teach the Negro child sixty ways to despise himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of inferiority, and the white child 134 ways to adore himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of superiority.”
King referenced a problem as old as colonial America. The earliest Americans settlers were born into a British nation connecting Blackness and evil—the kind of connections that could birth phrases like “black soul.” Remember what William Shakespeare had Emilia say to Othello, the Moor, before he commits suicide? “And you the blacker devil.”
By the time of the Salem witch trials in 1692 and 1693, the blacker devil seemed everywhere. Puritans nearly always portrayed the devil as a “black man,” including the most zealous supporter of the witch hunts and trials, Boston minister Cotton Mather.
Mather was early America’s greatest intellectual, publishing more writings than possibly all of his contemporaries combined, consistently encouraging hesitant New England slaveholders to convert their enslaved Africans to Christianity. In one of his first books, a collection of sermons in 1689, Mather scolded masters for not looking after the souls of their black “inferiors,” “which are as white and good as those of other Nations, but are Destroyed for lack of Knowledge.”
Mather theologized that non-whites could obtain a godly white soul the same year John Locke declared all unblemished minds to be white in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Scientists Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were popularizing light as white. Michelangelo had already painted the original Adam and God as white men in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Aphra Behn had already written about “the most beautiful White” the year before in her pioneering English novel, Oroonoko.
Cotton Mather later became the first known American to speak of a wicked, though redeemable black soul. “Do not partake in evil and “make yourself infinitively Blacker than you are already,” Mather preached to enslaved Africans in A Good Master Well Served (1696). By obeying your masters, your “souls will be washed ‘White in the blood of the lamb.’”
Black was loaded with so much negativity in the English language that when freed Africans started identifying themselves in English in the nineteenth century, they typically refused to self-identify as black. They were commonly self-identifying as African and colored and Negro. In the midst of this overpowering racist discourse about evil blackness, about black people as soulless beasts, W.E.B. Du Bois shocked Americans in 1903 when he released, The Souls of Black Folk, a title that seemed as strange then as “black soul” seems customary today.
But black folk did not start generally identifying as black folk. Black did not arrive until the 1960s, until the young pioneers of black power started extracting ugliness and evil from the identifier black. These youngsters embraced the identity “black,” stunning many of their parents and grandparents, many of whom hung onto “colored” or “Negro” until their deaths.
Martin Luther King Jr. was moved by this young development when he addressed the SCLC convention in 1967. The Negro must “say to himself and to the world,” King proclaimed, “I’m black and beautiful.”
Pull out your English dictionaries, and compare definitions of black and white. Not much has changed in fifty years. The English language still mass incarcerates blackness. That is why Americans knew exactly what Khan meant when he described Trump’s soul and character as black. That is why Black Lives Matter activists are sporting t-shirts that tell the world they are “unapologetically black.”
It is a struggle going against all we have all been taught in our English classes and dictionaries. But Americans—especially fellow opponents of Trump’s bigotry—should refrain from using words and phrases like blackball, Black Death, black hole, blacklist, blackmail, black sheep, black devil—and black soul. Americans should refrain from connecting blackness and negativity and evil, especially in these deadly days when so many armed Americans foolishly fear unarmed black faces.
Trump’s soul is not black. Black souls are not inherently wicked.
Black souls are beautiful.