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Seeing Darkness in a New Light

Laura Marti – December 15, 2022

Brownicity’s theme for the month of December, “Darkness Welcomes Light,” gave me something new to think about and explore. The beginnings of this have been with me for a while. I love learning, and what is most fun about it is the discovery that comes from digging into a topic and seeing where things lead.

The theme came out of a discussion we had as a Brownicity team about winter being connected to darkness, and how both winter and darkness are often seen negatively. Why is darkness not seen positively? For example, summer is thought of as light and cheery and we can’t wait for warmer weather, while winter is dark and dreary and we can feel like it weighs us down.  And how is it that throughout history, literature, and art, light/white came to be equated with “holy” and “good,” while dark/black were equated with “bad” and “evil”? Why is light precious while darkness is reviled? Do they need to be seen as binary? 

Maybe it is time for all of us to unpack and deconstruct these associations.  

Here, I’m sharing a few things I found that came together for me, but I am only scratching the surface. There is much more to be found — a deep well — to answer these questions.

WINTER SOLSTICE – THROUGH THE EYES OF THE INDIGENOUS

The Winter Solstice marks the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. As the year winds down, we will be submerged once again in the seasonal darkness we have come to know so well. I didn’t know a lot about the significance of the Winter Solstice until I began to study more about Indigenous cultures and their traditions. I only thought of it as an ancient and no longer relevant observance. But I so appreciated the perspective Indigenous peoples bring in connecting to the natural world. Considering I grew up in white Western Christianity, it gave me a more layered understanding of the winter season.

In Indian Country Today, Welcoming the Winter Solstice, they share this:  

The winter solstice was an important part of many indigenous cultures’ spiritual beliefs, a time of cosmic change and renewal, as well as a time where Indigenous communities faced existential questions. Surviving winter was far from guaranteed for those in colder climates, and celebrations that took place during the winter solstice were epic.

Wilfred Buck, an elder from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, says, “It is a time of rest for a lot of the animals and for the plants. It is time for the people to replenish their spirit. It is time for them to dream.”

Sarah Sunshine Manning, Shoshone-Paiute and Chippewa-Cree, in her essay Acknowledging the Winter Solstice is a Decolonial Act for Indigenous People, wrote:

The Winter Solstice is an opportunity for Indigenous people to reconnect to the natural world, sharpen our senses, and access our most powerful selves. In its period of darkness, the winter solstice is an opportunity to go inward with deep intention, to care for our spiritual selves, our bodies and minds, our loved ones and families, and to prepare for the longer days ahead.

With all the busyness we put on ourselves during the holiday season, the reminder to set aside time to rest, recover, and renew is a much needed admonition for our well-being.

ADVENT – INTERSECTION OF LIGHT AND DARK

Damian Costello (author, academic, and Indigenous Catholic), in his essay The Darkness of Winter Welcomes Perfect Light, beautifully brings together the teachings of both Indigenous cultures and the Christian faith around darkness and light. Here are a few of his thoughts:

Although darkness is a prominent theme in the Catholic mystical tradition, we have no communal language that expresses and makes real its sacred nature. Everything we hear dismisses darkness. Even with a mystical tradition that recognizes darkness as sacred, religion and science have developed negative language about the dark. Even as metaphor, scriptural imagery—for example, “He has rescued us from the power of darkness” (Col. 1:13)—can confuse us into thinking that actual darkness is anti-God.

Yet Catholics know that the presence of darkness is important and its effect is real, because we see it at the Easter Vigil and at midnight Mass for the nativity of the Lord. The Easter candle processes into darkened churches, a single wavering flame that expands into a blanket of stars. It is not an accident that midnight Mass, the center of our celebration of the incarnation, occurs in the middle of one of the longest nights of the year, whose shrouded embrace feels perfect for the coming of God’s human face. We feel the effect of the light because of the darkness.

Humans have always used darkness to convey spiritual teachings, something indigenous people still retain. Native American and First Nations people see the dark winter as a time for storytelling. Night is the time of sacred ceremonies.

The ritual pairing and repetition of darkness and dawn in the songs emphasize what darkness is in the natural world: the counterpart to light. In this context, invoking darkness is not celebrating evil but the wholeness of our being and the world’s being, much like the world before the fall in the first creation story in Genesis. God’s word transforms chaos into a series of ordered pairs, including day and night, and structures creation in harmony. Darkness, in other words, is integral to God’s outpouring of creative love.

Read more of his piece here. It’s hard for me not to quote everything in Costello’s writing! I find it a beautiful melding of the Christian faith and Indigenous spirituality and connection to the natural world. Just reading this in itself pushes me to challenge the paradigms of my Christian worldview, but in a really good way. It allows me to see that there is a beauty and holiness in “darkness” as well as in “light.”

THE BEAUTY OF DARK SKIN

In this article Is Saying “Dark” to Mean “Bad” an Offensive, Racist Metaphor?, public school teacher Lillie Marshall, challenges us to consider our word choices in perpetuating the use of “darkness” to mean “bad” or “evil.” Sometimes it can be hard to really look inside ourselves and examine our biases — it can be painful. But the author lays out a logical case for how problematic the metaphor “darkness” can be and gives us helpful tips to begin making a change. She starts:

The wonderful children’s book Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison ends with the realization that darkness — both in the sky and in skin color — is beautiful and necessary. Yet, so many of us persist in using the term “dark” or “darkness” as a metaphor for “bad things,” “evil” — or anything negative. 

She later says:

So why should we stop using this metaphor? Because this fear of darkness has also historically been associated with race — to disastrously harmful effect. Over and over we see brutality against people with darker skin justified by the “fear” people — usually with lighter skin — have said they felt which caused them to use excessive force. Overwhelmingly, this fear is not founded in reality.

The more we continue to associate literal darkness with fear (“dark = evil”), the more that fear can seep into our real-life human interactions. It will behoove us all to find other words besides the metaphor of “darkness” to describe things that cause us fear or bad feelings. 

When I read the children’s book she references, the story of what Sulwe endures, and the story of the sisters Night and Day, it made it that much easier to understand why it is important to shift our paradigms and see the darkness in a new way. Night is treated badly because she is dark, so she leaves her sister Day. Then Day grows too long and hot and the people cannot endure it, so Day must find her sister Night. When she finally does, it reads:

Night returned and the people rejoiced. “We need the darkest night to get the deepest rest. We need you so that we can grow and dream and keep our secrets to ourselves.” The stars chimed in, “Brightness isn’t just for daylight. Light comes in all colors. And some light can only be seen in the dark.“ While Day had a golden glow, with Night everything had a silver sheen, elegant and fine.

FINAL THOUGHTS

This exploration of “darkness” was so enlightening for me. I want to stay on it for a while and lean into it. It challenged me, but it also awakened something deeply emotional/spiritual in me. I can truly say I am seeing darkness in a new light. I see the beauty it holds. I see the healing it brings. And I even see the hope it can give.

Being raised in Western Christianity, I was taught a very narrow view that Indigenous traditions would fall under pagan practices and therefore would be considered “evil.” But I have begun to see their value, what I can learn from them, and how they can co-exist with and compliment my faith without being a threat.

As Lillie Marshall says, “Yes, it takes a little effort and brainpower to shift ingrained patterns of speech, but if those shifts can help benefit our fellow humans — and help make our world a more inclusive, anti-racist, loving place — wouldn’t it all be worth the effort? My answer is a resounding “YESSSS!!!”

RESOURCES

Welcoming the Winter Solstice – ICT 

Acknowledging the Winter Solstice is a Decolonial Act for Indigenous People | NDN Collective

The darkness of winter welcomes perfect Light 

Is Saying “Dark” to Mean “Bad” an Offensive, Racist Metaphor? 


Laura Martí is Content Creator and Resource Curator for Brownicity. Trained as a microbiologist and currently a wife and mother of four, she has been on an antiracism journey since the death of Trayvon Martin. She shares from her own learning with the goal of educating others and lifting up the dignity of every person.