Content warning: This reflection will draw connections to racism, colourism and slavery
Song of Songs 1.5-8
I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.
Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!
Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where you pasture your flock, where you make it lie down at noon; for why should I be like one who is veiled beside the flocks of your companions?
If you do not know, O fairest among women, follow the tracks of the flock, and pasture your kids beside the shepherds’ tents.
These verses properly introduce our main singer, who never gets a name, but is called a ‘Shulamite’ in 6.13. The Shulamite declares herself to be black and beautiful, only to be undermined in our reading by centuries of English translations that decide that if the Hebrew joining letter can mean ‘and’ or ‘but’, then this women must have described herself as black and then reassured us that she was beautiful. Seemingly, translators think this obvious, rather than offensive. Let us read with the NRSV here. The woman affirms that she is ‘black and beautiful’, and both positive statements belong together.
In what way is the woman to be described as black? Reading plainly, she means that her skin tends towards darker on the spectrum of skin tones. In the 3rd Century CE, Origen connected the verse to the skin colour of an Ethiopian and grossly asserted that blackness is an inherited defect. This reading tradition that black is secondary or sinful leads over centuries into the justification for the human trafficking of black people, sold as slaves.
Some take verse six literally too, that her skin is sunburnt, perhaps from being forced to labour by her brothers. The translator or preacher may imply that this is a light skinned woman (hence beautiful) only temporarily scarred by the sun. Can such a connection between forced labour and blackness be so casually introduced without remembering the cost to millions of black women, and men and children, in body, mind and soul, as they were forced to labour in the industrial revolution and beyond? And in explaining her skin tone as sunburn only, some commentators skirt the assumption that a woman with naturally dark skin would not assert her beauty.
Read instead that she is beautiful, and that she knows some others scorn her, and she knows that she is beloved. And as surely as she is black and beautiful, she is indeed beloved, and God-created, and in-God’s-image. As are you.
As you prepare to pray, reflect on these lyrics:*
You bring me back to life, back to life, You got a light inside, light inside, God made you beautiful.
God may your light truly dawn on our broken world, that we may see your beautiful image on every beautiful face, and scorn nothing and no-one that you have called good. Amen.
*God made you beautiful, by Beyoncé, Chris Braide, Sia (2013).
The Rev’d Dr ‘frin Lewis-Smith is a Healthcare Chaplain and a member of The Church at the Centre, Bolton