By Miguel De La Torre
Much was made over the character of Satan as portrayed in the History Channel’s recent miniseries The Bible. Many viewers complained that the actor found to play Satan, Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, resembles President Barack Obama.
Questions concerning subliminal political messages make for interesting speculation, but what should really be the focus of concern is why Satan is portrayed as being black and Jesus as white. In fact, a cinema history of black Satan and white Jesus infuses popular culture. Why?
Eurocentric society has historically linked the word and color “black” with negative definitions and “white” with positive definitions. Pick up any dictionary and read the synonyms used to describe these words.
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines black as “dirty, evil, wicked” and white as “pure, innocent,” leaving us to wonder how color can possess moral qualities. Nevertheless, they do. This is evident in the old TV westerns, where the good guys were distinguished from the bad by the color of their hats.
These definitions given to the words black and white unmask our culture’s attitudes toward these colors — attitudes formed within a society that has historically used color to define one’s place in the overall community. By how we define black and white, the purity of whiteness and wickedness of blackness are transferred to the society at large.
Rather than confessing that the inequalities of society are due to racist social structures, religion — as well as other communal networks — provides the psychological reassurance of legitimacy. In other words, it confirms that the wealth, power and privilege amassed by the dominant culture are theirs by right.
In the minds of those within the dominant culture, people on the margins are predominantly poor and disenfranchised not as a direct result of the Euroamericans’ privileged space, but because of the character flaws of occupying darker-skinned bodies — flaws that are reinforced by how the terms white and black are defined.
The plight of the poor, trapped in the ghettos and barrios of this nation, is due to the inferiority associated with their darker skin pigmentation. The victims of poverty are blamed for their own social location.
This exonerates the privileged, whose secured social space is dependent upon maintaining a reserve army of under-educated and under-skilled laborers. Blackness becomes the color of all that is wrong with America: laziness, poverty, the welfare state and sin.
Is it any wonder, then, that when a black man approaches a white person’s car, doors are quickly locked? Or when a black man walks by, purses are clutched and held closer to the body? After all, by definition (as per our dictionaries) a wicked, evil, dirty, satanic man is approaching, and hence safety and possessions are threatened.
Because words are linked to concepts constructed by a society that convey its biases, we shouldn’t be surprised that this particular nation, steeped in racism since its foundation, would link negative connotations to the word “black” and positive connotations to the word “white.”
This brings us back to the miniseries The Bible. The real issue is not if the actor playing the role of Satan resembled Obama, but rather why the actor was black in the first place.
In the United States, racist attitudes have historically seeped into how Satan is viewed by Americans. Not only is Satan portrayed embodying dark skin, but also any evil biblical character.
Think of the hit 1973 production Jesus Christ Superstar, where the satanic figure of Judas, Jesus’ nemesis, is played by a black man (Carl Anderson). No doubt this was an unconscious casting choice made due to underlying racist definitions and assumptions of “blackness.”
What would happen if Jesus were portrayed as black and Satan as white? Take what occurred to actor Desi Arnaz Giles in the late 1990s when he received numerous death threats for his starring role in a play based on the life of Jesus Christ.
The Passion Play, focusing on the final days of Christ’s earthly life, is performed annually and has historically attracted bus groups from the northern New Jersey region. The controversy began after the first performance, when the audience discovered that Giles was black. As word spread, several of these groups canceled.
Why the uproar? If black is defined as evil, wicked and diabolical, it would be blasphemy to define Jesus, who is pure and spotless, as black. Jesus can be no other color but white.
A portrait of a Christ who is black becomes offensive, because it contradicts the definition our culture has assigned, normalized and legitimized to the word black.