“Are People Really Black?” A Philosophical Investigation of the Colour-Symbolism in Church Traditions: A Reference to Shakespeare’s Othello and Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation

This article is published by the Zamfara International Journal of Humanities.

Adegboyega, O. Oyekunle, PhD
Department of Philosophy,
National Open University of Nigeria,
Abuja- Nigeria


Gbenoba, E. Felix, PhD
Department of English,
National Open University of Nigeria,
Abuja- Nigeria


Colours, no doubt has symbolic connotations. In some cases, symbolic association of these colours with some states of affairs no longer command critical scrutiny as they are usually taken as “given” or for granted. It needs to be said however, that in some rare instances, the symbolic denotations of these colours may be misleading. This claim is striking especially when gleaned from the perspective that the colour “black” has commanded so much symbolic misrepresentations. This has in the long run affected the identity of Africans simply because of their skin-colour. It is therefore urgent to investigate the misleading symbolism which this colour has impressed over the African identity. “Are persons really black?” How history treated or perceived persons who seem to be black is beyond the desire of anyone in modern times, even when these poor treatments and discriminations continue. Upon the employment of the method of critical analysis, this inquiry posits, that a careful look at the ideal colour black and the skin colour of the most discriminated and racially denigrated peoples in the world shows the colour brown is more appropriate or suitable. As a way of questioning and criticizing the symbolism which being black expresses concerning the treatment of Africans and those deemed black, this paper uses the Biblical tradition and the literary work of William Shakespeare Othello as instances. Juxtaposed with philosophical logic and write-back literary works of renowned Africans including Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation, the paper concludes with the suggestions that Africans never saw themselves as black. Blackness and all efforts of the valorization of the colour are nothing but efforts to grasp the ever elusive identity challenge faced by peoples of African descent.

 Keywords: African Identity, Blackness, Othello, Telephone Conversation, Racial Discrimination, Symbolism


This paper is an incursion into an emerging discourse concerning the extent to which the colour symbolism can be said to contribute to the elusive nature of African identity. When one considers the extent to which the racial denigration and segregation of persons of African descent, because of their skin colour has endured, vis-à-vis the symbolism the colour black evokes, it becomes pertinent to establish the history and tradition behind this unhealthy ascription. It has almost become the norm such that even Africans themselves are now embroiled in an existential bad faith of self-alienation and the rejection of all things original to them. So, this paper argues that the starting point for reversing the negative implication of this practice is to question the symbolic connotation of black as a tool of domination and control, detrimental to African development. In order to attain the foregoing, the next section considers the Biblical and Shakespeare’s uses of the colour “black” as an instrument of racial divide, which does not favour the African and the counter philosophical arguments of scholars as well as write-back  literary works by renowned Africans.


Church Traditions, William Shakespeare’s Othello and Wole Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation on the Colour-symbolism of Black

Being black is an existential dread it needs to be said. Aside the horrors and history associated with slavery and colonization, which peoples of African descent have had to endure, such as  being a “Negro,” has an unenviable place in most parts of the world where a person may be a victim of homicide in some parts of the United States. All things negative and evil are ascribed to persons of African descent simply because of their skin colour and this has informed the justification of colonization as an effort in civilization. Speaking on this subject of colonization right inside Africa, Frantz Fanon (37) harps:


The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town, the Negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there; it matters not where, nor how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other, and their huts are built one on top of the other…The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire. It is a town of niggers and dirty Arabs. The look that the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possession—all manner of possession: to sit at the settler's table, to sleep in the settler's bed, with his wife if possible.

 Fanon’s analysis of the colonial condition of Africans is not divorceable from the earlier perception that persons who are deemed black as lesser humans. If this were not the case, the great German and highly respected scholar on history and philosophy Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (177) would not have concluded that African “is an example of animal in all his savagery and lawlessness.” The depiction of the African in a negative and evil light is not something new or commences with Hegel. It expresses itself even in the Christian tradition that was transported into Africa, to win “souls” [of those who were initially deemed to possess no soul] for God. What then is the view of the Bible and Church tradition on the colour black and its symbolic referent to Africans?

 To answer the foregoing, perhaps it is suitable to admit that the Bible has been adduced as God’s revelation unto humankind to serve as a torch which shines back and forth. Specifically, Apostle Paul, as the inspiration of God for teaching and instruction, perceived it. In his letter to Apostle Timothy (2nd Tim 2: 16), Apostle Paul did not mince words: “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” The logical implication is that the Bible was inspired by God for the good of human kind. As kind and straightforward as these words sound to the ears, little has been said concerning some of the passages that were ‘inspired’ to connote or depict black Africans as lesser humans. In this short illumination, some passages of the Christian Bible will be introduced, that is, in the scriptural verses that according to Apostle Paul are inspired by God for teaching and instruction. Illustrations of how Church traditions treated and depicted people of black skin shall be made. Readers shall then be left with some random comments to muse over.

In the Old Testament portion of the Bible, a reference is made regarding the skin of an Ethiopian African through the divine inspiration of Prophet Jeremiah thus: “can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Neither can you do good, who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13: 23). In this sense, Ethiopian’s skin is calculated to be a symbol of sin – a naturally sinful nature it seems – and such a nature it seems, unchangeable!

Centuries before Prophet Jeremiah was inspired, another passage detests the marriage of Ethiopians. In Numbers (12: 1): “Mariam and Aaron began to speak against Moses because of his Ethiopian[1] wife, for he had married an Ethiopian.” An African Christian who seeks to emerge from the inferiority complex, discrimination and stigmatization s/he suffers from non-Africans both within the continent and without may discern that biblical passages (such as this), attest to the long tradition of such denigration of the African progenitors (Ofuasia 2019).


The use of the term ‘black’ to signify Satan is well documented in the Epistle of Barnabas,[2] where Satan is referred to as the Black One. It no longer requires critical reflection why all things negative, dehumanising, Satanic and Devilish have become synonymous with black Africans. In another early Christian text titled Life of Melanie the Young, as reported by Kwesi Tsri (148), the Devil transformed into a “young black man and was misleading Christian women.” This early Church text and some other texts and traditions seem to establish the understanding that to have a black skin is to lead a sinful nature incorrigibly. Validating this locus, Father Origen had once proclaimed: “At one time we were Ethiopians (Aethiopes) in our vices and sins. How so? Because our sins had blackened us” (see Tsri 149)

. Father Jerome who was also a Christian exegete refers to black African peoples as “black and cloaked in filth of sin.” All these illustrations have led the Ghanaian scholar Kwesi Tsri (149) to infer that “the available evidence from the early Christian literature shows that the early Christian exegetes did not only describe and categorise Africans as black, but they also found it appropriate to present them as black in a symbolic sense. They considered the colour black and the term ‘Ethiopian’ as synonyms, and used both as religious terms for demons, evil, sin and carnal lust.”


Are people really ‘Black’? The present writers are professing that there is no truth in it.

Now, it is possible to raise an argument that the passages of the Christian Bible and Church traditions cited earlier seem to vitiate or downplay the African are both false and misleading. Verses of the bible that put the African in a positive light can be offered to support their argument. This is the case since there are other passages that show that ‘black’ Africans are also created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1: 26-7) as well as Apostle Paul’s emphasis that there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 10:12). Another point of counter may be roused concerning inspiration. It could be advanced that scripture could have been inspired, human languages and the problems of transliteration from one language to the other could account for the distortion of the original inspiration and revelation. These even when they seem valid are both trivial and lack substance to the discourse at hand. In the paragraph that follows, It is summarily shown that these prongs, if followed to the logical conclusion merely strengthen the position of this paper.


For the first counter, it can be contended that the image and the likeness of God is disputable since being black is to be evil, grimy and Devilish when being white is to be good, pure and Godly. This discolour distinction is reinforced by the location of Devil as black and God with His angels as white. If humans are made in the image and likeness of God, then this excludes black humans, for they are modeled after the Devil obviously. For the second objection, the non-distinction between Jews and Gentiles assumes that black non-Christian Africans falls into the cadre of the word ‘Gentile.’ The word ‘Gentile’ according to The New Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, means “non-Jew” or “Christian.” People who hold dear to Apostle Paul’s rendition in Romans 10: 12 fail to understand that one needs to first be a Christian before the ‘non-distinction condition’ takes effect. On the other hand however, the distinction, denigration and discrimination of non-Christian Africans may persist. In other words, you need to be a Christian before you can be ‘matriculated’ into the ‘White Humanity.’ For the third, one can agree that the process of transliteration could have diminished original inspiration. Again, this reinforces my thrust. The logical implication is that the inspiration is not perfect after all. And this imperfection does no good to the plight of the African. One can therefore tender the need for Africans themselves to realize that the Bible is obviously, neither inspired nor written for them.


Owing to the line of thought entertained thus far, perhaps, there are ways one may weave around these “heresies” that have been roused. One is to denounce them as outright fabrications lacking basis. Perhaps they are invoked to malign the Bible – God’s awesome revelation! Another is to consider these words deeply to see if they portray black Africans as creatures in the proclaimed image and likeness of God as the book of Genesis hints or Devil’s people that need to be inducted into the image of God via the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. A further proposal is to attack the author of this short meme. Critics of the position of this discourse must be guided with the fact that in any discourse, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of lack of philosophic spirit of logical analysis of phenomena.


Be that as it may, the Bible and Church are not the only items used to symbolize Africans as blacks and necessary evil needing salvation. The highly respected literary personae William Shakespeare is also guilty of this charge. Shakespeare was a renowned English poet, playwright, and actor of the period. Born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, his birthday is most commonly celebrated on 23 April, which is also believed to be the date he died in 1616. Shakespeare was a prolific writer during the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages of British theatre (sometimes called the English Renaissance or the Early Modern Period). Shakespeare’s plays are perhaps his most enduring legacy, but they are not all he wrote. Shakespeare’s poems also remain popular to this day (William Shakespeare: Biography: 1). 

The description of Africans in classical antiquity and the Middle Ages soon infiltrated early modern fiction. In other words, the use of the history of colour in ways that does not favour Africans can also be found in literary works as well.


In Shakespeare’s play, Othello[3], Tsri (149) finds that Shakespeare expresses the bias of his time toward the concept ‘black.’ In his words: “…the depiction of Othello as black results in other characters establishing an essential link between his humanity and moral and religious evils.” Tsri (150) furthers that “…Shakespeare writes in a language in which the use of ‘black’ to both symbolise evil and to categorise people constitutes a deep conceptual structure that pre-exists any purpose he might use it for.”


Hence, while “…Othello was presented in the play as evil, demonic, barbarous, savage and all that is negative due to the colour of his skin, Desdemona was presented as good, heavenly, civilised and all that is positive due to the colour of her skin” (Chimakonam 3). This negative profiling of Othello based on his skin is rendered clearer in Iago’s proclamation to Brabantio in Act 1 Scene 1 of the work thus: “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise, Awake the snorting citizens with the bell Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you. Arise I say.” To have a black skin amounts to being a devil, obviously!


Tsri (150) argues that from the foregoing analysis, “black” as a synonym for Africans was not a self-acclaimed term but an imposition by Europeans. Africans have their original names that identify them with their geography and cultural statuses (Lake 1). This outlook is also shared by Cheikh Anta Diop (13)

who relays that the “in antiquity, the Ethiopians call themselves autochthon, those who had sprung from the ground.” If Africans have the names they called themselves, why use black, negro and the symbolism associated with this colour to refer to them?


Saaed, Tayeb Salih’s protagonist[4] in Seasons of Migration to the North (1969) declares: “… I am no Othello, Othello was a lie” (95).


For decades, prominent African writers in a postcolonial frenzy have been writing back against these ‘Empire’ sentiments. Wole Soyinka the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1986) is in this group. A playwright, poet and essayist born on 13 July 1934 in Abeokuta, Soyinka had always been known for his literary verve from a young age. He won several prizes for literary composition at Abeokuta Grammar School, before moving to an elite secondary school, Government College in Ibadan. After his studies at the college in 1952, he enrolled into University College Ibadan (which at the time was affiliated with the University of London), where he studied English literature, Greek, and Western history. He however, relocated to England in 1954 where he finished his degree at the University of Leeds. And where, later, in 1973, he took his doctorate. Some of his most notable, must-read works include the poem, “Telephone Conversation” written in 1963 at the height of racial discrimination which had been legislated against but still persisted in Europe generally and England in particular (Nobel Prize Winner: Wole Soyinka).

Soyinka in his lyrical poem Telephone Conversation[5] (1963) accentuates the fact that people can really not be black in a conversation between a prospective ‘black’ tenant and a ‘white’ landlady. The tenant started with ‘Madam/I hate a wasted journey—I am African.’ Then comes the quest to spot the colour –  ‘HOW DARK ?… ‘ARE YOU LIGHT/OR VERY DARK?’ (Lines 6 – 7).

From Lines 17-24 of the poem, the poet uses ‘dark’ and ‘light’ juxtaposed, with varying emphasis - He said the palms of his hands and soles of his feet “conceding …/Are a peroxide blonde.” Inasmuch as he is aware of the general notion of being identified and called a black man, he is also not ready to use the word, ‘black.’ Apart from the hypocrisy displayed by the discriminating ‘white’ landlady, the questions she poses in order to know the exact shade of ‘black’ avails the prospective tenant the opportunity to debunk the notion of blackness[6] attributed to people of the continent.



The answer to the question whether persons are naturally and physically black is not encompassing because there are persons whose skin colours are browner than black. On the other hand, those who are deemed white are closer to pink – even then this is not encompassing – there are some who are even red. What is disturbing however is the symbolism given to black and transfer over such to peoples of African descent. Although there are wider issues on discriminations and limitations on the search for absolute truths and appropriate foundations, there are internal issues prevalent on the culture (usually, of people with the same perspective) even on the individual level (Olaniyan 1). As Kevin Ram’s conclusion on the desperate tenant in Telephone Conversation “who is made to apologize for being black (and)… forced to endure the shame of his color” …the negative symbolism has made them to be denied on several fronts and be marginalized epistemically, politically and even humanly. On this note therefore, there is the need to disassociate blackness from Africans as this frustrates and further compounds the quest toward African identity.

Works Cited

Chimakonam, Jonathan O. “Africans are not Blacks: The Case for Conceptual Liberation: A Review.” African Identities. (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14725843.2018.1473149

Diop, Cheikh.A. Precolonial Black Africa: A Comparative Study of the Political and Social Systems of Europe and Black Africa from Antiquity to the Formation of States. Lawrence Hill and Company: Westport, CT, 1987

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press 1963

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, H.B. Nisbet Trans. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1975

Lake, O. Blue Veins and Kinky Hair: Naming and Colour Consciousness in African America. Praeger: London, 2003.

Ofuasia, Emmanuel. “Between Fiction and Fact: Further Reflections on Jonathan Chimakonam’s Critique of Kwesi Tsri on Blackness and Race.” Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions. Vol. 8 No.3 (2019), 41-58 DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.4314/ft.v8i3.3 

Olaniyan, Tejumola.Wole Soyinka: “Race Retrieval” and Cultural Self-Apprehension’ in Scars of Conquest/Masks of Resistance: The Invention of Cultural Identities in African, African-American and Caribbean Drama. (1985), 42 -66. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195094053.003.0004

Othello, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Othello.

Poems and Plays you have to read by Nobel Prize Winner: Wole Soyinka https://theculturetrip.com/africa/nigeria/articles/poems-and-plays-you-have-to-read-by-nobel-prize-winner-wole-soyinka. Accessed October 2nd 2022.

Ram, Kevin. "Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka". Poem Analysis, https://poemanalysis.com/wole-soyinka/telephone-conversation/. Accessed 30 August 2022.

Salih, Tayeb. Seasons of Migration to the North. London: Heinemann: 1969.

Shakespeare, William. Biography?   https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/shakespedia/william-shakespeare/william-shakespeare-biography Retrieved on October 5th 2022.

Soyinka, Wole. “Telephone Conversation.” In A Selection of African Poetry, a New Edition by K. Semanu and Theo Vincent. (1989), Mishawaka, Indiana: Better World Books.

Soyinka, Wole. “Racism and the Complexity of Identity in Telephone Conversation Summary & Analysis”. https://www.k-state.edu/english/westmank/spring_00/SOYINKA.html. Retrieved October 2nd 2022.

Tsri, Kwesi. “Africans are not Black: Why the use of the term ‘black’ for Africans should be abandoned.” African Identities.  Vol. 14, No. 2. (2016), 147-60.



[1]Other translations may use the word Kush, an area that represents the Upper Nile in African geography. It is another name for the black Africans aboriginal to this region.

[2]This Epistle, we must say do not add up to the books recognized by the Church. It is however important to realize that the ‘inspiration’ basis for this rejection is questionable especially when we recall that some of the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls could have made the list. This is further compounded by the lack of an objective criterion for how the Present Bible arrived at 66 books leaving the pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha. Granted all scripture are inspired, it is doubtful whether or not the inspiration for 66 books is indeed Celestial. Further blows to the taxonomy endure when one recalls that only the Church admits (perhaps out of its conviction) the Apocrypha when other Christian denominations do not. The question of what is inspired and to be taught for the ‘Celestial Ticket’ is therefore circumspect. Personally, we admit all these works since they are concerned about the same thematic contentions and provide better and broader views regarding Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices.

[3] The play, Othello (full title: The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice) is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare, probably in 1603, set in the contemporary Ottoman–Venetian War (1570–1573) fought for the control of the Island of Cyprus, a possession of the Venetian Republic since 1489. The port city of Famagusta finally fell to the Ottomans in 1571 after a protracted siege. The story revolves around two characters, Othello and Iago. Othello is a Moorish military commander who was serving as a general of the Venetian army in defence of Cyprus against invasion by Ottoman Turks. He has recently married Desdemona, a beautiful and wealthy Venetian lady much younger than himself, against the wishes of her father. Iago is Othello's malevolent ensign, who maliciously stokes his master's jealousy until the usually stoic Mute kills his beloved wife in a fit of blind rage. Due to its enduring themes of passion, jealousy, and race, Othello is still topical and popular and is widely performed, with numerous adaptations. (Source: Wikipedia)

 [4] The protagonist in the novel was summing up the iniquities of the colonialists at his trial for murder in the British mission in his country thus: The ships at first sailed down the Nile carrying guns, not bread, and the railways were originally set up to transport troops, the schools were started so as to teach us how to say “yes” in their language. They imported to us the gem of the greatest European violence, as seen on the Somme and at Verdun, the like of which the World has never previously known (95).

[5] “Telephone Conversation” is a poem that satirizes racism. The speaker, who is black, makes fun of a white landlady who won’t rent to the speaker until she knows whether the speaker’s skin is “dark” or “light.” In contrast to the landlady’s simple, reductive ideas about race, the speaker suggests that race and identity are complicated and multi-faceted. Judging a person based on their skin color, the poem argues, is thus ignorant, illogical, and dehumanizing.The speaker doesn’t just criticize the landlady’s blatant racism, then, but also critiques the way she thinks about race itself.

[6] But when the speaker then makes a “self-confession” about being “African,” the conversation abruptly shifts to a discussion of skin tone. Note that the speaker is being ironic in the use of “confession” here, a word typically associated with the revelation of something criminal, to undermine the racist notion that being “African” is a bad thing. He or she is “West African sepia” (a kind of reddish-brown hue seen in old monochromatic photos) in the speaker's passport, a joke that goes right over the slow-witted landlady’s head; essentially this is like saying, “Well, in a black and white photograph my skin is gray” (Racism and the complexity of Identity in Telephone Conversation: 1).

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