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Distributed for Reaktion Books

The Story of Black

As a color, black comes in no other shades: it is a single hue with no variation, one half of a dichotomy. But what it symbolizes envelops the entire spectrum of meaning—good and bad. The Story of Black travels back to the biblical and classical eras to explore the ambiguous relationship the world’s cultures have had with this sometimes accursed color, examining how black has been used as a tool and a metaphor in a plethora of startling ways.
John Harvey delves into the color’s problematic association with race, observing how white Europeans exploited the negative associations people had with the color to enslave millions of black Africans. He then looks at the many figurative meanings of black—for instance, the Greek word melancholia, or black bile, which defines our dark moods, and the ancient Egyptians’ use of black as the color of death, which led to it becoming the standard hue for funereal garb and the clothing of priests, churches, and cults. Considering the innate austerity and gravity of black, Harvey reveals how it also became the color of choice for the robes of merchants, lawyers, and monarchs before gaining popularity with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century dandies and with Goths and other subcultures today. Finally, he looks at how artists and designers have applied the color to their work, from the earliest cave paintings to Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Rothko.
Asking how a single color can at once embody death, evil, and glamour, The Story of Black unearths the secret behind black’s continuing power to compel and divide us.

320 pages | 50 color plates, 50 halftones | 6 x 9

History: General History

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“A richly informative treat, with curiosities culled from a very wide range of sources, and written with unostentatious elegance . . . [Harvey] casts his net wide, taking his story as far back as prehistory and across areas of interest that seldom come together within the same covers: art history, religion (particularly Christianity and Islam), anthropology, literature, fashion, heraldry, geology, and politics. . . . This is a book to instruct and delight.”

Literary Review

Table of Contents

Introduction: How Black is Black?

1 The Oldest Colour

2 Classical Black

3 The Black of God

4 Black in Society: Arabia, Europe

5 Two Artists in Black

6 Black Choler

7 Servitude and Négritude

8 Black in the Enlightenment

9 Britain’s Black Century

10 Our Colour?

A Note on Chessboards, Death and Whiteness


Select Bibliography


Photo Acknowledgements


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