10 fascinating facts and symbolic meanings of the color black

How does the color black make you feel? From Einstein and Jay-Z, to Black Friday and the Model T—here are 10 fascinating things you should know about black.

Black Friday is nearly upon us. The day after a binge feast of roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, and grandma’s fruit-filled jello thing. It’s also a day when millions of Americans head out to unload their wallets at malls across the country.

In my case, the Christmas season could start in June, and I’d still wait until December 24th to get my shopping done. So instead, I turned my attention to black.

Here are 10 fascinating things you should know about our darkest tone.

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1. Why is it called “Black” Friday?

Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving Thursday, and the unofficial start to the Christmas shopping season. This means good deals for consumers, and big revenue for retailers.

So what’s so black about it?

It started back in 1951, when factory workers began calling in sick the day after Thanksgiving to pull a four-day weekend. It was such a problem that factory managers referred to the day as “Black Friday” to note the drop in production.

A decade later, Philly police started using the term to refer to the crazy shopping crowds and traffic congestion. I mean, just look at this line for Macy’s:

Nowadays, companies just give employees the Friday off. So people get the four-day weekend without all the fake coughing as they call in sick. But the “black” has stuck.

2. Black color symbolism

This week, I asked my wife and five-year-old son what they think when they hear the word “black.” The kid said “scary things and demons,” my wife said “elegance and sophistication.” For some reason, The Devil wears Prada came to mind.

How can the word black cue such contrasting feelings?

All colors evoke emotions. Red inflames passion, yellow shines with joy, green breaths peace, blue when you’re sad. Sure, all of these colors can spark other sentiments too.

But black color has a special full-spectrum status when it comes to the feelings it reflects.

Power, elegance, sophistication, status, formality. Evil, death, grief, mourning, the occult. Mystery, bleakness, heaviness, depression, rebellion, fear.
A color of many sentiments.

Why so many feelings associated with the color black? Maybe it’s because black goes with everything, and brings out the best—or worst—in whatever it surrounds.

3. Would you bring a black cat to a wedding?

You’re walking down the street and a black cat darts across your path. How do you feel?

Where I’m from, superstition says brace for bad luck. But in much of England, black cats signify that good luck is on its way.

But the black magic doesn’t stop there. In the English Midlands, black cats were traditionally given as wedding gifts to bring happiness to the bride. And in Japan, single women who own black cats and thought to be more attractive.

Black is also the color worn at funerals, at least in the West. In many Eastern countries, like India and China, white is the color of death and mourning.

4. Manufacturing the blackest black

How do you make the color black? It depends if you’re an artist or a scientist.

If you’re working with a paint palette, you mix all the primary colors together and black you have.

If you’re a scientist working at Surrey NanoSystems, you grow a forest filled with billions of carbon nanotubes. Light goes in, bounces around, and doesn’t come back out.

Result? Vantablack, the world’s darkest material. It absorbs 99.9% of light, making the surface it covers look like a void.

And what do you do with that?

Well, if you’re an artist you paint pictures that actually look like they recede into ground. At least if you’re British sculptor Anish Kapoor, regarded by some as the greatest colorist of the 21st century, who has exclusive rights to use the color in artistic projects.

And if you’re a scientist, you can use it to hide your stealth satellites, or to build telescopes that let you look farther back in time, as some really smart people explain here:

Vantablack: the blackest black

5. L’album noir – The Black Album

What is it about Black albums?

Metallica’s 1991 self-titled fifth album—better known as the The Black Album—has sold over 16 million copies. Over 25 years later, it continues to be one of the top-selling rock albums week-on-week.

The album contains some serious black themes, from the riffs and nightmare-ish reflections in “Enter Sandman”:

to the individual’s struggle against those who oppose him in “The Unforgiven”:

Jay-Z put out his The Black Album to announce his first retirement. It debuted at number one the Billboard charts, and has sold over 3.5 million copies. Unique to this album, Jay-Z recruited different producers for each track, including Kanye West, Timbaland, and The Neptunes.

Prince, also known as the artist formerly known as Prince, has his own The Black Album, which is also known as The Funk Bible. In unique Prince fashion, the album was withdrawn just a week before its release date—after Prince became convinced that the album was “evil.” Rumor has it that a bad MDMA experience may be the culprit.

The Beatles also have their own The Black Album. It’s an unofficial compilation of John, Paul, George and Ringo solo material from their post-breakup years put together by actor Ethan Hawke. Hawke made it for the film Boyhood, a remarkable drama that has fathers of young boys like myself crying in their popcorn.

So does a Black Album symbolize elite accomplishment in the career of historical artists? Or is this what happens when musicians put so much soul into their music that they have no creative ideas left to name the album? You decide.

6. No-limit spending on the black card

Success never smelled so sweet – I stink of success, the new black elite – They say my black card bears the mark of the beast.
Jay-Z, Watch the Throne

When it comes to high society, the color black has long been associated with power. From priests, judges, and Steve Jobs, to tuxedos, black stretched limos, and credit lines.

The black card is one of those status symbols, available by invitation only. One of the most prestigious black cards—the American Express Centurion—will set you back $7,500 just to sign up, plus an $2,500 annual fee. Why would you pay that much to spend money? Because you can.

But that’s nothing compared to the diamond-embedded Dubai First black card. There’s no spending limit for the royal elite who carry this priceless plastic. And the best perks? We have no idea, as the details of this card are limited to the privileged few who have one in their pockets.

7. Remember when? Nostalgia for times past

What is about monochromatic experiences that take us back?

This may come as a surprise to many millennials, but cell phones are a rather recent phenomenon. And did you know that when they first came out, they had tiny black and white screens?

Not long before that, television shows only appeared in black and white. And the whole family crowded ‘round the single household screen.

And before television (yes, that was a real period in history), there were black and white drive-in movie theaters.

Now are screens can display more colors than the human eye can distinguish. And black and white films take us back to the old days.

Anemoia: Nostalgia For A Time You’ve Never Known
People can have the Model T in any color—so long as it’s black.
Henry Ford

White keyboards, white headphones, white cables, white iPhones—think different. How could white have been so contrarian?

Because when it comes to tech, black is so default. But it’s not just tech.

Black has long been a color of choice in fashion too—from the goths and Hells Angels to black-tie dinners and Coco Chanel.

There’s also that little black dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s elegant, can be dressed up or down to fit practically any occasion, and never goes out of style.

The popularity of black made it the champion that any up-and-coming challenger would have to face. That’s why when some new trend blazes through pop culture, it gets labeled “the new black.”

Does it also explain why Orange is the New Black has become Netflix’s most-watched original series? Maybe. But how could you go wrong with comedy, corruption, and drug smuggling?

9. What belt are you, Daniel-san?

There’s a popular misconception that a black belt in karate and other martial arts is the top rank you can achieve. Not true.

In most martial arts, a black colored belt is more likely to mean that a person has become competent in the basic techniques and principles. And from there you go on to higher degrees: second, third, and so on. So a black belt is kind of like a bachelor’s degree, before moving on to the post-graduate world.

Many disciplines use the Japanese word shodan for black belt, which literally means the beginning or first step. You’ve learned how to walk, so now you can start your journey.

Some people will do anything to get a black belt. Like paying dodgy McDojos for quick access to black. Some people even steal black belts—shame on you Mr. Miyagi.

10. Black holes ain’t so black

What goes up must come down. Why? Gravity. It keeps us on the ground and the moon circling round.

In some corners of the universe, gravity pulls so hard that not even light can escape its grasp. And without light, you can’t see it. That’s why they’re called black holes.

Black holes are like galactic Pac-Men that go around gobbling up anything that drifts too close. But they also follow the laws of gravity, so don’t worry about one of these monsters randomly appearing to swallow up Earth.

And what if you did get sucked into a black hole?

From one angle, your body would be stretched so far you’d rip to shreds. An unpleasant fate, but wait! It’s also possible that you’d live on as a kind of hologram, or maybe you’d pop out into an alternative universe? All suggestions made by Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking.

Hawking also famously announced that “Black holes ain’t so black,” when he proposed that some information does manage to escape from black holes. This might also help pave the way to a unified theory bridging Einstein’s general relativity and quantum mechanics.

What does black represent?

Well, as we've covered today, the color black represents a plethora of things. From nostalgia à la black and white films, to the grandeur of black holes: it's hard to find something the color black couldn't represent. The symbolism of the color black runs far and wide. If I asked you to close your eyes and conjure a mental image of black clothing or a totally black outfit, you maybe thought about an "emo" outfit, clothes for someone going to a funeral, or an outfit for a burglar. See? All vastly different images with very different meanings.


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