Ben Jonson – “The Masque of Blackness” (ctd.)

Oceanus asks his son Niger what makes him flow all the way through east to west. Niger answers with a completely irrelevant speech (whose only point is to show off the author’s learning) about how it is not strange that he can mix his fresh water with Oceanus’ salty one, because the soul can both mix with and stay separate from the body. So Oceanus has to repeat his question once again and Niger this time answers it was because of his daughters. He considers them perfectly handsome with their black skin which does not age and black curly hair which does not go gray. Unfortunately, his daughters learnt that the European poets prefer to sing the praises of blue-eyed blondes. The Ethiops also used to be fair-skinned before Phaeton in a driving accident drove his father Sun’s chariot dangerously close to the earth. When the daughters of Niger learnt about it, they cried so much that the river became swollen with their tears. Niger tried to show them the error of their thinking, but once a woman sticks to an idea, there is no talking her out of it.Then one evening a miracle happened and surely it was a miracle because the Ethiops never dream (something that Jonson learned from Pliny). When they were sitting around a lake one evening, a mysterious face appeared in the lake. We’re going to learn what it said in the next post, but I would like just to observe that Jonson in a sense anticipated much of current thought about how white-dominated culture imposes its own ideal of beauty on other races (viz. Toni Morrison).

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