Black angels? It's a hope in heaven

Trevor Phillips on celestial prejudice
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The Independent Online
Maybe Heaven is a happy haven of multiracialism where angels of all colours join hands to sing Her praise; maybe the celestial hosts can move effortlessly medieval plainsong, to baroque anthems into a wild jazz- funk groove. There will, of course be a place for gospel, and I know that there's a special seat in the choir reserved for the Queen of Soul, Aretha, when she decides to move on from this earthly gig.

However, if you paused to take a look at the bundles of junk mail tumbling through your letterbox, amongst the offers of Christmas cards, of special gifts and of charitable emblems, you'll notice one glaring omission. Whatever colours the people come in, the angels all seem to come from Scandinavia - blonde, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked cherubs, and resolutely Teutonic seraphim.

Why can't an angel be black? It's not a trivial question. The most important festival in the year for most British families of all kinds is meant to be an "inclusive" celebration. It is above all, a festival for children. So how can we exclude some children from that joyous moment? It's a question raised charmingly, but sharply, by the children's author Mary Hoffman in her new book, An Angel Just Like Me. Her first book, Amazing Grace, a story about a little girl (who it happens, is black), has sold more than a million and a half copies since 1991.

An Angel Just Like Me concerns a child who wants an angel that looks like him. The fact that he can't find one reflects reality. The book's publisher, Frances Lincoln, rang all the major retailers; she discovered that not a single one stocked a black angel, or cards showing a black angel. To their credit, the top people's store Harrods has pledged itself to do so next year. Sainsbury's Home Base and Littlewoods may follow suit if encouraged by demand, so you now know what to do when you're buying your decorations. But most other large suppliers have simply ignored the issue.

It may be hard for white people to grasp the awfulness of this. Most people think that the worst effects of prejudice are associated with gross racial attacks and overt job discrimination. Appalling as these are, it is the millions of everyday humiliations and slights that leave the deepest wounds on the psyche.

Take a teenager looking for make-up. There are specialist suppliers for African or Asian complexions. But if you do not live in an area where these relatively small shops supply a large number of black clients, the make-up counter doesn't have the first idea what to do with you. So unless all black or Asian people choose to live in ghettoes, the sort of everyday item everyone else takes for granted becomes a major shopping expedition; and if you don't live in the ghetto, you can look forward to being reminded every day that you aren't quite the same as everyone else.

Don't get me wrong. This is not an appeal for enforced quotas in department stores (though they could do themselves some commercial good with a more sensitive purchasing policy). I'm not proposing that the Commission for Racial Equality should investigate Heaven; I'm sure that the Almighty has an equal opportunities policy second to none. However, it does seem a bit puzzling that, though we can now get hold of black Santas, black Jesus, Marys and Josephs, we can only find white angels.

It should really be the other way around. We know that St Nick was definitely a Northern European of some kind: you don't see too many reindeer in the tropics. We've recently heard that Joseph may not have been a carpenter after all, but a rather posh furniture salesman; however, there's no doubt where he came from - the Middle East.

Even in the Caribbean, they still put up holly, mistletoe and Christmas trees around the Noel. It makes sense; most of the Christmas icons have their origins in some real person, animal or plant.

That's what makes the angel so unique. Unless Independent readers can offer some stupendous revelation, I know of no one who can claim to have seen an angel. Yes, I know that the Mormons reckon that some of their elders show up from time to time, and some of the Nation of Islam claim that their founder had a tutorial from a mysterious black messenger; but these are not real angels, they're just dead people. I'm talking about your average, common or garden harp-strummer, lying about on a cloud, with eternal bliss being interrupted only occasionally for a swig of nectar.

No one knows what these beings are really like, because even if they show up on earth, usually in Hollywood, they always look like people - usually Audrey Hepburn, John Travolta, Warren Beatty, or occasionally Denzel Washington (well, wouldn't you if you had the choice?). But for the most part, when we see angels in their natural state, they always look the same: white, dressed in white. The angel represents something special in most cultures. Principally he or she appears as a messenger from the Almighty - but there's something deeper here.

The angel is in some way related to humankind, with our shape and our appetites. But angels lack our faults and our weaknesses; no spots, blemishes, physical imperfections, not even the problems associated with gender. In practice, therefore, the representation of the angel should simply be the person each of us would like to be in our dreams. So do the manufacturers of Christmas cards and decorations truly believe that we'd all really like to look like Rutger Hauer? You must be joking.

I think that they, like many others, haven't yet woken up to the reality of a world in which most Christians are not Europeans - they are African, South American, and Asian. Even here in the UK, the fastest-growing churches are those of the evangelical movement which take their tone, style and much of their membership from the black communities. What is still nominally a Christian festival might just take account of that fact. I wonder, by the way, why we haven't heard anything on this matter from the Established Church? Or do they need a blast from Gabriel's horn (he's been taking lessons from Louis Armstrong, I hope) to wake them up?