The Blessing of Whiteness in the Curse of Ham: Reading Gen 9:18–29 in the Antebellum South
The purport of this prophetic denunciation is, that the posterity of Ham would become a degraded, servile race, and eventually fall under the domination of the descendants of his other sons, Shem and Japheth. This extraordinary prediction has been wonderfully verified. The posterity of Shem spread over Asia, while that of Japheth possessed Europe; to whom Ham’s posterity, the miserable Africans, have for immemorial ages, been in slavery, either as conquered nations, or as individuals transported to America, by the sons of avarice.—Simeon Doggett Two Discourses on the Subject of Slavery (Doggett 1835, p. 6)
The root of this negative image of blackness in the English language is traceable to a religio-ethical tradition of associating whiteness with purity and blackness with sin. It is a tradition as old as Plato’s narrative vision of the soul or Horace’s association of blackness with a power of evil. Blackness has also been perceived as a mark of cursedness because “nearness” to the sun suggested a punishment of some kind. Moreover, in the Christian tradition, white refers to innocence or wisdom (or both) and blackness is tied directly to sin.
ויאמר ארור כנען עבד עבדים יהיה לאחיוויאמר ברוך יהוה אלהי שם ויהי כנען עבד למויפת אלהים ליפת וישכן באהלי־שם ויהי כנען עבד למו(Gen 9:25–27, MT)
He said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers”.He also said, “Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave”.(Gen 9:25–27, NRSV)
2. Overview of the Argument
3. The Biblical Divisions of Race in the Antebellum South
Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. These three sons are declared by the Almighty to be types of the several nations that would descend from them. They are made typical representatives of superior, inferior, and medium nations. Their several localities were selected of God for each class of these nations to occupy on the globe, and their habitations were adapted to their type of character.
Thus we have four distinct blessings, promises, and curses, pronounced upon the patriarchs of the human family; which were, no doubt, to be typical of their descendants. How were they to be fulfilled? The races must be kept distinct, or they could not be fulfilled
Nothing less than a physical change, —a change of color, —of features, —of manners, habits and mental qualities, —could with certainty operate as an effectual separation. A mere geographical separation, if there were no physical distinction, would only amount to a temporary separation; because the migratory habits of man would soon bring them together. But a geographical separation, together with a physical distinction, would make, as it has made, an almost perfect barrier to an amalgamation of the different species. Thus the promises, curses, and blessings, upon the patriarchs, as types of the several species of mankind, could be literally fulfilled in the descendants of each typical patriarch”.
[T]o prevent the admixture of races, these are separated by the occupancy of distinct territory, by opposition of manners, employment and religion, and still more by the power of caste which, as now in India, clearly defined and rendered impassable the boundaries of social life.
4. Minoritizing Ham: The Creation and Curse of Blackness
If the first two of human kind were created white, they could never have been the parents of black and red men. If they were created red, they could never have been the parents of black and white men. If they were created black, they could never have been the parents of white and red men, as they could naturally procreate only their own complexion.
First, ADAM, as above, signifies earthy man; red; second—ADAMAH, signifies red earth, or blood; third—ADAMI, signifies my man red, earthy, human; fourth—ADMAH, signifies earthy, red, or bloody; all of which words are of the same class, and spring from the same root, which was Adam, signifying red, or copper color.(Priest 1852, p. 19; italics original)
Japheth He caused to be born white, differing from the color of his parents, while He caused Ham to be born black, a color still further removed from the red hue of his parents than was white, events and products wholly contrary to nature, in the particular of animal generation, as relates to the human race.
[T]he word Ham, in the language of Noah, which was the pure and most ancient Hebrew, signified any thing that had become black; it was the word for black, whatever the cause of the color might have been, the same as the word black, means black in the English tongue.
Even the word negro, is derived from the Hebrew word Niger, and signifies black. Niger, is a great river of Africa, and was thus originally named, on account of black men having first settled the countries of that river; and hence arose from earliest time the word negro, and applied to the race of Ham, and no other people.
Black, restrained, despised, bowed down are the words used to express the condition and place of Ham’s children. Bearing the mark of degradation on their skin, they are restrained from being on an equality with their more favored brethren; they are often despised and prevented from intermarrying or mingling with the white and red races, and finally they are bowed down to the authority of their superiors without successful resistance.
His lips are immensely thicker than any of the white race, his nose broader and flatter, his chin smaller and more retreating, his foot flatter, broader, larger, and the heel longer, while he has scarcely any calves at all to his legs when compared to an equally healthy and muscular white man. He does not walk flat on his feet but on the outer sides, in consequence of the sole of the foot having a direction inwards, from the legs and thighs being arched outwards and the knees bent. The verb, from which his Hebrew name is derived, points out this flexed position of the knees, and also clearly expresses the servile type of his mind. Ham, the father of Canaan, when translated into plain English, reads that a black man was the father of the slave or knee-bending species of mankind.
Attributes equally undeveloped. Inferiorly mental; not originative, inventive, or speculative; roving, revengeful, predatory, and highly sensual; warlike and destructive.
Sluggish sensibility, approaching to torpor; dark or black skin; hair black, generally woolly; skull compressed on the sides, narrow at the forehead, which slants backwards; cheek bones very prominent; jaws projecting; teeth oblique and chin retreating, forming a muzzle-shaped profile; nose, broad, flat, and confused with the face; eyes prominent; lips thick.
God announced his purpose of subordinating these nations one to another. This subordination was to harmonize with their leading traits of character, and its ultimate object was their general good. The character given of God to each of these three sons, is the character of their descendants at the present moment. Ham was enslaved of God to Shem and Japheth. The propriety of this was first seen in the abuse Ham’s descendants made of freedom while they enjoyed it in the land of Canaan. From that day until this, their history proves that freedom to them is a curse, and not a blessing, and that Ham’s character is a true type of the character of his descendants.
Phut settled in Africa, and his posterity and some of the posterity of Cush, as Rollin tells us, migrated westward, and they doubtless were the progenitors of our slaves, but on them no prophetic malediction rested. For the curse was to be upon Canaan, not upon Ham. All the talk we have about the word Ham meaning black, and made so by the curse of the Almighty, is not only without proof—mere assertion—but is futile, because Ham is not the person cursed, but Canaan.
In order to justify Negro slavery from this prophecy, it will be necessary to prove four things. 1. That all posterity of Canaan were to suffer slavery. 2. That African Negroes are really descended of Canaan. 3. That each of the descendants of Shem and Japheth has a moral right to reduce any of them to servitude. 4. That every slaveholder is really descended from Shem or Japheth. Want of proof in any of these particulars will invalidate the whole objection. In a practice so contrary to the general principles of the divine law, a very express grant from the supreme authority is the only sanction to us. But not one of the four facts specified as necessary can be supported with unquestionable documents.
5. Blessing Japheth: The Dominion and Domain of Whiteness
Japhet and his race…seem designated to be the organ of human civilization, in cultivating the intellectual powers. Dividing historically into two great branches, the Japhetic whites, spreading over the diversified continent of Europe, through a protracted discipline develope [sic] the higher powers of the soul in politics, jurisprudence, science, and art: while the Asiatic Japhetites dispersed over a more monotonous continent, embark in those pursuits of industry fitted to the lower capacities of our nature.
As to the mental character of the black nations, considered collectively, we have found them, in all ages, since their appearance on the earth, of but small account when compared with the other races of men, the red and white.
The descendants of Japheth were distinguished for a progressive intelligence, and a commanding influence upon the destinies of the world. These qualities were to give them dominion in the tents of Shem, and the descendants of Ham were made their servants. And this future elevation of Japheth to the dominion of the world, was to harmonize with supreme reverence for that God whom they had been brought to know by dwelling in the tents of Shem, whose God was the eternal I AM, and not dumb idols.
There is a great physical, moral, and intellectual difference between the two races. The tendency upon each race of the same set of circumstances, does not diminish, but increases this difference through life. The age of twenty-one, which gives bodily maturity to both races, develops moral and intellectual manhood in the white race, while the African remains, at the end of that time, a mere child in intellectual and moral development, perfectly incapable of performing the great functions of social life.
This remarkable fact of legislative silence for the protection of slaves, can only be accounted for by supposing, what we of the South know to be true, that the relation of master and slave, which God ordained between the superior races of Shem and Japheth and the inferior race of Ham, was a relation that in the nature of things constituted the strongest guarantee, which can bind the superior to take care of the inferior man”.
In most versions of the Ham myth Noah’s third son, Shem, who was the progenitor of the red race, was only a minor character. Since the contact between Indians and whites in the antebellum South was only marginal, the myth did not provide a detailed model for their relations in the same way that it prescribed the proper roles between blacks and whites.
6. Race as Divine Decree
Slavery, like despotism, war, and all kinds of oppression, existed no doubt long before the deluge, which was sent upon the earth because it was ‘filled with violence’ (Gen. vi. 11). But it is not expressly mentioned till after the flood, in the remarkable prophecy of Noah, uttered more than four thousand years ago and reaching in its fulfillment, or at least in its applicability, even to our time and country.
But in point of fact both the curse and the blessing of Noah extend still further and justify a wider historical application. The curse of involuntary servitude, which in the text is confined to the youngest son of Canaan because of his close contact with the Israelites, has affected nearly the whole of the posterity of Ham, or those unfortunate African races which for many centuries have groaned and are still groaning under the despotic rule of the Romans, the Saracens, the Turks, and even those Christian nations who engaged in the iniquity of the African slave trade.
Whether we connect it with this ancient prophecy or not, it is simply a fact which no one can deny, that the negro to this day is a servant of servants in our own midst…Slavery then is represented from the start as a punishment and a curse and is continued as such from generation to generation for these four thousand years, falling with special severity upon the African race, and involving the innocent with the guilty.
Sin is the first and worst kind of slavery, and the fruitful source of every other intellectual, moral, and physical degradation. In this sense every sinner is a slave to his own appetites and passions, and can only attain to true freedom by the Christian salvation.
Civil bondage may be a great evil, but not near as great as the moral bondage of sin; civil freedom may be a great good, but only temporal at best, and not to be compared with the spiritual freedom which elevates the humblest Christian slave far above his heathen master. All earthly distinctions and blessings vanish into utter insignificance when compared with the eternal realities of the kingdom of heaven.
Here language is used, showing the favor which God would exercise to the posterity of Shem and Japheth, while they were holding the posterity of Ham in a state of abject bondage. May it not be said in truth, that God decreed this institution before it existed; and has he not connected its existence, with prophetic tokens of special favor, to those who should be slave owners or masters? He is the same God now, that he was when he gave these views of his moral character to the world; and unless the posterity of Shem and Japheth, from whom have sprung the Jews, and all the nations of Europe and America, and a great part of Asia, (the African race that is in them excepted)—I say, unless they are all dead, as well as the Canaanites or Africans, who descended from Ham, then it is quite possible that his favor may now be found with one class of men, who are holding another class in bondage. Be this as it may, God decreed slavery—and shows in that decree, tokens of good-will to the master.
7. Reading against the Racist Interpretation of Gen 9:18–29
The classification of the earth’s population into racial categories ostensibly based on sound scientific principles was nothing more than the religious dogma of the day given a veneer of respectability by the scientific community. Almost every scientific theory that justified and normalized white over non-white had some rationalization, empirical starting point, or assumption based in Holy Scripture. The supposed essential races of mankind (Negroid, Mongoloid, and Caucasoid) and which groups were destined to dominate becomes a scientific retelling of the curse of Ham, manifest destiny, and God’s will that heathens (anyone not white and Christian) must be converted, controlled, or eliminated. Science confirmed what Christian theologians knew all along: The white race was God’s chosen people and as such had the right to claim all natural resources and to subjugate any population deemed culturally inferior, heathen, pagan, or uncivilized.
The rights of man, for example, an organizing principle upon which the nation was founded, was inevitably yoked to Africanism. Its history, its origin is permanently allied with another seductive concept: the hierarchy of race. As the sociologist Orlando Patterson has noted, we should not be surprised that the Enlightenment could accommodate slavery; we should be surprised if it had not. The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom—if it did not in fact create it—like slavery”.
Whiteness has developed through a long and tortuous history…a history that some scholars contend has its root in an ancient and fundamental perversion of Christianity’s Jewish origins. There can be no doubt that it began at least as long ago as the European Christians who, even before thinking of themselves as ‘white,’ created the U.S. system of race-based slavery. ‘Whiteness’ is a properly and peculiarly white Christian theological problem that demands a white theological response.
The term ‘white’ as used in the census report refers to person understood to be pure-blooded whited. A person of mixed blood is classified according to the nonwhite racial strain or, if the nonwhite blood itself is mixed, according to his racial status as adjudged by the community in which he resides.
[The Cushite/Hamitic family] has had a checkered life, it is true; but so have the Shemitic and Japhetic families. He has been a master and he has been a slave; but this is no less true of Shem and Japheth. In the world’s history of the rise and fall of nations, no race, no color, can boast of exemption from misfortune. But no race can boast of a higher celebrity in ancient times than the Negro, then called Cushites by the Hebrews, and Ethiopians by the Greeks.
Now what the Cushite was, certainly has some bearing on an intelligent judgment of what he is, and he is to be. It should inspire the Africo-American with an ambition to emulate his forefathers; for if to the memory of the distinguished Negroes of modern times we add the historic facts reaching from Menes to the Christian era concerning the greatness of the ancient Cushites, of whom we are lineal descendants, it were pusillanimous in us, and dishonoring to our ancestors, to be ashamed of either our color or our name.
This assumption that of all the hues of God whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness or tan leads to curious acts; even the sweeter souls of the dominant world as they discourse with me on weather, weal, and woe are continually playing above their actual words an obligato of tune and tone, saying: “My poor, un-white thing! Weep not nor rage. I know, too well, that the curse of God lies heavy on you. Why? That is not for me to say, but be brave! Do your work in your lowly sphere, praying the good Lord that into heaven above, where all is love, you may, one day, be born—white!”.
I realized that the Bible had been written by white men. I knew that, according to many Christians, I was a descendant of Ham, who had been cursed, and that I was therefore predestined to be a slave. This had nothing to do with anything I was, or contained, or could become; my fate had been sealed for ever, from the beginning of time. And it seemed, indeed, when one looked out over Christendom, that this was what Christendom effectively believed.
In the same way that we, for white people, were the descendants of Ham, and were cursed for ever, white people were, for us, the descendants of Cain.
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Park, W. The Blessing of Whiteness in the Curse of Ham: Reading Gen 9:18–29 in the Antebellum South. Religions 2021, 12, 928. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12110928
Park W. The Blessing of Whiteness in the Curse of Ham: Reading Gen 9:18–29 in the Antebellum South. Religions. 2021; 12(11):928. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12110928Chicago/Turabian Style
Park, Wongi. 2021. "The Blessing of Whiteness in the Curse of Ham: Reading Gen 9:18–29 in the Antebellum South" Religions 12, no. 11: 928. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12110928