Reading about slavery is depressing however reading about slavery philosophy is actually very interesting. I have finished reading about slavery for now and I think I understand, okay so maybe I do not understand however I know. It is not enough to read detailed accounts of the daily tribulations of slaves because that is as depressing as anything, also it does not really answer the question. The question is simply why, it is not why people were taken into slavery because as I have learnt (and mentioned in my previous post), all societies have practiced slavery in one way or another. The question is why blackness is identified with slavery today. It is really simple, when someone in America, Europe or Africa, thinks of a slave, they picture black men, women and children in chains and shackles. I mean I used to think the only slaves in history were black, when I read about the white slaves in ancient Rome, the Mamluks in the Arab world, I was shocked to say the least.
And though the Arabs did take many slaves from Africa, there is no proof that blacks made up the majority of slaves in that part of the world. Though we talk a lot about slavery in the Sudan and Mauritania and also in the Arab world, I do not believe the situation is as bad as it was in the past. More importantly, I have read about the horrible treatment of maids from Southeast Asia in the Middle East and this is the first thing that comes to mind now when I think of any non-Arab being mistreated in that region. Anyway I now know why blacks were easily identified with slaves, I really really want to blame someone but that is a futile exercise but from what I have read I have learnt a few points. I shall mention these points as a sort of summary before delving into this post (the same post I promised to write on slavery).
- People of African descent are unique in how we look. Our skin, our hair, our facial features mark us out. And this was our undoing in the ancient world (henceforth referred to as ‘antiquity’); there were hardly any Blacks there and the only ones were mostly slaves.
- In several cultures, even in some African cultures, black symbolizes evil and white symbolizes good. In antiquity, this was not transferred to people. In other words, though it was generally believed and accepted that black represented evil, Blacks were not thought of as being epitomes of evil. However, it was soon accepted that our skin is the mark of our perpetual sin which leads to the third point.
- Religion has played a serious role in the view of Blacks as cursed. When I started out reading on slavery, I wanted to focus on the Arab world and Islam alone however I soon realised that it is difficult to draw a line between Islamic, Jewish and Christian perspectives/influences. This will be explained in detail soon but these religions all derived their philosophy on blackness and slavery from the same place. That place is in the Bible, Genesis 9:18-25 to be exact which has been described as the ‘single greatest justification for Black slavery for more than 1000 years’. While religions do not endorse slavery, people have used them as tools in the subjugation of other people, I discovered that Muslim scholars actually played a big role in the reading of that verse and they influenced both Christian and Jewish scholars in that time.
I suppose I should say that I am not a scholar of any kind (…yet) and I am just sharing what I have learnt through my readings. It is really up to anyone to take what I say seriously or not and I really do not care. This is for a mini me who has burning questions that can only be found in books that are inaccessible to her, at least this blog is accessible to everyone. Be prepared for a very very very long post.
18And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan.
19These are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread.
20And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
21And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
22And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
23And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
24And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
25And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. (Genesis 9:18-25 King James Version, Source)
While reading about slavery in the Middle East, I came across the Curse of Ham. I recognised this immediately as a justification for slavery, there were quotes from a few sources claiming that black people were cursed to eternal slavery by God himself which basically left no room for disagreement. You see, the biggest thing in those days was to go against something that was divinely sanctioned. It still happens today in Islam, I have been told several times not to make lawful what God has made unlawful and vice versa. The thing is however God says one thing and humans read what they want to into it then ostracise those who reject their readings.
That is essentially what happened with the Curse of Ham. I first ignored all references to the Curse of Ham as I noticed it was from the Old Testament and all I was interested at that point in time was Islam and slavery. I could not ignore it for long, as the latest book I read is ‘The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam’ by a David M. Goldenberg. This book is very much the basis for this post and most references are to it unless I state otherwise. Goldenberg basically examined Near Eastern antiquity in other to unearth perceptions about black Africans, he used the Hebrew Bible and exegesis (critical analysis) as his basis. He was basically trying to discover if black people were always identified with slavery and if they were not, when this sort of thinking came about.
According to Goldenberg, the Hebrew Bible is important for not only Judaism and Chrisitainity but also Islam and its influence has been obvious as seen through the quantity of biblical interpretation and expansions generated by the faiths. It is important to recognise that the names used in the Bible for certain places changed over time. For example, Ethiopia was black Africa in Greek and Latin worlds and Kush in Hebrew, however Kush refers to East Africa or sometimes Southwest Arabia and also North Arabia or South Israel. Apparently there used to be a Bedouin tribe known as the Kushites. In this post Ethiopia and Kush means Africa so do not get confused.
Dealing with my first point, blacks are easily recognisable which meant that they were looked down upon. However this should not be automatically called racism because it was not, in antiquity somatic norm was preferred. In other words, to the Greeks and Romans their own ‘brown’ skin was the best as opposed to the dark skin of Africans or the white skin of Northern Europeans. Anyone who has bothered to search ‘slavery’ will know that the word ‘slave’ has its roots in the medieval word for Slavic people.
Because the people to the far north were very white and the people to the far south were very dark, a theory was developed and widely accepted in antiquity. This theory was based on geography and climate and was used to account for not only physical characteristics but also behaviour. Goldenberg refers to the ‘Scythian-Ethiopian pairing’, they designated anthropological, racial and geographical extremes (Goldenberg, p. 23). It was thought that climate was the cause for the Ethiopian’s dark skin and tightly curled hair, it was also thought that Ethiopians were cowards because of too much sun. Philo of Alexandria in his allegorical interpretation of the Bible says that the word Ethiopian has its root in ‘lowness’ and symbolizes cowardice and evil (Goldenberg, p. 46). It was believed that Kush (i.e. Africa) was the end of the earth and Goldenberg suggests that this lies behind the choice of an Ethiopian as the first gentile convert to Christianity. In other words the symbolism behind an Ethiopian accepting Christianity is one of the universalism of the faith, that it reached even the ends of the earth through an Ethiopian. The biblical Ethiopian was a metaphor for someone who was not baptised and was thus black in spirit without divine light.
Another interesting mention of someone dark is Moses’ wife in the Bible which is supposedly the first recorded instance of racism though it is not. From Bernard Lewis’ work, I read that in Numbers 12, Moses’ sister, Miriam denounces his marriage with an Ethiopian woman and she is punished by God for this offense. The punishment is leprosy, Miriam became as ‘white as snow’ and only after Moses pleaded for his sister was she banished from the camp for seven days and was forgiven after her return (Lewis, Notes to pp. 54-55, p. 123). However Goldenberg turns this on its head, first according to him the Hebrew term for Miriam’s disease does not include leprosy. Also it is doubtful that leprosy existed in that time and the Hebrew term for the disease, sara’at (sorry I cannot replicate it exactly but there is a dot below the ‘s’) is more common with skin diseases like psoriasis, eczema and the ‘like snow’ comment means flakiness as opposed to Miriam being punished with whiteness. Goldenberg takes issue with it being suggested that Miriam and Aaron had an issue with Moses’ wife because she was supposedly Ethiopian. I say supposed because he also argues that Zipporah (i.e. Moses’ wife) was a Midianite (Exodus 2:21) arguing that the Kushite referred to in Number 12:1 (in the KJV she is called an Ethiopian) could possibly be Zipporah as Kushite was another name for Midianite (using Habbakkuk 3:7 as reference). Remember I mentioned above that some parts of North Arabia and South Israel were also referred to as Kush in antiquity. Goldenberg states that the main reason Miriam and Aaron complained was because whether Zipporah was a Kushite or Ethiopian, she was still a non-Israelite.
Regarding Zipporah’s ethnicity, there are 4 exegetical traditions addressing her from late antiquity.
- Moses married one woman, Zipporan the Midianite which suggests that Kush is the same as Midian. Two men, Demetrius a chronographer of late 3rd century and Ezekiel a poet of 2nd century equate Midian with Ethiopia and identify the Kushite as Zipporah.
- Moses married two women, this understands Kush to mean Ethiopia suggesting that Moses had a second Ethiopian wife.
- Hebrew term kushit does not refer to a place but metaphorically as something distinctive or different (i.e. she was a non-Israelite).
- Finally that kushit in Hebrew means beautiful and does not refer to a place.
Another reference to a dark-skinned woman comes in Song of Solomon 1:5, according to Lewis, though the authorized version, following the Latin, renders ‘I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,’ in the original Hebrew and in the earliest Greek translations it reads as, ‘I am black and comely.’ He says that the ‘but’ appears to be the contribution of Saint Jerome. Lewis used this example as well as God’s punishing Miriam for complaining about Moses’ Kushite wive to show positive representations (‘black is beautiful’) that appeared in Jewish text. This is all great and good except Goldenberg totally deconstructs this. I had always assumed that this black and comely statement referred to an African woman, I do not remember who told me this exactly but I thought it was in reference to the Queen of Sheba or something similar but Goldenberg says that it has nothing to do with ethnicity and that the maiden is actually tanned dark because of her work. Reading Song of Solomon further on, it is revealed that the maiden’s siblings were angry with her and made her work on their vineyards as a keeper. Goldenberg makes a very convincing argument that the urban dwellers (i.e. the daughters of Jerusalem were light because they stayed indoors and regarded tanned skin as not beautiful (Goldenberg, p. 81).
Now this is the part of The Curse of Ham that I found most interesting, in fact I laughed a lot while reading it. I was not laughing because I was happy, I was laughing because it was the only reaction I could mutter. Goldenberg brings up several instances to show how lighter-skinned women were preferred from the beginning of time…okay not literally the beginning of time but you get my meaning? A preference for light-skin is found in early Christian writings where a prostitute-turned-convert in the 4th century Pelagia of Antioch is described as a woman of extraordinary beauty with skin as ‘dazzling as snow’. Another example was shown from Jerome who compares Jesus’ love for lowly humanity with the love one would have for an Ethiopian woman. There are also instances in which the devil is depicted as an Ethiopian woman suggesting that Ethiopian women are the very opposite of beauty. Are you laughing with me yet?
This is also connected to my second point which is that blackness or darkness symbolized evil while lightness symbolized good, apparently several metaphors subscribing to this were made by the Church fathers in their allegorical interpretations of the Bible and Origen is the most famous. Origen was very influential on the Church fathers who followed and Goldenberg states that Origen drew on Philo in terms of allegorical exegesis. Though the early fathers drew on this metaphor of dark as evil, this does not mean they were racist, we ‘cannot assume that such exegesis reflects an antipathy toward black Africans’ (p. 51)
However, there is a story of a desert monk which is cited in Goldenbery from a Peter Frost (who I do not know but wrote ‘Attitudes toward Blacks in the early Christian Era’ Second Century 8 (1991));
And he looked, and behold, the work of fornication came and drew nigh unto him, and it stood up before him in the form of an Ethiopian woman whose smell was exceedingly foul, but he was unable to endure her smell, and he drove her away from his presence. The she said unto him, ‘In the hearts of men I am a sweet smell, and a pleasant one, but because of thine obedience and labour God hath not permitted me to lead thee astray, but I have, nevertheless, made thee acquainted with my smell.’ And the young man rose up, and came to his father, and said unto him, ‘I no longer wish to go into the world, for I have seen the matter of fornication, and I have smelled its foul odour.’
There are other examples of Ethiopian women being depicted as devils for example Pachomius was also tempted by an Ethiopian woman and Ennodius’s maxim ‘Do not let the body of a black girl soil yours, nor lie with her for her hellish face.’ (Goldenberg, p. 89). So the view of light skin on a woman as beautiful while dark skin is ugly has been around for a very long time. Dark skin for a man is okay though. More examples of this favouring of light skin are given. For example, those virgins that are supposedly promised to Muslim martyrs in heaven (*rolls eyes*) are called houri and the root of that word means ‘white’. Thus houri essentially means ‘white ones’ (Goldenberg, 90).
Proof of this preference for light skin is also found in Roman literature, Etruscan paintings, medieval Europe, and Aztec, Egyptian, Chinese and Japanese art. How is a dark-skinned girl supposed to process this information? There are also folktales, you know fairy tales in which the good princess, bride or maiden is beautiful and white as opposed to the ugly, evil black ones. Personally I did not let it bother me at all, however this information made me realise that there is probably never going to be an end to men preferring light skin over dark skin which is why I laughed. We talk about issues such as racism and colourism as if they have only existed for a couple of years when they have been around almost since the beginning (apparently Eve was ‘as white as pearls’). While in antiquity black was associated with evil, this does not mean that they were racists. However it was only a matter of time before someone came along and decided to preach racism and with such beliefs in people’s mind there was fertile breeding ground.
Back to the ‘fact’ that nobody likes dark-skinned women, apparently science even shows that in any given ethnic group, the women are slightly lighter skinned than the men (wow) and apparently because women have a greater need for the Sun’s vitamin D when pregnant or lactating means we have less melanin. Does this suggest that even nature is against or for us? That it is natural for men to prefer lighter-skinned women? To be honest I do not know…and I am caring less and less.
So you are probably wondering what the point of all I have written so far is. The point is to show how deeply entrenched attitudes towards blackness, darkness, and dark-skin have been since antiquity. Now it is time to bring Africans into the mix and discuss this curse of Ham in detail. In the Bible, it is not Ham that is cursed but his son Canaan, also there is no mention of any of them being black though all of Noah’s sons are considered the fathers of all humanity. Noah’s sons Ham, Shem and Japhet are seen as the fathers of the human race. Ham is the ancestor of blacks, Ham’s son Canaan was cursed with eternal servitude to his brothers as a result of his father’s sin. How is it that the curse on Canaan came to represent both blackness and slavery? Also how is it that it became the curse of Ham as opposed to Canaan? Even more perplexing, why on earth is it Canaan that is cursed when his father committed the sin? Furthermore, was Noah’s reaction too harsh?
According a commentary ascribed to the Syriac Christian church father Ephrem; ‘When Noah awoke and was told what Canaan did…Noah said, ‘Cursed be Canaan and may God make his face black.’ and immediately the face of Canaan changed, so did the face of his father Ham, and their white faces became black and dark and their colour changed’. However Goldenberg notes that this is not found in Ephrem’s original work Commentary on Genesis and Exodus (Goldenberg, p. 99) and that it is possible that he did not really say this. Anyway, this story of Ham’s blackness as part of the curse also appears in The Thousand and One Nights (I am seriously hating that book now I do not care that it is a classic), in which Noah blessed Shem and cursed Ham. Thus Shem’s face became white while Ham became black, Ham then fled to Abyssinia and from him came the Blacks.
The earliest sources connecting Kush to Ham’s punishment are from the 11th century. Apparently, God forbade Noah and those on the ark from having sex and the only one who disobeyed was Ham, this is used to explain that all dark-skinned people descended from Ham as there was a change in seminal composition because Ham did what he was forbidden from . That Ham was punished in his skin and Kush descended from him was an accepted view. However this was no earlier than the 9th century.
One quote I love comes from al Jahiz, an Arab poet who was of African descent. When I first heard of this book he wrote in which he was praising blacks (I think it is called ‘The Superiority of the Blacks over the Whites), I dismissed it as ridiculous. His name pops up in almost any book on slavery in the Arab world so I had to pay attention. Anyway al Jahiz said;
‘The Arabs belong with us and not with the whites, because their skin colour is nearer to ours…For the Prophet God bless and save him, said, ‘I was sent to the red and the black,’ and everyone knows that the Arabs are not red. ‘Our blackness, O people of the Zanj, is no different from the blackness of the Banu Sulaym and other Arab tribes’ (Goldenberg, p. 107)
I just love the ‘everyone knows the Arabs are not red’. BTW, Zanj refers to people from East Africa (not including the Horn of Africa) and Banu designates a tribe.
One of Goldenberg’s main arguments is that the idea behind the curse of Ham is a way of explaining human diversity, different ethnic groups. As there are black people in the world, and according to the Bible all humans descended from Noah’s sons, that must mean that one of his sons was black. Even the Greeks in antiquity tried to explain the existence of different ethnicities. Apart from the geographical-climate theory, there is another one involving Zeus and his many exploits. Zeus disguised himself becoming black to seduce Io, this union resulted in a black song Epaphus who in turn had a daughter Libya (i.e. Africa) who in turn had two sons Egypt and Danaus. It is funny how Africa was named by foreigners according to the regions closest to them, you know Libya, Kush and Ethiopia. Anyway those people in the ancient world saw dark skin (and light skin remember the Slavs) as a deviation from the norm which is brown skin in the case of Greeks, Romans and Arabs. These deviations were aesthetically displeasing and they sought to explain the existence of these ‘deviations’. Dark skin was a deviation from the somatic norm thus, the environmental theory was used by the Greeks and the divine curse was used by the monotheists.
Blackness started becoming more and more synonymous with slavery during Islamic conquest on Africa and the subsequent influx of black slaves in the 7th century. There were only a few black slaves in ancient Greece and Rome, in fact back then most of the black people in the Near East were slaves and it was only after this influx that slavery became more and more associated with black people. It is because the only blacks they knew were slave that blacks started to be viewed as slaves. Origen claims that Egyptians are slavish by nature as they descended from Ham. The figure of a Black in chains became a well recognised motif of evilness and sin. Again this merged with the image of the Black woman as the devil. A demon is described as ‘a most evil looking woman, who looked like an Ethiopian, not an Egyptian, but was all black clothed in filthy rags, dancing, with an iron collar about her neck and chains on her hands and feet’ (Goldenberg, p. 134). This is from the 2nd century, a Christian work Acts of Peter. They had to differentiate Ethiopian from an Egyptian because the Egyptians were known as dark-skinned but not as dark as the Ethiopians. Similarly in the Arabic Life of Shenoute, a 4th or 5th century desert father, the devil is ‘a black slave of great height and very terrifying’.
The reason Ham is thought of as the father of black Africans is based on an etymological argument that is ripped to shreds by Goldenberg. Ham is thought to related to a Hebrew word that means ‘dark, black’ or ‘hot’ (i.e. Africa is a hot place). However this is deconstructed based on Greek transliterations of the Hebrew representation for Ham. You see the Hebrew symbol represents two different sounds for ‘h’, the one which means ‘dark’ etc has a dot below it and is a pharyngeal fricative. The one found in the Greek transliterations however is a velar fricative and is not dotted at the bottom, it is pronounced differently (once more it is a pity I cannot replicate the letter here). Using this argument the widely accepted notion that Ham is the ancestor to Africans because his name means ‘dark, black’ or ‘hot’ is dismissed.
The other issue is that Ham sinned and Canaan was cursed. It is argued that Ham could not be cursed because he had already been blessed by God so instead his son took the fall. There is also another argument that Ham metaphorically represents thought (i.e. the thought of evil) while Canaan represents action thus Canaan was cursed as it is worse to actually carry out an evil deed as opposed to thinking about it. Four reasons are seen as birthing the curse of Ham;
- There was a need to explain why Canaan was cursed as opposed to Ham
- A mistake was made somewhere in which it was related that Ham was cursed rather than Canaan though this is not in the Bible.
- The belief that Ham means ‘black, dark’ and this is proof that he is the ancestor to Africans
- Environment also plays a factor as most Blacks in those times were slaves, though most slaves were not Black
After the Islamic conquest of Africa, Blacks became strongly identified with the slave class in the Middle East, it was then that another variation of the curse arose, that Ham was already black before he was cursed. This suggests that Blacks are sort of predisposed to doing wrong as he mocked his naked father while the two non-black sons covered their father with a cloth. Goldenberg then says that this curse was legitimized and used to justify the slavery of black Africans even by their own. According to him, Ethiopian Chrisitians see themselves as descendants from Shem not of Ham, and see themselves as red while those surrounding them are black. I hope someone (*wink wink nugde nuge* Alice) can verify this for me.
In summary, if you feel like me and you want to blame anyone, you can blame the Greeks first and then Arab Muslims. Why? It is because those two controlled hegemonies over vast areas and when they encountered people of different colours, they decided to describe them. Both the Greeks and the Arabs believed in the climatic-environmental theory, you know the theory that states that climate affected different colours and behaviours. According to Lewis, the earliest attempts at a classification of ethnic groups in Arabic literature are derived from Genesis 10 and though this is not in the Quran was transmitted by Christians and Jews. The Arabs placed humanity into 3 colours (brown, black and red-white) which was then grafted into the biblical story of Noah’s 3 sons, the ancestors of humanity. Thus, it was effectively them that coloured Shem, Ham and Japeth in order to explain the existence of folks with different colour. And it just so happened that the son who was cursed was also black, I mean there was no way they would claim Ham when he was cursed you know. There have been suggestions that Ham’s curse was twofold (slavery and blackness), and there have also been arguments that Ham was black before he was cursed. So the Arabs were so strong, powerful and influentail and everyone accepted their way of looking at the world then even Jewish and Christain authors. Similarly you can blame our African ancestors for not travelling more often, I mean if they did more travelling and exploration then others (i.e. the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Israelites etc) would have known that there is more to being Black than being a slave. From my readings on African history, I feel that our ancestors we well equipped to travel the world but they did not do it.
Goldenberg mentions that people in the West are ‘heirs to centuries of anti-Black sentiment’ and I agree with him. Looking at all this, it makes me feel that things are not going to get better any time soon. I mean these ideas have been here for a long time and are more deeply entrenched that I had realised. So I have basically vomited everything I took in while reading Goldenberg’s The Curse of Ham. I hope my rendering makes sense and contributes knowledge as to how this curse of Ham became widely accepted and used as a divine sanction for slavery even though it essentially does not exist. Lewis points this out as an attempt to justify the enslavement of a whole race and to restrict it to black Africans. He notes that;
- In the Bible, it is servitude not blackness and it falls on Canaan, the youngest son of Ham and not his other sons, including Kush, later seen as ancestor of the blacks
- The slaves of the Israelites were their near kinsmen the Canaanites, and a religious (i.e., ideological) justification was required for their enslavement, hence the story of the cure of Canaan.
- The slaves of the Arabs were not Canaanites but blacks–so the curse was transferred to them and blackness added to servitude as part of the hereditary burden… this idea is however not universally accepted as ibn Khaldun and some other Arab writers disagreed and attributed blackness to climatic and geographical factors (Lewis, p. 125)
The curse of Ham provided both explanation and justification for seller and buyers of black slaves. Apparently, a whole literature appeared in America during the slavery era to reassure pious Christian slaveowners of the moral rightness and biblical sanction of the enslavement of the blacks.
So the idea of the curse of Ham as accepted today essentially does not exist. I do not know if I should be relieved or anything because even though the whole thing is a myth and has been deconstructed, it does not change the fact that millions of people were subjected to enslavement throughout history. Sometimes I wonder if this is part of human nature, that humans will always feel the need to control everything around them, including other humans (and animals which is why I hate zoos and will never own a pet). I just do not know and now that I have recieved adequate knowledge on slavery, slavery in Islam, slavery in Africa, slavery philosophy, I am moving on to something else. I have been hooked on slavery since last year and it is time to move on, I am thinking Chinese nationalism is a good topic…I want to end this with a quote from Ahmad Baba an Africa jurist from Timbuktu (1556-1627). He discusses and dismisses the myth of the curse of Ham, though he was basically arguing that black skin is not a qualifier for slavery, he did believe that non-Muslims could be captured as slaves. Anyway, he made sense when he said ‘Even assuming that Ham was the ancestor of the blacks, God is too merciful to punish millions of people for the sin of a single individual.’
David Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaisn, Christianity and Islam. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2003
John Ralph Willis (editor), Slaves And Slavery in Muslim Africa (Volume One), Frank Cass, London, 1985
Lewis Bernard, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990
*All images are from the television show Tropiques Amers.