Friday, June 13, 2014

White Supremacy and the Curse of Ham

In The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World), Daniel Goldenberg writes "Genesis tells of Ham finding his father Noah drunk and uncovered in his tent. Ham informs his brothers Shem and Japheth. They, walking backward so as not to see their father's nakedness, cover Noah with a garment. After Noah awakes from his drunkenness, he curses—not Ham, and not himself—but Ham's son Canaan by pronouncing: "Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren" (see Genesis 9:20-27). There is no reference to dark skin, to any skin color, or to Africa, and Noah does not say the curse applies to Canaan's descendants. Yet this story, as it was amplified and changed in extrabiblical interpretations, became the ideological cornerstone used to justify the slavery of black Africans thousands of years afterwards."

Christopher Hill (England, 1660) quotes the use of the biblical name of "Ham" as derived from Arabic "Hamam" meaning "dark," "hot," or "burnt."  It was presumed that God had given Ham Africa as his portion of the world and his cursed descendents were to be forever slaves to other people (in 17th century England, of course, white Europeans). Thus, we have derived the "Curse of Ham," descendants of whom, are conveniently Africans.  Still, though, originally, the curse was laid on Canaan... and, originally, was not meant to devolve upon his descendants.  Daniel Goldenberg, a Jewish scholar who writes on the "Curse of Ham," finds this difficult to explain, actually... unless you treat the "Curse of Ham" as a recent political device to support African slavery. 

These points have been drawn upon in the 17th century Christian world as a reference for Ham's race, skin tone, and ultimate origin... because "Ham" is a term said to refer  to "dark," "hot," or "burnt."  However, the mis-application of the Arabic meaning of "Hamam" to the biblical story of "Ham/Canaan" most likely derived from Muslim occupation of Africa, prior to European occupation beginning in the 15th century. This loose literary coincidence has been used since then, most particularly by Mormons, to justify slavery and segregation.  Still, it isn't biblical... the mistaken comparison occurred  over a thousand years after the beginning of Christianity. 

This Ham=African slave idea has to do with the history and politics of capitalism, not the Bible.

Africa had become the source for a great system of laborers to the emerging system of Dutch/English capitalism that focused upon the lucrative Caribbean production of "White Gold," or sugar.  These fairly recent biblical interpretations have been used for centuries as a justification for slavery to produce a product that was so valuable that even God was said to ignore the plight of the African.  Thus, through post-Moorish Africa-influenced American interpretation of the biblical tale of "Ham," God appeared to endorse African slavery.  Not surprising that darker, apparently "burnt" Africans would be interpreted as descendents of Ham at the introduction of the common usage of Africans as slaves in the American West Indies... which, of course, led to the development of the American South. 

The 17th century began a biblical justification for slavery that became institutionalized before Carolina was founded in 1671, thus transferring the justification of use of the African as slave to traditional southern American agricultural society which fervently needed the labor, not so much for sugar, but for other lucrative crops such as rice and cotton.  It is no surprise that the African has traditionally been viewed in America as God's own choice for slave and the wealthy European plantation owner as his natural master... or white, of course, as the color of the supreme ruling class of America.

Daniel Goldenberg infers that this belief lasted well into the 20th century, hinting that it may have ended before the 21st.  Goldenberg, however, was being kind to Americans.  I am often shocked to hear this biblically-justified interpretation for white-supremacy in casual conversations all across America, but most often in the Deep South... TODAY, yesterday, in fact. They and their neighbors still see miscegenation or "mixing of the races" as an abomination before God, the biblical source for 1896's Plessy v. Ferguson (segregation)... and for their current political views... consistently in history, the Southern conservative point of view and, now, that of modern Republicans.  

"The Bible says that we're not supposed to mix the races," they said. And, of course, the unspoken belief is that God meant for whites only to rule.  The problem is that those who read the Bible assume also that they understand the intricacies of history... this interpreted passage of Genesis is indisputable, they still believe, because of the "historical" evidence.  They forget that history is also used as a political device... secondary, or historical interpretation (the versions that we read in most textbooks) often alters or revises history for political convenience... for instance, the false belief that Columbus discovered that the world was round or the retelling of history to support the Southern political device known as "the Lost Cause."  Easily debatable interpretations of the Bible are certainly not immune.  Thus was born the "Curse of Ham," a favorite political device of the South.

This Americanized "curse" is still very much alive.  Racism is still very much alive.  It is intimately a part of our very own culture from the beginning of West Indian capitalism in the mid-1600s, well before 1776 and since the beginning of the use of Africans as slaves in America and carried on by our Amero-Christian tradition to support white-supremacy, especially since the Civil War, especially since God's own "chosen" African slaves defied southern society and God's wishes to free themselves and even demand equality with their white masters.  What moxie!  What blasphemy!

Is it any wonder that President Obama (perceived as a product of miscegenation) receives the opposition that he does when the deepest feelings of our society are racially encoded by our own dysfunctional political-religious traditions... our fervent belief in white-supremacy, cursed Ham, not the originally-cursed Canaan, as "black" (African), and miscegenation as an abomination before God?

Yeah,we're that messed up.

The choice of Africans as slaves was never a desire or commandment from God himself, but a very human desire for money and has been used as justification for the capitalistic institution of business that brutally abused an entire people for purposes of profit.