The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Synopsis

How old is prejudice against black people? Were the racist attitudes that fueled the Atlantic slave trade firmly in place 700 years before the European discovery of sub-Saharan Africa? In this groundbreaking book, David Goldenberg seeks to discover how dark-skinned peoples, especially black Africans, were portrayed in the Bible and by those who interpreted the Bible--Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Unprecedented in rigor and breadth, his investigation covers a 1,500-year period, from ancient Israel (around 800 B. C. E.) to the eighth century C. E., after the birth of Islam. By tracing the development of anti-Black sentiment during this time, Goldenberg uncovers views about race, color, and slavery that took shape over the centuries--most centrally, the belief that the biblical Ham and his descendants, the black Africans, had been cursed by God with eternal slavery. Goldenberg begins by examining a host of references to black Africans in biblical and postbiblical Jewish literature. From there he moves the inquiry from Black as an ethnic group to black as color, and early Jewish attitudes toward dark skin color. He goes on to ask when the black African first became identified as slave in the Near East, and, in a powerful culmination, discusses the resounding influence of this identification on Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinking, noting each tradition's exegetical treatment of pertinent biblical passages. Authoritative, fluidly written, and situated at a richly illuminating nexus of images, attitudes, and history, The Curse of Ham is sure to have a profound and lasting impact on the perennial debate over the roots of racism and slavery, and on the study of early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Excerpt

Blackness and Slavery

The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem,
Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three
were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was
peopled. Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted
a vineyard; and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and
lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw
the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.
Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their
shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of
their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see
their father's nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and
knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed
be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

(Gen 9:18-25, RSV)

THIS BIBLICAL SLORY has been the single greatest justification for Black slavery for more than a thousand years. It is a strange justification indeed, for there is no reference in it to Blacks at all. And yet just about everyone, especially in the antebellum American South, understood that in this story God meant to curse black Africans with eternal slavery, the so-called Curse of Ham. As one proslavery author wrote in 1838, “The blacks were originally designed to vassalage by the Patriarch Noah.”

This book attempts to explain how and why this strange interpretation of the biblical text took hold. It does so by looking at the larger picture, that is, by uncovering just how Blacks were perceived by those people for whom the Bible was a central text. What did the early Jews, Christians, and Muslims see when they looked at the black African? Clearly, the biblical interpretation is forced. How, then, did the biblical authors view Blacks and what were the postbiblical forces that wrung such a view from the Bible?

This is a book about the ancient link between black skin color and slav-

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