You might be under the impression that Antiblackness was invented sometime after the start of the transatlantic slave trade in order to justify the way that White Europeans were treating Africans. If so, you’ll be wrong!
In this paper, I’ll show that antiblackness is deeply implanted in Judaeo-Christian history and even reaches back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The Ancient Greeks and the Ethiopians
Many Panafricanists point out that ancient Greek historians such as Herodotus who wrote in the fifth century BCE, and Diodorus Siculus who wrote in the first century BCE had lots of positive things to say about black Africans or as they called them Ethiopians (those with burnt faces). This is undoubtedly true. But they also had other things to say about Africans that weren’t so rosy. According to Professor Tom Meisenhelder (2003:101-102):
“By the sixth century B. C. economic and military contact between Africa and Greece was fairly common and several Greeks, most famously Herodotus, prepared “traveler’s reports” that included discussion of Africa. Herodotus’s reports, which intermingled experience and myth, are perhaps the most consequential of all the ancient writings about Africa. Herodotus reported the presence of “dog-eared men” and headless men with eyes in their chests (Miller 1985:3). Herodotus also provided both physical and cultural “descriptions” of the so-called “Ethiopians” who were fully human and whom he praised as noble and pious. He further described a variety of other African peoples, some tall, brave, and handsome and others living in caves whose language was like the squeaking of bats (Snowden, 1970:105). While other Greek authors did not even give Africans human form, Herodotus described a broad range of human beings in Africa running from the noble to the beastly, influencing much of what followed in the Ancients’ construction of the African other (see Snowden, 1970:107-109). Source: Meisenhelder: African Bodies: “Othering” the African in Precolonial Europe https://www.jstor.org/stable/41675090?seq=1
In the first century BCE, Diodorus Siculus wrote his Histories (https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/3A*.html) and had a lot to say about Ethiopians. He too continued with this Janus-faced description of noble Ethiopians and Savage ones. In his Histories, chapter 3, he writes:
“Now the Ethiopians, as historians relate, were the first of all men and the proofs of this statement, they say, are manifest. For that they did not come into their land as immigrants from abroad but were natives of it and so justly bear the name of “autochthones” is, they maintain, conceded by practically all men; furthermore, that those who dwell beneath the noon-day sun were, in all likelihood, the first to be generated by the earth, is clear to all; since, inasmuch as it was the warmth of the sun which, at the generation of the universe, dried up the earth when it was still wet and impregnated it with life, it is reasonable to suppose that the region which was nearest the sun was the first to bring forth living creatures. 2 And they say that they were the first to be taught to honour the gods and to hold sacrifices and processions and festivals and the other rites by which men honour the deity; and that in consequence their piety has been published abroad among all men, and it is generally held that the sacrifices practised among the Ethiopians are those which are the most pleasing to heaven.”
What’s important to note here is that Diodorus says he was recounting what his own people’s historians held with regard to the Ethiopians. So these were widely held beliefs among the Greeks – that these Ethiopians were the original humans, pioneers of spirituality and religion and indeed were the most pleasing people in the eyes of the divine.
Diodorus and the “Savage” Ethiopians
But later on, like Herodotus, Diodorus speaks in much less flattering terms about other Ethiopians.
“8 1 But there are also a great many other tribes of the Ethiopians, some of them dwelling in the land lying on both banks of the Nile and on the islands in the river, others inhabiting the neighbouring country of Arabia, and still others residing in the interior of Libya. 2 The majority of them, and especially those who dwell along the river, are black in colour and have flat noses and woolly hair. As for their spirit they are entirely savage and display the nature of a wild beast, not so much, however, in their temper as in their ways of living; for they are squalid all over their bodies, they keep their nails very long like the wild beasts, and are as far removed as possible from human kindness to one another; 3 and speaking as they do with a shrill voice and cultivating none of the practices of civilized life as these are found among the rest of mankind, they present a striking contrast when considered in the light of our own customs.”
According to Meisenhelder again (2003:101-102) “Pliny led Roman writers to make a similar distinction between the human (speechless cave dwellers without dreams, clothes, or social institutions such as marriage and religion or noble warriors) and “radically nonhuman humans” native to Africa (Miller, 1985:26-27). Source: Meisenhelder: African Bodies: “Othering” the African in Precolonial Europe https://www.jstor.org/stable/416
Early Christian Anti Blackness
By the time we get to the early Christian era, it appears that the positive depictions of Black Africans had faded away. The Christians continued the negative associations of Blackness, and they begin to associate African people (Ethiopians) with metaphysical evil, or sin.
According to New Testament scholar Claire K Rotchschild (2019) the Epistle of Barnabus which was written between 70-132 CE is the first example of Satan being called Black. Rothschild (2019: 223) states that:
“reference by Christians to the counter-divine with the colour epithet ὁ μέλας is new with the Epistle of Barnabas. Black is applied as an honorific to certain Egyptian deities, but it is never used in Egyptian religion with reference to the counter-divine. Furthermore, black demons proliferate in late third- and fourth-century Egyptian monastic texts, but these witnesses postdate Barnabas. The first explicit reference to the devil as black after Barnabas is in Didymus the Blind, who interprets the reference as ‘Ethiopian’. Source: Rotchschild, 2019: Ethiopianising the Devil: ὁ μέλας in Barnabas 4: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688518000395.
Some of the most influential so-called early church fathers associated blackness with sin and vice, and explicitly associated blackness with black skinned people, Ethiopians.
Origen was a Church Father based in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in the 200s AD. According to Rothschild (2019:235-6):
“Although he traces all creation to God and considers all humanity ‘equal and alike’ (Princ.), demographic groups have distinguishing characteristics: Ethiopians are cannibalistic, Scythians legally sanction parricide, and so forth. Origen associates the black skin colour of sub-Saharan people with sin and vice. Therefore, he demonstrates real concern in Comm. Cant. over the text’s qualification of black skin as beautiful… Christians, he argues, can view blackness as a recoverable condition: ‘If you have repented, however, your soul will indeed be black because of your old sins, but your penitence will give it something of what I may call an Ethiopian beauty.’ But from the length at which he discusses blackness in this commentary – even acknowledging that his argument is slightly obsessive – we infer that Origen was aware of the threat posed by blackness even as he understands it as an impermanent state for those who repent.” Source: Rotchschild, 2019: Ethiopianising the Devil: ὁ μέλας in Barnabas 4: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688518000395.
Historian Frank Snowden gives the following quote from the heavyweight Christian Theologian of the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo (1960:33):
“How do I understand ‘Ethiopian peoples’? How else than by them, all nations? And properly by black men (for Ethiopians are black). Those called to the faith who were before black, just they, so that it may be said to them ‘ye were sometimes darkness but now are ye light in the Lord’ |Eph. 5.8]. They are indeed called black but let them not remain black, for out of these is made the Church, to whom it is said: ‘ Who is she that cometh up having been made white?’ [Cant. 8.5| For what has been made out of the black maiden but what is said in am black and comely’? [Cant. 1.4]75 Source: Snowdon, 1960: Some Greek and Roman Observations on the Ethiopian http://www.jstor.org/stable/27830403
The Curse of Ham
Around the same time, the Rabbis of the third century CE onwards provided a biblical hermeneutic of anti blackness. It all centres on the infamous so-called Curse of Ham. In the Torah, the story goes that Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japeth. Noah falls alseep with wine, and Ham sees him naked and tells his brothers. When Noah awakes he is livid with Ham, and places a curse on his son Canaan, saying:
Genesis 9:25 Cursed be Canaan;A servant of servantsHe shall be to his brethren.”26 And he said:“Blessed be the Lord,The God of Shem,And may Canaan be his servant.27 May God enlarge Japheth,And may he dwell in the tents of Shem;And may Canaan be his servant.”
The Talmud is a compendium of the oral traditions of rabbis in Babylonia. In Talmud: Sanhedrin 70a (Mishnah, c.200 CE): https://www.sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.70a.18?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en we read various opinions on what Ham’s actually did, including the following:
18. “Having cited the passage discussing Noah, the Gemara enters into a discussion about what was actually done to him by his younger son, Ham. Rav and Shmuel disagreed: One says that Ham castrated Noah and one says that Ham sodomized him…
In another tractate in the same section, we read the rabbis ideas on what happened to Ham as a result of this curse: Tractate 108b: 14-15: https://www.sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.108b.14?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en
15: The Sages taught: Three violated that directive (to not have sexual intercourse while in the Ark) and engaged in intercourse while in the ark, and all of them were punished for doing so. They are: The dog, and the raven, and Ham, son of Noah. The dog was punished in that it is bound; the raven was punished in that it spits, and Ham was afflicted in that his skin turned black.
Similarly, later, in the Bereshit Rabbah (probably written between 300 and 500 CE (36:7) https://www.sefaria.org/Bereishit_Rabbah.36.7?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en
“Rabbi Huna said in Rabbi Yosef’s name: [Noah declared], ‘You have prevented me from begetting a fourth son, therefore I curse your fourth son,’ Rabbi Huna also said in Rabbi Yosef’s name: You have prevented me from doing something that is done in the dark, therefore your seed will be ugly and dark-skinned. Rabbi Hiya said: Ham and the dog copulated in the ark, therefore Ham came forth black-skinned while the dog publicly exposes its copulation.”
EDIT: Notice the ranking of Blackened people with animals. This is a hugely important element of the othering of Blackness.
According to Professor of Religious Studies Joseph R Washington, “the Jewish rabbinic tradition took on the Hellenistic worldview regarding antiblackness (hatred of blackness as evil). Although this worldview may not have been dominant or particularly developed in Greco-Roman culture, Jewish thought expanded it and gave it a religious hermeneutic (e.g. in the Hamitic Myth in Gen. 9:18-28).” Thus the hatred of blackness as evil was sacralized to the hatred of people with black skins (anti-Blackness, or black racism). Washington writes, “if not the first or the only great religion to infer categorically that black people are eternally damned, Judaism’s oral tradition continued to pass on from generation to generation the story that black people are doubly damned: damned in the blackness of their skin and damned to perpetual slavery.” (Lewis, 2014:30) Source: Lewis, 2014; “To Wash a Blackamoor White:” (Doctoral Thesis) https://ir.vanderbilt.edu/handle/1803/11224
Rabbinic Curse of Ham Reverberates down through Christian history
Tamara Elisabeth Lewis gives several examples of this Curse of Ham reverberating down through Christian thought:
“[S]everal Syriac texts associate the biblical curse of Canaan with blackness. For example, “Mar Ephrem the Syrian said: ‘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 of his father Ham, and their white faces became black and dark and their color changed….”
Ishodad of Merv (Syrian Christian bishop of Hedhatha, ninth century): When Noah cursed Canaan, “instantly, by the force of the curse…his face and entire body became black [ukmotha]. This is the black color which has persisted in his descendents.”
Ibn al-Tayyib (Arabic Christian scholar, Baghdad, d. 1043) writes: “The curse of Noah affected the posterity of Canaan who were killed by Joshua son of Nun. At the moment of the curse, Canaan’s body became black and the blackness spread out among them…”
Also in the thirteenth-century mystical text The Zohar, Ham represents the refuse and dross of the gold, the stirring and rousing of the unclean spirit of the ancient serpent. Ham, the father of Canaan, is also known as “the notorious world darkener…The descendants of Ham through Canaan therefore have red eyes, because Ham looked upon the nakedness of his father; they have miss-shapen lips, because Ham spoke with his lips about the unseemly condition of his father; they have twisted curly hair, because Ham turned and twisted his head around to see the nakedness of his father; and they go about naked, because Ham did not cover the nakedness of his father…” (Lewis, 2014:29). Source: Lewis, 2014; “To Wash a Blackamoor White:” (Doctoral Thesis) https://ir.vanderbilt.edu/handle/1803/11224
In a future presentation, I will look at how the Curse of Ham also permeated Arab thinking in the Islamic era.
What’s particularly key about this Curse of Ham hermeneutic is that it associated Blackness of skin with sexual depravity. The early-modern Europeans picked up these elements and ran with them, as outlined in the following from Lewis.
Early Modern England
“Winthrop Jordan’s landmark study White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro holds that blackness as a concept is already firmly embedded in medieval English epistemology and associated with dirt, evil, sin, and the devil.
[Footnote.22: “For example, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “Black is deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul…Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant, pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister…Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horrible, wicked……Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment, etc.” [Quoted in Jordon, 6]. “In each [European] language the word for “black” carried a host for disparaging connotations. In Spanish, for example, “negro” also meant gloomy, dismal, unfit, and wretched; in French, “noir” also connoted foul, dirty, base, and wicked; in Dutch, certain compounds of “zwart” conveyed notions of anger, irascibility, and necromancy; and “black” had comparable pejorative implications in Elizabethan and Stuart England”]
This definition was widened to include persons with black skins in the early modern period… Thus when the English first began directly confronting Africans on a large scale in the sixteenth century, they built associations between their understandings of the concept of blackness and dark-skinned people.” (Lewis, 2014:13-14)
“This… understanding of the African other became very influential through the work of Sixteenth Century writers such as George Best (see, Jordan, 1974:22-25). `The blackness of the African, as Best saw it, was a result of Ham’s disobedience when he looked at his father’s nakedness. In fact Best further interpreted the story as meaning that Ham had disobeyed Noah by copulating on the Ark. As a result, God punished Ham by making his son “so black and loathsome” that he and all his progeny would symbolize disobedience to “all the world” (quoted in Jordan, 1974:23). Thus, Best wrote that the black African represented sinfulness, disorder, and lust. Best’s interpretation combined the characteristics repeatedly central to European constructions of the African other, color and nakedness, with sexuality. The African’s black skin came to stand for a presumed “blackness within” (Jordan, 1974:22). The black color of the African body, underscored by the image of nakedness, became the most noticed and profound element in the precolonial social construction of the African other. It stood as a symbolic trope for the African other’s moral inferiority to white Europeans.”
It seems apparent that early precolonial European travellers’ reports from Africa were framed by this Biblical discourse. It was these reports, as in the writing of Leo Africanus in 1525, that brought the African other to the popular consciousness of those that never left Europe.” Source: Meisenhelder: African Bodies: “Othering” the African in Precolonial Europehttps://www.jstor.org/stable/41675090?seq=1
From Lewis “[Africanus’ writing] which served as the European geographical and topographical resource for Africa until the eighteenth century [and] purportedly describes sub-Saharan black African culture in rich, accurate, detail. The author… writes:
[L]et us consider, whether the vices of the Africans do surpass their virtues and good parts…Their wits are but mean; and they are so credulous, that they will believe matters impossible, which are told them. So ignorant are they of natural philosophy that they imagine all the effects and operations of nature to be extraordinary and divine. They observe no certain order of living nor of laws…By nature they are a vile and base people, being no better accounted of by their governors than if they were dogs…the greater part of these people are neither Mahumetans, Jews, nor Christians; and hardly shall you find so much as a spark of piety in any of them. They have no churches at all…they lead a savage and beastly life…They spend all their days either in most lewd practices…neither wear they any shoes nor garments. The Negroes likewise lead a beastly kind of life, being utterly destitute of the use of reason, of dexterity and wit, and of all arts.“
Throughout the sixteenth century Europeans traveled to African, most often in search of trade and perhaps riches.1 Travelers’ descriptions of the African continued to be framed and molded by the impact of earlier accounts and Biblical stories. The reports of travelers often intertwined fact and fiction but consistently the most significant things reported about Africans was that their skin was black and that their bodies were “naked.” (Walvin, 1973; Jordan, 1974) Africans were understood as libidinous and dark bodies. As Jordan (1974:4-7) notes, emphasizing these two characteristics resulted in a greatly simplified notion of the African other, underscoring the difference from “white” Europeans. It is obvious, for instance, that to state that Africans are black, in contrast to the whiteness of Europeans, is to reduce a whole range of existing colors and hues to just two. It is also of course not true that Africans were naked. As Jordan (1974:9-10) also notes, this reduction was not harmless or innocent since already the color “black” possessed negative connotation as being soiled or dirty and many European Christians associated nakedness with sinfulness.”
Conclusion: Primordial Anti-Blackness, endemic to Western Culture
I’ll conclude with the following comments from Tamara Lewis which I find very interesting and generative:
“In black religious historiography, the dominant position is that antecedent views of blackness as negative influenced the European consciousness prior to the development of slavery. This view holds that rather than racism arising out of a utilitarian function (such as the justification of slavery) during colonialism, hatred of blackness and black people is endemic to the culture of the West, having its basis in the ancient Greco-Roman tradition. Robert Hood argues that primal myths, representing a kind of subconscious, subliminal way of seeing, “buried deep within our Western psyche and culture,” instinctively associate darkness and blackness with fear, negativity, and evil. An offshoot of this mode of consciousness is that negative perceptions are transferred to people with dark or black skins, as reflected in stories, proverbs, and iconic cultural images. This legacy of myths and inherent modes of perceiving blackness, as part of the universal human psyche, is firmly implanted within the historical Christian tradition, particularly in the West. Moreover, the Christian tradition has been instrumental in propagating this notion of black inferiority…Hood’s returning concern is that the embedded psychic, cultural, and historical values of blackness are so firmly entrenched, reflexive, and unconscious in the communal spirit of Western society that they are too fixed to be effectively dislodged in the quest for racial equality and diversity…The problem with this position is that if blackness as evil is programmed within the human psyche, how can racism, which Hood argues is associated with this primordial consciousness, ultimately be avoided or transcended? Instead, this position implies that society, the outgrowth of human consciousness, is forever doomed to racism.” (Lewis, 2014:23-24)
Lewis here unwittingly summarised the afropessimists’ position that “the world” is always, by its nature, anti-black and if anti-blackness is ever going to end, if we are ever going to liberate ourselves, the world has to end!
Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 70a https://www.sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.70a.18?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en
Diodorus Siculus: Histories https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/3A*.html
Lewis, 2014: To Wash a Blackamoor White
Meisenhelder, 2003: African Bodies: “Othering” the African in Precolonial Europe https://www.jstor.org/stable/41675090?seq=1
Rotchschild, 2019: Ethiopianising the Devil: ὁ μέλας in Barnabas 4: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688518000395
Snowdon, 1960: Some Greek and Roman Observations on the Ethiopian http://www.jstor.org/stable/27830403