The Curse of Canaan (or Ham)

The explanation that black Africans, as the “sons of Ham”, were cursed, possibly “blackened” by their sins, became increasingly common during the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries.

When we were investigating some aspects of black history this year at church, I was intrigued by the fact that, for a time in the mid-17th century, slavery based on race wasn’t really codified in the United States. There were white indentured servants and black slaves, but the former were often given ever-changing terms of servitude, making them functionally little better off than slaves.

In the 1670s, Bacon’s Rebellion “demonstrated that poor whites and poor blacks could be united in a cause. This was a great fear of the ruling class — what would prevent the poor from uniting to fight them? This fear hastened the transition to racial slavery.”

The status of blacks in Virginia slowly changed over the last half of the 17th century.“The black indentured servant, with his hope of freedom, was increasingly being replaced by the black slave.” So why bother with indentured servants who, after 7, 18, or 21 years [would have to be freed], when you could have Africans serve their lifetime, and serve in perpetuity through their children?
But HOW was the idea of permanent black enslavement developed? In part, from the Bible. Specifically from Genesis 9, starting with verse 18. After Noah has too much wine, “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brethren outside.” Noah curses Canaan (not Ham) to be the lowest of slaves “to his brothers,” specifically to Ham’s brothers, Japheth and Shem.

From the Wikipedia:

While Genesis 9 never says that Ham was black, he became associated with black skin, through folk etymology deriving his name from a similar, but actually unconnected, word meaning “dark” or “brown”…

The explanation that black Africans, as the “sons of Ham”, were cursed, possibly “blackened” by their sins, was advanced only sporadically during the Middle Ages, but it became increasingly common during the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. The justification of slavery itself through the sins of Ham was well suited to the ideological interests of the elite; with the emergence of the slave trade, its racialized version justified the exploitation of African labour.

Read Black Slavery as the “Curse of Ham”: Bible Truth or Racist Apologetic?

The notion that blackness is equal to sin, used to “prove” black people’s “natural” inferiority, and lack of moral character, also shows up in the Book of Mormon, published in the 1820s (2 Nephi 5:21):

And [God] had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people, the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. And thus saith the Lord God; I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.”

Sometime in the last few years, a good Christian woman, who reportedly has studied the Bible carefully, indicated, more or less out of the blue, that I was descended from Ham. Yet, in spite of my “cursed state,” the love of Jesus Christ was still available to me. Circumstances warranted that I had no opportunity for reply.

THIS is my reply: lady, your “Biblical history” is BS.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

5 thoughts on “The Curse of Canaan (or Ham)”

  1. Which it is. The way I was taught, that original-sin business tells us that we’re all in some sort of “cursed state”; none of us is any better than the next.

  2. As the descendent of a long line of preachers, I never heard that “Curse of Ham” B.S. while I was growing up. MANY year later, as an adult and learning about the history of racism in the USA, I encountered it for the first time and was dumbstruck. I couldn’t believe that such obvious nonsense was ever taken seriously. The propensity of people to use the bible to justify their bigotry stopped surprising me decades ago,

  3. It’s always been my understanding that the “curse” was on Canaan, Ham’s son. And Canaan’s descendants went on to live in the Mideast, not Africa. So, how one gets from A to B in the justification of “blackness and slavery” topic, I can’t figure out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial