- The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600–2000
Punning on the meanings of forging as both creating and counterfeiting in The Forging of Races, Colin Kidd traces the sad story of the ways the Bible has been misappropriated during the past four centuries to explain racialist theories of human origins and descent, as well as to justify racist doctrines of enslavement and domination. As Kidd emphasizes, "The subject matter of this book is not the Bible itself, but its human interpreters. The bible itself is largely colour-blind: racial differences rarely surface in its narratives" (2–3). "Race," Kidd notes, "exists as a property of our minds, not of their bodies." Consequently, "the historian of race becomes, inevitably, a connoisseur of polymorphous perversity" (18).
Anyone interested in a concise account of how perverse definitions of race can be will profit greatly from Kidd's "Prologue: race in the eye of the beholder." Kidd easily demonstrates how arbitrary and unreliable complexion is as a way to try to separate humans into distinct groups of sub-Saharan Africans and others. For example, different and more objective tests comparing fingerprints, ear wax, body hair, the presence of the lactose enzyme, or the sickle cell gene mutation, blood types, or DNA would lead to radically different groupings of humans. As so-called whiteness studies have shown, definitions of "race" based on complexion are historically and socially contingent: the same person can be classified as "white" in Brazil and "black" in the United States. Italian Americans can be acculturated into "whiteness."
Nearly half of The Forging of Races is devoted to the period before the nineteenth century. Many readers will be surprised to discover that although scripture "contributed significantly to western constructions of race," its contribution was ambivalent. Indeed, "a decline in the authority of scripture opened up an ideological space for the uninhibited articulation of racialist sentiments" in the [End Page 121] nineteenth century and beyond (19). Throughout the period Kidd covers, particularly during the eighteenth century, an orthodox Christian reading of the Bible as a monogenetic account of the direct descent of all humans from common parents, Adam and Eve, through Noah and his sons, acted to limit attempts to argue for the significance of complexion and for the superiority of one "race" over another. To the orthodox Christian, through the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the second Adam, all humans could be redeemed from the original sin they inherited from their common ancestor, the first Adam. Orthodox Christianity allowed for racialist, though not necessarily racist, speculation about a number of issues, such as the complexions of Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, and Jesus. Polygenetic claims, very rare in the eighteenth century, that multiple "races" descended from ancestors older or other than Adam and Eve asserted the heresies of pre- or co-Adamism in the face of Acts 17:26: "And [God] made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth." As Kidd notes, "in general, race mattered less to early moderns than their twenty-first century descendants imagine" (61).
But where there is a will to justify racism and slavery, a way will always be found. Apologists for race-based slavery who sought Biblical sanction for their beliefs and behavior seized upon textually groundless readings of Genesis going back to the early Middle Ages that could be reconciled with monogenesis. The mark, or curse, placed on Cain after he slew Abel became identified with a black complexion. Even more potent for racist ideology was the curse Ham supposedly incurred for having mocked the nakedness of his father, Noah. Ham's son Canaan and his descendants were alleged to have been cursed with a black complexion and enslavement by Noah's other sons and their descendants. Kidd is careful to point out that a fully developed racist ideology did not exist in the eighteenth century, and that eighteenth-century commentators on the significance of Ham were as likely to...