40 The Curse of Ham
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40 The Curse of Ham D. MARVIN JONES Society has created a connection between color and meaning. But what of black and white? Black is ... the total absence of color, due to the absence or total absorption of light.... "White" is "fully luminous and devoid of any distinctive hues." That void is the point where white and black meet and reverse; for if white is an empty fullness (fully luminous but void), then black is a full emptiness (total absence)1 The fact that black and white represent a falling out of color represents the idea that ultimately black and white signify a falling out of meaning2 and coherence.3 Thus, as Anthony Appiah has stated, race has no real side referent.4 Black and white may just be signifiers of each other before they are signifiers of any meaning. However paradoxical, Western culture has fixed blackness within the structure of language, firmly entrenching blackness as a symbol of negation. Frantz Fanon writes: In Europe ... the Torturer is the black man, Satan is black, one talks of the shadow, when one is dirty one is black-whether one is thinking of physical dirtiness or moral dirtiness.... Blackness , darkness, shadow, shades, night, and the labyrinths of earth, abysmal depths, blacken someone's reputation; and on the other side, the bright look of innocence, the white dove of peace, magical, heavenly lightS The root of this negative image of blackness in the English language is traceable to a religio-ethical tradition of associating whiteness with purity and blackness with sin. It is a tradition as old as Plato's narrative vision of the soul or Horace's association of blackness with a power of evil. Blackness has also been perceived as a mark of cursedness because "nearness" to the sun suggested a punishment of some kind.6 Moreover, in the Christian tradition, white refers to innocence or wisdom (or both) and blackness is tied directly to sin: Many shall purify themselves, and make themselves white, and be refined; but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand; but those who are wise shall understand . [LJearn to do good; seek justice, ... plead for the widow.... [T]hough your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow... .7 From "DARKNESS MADE VISIBLE: LAW, METAPHOR, AND TH~ RACIAL SELF," 82 CEO. L.j. 437 (1993). Originally published in the Georgetown Law Journal. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material 256 D. Marvin Jones An English writer pondering the question of whether blacks were capable of salvation concluded that they were, but that in redemption they shed their color: Quest.: Whether negroes shall rise on the last day? Answer: The pinch of the Question only lies-Whether White or Black is the better colour. ... [A]fter all ... there is something natural in't. Black is the Colour of Night, Frightful, Dark, and Horrid; but White of the Day and Light, refreshing and lovely. Taking then this Blackness of the Negro to be an accidental imperfection. . I conclude thence, that he shall not arise with that Complexion, but leave it behind him in the Darkness of the Grave, exchanging it for a brighter and a better, at his return again into the World8 The imagery of blackness as sin continues today, in songs that are presently sung: On the Cross at Cavalry, Jesus died for you' and me There he shed His precious blood That from sin we might be free o cleansing stream does flow And it washes white as snow.9 This symbolic framework drew together notions of spiritual equality and secular inferiority . This imagery was instrumental throughout the slave and colonial regimes in reconciling religious equalitarianism with institutions of colonial domination and slavery.1° A variation on this theme of blackness as the absence of virtue is the idea that blackness represents the absence of intelligence. As a color, black does not reflect. As such it was an easy, if illogical, step to extend Gobineau's "Le nair ne reflechit pas" (the color of black does not reflect) to the notion that the black man does not "reflect" (i.e., think).ll Color and mental qualities are thus conflated. Consequently, Hume could posit a fundamental identity between color, intellectual achievement, and intelligence. Hume wrote: I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a...