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Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery, and: Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 49, Number 4, December 2003
pp. 395-397 | 10.1353/cwh.2003.0093

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Civil War History 49.4 (2003) 395-397

Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery. By Stephen R. Haynes. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. 384. Cloth, $29.95.)

Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North. By Patrick Rael. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. 448. Cloth, $55.00; paper, $19.95.)

Long before W. E. B. Du Bois uncovered the veil of racism under which African Americans lived and labored, racial differentiations and distinctions fashioned much of the warp and woof of American life. In their interesting, important, and original books, Stephen R. Haynes and Patrick Rael examine, respectively, the biblical justification for slavery and segregation and the ideological roots of antebellum northern free black protest.

Haynes's richly interdisciplinary study focuses on "the enduring American fascination with Noah's curse" (174). Drawing upon methodologies of history, biblical studies, literary criticism, theology, and anthropology, he employs textual analysis to explain how the ubiquitous curse of Ham originated in Genesis 9.20.27 and changed meaning over time. Haynes notes that the legend's connection with slavery's origins, the association of Ham's progeny with Africa and dark skin, and the belief that Noah's words were to outline future history, were not integrated into a rationale for racial slavery until at least the fifteenth century, probably later. "By the 1830s Noah's curse had become a stock weapon in the arsenal of slavery's apologists, and references to Genesis 9 appeared prominently in their publications" (8). Haynes uses the theological writings of Presbyterian clergyman Benjamin M. Palmer (1818-1902) as a prism through which to view the curse of Ham in southern white supremacists' Weltanschauung.

Haynes breaks fresh ground by framing Noah's curse as a proslavery argument within nineteenth-century southern ideas of honor, order, place, and shame. In doing so, he adds to and revises arguments posed earlier by historians Thomas V. Peterson, Eugene D. Genovese, and Bertram Wyatt-Brown.

Proslavery ideologues, Haynes writes, assumed that slaves were debased persons by nature, that slavery was a condition without honor, and that Ham, as the ancestor of Africans, embodied the dishonorable condition of black slaves. Antebellum racial conservatives interpreted black people as descendants of the lecherous, dishonorable Ham, a disorderly Sambo-like character. Postbellum racial conservatives adopted the curse of Ham to new circumstances, associating the freedpeople and their twentieth-century descendants with Nimrod, Ham's grandson. White people identified Nimrod with the Nat stereotype—a cunning, dangerous, ungovernable, savage, and rebellious character. Lacking the restraints of slavery, post-Civil War era whites adopted Jim Crow segregation, fearful that unregulated blacks would kill white men and ravage their women.

Civil War historians will value Haynes's explication of the curse of Ham as an element in proslavery theory and consequently as an underpinning of southern honor and nationalism. But they will regret that he devoted too little attention to how theologians, physicians, and pseudo-scientists adapted theological defenses of white supremacy during Reconstruction and afterwards. Like other historians, Haynes differentiates between theological defenses of antebellum slavery and "scientific" justifications of postwar segregation and proscription. In fact, however, white supremacists—from Appomattox to the start of the Second Reconstruction—repeatedly and in nuanced ways merged the two rationales for carving out separate legal, social, and economic spheres for blacks.

Much as white conservatives consistently mobilized religious and "scientific" arguments to justify their suppression of African Americans, northern free blacks responded to this challenge by shaping what Rael terms "a public racial identity" and by implementing individual and collective protest (3). Black newspaper editors, clergymen, community leaders, and abolitionists forged both an identity and a protest style clustering around the ideas of elevation and uplift, nation and race. While Rael argues that black elites established the rhetorical form of black identity, non-elites disseminated it to the broad community through ritualized public festivities, including Election Day, Pinkster, Military or Training Day, and antislavery celebrations. They also did so, more informally, in barbershops, boardinghouses, in private correspondence, and in conversations. "The popular thought crafted in these fora," Rael notes, "resisted doctrinalism and categorization in favor of a fluid ideological cosmopolitanism, which could borrow...