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AN ANCIENT and enduring cross-cultural mythology explores what the texts generally perceive as a paradox: the birth of white offspring to black parents, or black offspring to white parents. This mythology in the Hebrew Bible is limited to animal husbandry , but in Indian literature from the third century B.C.E. and Greek and Hebrew literature from the third or fourth century C.E. it was transferred to stories about human beings. These stories originally express a fascination with the dark skin of “Ethiopians ” (a term that seems to apply to sub-Saharan Africans in general), and a (nonracist) fantasy of white children born to them. But when ideas about human race arise in Europe after the sixteenth century, the stories reverse their color schemes and shift their emphasis to investigations of the (racist) paradox of black children born to white parents. In our day, racism is clearly a strong factor in the media fascination with court cases about in vitro fertilization in which black children are born to white parents . This development suggests that the symbolism of black and white was not originally, nor need be now, racist, but that, once racism is current, it is hard to reclaim the nonjudgmental innocence of the earlier texts. Many of these texts explained the paradox of children who differ from their parents in color by invoking the concept of parental impression (sometimes called maternal imprinting or maternal imagination), which argues that whatever a woman (or, SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Spring 2003) The Symbolism of Black and White Babies in the Myth of Parental Impression WENDY DONIGER rarely, a man) thinks of or sees at the moment of conception (or, for a woman, sometimes in the course of pregnancy) influences the physical form of the child.1 This doctrine, which was known in ancient Israel, in Greece, in ancient India, and in Europe well into the twentieth century (Doniger and Spinner, 1998: 97-130), primarily addresses an entirely different obsession—the problem of paternal insecurity—and generally draws heavily on sexist and misogynist attitudes toward women. Yet, when it was appropriated into the narratives of off-color offspring, it offered, in place of the more obvious explanation (adultery, and mixed-race adultery, to boot), an alternative fantasy that softened the culpability of women. So, too, when applied to stories of color-contrasting offspring in European narratives, even after the sixteenth century, the idea of parental impression functioned as a force against racism (and hereditarianism in general); the Lamarckian or Lysenkan idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics—the privileging of nurture over nature—argues against the belief that one’s racial stock determines who one is.2 Thus this doctrine, farfetched as it seems to us (and seemed to many people throughout its history), dulled the edge of ancient antagonism toward women and modern European antagonism toward the descendants of the “Ethiopians.” A study of the variations of this myth across cultures has much to tell us about the ways in which myths about women and myths about people of dark skin color are transformed under the pressure of later tropes of sexism and racism. The Hebrew Bible It all begins with a story from the Hebrew Bible in which animals give birth to offspring of different colors, through the power of parental impression. The patriarch Jacob promises to work for his father-in-law, Laban, asking only for the colored lambs and mottled kids from among the flock as his wages. When this episode is recounted in Genesis 31:1-12, God determines the out2 SOCIAL RESEARCH come of Jacob’s wager with Laban as an angel reveals the trick to Jacob in a dream; but the naturalistic explanation in Genesis 30:25-43 credits the clever use of ancient breeding techniques. Knowing that the specified mottling is unusual, Laban assumes that he will prosper from this deal; but this is not to be the case. Jacob takes fresh rods from almond, plane, and poplar trees and peels off strips and patches of their bark; he then places these variegated staves in front of watering troughs. As the animals come to drink, they breed, and while they are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1-44
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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