If you’re like me and call yourself white, recently you’ve been listening to and educating yourself on systemic racism and what it means to be an anti-racist. You might have posted a black square on Instagram, you might be reading books on social justice, you might be donating to Black causes for the first time, you might be marching, or you might be fighting your part of the battle of equality one conversation at a time.
Awesome. Keep going.
In my quest to understand, I wanted to also lean into one of my interests: language.
If you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you know I talk a lot about how words and concepts have been shaped to impact how we think (consciously or unconsciously), whether it’s: optimism, accountability, caring, meaning, authenticity or grit.
So I started researching the origins of the word “race,” and specifically asked myself how and why it came to be that there were ships full of enslaved African people coming to the Americas in the first place? Were they enslaved because they were Black? Or were they Black because they were enslaved?
For the past couple of weeks I’ve followed the rabbit hole back through Imperialism, Colonialism, The Middle Ages and The Bible. What I found blew my mind.
To understand systemic anti-Black racism in America, you have to understand social hierarchy at the dawn of the Renaissance. And to understand that hierarchy you have to know how “The Curse Of Ham” was hijacked.
Once you know that, you will know why an African man was placed on a Portuguese ship for the first time in 1441 kicking over the first domino of systemic racism that eventually led to one landing on the neck of George Floyd and so many others in America.
So, most certainly learn the history of Black America from Jamestown to “Black Lives Matter,” but today I’m going to dive into my understanding of how the Guinea Coast got to Jamestown in the first place.
Hopefully this story can illuminate concepts we never knew about (and if you're like me, benefitted from), and hopefully it can empower us to keep our individual domino of influence upright (or to remove it from the cycle altogether) today and in the future. That’s how we take accountability.
Biologically, race isn’t even a thing. But as we are all hyper aware, race is most certainly a thing culturally, socially, and politically. Sadly, facts alone can’t kill a long held idea (especially if that idea is useful to people on top).
Race, as a field of study, is not (forgive the pun) black and white. It’s a labyrinth through layers of thought; from Aristotle to America. To make your way out of these catacombs you have to rub against the walls of The Old Testament, polygenism and the Age of Enlightenment. It is then you realize how “race” as a concept has been smeared by the hands of power and rationalization for thousands of years.
And when we “follow the money” of justification and control, all roads lead back to the practice of slavery. So we have to start there to understand how the seeds of race were planted by those who would benefit most from it.
The history of servitude throughout human civilization is as complex as it was widespread. Slaves were in Hammurabi’s code, in the Bible. Mohammad owned them, Popes permitted them. The Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Vikings, Chinese, Russians, Romans, Ottomans, Incas, Aztecs, Mongols, Visigoths, you name it. If there was an empire, they were enslaving people they conquered.
In fact, that’s how the enslaved were almost always acquired: via war and captivity. The “slave market” was invented in the 1400’s (we’ll get to that).
Treatment of slaves differs throughout history and empires. Some in the Islamic world could achieve status and earn respectable income (while still being owned). Some were taken for military service. Some were taken for amusement (sex, gladiators).
But for the most part, slavery was about money and labor.
Why have your own people do hard labor if you could have an enslaved person do it?
Why sell food or resources you don’t want to lose when you can sell human captives instead?
Slavery wasn’t based on skin color though; it was an equal opportunity exploiter.
15-25% of the population of the Roman Empire were enslaved (mostly captured from the Italian peninsula and the rest of Europe)
In the 9th century, the Muslims in North Africa and Iberia enslaved so many Slavs that the modern word “slavery” derived from it
Slavery was so common in early Medieval Europe that even the Catholic church allowed it at times
And then there was Africa. The Europeans didn’t invent the slave trade there. Local tribes practiced slavery for years; and the Arab slave trade in Africa lasted one thousand years, starting in 900 AD.
Here’s the map of the African overland slave routes in 1300 AD, which sets up the integral piece of the race puzzle: The Atlantic slave trade.
THE HUNT FOR RATIONALIZATION
Unfortunately, most of our western thinking on race and culture since the Renaissance was shaped, in no small part, by Europeans engorged on colonialism and imperialism.
As Western Europe grew out of the mud and moats of the Middle Ages and into the expanding seas, they were no longer enslaving each other, and they certainly didn’t want to go to large scale wars with the powerful Arabs or Ottomans to acquire any.
But without stolen labor there were no empires, because if governments had to pay their own people to tend to the new fields of sugar cane, tobacco, cocoa, cotton and coffee, they’d go broke. Not to mention that no European wanted to till some foreign land far from home. Hence, the need for slave labor. Up until now, the easiest way to acquire that was to buy African slaves from the Arabs on the northwest coast of Africa, but now the Europeans had ships that could sail south of the Western Sahara to procure them directly.
At the same time as the Europeans entered into the African slave trade at a greater rate, inklings of reason and thought were expanding with the Renaissance (and eventually the Age of Enlightenment). Nations—especially Christian nations—needed to justify slavery as something other than “good business.” And what better way to do that than to label those you are enslaving as “inferior”?
If you can figure out how to make people “lesser,” you can convince yourself that they were born to be subjugated.
It helps you sleep at night.
If only the Europeans had a story to rationalize their exploitation of Africans.
For that, we turn to the Bible.
WHAT IS A LIFE WORTH?
Enter the Portuguese.
Gil Eanes de Zurara’s Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea of 1444 is arguably the first detailed recording of black Africans being seized by a European power. The book describes Antão Gonçalves’s exploration of the west African coast (in search for gold, primarily), at the behest of Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator, who was the 4th son of the Portuguese king, John I.
The story goes that Gonçalves and his men raided a small coastal village and captured the Moor chieftain, Adahu, along with a few others. (Side note: Moors were Muslim, but ethnically north African/Berber.)
Once back in Portugal though, Adahu—speaking through an Arab-Portuguese translator—begs Gonçalves to take him back to his tribe. Adahu says that since he is a chieftain, he can trade himself for 5 or 6 “black moors” (“black moors” is how Zurara described the native Black Africans).
Adahu saying that his life as a nobleman is worth multiple lives is actually against the “code” of slavery and servitude up to that point. It’s not how things worked. Typically, an empire had the right to enslave and sell anyone they captured through war. Enslaved people were essentially that: prisoners of war.
So how could Adahu’s life be worth several black moors?
And here is where the Portuguese start to build their Trojan Horse of religious rationalization to bypass the defenses of decency and set the western world on a new course.
Adahu was Muslim. The people under his rule were not. They were native Africans, so trading one Moor for many black tribespeople had its missionary advantages to the Portuguese.
Zurara quoted Gonçalves, saying about the “black moors” in Africa:
“...[though] they had souls like the others, they were not of the lineage of the Moors, but were Pagans, and so better to bring into the path of salvation."
Or as Anna Moore put it in her detailed article, “as non-Muslim pagans, they would be easier to add to the Christian ledger.”
This was important because Prince Henry was more interested in converting captives to Christianity than he was about the money they produced. Gonçalves realized that he could please his boss and make a profit in salvation by turning one Muslim captive into many Pagan captives.
Ok, so they have the “missionary” angle covered, but there were pagans and non-believers all over the world. They still needed to add inferiority to this rationalization concoction.
"THE CURSE OF HAM"
For that, we have to go all the way back to Genesis 9: 20-27 and dip our toes into white man’s oft favorite pastime: poaching and perverting passages of the Bible to justify some sort of holy credo.
This part is so important that I do need to get into the specifics. Good thing my father is an Orthodox priest, a linguist who grew up in the Middle East, and one of the top biblical scholars in the world. #handy
(Don’t worry, this isn’t Bible study.)
To set the scene of the story, Noah (of ark building fame and rainy day lore) has three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth. Ham has four sons, one of whom is Canaan.
One day after the flood Ham disgraces himself in the eyes of his father. As punishment, Noah says in verses 25-27:
25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26 And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
So, Noah punishes Ham’s son, Canaan, to live a life of slavery; and Shem and Japheth seem to have gotten a boost out of this.
This is known as “The Curse Of Ham.”
Ohhhhhh k? you might be thinking. And this means what now?...
Remember, at the time of this story, Noah’s children and grandchildren were the only people on earth (everyone else died in the flood). As Christianity spread, it carried the idea that we all descended from Noah’s sons. Each lineage inhabited different areas of the earth, producing distinct peoples. (How else to explain how three sons from the same parents can produce all the variations in human characteristics and language?)
Under these three lineages of Shem, Ham and Japheth were the 70 “nations” that were known as the Table Of Nations.
Here is the map with the nations spread out under the names of Noah’s sons and grandsons.
Now the important thing to look at is Canaan, because that’s who Noah cursed. Canaan is up where modern day Israel/Palestine is (it’s the area in the red box, called out).
Most scholars believe the point of the parable cursing Canaan is to justify the subjugation of Canaanites by the Israelites, but let’s you and me not get into all that.
The other key point is to know who Ham’s three other sons were:
“Cush,” a name representative of the Kush Dynasty which was founded in 1050 BCE and covered areas of modern day southern Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan
“Mizraim,” a name that means Egypt in Biblical Hebrew
“Put,” home of the Amazigah, in modern day Egypt and the Nile Delta
In short, places in Africa (circled in yellow below).
By the time we get to the 1400’s, classical thinking posited that each of Noah’s sons produced distinct Semitic (Asiatic), Hamitic (African) and Japhetic (Indo-European) peoples.
Everyone’s kind of lumped together in an Asian, Black and European “group.”
And so with this understanding we can go back to Zurara and Gonçalves in 1444 trying to rationalize how it could be that one person’s life (Adahu, the chieftain) could be worth the lives of six local African tribesmen.
Zurara has a theory:
"And here you must note that though these blacks were Moors like the others, they were [Adahu’s] slaves by ancient custom, which I believe to have been because of the curse Noah laid upon his son Ham, cursing him...that his descendants should be subject to the descendants of all others of the world.”
Zurara is claiming that the Africans Adahu enslaved were such by “ancient custom” (not because they were captured in war). What reason does he give? Because Africans are descendents of Ham, and Noah cursed the descendents of Ham to be enslaved by everyone else on earth. It’s God’s will.
What. The. Fuck. It doesn’t take a Biblical scholar to see the problem here.
Noah didn’t curse Ham, he cursed Canaan (which isn’t in Africa!). And anyway, this was a parable. But the “Christian” colonialists at the time didn’t really split hairs as to what was real or who was actually cursed.
To them, anyone who is African is cursed now.
From Anna Moore,
This genealogical guilt thus supports a new form of profit in which one African noble's freedom could purchase the lives of numerous African commoners. The "Curse of Ham," furnishes a theopolitical basis for an obligation to serve.
And the ramifications of this goes one insidious step deeper.
Again, from Anna Moore,
The ransom of one life for more expendable lives institutes value gained through exchange rather than captivity.
The Portuguese now had the justification to create a category of enslaved people never known before: previously enslaved.
This allowed the Portuguese to detach from and “otherize” the Black African experience, and start what was known in Portugal as “The Africa Project.”
According to historian John Thornton, by 1494, the Portuguese king had agreements with several West African rulers permitting trade, enabling the Portuguese to "tap into the well-developed commercial economy in Africa without engaging in hostilities."
Slavery became a transaction, not the result of war. And that...was better for business.
By 1552, enslaved black Africans were 10% of the population of Lisbon. Eventually 4 million Africans were sent by the Portuguese to Brazil.
Soon after the Portuguese, Spain jumped on the exploitation bandwagon, followed by the British, Dutch, French, Belge, Germans and the rest of the colonizing nations of Europe.
Surely, you must be wondering, someone must have stood up to the inanity of this logic. Yes, there were thinkers and people with influence who were against this notion of “once enslaved, always enslaved,” and who pointed out that Noah cursed Canaan not Ham, but the stolen labor and the chance to expand empires was too powerful.
Caribbean archipelagos and the wide open lands of the Americas needed cheap labor to turn them into functioning agrarian societies. Soon, a ship full of enslaved Africans would approach a harbor of a new settlement: Jamestown.
The dictionary would like you to believe that in its simplest sense, racism proposes a correlation between physical characteristics and moral/intellectual qualities. But what it’s leaving out is the ability to exploit those differences.
The former is an exercise in thought, the latter is the repercussions of it.
That’s precisely what happened in Africa.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates says in Between The World And Me, “Race is the child of racism, not the father.”
“Race” wasn’t exactly a thing in the mid-1400’s yet. Splitting up the world’s people into three lineages out of a misquoted parable thousands of years old had its obvious limits. At some point that wouldn’t hold water.
To make sure that the western powers could keep their conscience clear, they needed to bolster the notion of “the lesser” through the budding notion of scientific discovery.
As new lands, peoples and cultures continued to be discovered (see: conquered) in the 16th and 17th centuries, scientists and thinkers tried to classify those humans. Some chose their arbitrary divisions of race on the most visible physical differences (like skin color) while others used geographic location, size, ability, dietary habits and other evident characteristics to delineate between races.
Of course, certain cultural beliefs of racial superiority littered early scientific discovery.
In 1578, George Best, a British explorer, influential member of the Elizabethan court and openly racist thinker, described Africans as "black and loathsome" people on account of being descendants of the “cursed Cush.”
Cush, of course, is one of Ham’s other sons. As I noted before, the Cush dynasty is in modern day Sudan and Ethiopia. Best didn’t worry about confusing the parable. He manifested the “Curse of Ham” to mean “Black people” to justify the continued exploitation.
In the 1700’s, researchers started using behavioral and psychological traits in their recorded observations of peoples; specifically focusing on which traits had demeaning implications. Scientists assumed those traits were tied to one’s race, and thus, intrinsic and unchangeable.
And of course, it helps to continue skewing the results of those you’ve been enslaving to help rationalize your continued exploitation of them for profit.
That’s how you begin to systematize racism.
Mind you, the world according to Noah’s sons was never far from scientific thought. Here’s a popular map from 1818. You can see the liberties taken to fill in the rest of the discovered world.
In the 1800’s, racial and physical anthropologists like Louis Agassiz, Thomas Huxley, and Arthur de Gobineau moved racism’s exposition from a taxonomic sense (skin color, geography, etc.) to a biological one. In fact this era was known as “Scientific Racism.”
They would backfill the holes left from exploitation with “scientific” discoveries laced with prejudice to present what looked like a smooth explanation for how things were in the world.
George Cuvier (you might remember him from high school biology class as the “Founding Father of Paleontology”) had this to say about white people:
The white race, with oval face, straight hair and nose, to which the civilised people of Europe belong and which appear to us the most beautiful of all, is also superior to others by its genius, courage and activity.
And this is how he described Black people:
The Negro race ... is marked by black complexion, crisped of woolly hair, compressed cranium and a flat nose, The projection of the lower parts of the face, and the thick lips, evidently approximate it to the monkey tribe: the hordes of which it consists have always remained in the most complete state of barbarism.
Awful. I guess we can also call him one of the founding fathers of anti-Black racism too.
By measuring things like skull size/shape, as well as other body dimensions, influential scientists were able to make three claims about race:
Races are a fixed, naturally occurring division of humanity
There is a clear relationship between biological races and various human phenomena (such as relationships, expression, and culture)
Race can predict individual and group behavior
Oh and when measuring the beauty, ugliness and quality of their civilizations you can probably guess how they “ranked” everyone. The “white” race was at the best, the “yellow” race in the middle, and the “black” race at the bottom.
And voila, a bigger thread of unfounded racism (although it was sold as “founded”) that the likes of eugenicists and Nazis had no problem latching onto.
It wasn’t until the mid 20th century when once and for all it was proven that biologically, there is no such thing as “race.” But by the time this genetic clamshell could reveal its pearl, untested theories and observations about race had accumulated like barnacles onto the immutable stereotypes—since Greco-Roman times—that the Black man was somehow “inferior” to other races.
It wasn’t just in the Western European cultures founded on a Judeo-Chrisitian set of beliefs either. In fact, the scars of African servitude can still be felt in many Arab worlds today. The word for “slaves” in Arabic is: abeed; which is also a commonly used derogatory slang to mean: Black people.
In total, the numbers are staggering. The western nations took ~12.5 million Africans across the Atlantic; the Arabs took 17 million to the Middle East or into territories in the Indian Ocean.
Not to mention the untold millions who were enslaved by the colonial/imperialist powers on the African continent. Sadly, the “Curse of Ham” was the driver of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 that killed over 800,000 people. Years and years before, the German and Belgian colonialists determined that the Tutsis were Semites (descendents of Shem) by looking at the shapes of their nose, whereas the Hutu were Hamites (descendents of Ham). Therefore, the Tutsi minority were superior to the Hutu majority because the Hutu’s were “cursed.” Thus, drawing the lines of division.
BLACK LIVES MATTER
Which leads us to the powder-keg moment we are all living through right now in America.
The slogan “Black Lives Matter” is a poignant one and why it’s spreading in places outside America. It is shining the lens on the fact that Black lives literally, financially and culturally mattered less for thousands of years.
The comedian and actor Michael Che had a great response for those who say “All Lives Matter” in response to “Black Lives Matter.” He said:
Really? Semantics? That would be like if your wife came up to you and was like, “Do you love me?” And you said, “Baby! I love everybody!”
There is a “too” at the end of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan. It just shouldn’t need to be said. Black people have been fighting for the “too” for hundreds and hundreds of years.
In America specifically, Black lives most definitely “mattered” less from the get go. After all, our founding fathers had no problem stating “all men were created equal,” while owning slaves themselves.
American slave owners used the “Curse of Ham” to justify the practice. It was about Ham’s disloyalty to his family and his lack of honor for his father (and master) that made Black people “fit for slavery.” They were disloyal by birth, and needed to be taught a lesson about “family values”; a term that was a pillar of the antebellum south.
And no, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t magically undo the “curse,” neither did June 19, 1865, and neither did the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s-60’s.
Those were certainly moments of progress, but this is the devil of systemic racism; it’s a social, cultural and economic construct, not a genetic one, hence why its threads are so entangled in the fabric of our nation.
Slavery is what helped make America rich.
Read the article, The Case For Reparations from Ta-Nehisi Coates, or How Slavery Became America’s First Big Business by P.R. Lockhart to understand how enmeshed slavery was to the American economy, and how we can still see those ramifications today. This one excerpt from Lockhart squeezes like a vice:
In 60 years, from 1801 to 1862, the amount of cotton picked daily by an enslaved person increased 400 percent. The profits from cotton propelled the US into a position as one of the leading economies in the world, and made the South its most prosperous region. The ownership of enslaved people increased wealth for Southern planters so much that by the dawn of the Civil War, the Mississippi River Valley had more millionaires per capita than any other region.
And check out How Slavery Became The Economic Engine Of The South to see how the northern states, and banks in New York and London profited from the expanding plantations. Not to mention the large tax revenue slavery provided to the government.
None of this is possible without the justification that one group is inferior to another, and the ability to bolster and exploit that difference.
Writer Zeba Blay might have said it best:
At its core, racism is a system in which a dominant race benefits off the oppression of others — whether they want to or not. We don’t live in a society where every racial group has equal power, status, and opportunity. Yes, white people all over the world and throughout history have experienced atrocities like slavery and persecution. But in the very specific context of American history, white people have not been enslaved, colonized, or forced to segregate on the scale that black people have. They do not face housing or job discrimination, police brutality, poverty, or incarceration at the level that black people do. This is not to say that they do not experience things like poverty and police brutality at all. But again, not on the same scale — not even close.
White people in America might experience prejudice today, but again, racism is prejudice backed by power.
If you call yourself white and are struggling with this moment and what you should do, it’s probably because you’re wondering, “I’m not part of the problem,” or “What difference could I possibly make?”
To that I say, start by taking accountability for your domino. Sure, if you removed your domino from the thousand year torrent that spawned a thousand trails of racism, it might not make a difference societally, but maybe by removing your domino you keep your friends from being knocked over and you keep someone you’ve never met from getting pinned under the weight of perpetuity.
That’s how we take accountability, one action at a time.
Start with uncomfortable conversations.
Typically, we choose as little discomfort as possible to continue being respected by our peer group. Well, raise the expectations of each other by leaning into vulnerability. Yes, you've heard me say “planned grit.” This is it too.
In David Ikard’s great TEDx Talk, The Real Story Of Rosa Parks he says:
I understand, as an African-American man, that whenever you talk to whites about racism or anything that's racially sensitive, there's usually going to be a challenge...because whites have so little experience being challenged about their white privilege that whenever even the most minute challenge is brought before them, they usually cry, get angry or run.
As Marie Beecham recently said, “To better recognize your privilege, take notice of oppression that you don’t experience.”
Can't "see" the oppression with your own eyes? Watch 13th to understand the hidden tendrils of persecution in America, then think about what it’s like for you to not be cursed by Ham for forever and a day.
Acknowledging you have a domino standing in the long chain of many is not admitting culpability for the presence of the chain, it is understanding that you benefit from it being there.
Black lives can’t only matter in our hearts, they have to matter in our actions.
Taking some slight liberties with the beautiful words Daniel Schmachtenberger said in his recent youtube video titled How To Not Go Extinct, I say, rather than ask “How am I supposed to help end systemic racism?” ask yourself, “How do I help determine that we do?”
Stay uncomfortable. Stay accountable. It’s the only way to break the curse.