About 15 years ago, I received an e-mail from a specialist in Jewish studies, Dr. David Goldenberg, who had read an article of mine and wanted to know more about the subject. The article described how early Christians perceived Black Africans, or Ethiopians as they were then called, especially those who lived as a small visible minority in the Mediterranean world. I had come to this subject out of a desire to understand how differences in skin color were perceived in contexts that preceded the historical experiences of European colonialism and black slavery. This desire led me to such culture areas as the Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity, ancient India, and the contact zone between Melanesia and Polynesia. Ultimately, I wanted to isolate the patterns of perception and response that existed during the long period of human existence when, in any given society, skin color differed primarily between men and women.
David Goldenberg came to this subject from a very different angle. A number of African American authors were arguing that the Jews had invented anti-black racism, the “proof” being early rabbinical writings that had reinterpreted the Curse of Ham (originally pronounced on the Canaanites) as applying to the dark-skinned peoples of Africa. These writings certainly did exist. My article, however, showed that they were part of a larger Mediterranean tradition of attitudes to skin color that had originated as much with early Christians as with Jews.
For David, the situation was all the more worrisome because many Black Muslims were taking up the argument that “the Jews did it.” Ironically, this early Christian/Jewish ‘colorism’ had not disappeared from the Middle East with the rise of Islam; the Muslim world preserved it virtually intact, including the notion that God had condemned Black Africans to slavery and had blackened their skin as a mark of shame.
I provided him with more references, including other articles I had written. God knows what he thought of my other articles. Even fellow anthropologists think they’re weird—“But what does that have to do with racism?”
Some years after, in 2003, David Goldenberg came out with a book that pulls together all of his research: The Curse of Ham. Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I have only just now started reading it and truly regret not having done so sooner. It provides a lot of material I was not aware of and is by far the most authoritative work on the subject. As such, it forms a companion piece to Bernard Lewis’ Race and Slavery in the Middle East.
Today, people routinely interpret antipathy to dark skin as being racially based. Dr. Goldenberg rises above this simplism, arguing that attitudes to skin color were much more fluid and less ethnically constructed in the ancient world. At that time, they were still largely aesthetic in nature and centered on the individual. It was only later, with the expansion of European societies into the non-European world, that these attitudes became almost wholly racialized and, as such, assumed a preponderant role in the modern worldview.
In short, what we call ‘racism’ did not develop historically from a blank slate. It arose from a transformation of earlier sentiments that were unrelated to race or ethnicity. This earlier pre-racial world is now half-forgotten, if not forgotten entirely.
As The Curse of Ham concludes on its last page:
Yet, what struck me as I read through hundreds of modern biblical commentaries and historical and cultural studies of ancient Judaism was how strongly the perspective of one’s own time and place shapes one’s view of another time and place. We today are heirs to centuries of anti-Black sentiment, which has greatly conditioned our perspective.
(Goldenberg, 2003, p. 200)
Frost, P. (1991). Attitudes towards Blacks in the early Christian era, The Second Century, 8(1), 1-11.
Goldenberg, D.M. (2003). The Curse of Ham. Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lewis, B. (1990). Race and Slavery in the Middle East. An Historical Enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press.