In Mark Twain’s still underappreciated novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, Roxy, a recently freed Missouri slave who acts and speaks like a black even though “only one-sixteenth of her was black,” shocks her arrogant grown son Tom Driscoll by informing him for the first time that she is his true mother: “Yassir, en dat ain’t all! You is a nigger!—bawn a nigger en a slave!—en you’s a nigger en a slave dis minute.” Tom had been raised as a privileged white and had even spent two years at Yale. Later, in bed, Tom groans and mutters, “A nigger!—I am a nigger!—oh, I wish I was dead!” As he struggles to confront this new identity, Tom “said to himself that the curse of Ham was upon him.”
In 1894 Mark Twain could still assume that most of his readers knew something of the Bible and were familiar with “the curse of Ham” by his father Noah, or at least with the way Tom interpreted it. That Noah had cursed Ham after the Flood was something a great many people believed, and most of them would probably have thought Ham’s descendants were black and condemned to slavery. Alexander Crummell, a distinguished free African-American who had been educated at Cambridge, hardly exaggerated when he declared in 1862 that “the opinion that the sufferings and the slavery of the Negro race are the consequence of the curse of Noah [is a] general, almost universal, opinion in the Christian world.” This opinion, Crummell added,
is found in books written by learned men; and it is repeated in lectures, speeches, sermons, and common conversation. So strong and tenacious is the hold which it has taken upon the mind of Christendom, that it seems almost impossible to uproot it. Indeed, it is an almost foregone conclusion, that the Negro race is an accursed race, weighed down, even to the present, beneath the burden of an ancestral malediction.
Crummell knew that there were other, quite separate sources of anti-black racism, including secular, scientific racism. The scientific classification of blacks as an inferior breed derived, contrary to many present-day assumptions, from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth. But in contrast to the belief of some scientists in the genesis of separate white and black human species, which soon became linked with Darwinian natural selection, the biblical story of Noah, Ham, and his son Canaan, who was specifically cursed by Noah, provided supporters of slavery with a way of remaining faithful to the biblical account of a common human origin. They could believe that all human beings are created in “the image of God”—the very core principle of the abolitionist movement—while also claiming divine authority for the enslavement and subordination of African blacks and their descendants. Acceptance of this preeminent curse, even by many blacks, continued well into the twentieth century and was used by Senator Robert Byrd and others in attacking the Civil Rights Act of…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.