One of the most consistently used tropes in the African Diaspora—and maybe more so in African American communities—to reject Christianity is, “It’s the white man’s religion.” In times past, one might just rattle that off and keep it moving because very few people had done the research to move this statement from anecdotal to empirical. It has become so easy to turn statements and opinions into “facts” now that 60% of the world—and 90% of adults in the United States—have instant access to the internet via their smart phone. One of the first places African American Christian apologists, looking to defend the faith, and African American intellectuals, looking to denounce it, cross paths is at the very beginning of the Bible with a story often referred to as the “Curse of Ham,” which was actually the curse of Ham’s youngest son, Canaan.
The story begins in the ninth chapter of Genesis, verse 18 and crescendos in verse 24 with, “When Noah woke up from his stupor, he learned what Ham, his youngest son, had done. Then he cursed Canaan, the son of Ham.”1 The curse is spelled out in the subsequent verses:
“May Canaan be cursed! May he be the lowest of servants to his relatives.” Then Noah said, ‘May the Lord, the God of Shem, be blessed, and may Canaan be his servant! May God expand the territory of Japheth! May Japheth share the prosperity of Shem, and may Canaan be his servant.’”2
These few verses came to represent a mythologized ethnology, categorizing people into three groups. And up until the mid-20th century, it was believed, that the three sons of Noah—Shem, Japheth and Ham—gave the world its racial groups. According to this mythology, Ham was the progenitor of the African Negroid, Shem the ancestor of the Semitic Mongoloid, and Japheth the forebearer of the Aryan Caucasoid. Between the 14th and 16th century these verses, along with this interpretation, would be used to justify reducing people of so-called Hamitic descent— Egyptians, Ethiopians, North Africans and Phoenicians—to perpetual servitude. It goes without saying that the brand of slavery the descendants of Ham would be subjected to would be unlike anything the world had ever seen.
Unsurprisingly, at the forefront of sanctioning this capitalistic hermeneutic would be the Roman Catholic Church. In the 14th century, Pope Nicolas V issued a papal bull that granted King Alfonso V, of Portugal ,the right to reduce Africans “to perpetual slavery.” From here on Catholic slavers, whether devout or nominal, would appeal to the “curse of Canaan” to justify the dehumanization of Africans. In his New York Times bestseller, How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi offers the words of someone who had internalized this ridiculous interpretation of Scripture. “God willed that Ham’s son and all his posteritie [sic] after him should be so blacke [sic] and loathsome…that it might remain a spectacle of disobedience to all the worlde [sic].”3
Kendi assures us that this “curse theory lived prominently on the justifying lips of slaveholders…”
Almost 300 years later, Isabel Wilkerson finds the theory alive and well on the lips of the vice president of the Confederacy in 1861.
With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the Negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.4
With the church on their side, Euro-American slavers and slave owners created institutions, laws, and policies that would allow them to profit off the “capture, transport, enslavement, abuse, rape, disfigurement, and murder of Black people.”5 The psychological effects of this church-sanctioned delegitimization led to what Dr. Joy DeGruy has classified as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, which she describes as “…a pattern of behaviors that is brought about by specific circumstances.” What are those circumstances? “…multigenerational trauma and continued oppression, plus a real or imagined lack of access.”6 The first two may be self-explanatory, however, when it comes to “access,” those said to have been cursed have not been able to fully benefit from what was built on the back of that lie. While citizenship rights, modern medicine, and public education are indebted to those said to be cursed, we have never been granted full and unfettered access to any of the above. Not only has this curse governed if, how and when the descendants of Ham were educated, it also controlled the discourse concerning the validity and veracity of the text in question. Those who benefited from the misinterpretation of this text, according to Chancellor Williams, “control all levels of education, science and research. They control the education of Blacks throughout the world.”7 Therefore, even when one said, or says, Christianity is the white man’s religion, it is only the case because we have been forced to see it through the lens of the white man’s history. Over the centuries, those who have attempted to recover Ham’s stolen, lost or erased history were pushed to the fringes of their discipline.
Nonetheless, Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan tells us, “If all people knew Christianity and the source from whence it came then their actions towards African people (their religions and religious beliefs) would be different.”8 Chancellor Williams credits Herodotus and Diodorus for making plain the fact that “European civilization… borrowed heavily from Africa, and borrowed even more heavily in the field of religion.”9 Each of these men represent a perspective that has been omitted from the curricula of grade and high schools, colleges and universities. So, while there is much debate about what role CRT and books such as 1619, Four Hundred Souls and Stamped will play in the education of American youth, these gentlemen, and those who share their views, have been categorized as pseudohistory. Why? Because as Dr. John Henrik Clarke points out, “Europeans… not only colonized the world, they would also colonize information about the world and information is still colonized.”10 Nonetheless, the so called cursed have not allowed this to derail our pursuit of truth and should never allow it to derail our pursuit of Christ.
Marquis Johns has a Bachelor of Science degree in Church Leadership from Oakwood University, and a Master of Arts in Religion with a concentration in Metropolitan Ministry from Washington Adventist University.
1 Tyndale House Publishers, Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015), Gen. 9:24–25.
2 Tyndale House Publishers, Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015), Gen. 9:25–27.
3 Kendi, Ibram X.. How to Be an Antiracist (p. 50). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
4 Isabel Wilkerson. Caste (Oprah’s Book Club) (p. 335). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
5 Four Hundred Souls (p. 189). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
6 Joy DeGruy. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (p. 105). Joy DeGruy Publications Inc.
7 Chancellor Williams. Destruction of Black Civilization (p. 36). Third World Press.
8 Yosef ben-Jochannan, John Henrik Clarke. New Dimensions in African History (p. 128) Brawtley Press
9 Williams, Destruction… (p.362).
10 Ben-Jochannan & Clarke. New Dimensions… (p.64)
This article is part of our 2022 November/December Issue