Why Do Black Bodies Scare Non-Black People?…Trayvon Martin, “Birth of a Nation” and The Curse of Ham
The tragedy that is the Trayvon Martin case has connected a lot of things in my brain. I didn’t know how I was going to put it into words until I read these words from Melissa Harris Perry:
In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois described the experience of being black in America as a constant awareness that others viewed him as a problem. “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question…How does it feel to be a problem?”… Du Bois captures the defining element of African-American life as the very self, but most especially the visible, black self in public space as being a problem.
DuBois’ question raises the question nobody wants to touch; WHY, in the United States (in particular, although this could be extended to the West in general), is being black a problem? What is it about black bodies that scares the bejesus out of non-black people?
Little factoid about me…I am absolutely fascinated by the movie “Birth of a Nation.” I’ve watched it many times over the years. Its celebration of the Klan unnerves me, yet I firmly believe that it has had a significant impact on how blacks have been portrayed in popular culture ever since. Not only that, it (and its descendants) have played into the most basic of fears that white america has about those of African descent.
It has long been my contention that the South lost the battle (the Civil War) yet won the war (American thinking on race before and since). And part of the reason for my contention goes back to scripture—and Southern interpretation of it. [don't fret...I am trying to present all the pieces and then tie it together.]
For those of you who haven’t read Genesis (or read it lately), Ham is a son of Noah. The story that matters for this discussion is from Genesis 9.
18 The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. 19These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. 20 Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. 21He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. 22And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backwards and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25he said,
‘Cursed be Canaan;
lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’
26He also said,
‘Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.
27 May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.’
And there is a little of Genesis 10 that can be helpful.
6 The descendants of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. 7The descendants of Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca. The descendants of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan. 8Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to become a mighty warrior. 9He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, ‘Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.’ 10The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. 11From that land he went into Assyria, and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir, Calah, and 12Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city. 13Egypt became the father of Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, 14Pathrusim, Casluhim, and Caphtorim, from which the Philistines come.
Now…I’m going to ask you to hold off on any questions you may have about the story. At another time there can be conversation about how these passages are about the Hebrews explaining why they believe they are entitled to the Promised Land. But the Southern interpretation of the Genesis 9 passage does not have the same motive that the author(s) of Genesis 9 had.
You see, the interpretation that took hold in the South was that those of African descent were forever indentured to whites (they weren’t thinking about other non-blacks at the time) because Canaan was to be a slave to Shem and Japheth. Hence, because Ham is the “father” of all the dark-skinned people in the world, all dark-skinned people are to be in servitude to all light-skinned people. As such, whites were ordained by God to use black Africans any way they chose.
Now with the basics of the curse of Ham out of the way, why are both “Birth of a Nation” and the curse important to consider when thinking about the tragedy of the killing of Trayvon Martin? The curse gives us a foundation for looking at this. Now, if dark-skinned people (people of African descent) are supposed to be in servitude to whites, what happens when—by law—”we” can no longer make “them” serve “us?” Enter the Klu Klux Klan; the same Klan that’s celebrated in “Birth.” What better way to control people who should have never been released from servitude than to instill the constant threat of retribution if “they” step out of line? And what better way to make other whites feel safe, and threatened at the same time, than by portraying blacks as always on the lookout to have something “they” shouldn’t have or don’t deserve (and that they are willing to get it by any means necessary)—and that “we” are there to protect “us?” [I could go into the sexual aspects of this, but I don't feel like doing that right now.]
If we just look at the 9-1-1 recordings, we can see that Trayvon Martin was “suspicious” for no other reason except that he was a young black man walking down the street in a place that George Zimmerman thought he shouldn’t be walking. And while George Zimmerman is NOT the Klan of old, if you listen to the 9-1-1 recordings, he says “they always get away.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just by his very being, Trayvon Martin was a threat to George Zimmerman (at least in his own mind). The question we are left with is why. Why did a black body inspire so much fear in a non-black person?
I believe there is a THEOLOGICAL issue at play here. And we ignore it at our peril. Everybody mouths the words that “we are all God’s children.” Yet on the other hand collective actions say that God is a respecter of persons. Has the curse of Ham been lifted? If we’re looking at the Trayvon Martin case, it would seem that the answer is no.