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.]

Sound familiar?

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.


7 thoughts on “Why Do Black Bodies Scare Non-Black People?…Trayvon Martin, “Birth of a Nation” and The Curse of Ham

  1. Black “bodies” don’t scare me, and besides, there are people in them. To be perfectly superficial….. it’s white skin that’s a mess, and shows every blemish and variation . I think people fear what they don’t identify with, and being non-white is a marker for that. (so far.) AND, many people fear the pain of others. I had a friend when we were little, who was afraid of a boy we knew who had a scar near his eye. THAT frightened her so much she avoided him. We know the abuse that black people have endured, and we know we’re inadequate to address that and that embarrasses us. I simply can’t enter into the mind of nuts like Zimmerman, who is hateful and probably afraid of everything he isn’t used to. Otherwise, why does he watch out the window looking for trouble? Finally, adolescent boys fall into the categories of unpredictable and strong until we see that they are good tempered…. which chance we don’t have with strangers. This all sounds very personal, and it is. But there’s a lot going on here, and a lot of variation among us.

    • hi Bunny.
      This is not as personal as it might seem. It just seems like this is a tape that has played before.

      On the 9-1-1 call that George Zimmerman made, he says that Trayvon is “suspicious” and “there’s something not right about him”. Why? Because of Trayvon’s being black and George Zimmerman thinking that Trayvon had no reason to be in this gated community. So it was Trayvon’s black body, his very being, that was suspicious. As Melissa Harris-Perry said in the article referenced above, “Trayvon Martin was not innocent. He was guilty of being black in presumably restricted public space.”

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  3. Religion was used to justify both slavery and abolition, yet I personally do not think the roots of racism are primarily theological. At risk of stating the obvious, It is unfortunately the nature or choice of some groups of humans to label other groups of humans as “lesser,” usually for the former groups’ economic benefit. Sometimes race is the defining factor, but it can also be sex, disability, nationality, culture, and/or socioeconomic class.

    Unless one does not believe in evolution, we are all descended from the African continent, so racism (despite some psuedoscientist claims) is not innate. Like most other negative human attributes, it is learned.

    I am (mostly) white and was born during one of the last years of the civil-rights era. In the world of my childhood, overt racism was generally no longer socially acceptable. Most of the racism that burdened me as a young woman involved fearing young black men who dressed like gang members, whom I regarded as potential rapists. After working in a mostly black community and gaining some maturity and wisdom, my fear lessened: several years ago, while walking at night with a waning influenza infection, I made the rare mistake of letting my guard down two blocks from home and was mugged by a white man. The next person I saw was a young black man locking up his bicycle, whom I asked for help.

    And yet, every situation is different. While babysitting my year-old nephew a few years later, I took him to an urban park that is enjoyed by people of every ethnicity. After the baby swings, he and I shared a rocking boat with a white mother and her biracial daughter. Next, we sat near a pond to watch waterfowl. A few minutes passed, then a nearby Latino man asked if he could hold my nephew.

    Fear again. Was this racism, sexism, or both? If it had been a woman of any ethnicity, I probably wouldn’t have hesitated. My nephew was my responsibility, but he was not my child. I imagined telling my sister and brother-in-law that their son had been kidnapped by a park pervert, all because his aunt didn’t want to appear racist or sexist. Finally I let the man hold my nephew, but I sat next to them and watched the entire time with an elevated heart rate. I wanted to stay in the park, but instead made up a lie about naptime and said, “We have to go.”

    I once attended a community discussion regarding racism and suggested that what people call racism is often really culturalism and classism. My husband and I live in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, which has benefits and detriments. Among the benefits are the fact that the neighborhood is predominantly lower middle class, so we are spared most “keeping up with the Joneses.” Among the detriments? Minimal drug/crime activity, weekend car stereos blaring rap so loud it rattles our windows, and litter that I pick up from the street almost daily, a contemporary Sisyphus.

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  5. First let’s get this crystal clear – Zimmerman
    isn’t white.

    The reason most non-black folks are suspicious of coloreds has nothing to do with Christian theology. One needs only to look to Asians in the US, many of which are Buddist, who are terrified of blacks. One could draw the conclusion that Korean grocery store owners are terrified of blacks because that’s who robs, beats, and kills them on a regular basis. And one would be correct.

    Now I submit to you that 95% of coloreds are non-violent, but many of the black males even in the non-violent category carry themselves very aggressively. That combined with the many, many examples of non-blacks being beaten, robbed, car jacked, you name it, by blacks especially young colored males gives the non-black a pool of life experience with which to apply common sense survival mechanisms.

    How many white flash mobs have you seen on video beating white people or looting stores?

    Non-blacks are scared of coloreds because the odds are undisputable that if they are victimized by a violent criminal his skin will be black.

    Zimmerman’s neighborhood had been repeatably victimized by young black males, not middle-aged white females. He made the only logical association possible – that Martin was a young black male whom he’d never seen before who was hovering around buildings at night and that was logically suspicious behavior. Forget what Martin was or was not actually up to…it’s irrelevant to the topic at hand, Zimmerman’s mindset. You leftist libs like to spout that Martin was out after buying skittles on his way home and caught in the rain, and therefore because of this Zimmerman is guilty of a hate crime. Guess what dummy? Zimmerman only knew what he saw – a suspicious looking black male who looked just like the suspects in all the neighborhood’s recent crime wave.

    And Martin’s own agressive behavior confirmed Zimmerman’s suspicions…that he was dangerous. And that got him shot.

    Non-blacks are suspicious of blacks because reality is reality, they have little reason to believe that their next collective violent attack will come from a teenage Chinese girl. It’s called reality. Dufus.

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