In Nature Knows No Color-Line, historian Joel Augustus Rogers examines the origins of racial hierarchy and the color problem. Rogers was a humanist who believed that there were no scientifically evident racial divisions—all humans belong to one “race.” He believed that color prejudice generally evolved from issues of domination and power between two physiologically different groups. According to Rogers, color prejudice was then used a rationale for domination, subjugation and warfare. Societies developed myths and prejudices in order to pursue their own interests at the expense of other groups. This book argues that many instances of the contributions of black people had been left out of the history books, and gives many examples.
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About the Author
A respected historian and gifted lecturer, Rogers was a close personal friend of the Harlem-based intellectual and activist Hubert Harrison. In the 1920s, Rogers worked as a journalist on the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Enterprise, and he served as the first black foreign correspondent from the United States.
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WHERE DID THE COLOR PROBLEM ORIGINATE? AND WHY
The two varieties of humanity which have intermixed the most and longest are so-called Negro and Caucasian. There is some evidence that they mated in prehistoric times; that a Negro, or Negroid, people inhabited Europe when it was joined to Africa and was still tropical. As for the historic period, or about eight thousand years there is abundant evidence they did, especially in the Americas since Columbus.
In so-called racial intermixture there are usually two forces: exogamy or out-breeding and endogamy, or inbreeding. In colonial lands, the first is called miscegenation; the second, race purity. However, in those lands as in all lands where one's partner in marriage is not selected by his parents, like and dislike generally determine one's choice of a mate. Which qualities attract or repel are quite beyond precise definition, so much depends upon the individual, regardless of race, caste or religion. As Shakespeare said:
Strange is it that our bloods Of colour, weight and heat, poured all together Would quite confound distinction, yet stand off In differences so mighty.
Some of these "mighty" differences are not all physical. They are economic, social, educational and religious, also. Any of the latter can operate as strongly as the racial, which is supposed in colonial, or former colonial lands, to be the strongest of all objections. The peculiar thing about miscegenation is that some of its most vociferous objectors practise it.
In certain colonial and former colonial lands as in the United States, South Africa, and the West Indies, color of skin, (which is accepted as normal in Europe, where the population is white, or Central Africa where it is black) is a "mighty" difference, influencing not only mating but life in some of its most unexpected phases. For instance, the matter of the blonde and the brunette among white women. When one reads in American papers of a man having an affair with some gorgeous girl, she is always blonde. When blunettes are mentioned it is almost with some sort of apology. Is this depreciation of the white brunette an extension of the prejudice against the Negro's color? Whiteness of skin has become a symbol of purity, goodness, and fine Christianliving. "Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow," runs the hymn. Thus the more bleached the skin, the more bleached the character — Negro albinos, not included, of course.
But whatever be the reason the blondes are raved over in America, and the brunettes aren't. However, in the Scandinavian lands, where as one visitor remarked, "Blondes are a dime a thousand," blonde skin and hair count for no more than does black among the blacks of Central Africa or yellow among the Chinese. Unmixed blacks in Scandinavia, I have noticed, attract attention and are usually welcome. They offer some variety to the color scheme, in certain villages in the West Indies where the people are dark I have noticed similar welcome given to a white visitor for the same reason.
Is color in sexual selection a factor only in colonial and former colonial lands? Evidently not. It probably goes back to the time when variety of skin coloring began to appear in the human race, or many hundreds of thousands of years ago. Since the first human beings were all of the same color it is clear that difference of color of skin is an important factor in human evolution. All human beings, except albinos, have some degree of color in their skins.
Another question. When and where was color first used as a social, economic and political factor? Many who have given thought to that say it started with the invasion of the dark men's lands — Asia, Africa, America — by the whites in the fiftenth century. Lord Cromer, distinguished statesman, thought however, that the question had never been competently examined. "I am not aware," he said, "that any competent scholar has ever examined into the question of the stage in history at which difference of color ... acquired the importance it now possesses as a social and political factor." (1) I think he is right. If it has been done I have not seen it.
The first recorded instance of color prejudice I have been able to find is in India of some five thousand years ago when the Aryas, or Aryans, invaded the valley of the Indus and found there a black people — the Dasysus, or Dasyus. In any case we find very clear evidences of it in Aryan writings. In the Rig-Veda (Book IX, Hymn, 42: 1) Indra, their national god, is depicted as "Blowing away with supernatural might from earth and from the heavens the black skin which Indra hates." Hymn 42:1, tells of "Driving the black skin far away." The blacks were called "Anasahs" (noseless people). Book v. Hymn 29:10, tells how Indra "slew the flat-nosed barbarians."
India's caste system was based on color. (2) The word varna (caste) literally means "color." Arya varna (white skin); Krishna varna (black skin). (3) "The Aryans of India," says the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, "prided themselves on their fairer skins and more aquiline features and held in derision the black color and flatter physiognomies of the aborigines, regarded them much as conquering whites regarded blacks in Africa."
Thanks, however, to time and the Moslem invasion of the eleventh century color prejudice weakened. Aryan and Dasyu; and Negro and white Moslems from Africa and the Near East amalgamated into the present Indian population. Later, the incoming of the Europeans, did much to revive it.
The next evidence of it I have been able to find is in Ancient Egypt. Gerald Massey, perhaps the greatest of all authorities on ancient Egyptian lore, said, "On the monuments the dark people are commonly called 'the evil race of Kush' but when the Ethiopian element dominates the dark people retort by calling the light complexions, the pale, degraded race of Arvad." (4) But this prejudice of fair for dark and the converse was, it is safe to say, never nearly as strong as in India. The whites did not come in any considerable number to Egypt until the Ptolemaic invasion of the third century B.C., by which time intermixture had already taken too firm a root for any appreciable degree of color prejudice, as I shall show later.
The third instance of color prejudice is to be found in the rabbinical writings. The early rabbis did very definitely and abundantly say that a black skin was the result of a "curse" on Ham by Noah. The signs of this "curse" said certain rabbis were "a black skin, misshapen lips, and twisted hair." The Bible says the "curse" was placed on Canaan, Ham's son, but some rabbis said it was placed directly on Ham. Rabbi Huja said that he came forth from the Ark "black-skinned." (5) This would mean that Ham who had gone into the Ark fair skinned had undergone this change of color in the only one hundred and ninety days that had been in the Ark. Ham it appears, had been guilty of some sexual infraction while in there from having intercourse with his wife to sodomy.
Topinard, French anthropologist, thinks, too, that the rabbis of the first century were the first to stress differences of race and color. Race, as we now use it, he says, was unknown in far antiquity, at least in the West. He correctly notes that Aristotle, Father of Natural History, and Hippocrates, Father of Medicine, do not mention "race" though both studied anatomy and the then known varieties of the human race, including the Negro.
The Greek had two distinct divisions of humanity — Greek and Barbarian, or citizen and alien. An Athenian who married an alien, regardless of color, was sold into slavery. It was for a long time the same in Rome. "Race" as based on color and physique is, in fact comparatively recent. The King James Bible of the seventeenth century does not mention it. Shakespeare used it only for family lineage or contests. So also do the first English dictionary by Nathaniel Bailey in 1736; and the second by Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1750.
To quote Topinard, "In the first century when Christianity was beginning to seat itself in Rome the doctrine of a separate creation for whites and blacks was defended by the Babylonian rabbis and later by Emperor Julian. In 415 A. D. when one council was debating whether the Ethiopians were descended from Adam and the theory they weren't was making progress, St. Augustine in his 'City of God' intervened and declared that no true Christian would doubt that all men, of no matter what form, color, or height were of the same protoplasmic origin." (6)
Emperor Julian, The Apostate (c. 331-363 A. D.) said on race, "For different natures must have existed in all those things that among the nations were to be differentiated. Thus, at any rate is seen, if one observes how very different in their bodies are the Germans and Scythians from the Libyans and Ethiopians." (7) The first were whites; the latter two, blacks.
Also in a letter to a priest he said that "facts bear witness that many men came into the world at once I shall maintain elsewhere, and precisely, but for the moment it will be enough to say this much that if we were descended from one man and one woman, it is not likely that our laws would show such divergence; nor in any case is it likely that the whole earth was filled with people by one man; nay, not even if the women used to bear many children at a time to their husbands like swine." (8)
St. Augustine replied that all human beings even "monsters" — socalled freaks of nature — were of "the stock of Adam's or Noah's sons" and that, "whosoever is anywhere born of a man, that is, of a rational mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in colour, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature no Christian can doubt he springs from a single protoplast." He added, "All the varieties of mankind ... unquestionably trace their pedigree to that one first father of all." (9)
As a result of this dispute, monogenism, or a single origin for the human race, became a fixed Christian doctrine; and, says Topinard, more than one doubter paid the supreme penalty for disbelief.
The fourth stage in the development of color prejudice seemed therefore to have occurred in Rome of the first century A. D. as a phase of the fight between Christianity and Paganism. Prior to that, however, Pagan masters held the belief that humanity regardless of color, were either Roman or Barbarian. Christianity, the new religion, decided that "of one blood" God made all the peoples of the earth and that all men were brothers in Christ. Moreover, the earliest Christians pictured the Virgin Mary and Christ as black, both being an evolution of the worship of Isis and Horus which was once common in Rome.
Before proceeding to the fifth stage in the growth of color prejudice let us endeavor to see why the rabbis made the "curse" on Ham a black skin. This is certain: Next to the Aryans the Jews were more color conscious than any of the ancients. Why? They had been slaves to the Egyptians and Ethiopians who are described in their legends as Negroes. Again, after they had established themselves in Palestine they were twice invaded by Egyptians and Ethiopians. Shishak, Ethiopian ruler of Egypt, ravaged the land, plundered Solomon's Temple, and took a great number of Jews slaves to Egypt. (II Chronicles, 12). Another Ethiopian King, Zerah, who came with "a host of a thousand thousand and three hundred chariots" was beaten off. (II Chronicles, 14).
It could be that the Jews before they left Egypt imbibed some of the color prejudice mentioned by Massey but it could not have been strong among them because they were dark, or even black. One rabbi does say they were black at that time, that the passage "black but comely" from the Songs of Solomon means. "I was black in Egypt but comely in Egypt." (10) There is no doubt that after four centuries in Egypt the Jews had mixed much with Egyptians and Ethiopians, whom their legends describe as "black" and wooly-haired." Thus the main difference between Hebrew and Egyptian was not racial but religious, the form which economic exploitation then took. Miriam's objection to the Ethiopian wife of Moses, Zipporah, was not on color but on religion and more likely on culture. Talk of Semitic and Hamitic as "race" is sheerest nonsense and is used only by "parrot" anthropologists.
Furthermore we have no proof that the original seventy Jews who went to Egypt were white. According to their legends they originated in Chaldea and there is considerable evidence the inhabitants of that region in earliest times were Negroid. In fact, some writers said the Jews were an African people. Strabo said many of his time believed they were.
How then was it possible for them to place a "curse" on a black skin? The answer is that centuries after they had left Egypt and being somewhat whitened by mixing with fairer skinned people to the north and with Europeans, they could now look back on the unchanged color of the Ethiopians and Egyptians in comparison with themselves; and their rabbis, that is their "scientists," endeavoring to explain how black people came about tacked on that bit of folklore of the "curse" on Ham. It is very important to remember here that the Masoretic text, regarded as the correct one of the ancient Hebrew writings, (called by Christians "The Old Testament"), says nothing whatever of Ham or Canaan's color. It merely says that a curse was placed on Canaan. So, too, does the Old Testament. (Genesis, 10:25). That the "black" skin was a later addition is indisputable.
Strongest reason of all is that the curse on a black skin could now be used as proof of retribution on the blacks for having enslaved them. "The Egyptians," said one rabbi, "were descended from Ham, who was pronounced to be a slave of slaves." Other rabbis say likewise.
Still clearer proof that this legend was used later as retribution is that the "curse" on Ham and "blessing" on Shem by Noah worked in reverse. The Hebrews, sons of Shem, were enslaved for centuries by the Egyptians, while there is no proof that Hebrews enslaved the Egyptians, whom they call the sons of Ham. Moreover, according to the Masoretic version, the curse is on Canaan. But the Canaanites lived in Palestine which is in Asia, not Africa. Being Asiatics and nearer to the whites of the north, they were doubtless lighter in color than the Egyptians. Why then the curse of blackness on the offspring of Canaan? Well, they owned the land of Canaan, which the Hebrews claimed Jehovah had given them. In olden times one way of inciting one group against another was to place a curse on it. The modern parallel is "excommunication."
The Arabs, who are ethnically related to the Jews and are largely Negroid, had their version of the Ham legend, which they applied to the blacks of the Sudan. Mohamet, they said, once stopped at a woman's house and asked her how many sons she had. She had three but fearing that Mohamet would take one to carry his baggage, she hid one and brought out two. The Prophet of God, knowing she had lied, placed a curse on the hidden son. While the other two would have fair-skinned offspring, who would be wealthy and be lords of the earth, that of the hidden one would be as black as "darkness," be sold like cattle, and be perpetual slaves to the offspring of his brothers." (11) Of course the Arabs also captured white Circasians in Asia and sold them like cattle but here again logic and facts give way to belief, inspired by gain, in this case, enslavement of the blacks.
And just here an observation as regards the lighter Negoid Arabs and what they said of the unmixed blacks since it will explain the case of the Negroid Jews towards the latter also. It is not necessary for a people to be unmixed white to have prejudice for a black sin. Sometimes those with only an eighth of white ancestry have this prejudice, too. I have known dark mulattoes, especialy in the West Indies, who were much more prejudiced than many European-born whites there. Lighter mulattoes in France had much more prejudice for African blacks than any white Frenchman.
Incidentally, the blacks had their theory of the origin of the whites, also. Thin lips, straight hair and a white skin, they said, originated from an albino ape, who was the ancestor of the whites. Christianized Negroes, dipping into the Bible, had their origin of the whites, too. All men, they said were originally black but that when God shouted at Cain in the garden of Eden for having killed Abel, he turned white from fright. (12) The rabbis, on the other hand, said that Cain turned black as a curse. Xenophanes of 550 B. C. rightly observed that men made their gods in their own image and that the gods of the Ethiopians were black and flat-nosed like themselves. Marco Polo said that the "natives of Malabar make their devils white and their saints black" like themselves.
Mungo Park said that the Africans accounted for his white skin by saying that as a baby he had been continually dipped in milk. The prominence of his nose, they said, was due to its being pinched daily "until it acquired its present unnatural and unsightly shape." (13) Parkyn, a white traveller, said that Ethiopians said he had "cat's" eyes and "monkey hair" and that he had "lost his skin." (14)
Another belief was (and still is) that a white skin was the result of leprosy. Voltaire thought that African albinos were decended from "a race that had been whitened by leprosy." Many East Indians still believe that white people are the descendants of lepers. T. S. Ramanujam says, "An Indian villager after seeing an Englishman for the first time asked me whether the gentleman 'was tainted with leprosy.'" (15) Harold Cox tells of a high-caste Indian woman who on seeing white persons for the first time, said, "Why they have no skins."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Nature Knows No Color-Line"
Copyright © 1980 HELGA M. ROGERS.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
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Table of Contents
I. WHERE DID THE COLOR PROBLEM ORIGINATE? AND WHY, 6,
II. COLOR PREJUDICE AMONG WHITES THEMSELVES, 17,
III. NEGROES IN ANCIENT EUROPE — GREECE, 27,
IV. WHITES AND BLACKS IN ANCIENT ROME, 43,
V. RACIAL INTERMIXTURE IN SPAIN AND PORTUGAL, 55,
VI. THE NEGRO AS "MOOR." ARISTOCRATIC EUROPEAN FAMILIES, 69,
VII. WHITES AND BLACKS IN GREECE, TURKEY, ITALY, GERMANY, 111,
VIII. NEGRO ANCESTRY IN THE FRENCH, 143,
IX. NEGRO ANCESTRY IN THE ANGLO-SAXONS, 156,
X. NEGRO ANCESTRY IN WHITE AMERICA, 189,
XI. RECENT MIXED MARRIAGES, 208,
APPENDIX — MISCELLANY ON RACE MIXTURE, 214,
APPENDIX — GENERAL MISCELLANY, 218,