The white supremacy of Black Character
by Tsuhai Nzinga
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.
Fifty eight years later and Black folk are still being judged by the color of our skin. What’s interesting though is the fact that from the perspective of white supremacy, our skin is our character. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word character evolved from “carecter,” in the mid-14th century and meant "symbol marked or branded on the body."
It was the year 1579 when a Black slave named Yasuke arrived on the shores of Japan, according to author Thomas Lockley. Lockley published “African Samurai: The true Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan,” and in it he states that a powerful leader, who had never seen a Black person, thought Yasuke was a god but first “tried to rub the pigment from [his] skin, believing it was black ink.” Black skin became a symbol of character. But not in the god-like sense of the Japanese leader. The white missionaries who brought Yasuke to Japan held him as a slave; his status having already been deemed ‘less than’ in the human hierarchy. Blacks were, as the title of Ibram X Kendi’s books says, “Stamped from the Beginning.” Being so stamped, white supremacy judges everything about Black people from that standpoint. White supremacy understands character as it relates to skin color. This can be seen clearly in policing.
When the Civil War ended and Blacks were freed by the 13th Amendment, they began to take their freedom seriously; building schools, forming organizations to help with voting and property and contracts. The Freedmen and Freedwomen were determined to rise above the lot and designation of slave. White folk, on the other hand, were just as determined to stop them. This determination was dictated by the belief in the inferiority of Black people. Equality would forever and always be unacceptable and unattainable regardless of what Black folk did. The content of a Black person’s character has always been measured by skin color. Even as MLK spoke those words of his dream 58 years ago, his character was being measured by his skin color.
To begin, whites justified slavery with the Bible, saying Blacks, being the descendants of Ham, were cursed and therefore slavery was their proper lot. Now if you’ll recall the story of why Ham was cursed, according the King James Version, it was because he “saw his father’s nakedness” and told his brothers about it. The passage goes on to say that when Noah awoke “he knew what his younger son had done unto him.” In reading this passage, it would seem that Noah’s drunkenness would be the problem. He’s the one drunk and naked right? Ham’s brothers had draped a blanket across their back and entered Noah’s quarters backward and covered him. Where’s the harm here? It is found in the nakedness. The fact of the ‘curse’ coupled with Noah “knew what his younger son had done unto him” suggests something of a sexual encounter. In fact, there are some interpretations that posit that the nakedness that was seen was that of Noah’s wife. For in the book of Leviticus it says, “The nakedness of thy father's wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father's nakedness.” And some suggest an incestual sexual encounter between mother and son while the father lie drunk. The passage clearly states that Ham is the father of Canaan. “And [Noah] said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
Canaanites were the people whom the Israelites took the land from some 4 or 5 hundred years later; the land of milk and honey, promised them by God, because, as the passage goes, “their sin was full.” That full sin was the curse Noah put on Ham after Ham “saw [his father’s] nakedness.” And it is this curse that white supremacy has extended to Black folk. This curse, and the attendant behavior that precipitated it is the character of Black folk according to white supremacy. And that’s just the beginning. White supremacy’s history of character is long and harsh. Among the many reasons supremacy can attribute a century’s old curse to Black people is because of blood lines and heredity. Ham, being the father of Canaan, passed his “bad” blood to his descendants. Blacks, being descendants of Ham, have that “bad” blood. Never mind that Ham carried the same blood as his father and brothers. Ham was cursed. His blood line was cursed. Biological, DNA and hereditary science notwithstanding. This is a God-thing. It cannot be undone. Nevermind also that God blessed Abraham’s first son Ishmael and promised to make a great nation of him. Biblical scholars believe that Ishmael is the father of Islamic descendants. They, too, are deemed ‘ungodly.’ Both sons of Abraham are descendants of Noah. But the blood line tells the story, right?
Black skin, regardless of its shade, is the visual interpretation of blood line. When a white person mixes blood with a Black person, only the white qualities are recognized as being good. Hence the British royal family member asking if the Duchess’s baby would be dark[er] skinned. White people know what Black skin means and they know how they interpret Black skin as character. But this is never made clearer than in policing.
Since at least 2014, we have seen on the regular, how police respond to Black protesters. America became acutely aware of how police respond to Black protesters during the Civil Rights Movement, but those were TV moments and while the images seen on the television galvanized folk, what we see today on social media makes the Civil Rights Movement almost tame by comparison. For the last 7 years, Black Lives Matter supporters have taken to the streets to protest murder after murder after murder. Black Lives Matter calls for equal treatment under the law. Black Lives Matter has called for an end to State sanctioned murder. But this call is met not with a stop to the murder, but with all and blue or (even worse) can’t we just all get along and you’re being racist. And many, including myself, have asked why. Why, in 2020-21 are we still asking, begging, protesting for and demanding equality? Answer: Character. MLK’s dream is being fulfilled.