“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
When I was ten years old, my family made the sixteen-mile move from the small town of New Hebron (pop.≈325) to the neighboring slightly larger small town of Prentiss (pop.≈2000). Going from a school where my class had only about twenty students (most of them related to me in one way or another, often in many) to a school that had three sections of fifth grade was a big change for me. This was only one of the big changes that were part of my life during those years.
It had been eleven years since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision had ruled “separate but equal” schools segregating children in public schools unconstitutional. That ruling made no provision for enforcement, and so had little impact on schools. The passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which specifically outlawed segregation in schools, did have an effect in that it authorized the federal government to file cases and withhold funding from schools that did not integrate. In an attempt to avoid complying with this law, Mississippi established a “Freedom of Choice” plan. Black parents could legally “choose” to send their children to white schools; most of those who did faced intense opposition and intimidation.
Violence erupted across Mississippi. News of the bombings of black churches became commonplace; that year McComb became known as “the bombing capital of the world” because of all the bombings there. In Hattiesburg, a forty-five minute drive from Prentiss, Vernon Dahmer, the local NAACP president, was killed in a dynamite blast to his home in January, 1966. That same year James Meredith was shot. In 1967 National Guardsmen fired on a black student protest at Jackson State University in which a civil rights worker was killed. Early 1969 saw a number of church burnings and bombings in Meridian. And the list goes on and on. An atmosphere of fear that extended far beyond the doors of my home—that’s what permeates my memory of those days. Or maybe it’s more of a visceral feeling than a memory. I try to imagine how black children must have felt; I can’t, not yet anyway. I have much work to do before I can even begin to.
Freedom-of-choice integration of the Prentiss school system finally took place my second year there, in 1966, when I was in the sixth grade. Three black students—Eural, Paul, and a girl whose name I don’t remember—joined our class. I remember a student assembly in which we were coached on how to treat the new students. I don’t remember any specific incidents, but I do remember the demeaning comments, the disdainful looks, the ostracism these three amazingly brave students faced. Eural was an especially gifted boy, a top student, courteous, very articulate. By the time I was in the ninth grade, three years later, the presence of these few black students had ceased to be a novelty. They weren’t fully accepted, but they were no longer singled out. Still they kept to themselves, the color line held firm.
Prentiss was like most small towns; there wasn’t much to do other than go to town, mostly for the purpose of walking the streets to see and be seen. For most white people, this was done during weekdays because Saturday was the day black people went to town. I wasn’t usually allowed to go then (someone would have to take me since I was only 14) because there were so many black people there. One Saturday I needed to get something that couldn’t wait, so my father reluctantly agreed to take me.
As I was making my way down the crowded walkway in front of the stores, I saw my classmate Paul coming toward me. When we passed I said, “Hi, Paul,” and he responded with a slight smile and a “Hi.” Suddenly I felt a grip on my arm and heard my father’s voice in my ear: “Go to the car! Now!” I wasn’t sure what had happened, but the anger in his voice was unmistakable. I felt something terrible must have happened and I had missed it. We backed out of the parking place in tense silence and turned the car toward home. Breaking the silence, I asked the question: what’s wrong. And the barrage began: I had spoken to a black person, a black boy no less. My father was enraged. Thankfully, the drive home only took five minutes. That was enough. I was forced to listen as he chastised me, telling me I was never to speak to blacks unless they were working for me. My response to him was that I would not refuse to speak to a person because of the color of their skin. From that position I would not be moved.
The confrontation continued when we got home, then he shifted into an instructive mode. He pulled out a book and attempted to explain to me that blacks were not human, that they had no souls, that this is what the Bible teaches. He wanted me to read the book; I refused to look at it, to even touch it. I was stunned by what I was hearing, felt disgusted and angry, told him he was wrong, that what he was saying went against the teachings of Jesus. This went on for quite a while. When he finally realized he wasn’t going to make any headway with me, his anger returned, and he told me if I wouldn’t accept what he was saying, I wouldn’t be going anywhere in the future. My response to his threat was, “You can keep me from going anywhere, you can confine me to the house; that wouldn’t be much of a change for me anyway. What you cannot do is force me to be rude to a person based on the color of their skin. That I will not do, and there’s no way you can make me.” I would guess my eyes were blazing then; I felt the fire against injustice burning intensely in my spirit. That wasn’t the first time and, as you know, it wouldn’t be the last. I watched as he slowly deflated, beaten, and he finally said quietly, “Okay…” He never brought the subject up again, I never saw that book again, but over the years, I’ve wondered what it was and where it came from. Not long ago, seeing what is rising again in our nation after all these years, I decided it was time to find out.
When you want to deeply understand something, you must begin by trying to get to the moment of its origin, to find out where it began. This is the idea behind the search for Patient Zero when dealing with a disease epidemic. Knowing this, I began my search by stepping into my science mode to answer the question: Did this teaching originate from scientific racism? I’m well-aware that labeling something “scientific” gives it a level of credibility and can cause it to be incredibly persistent. Maybe this could be its source.
To those of you reading this who don’t have a science mode (that’s probably most of you): stay with me and don’t panic. I’ll keep it painless and not go too deeply. I assure you this is extremely important to know. First, let’s talk about what scientific racism is. Wikipedia defines it this way, and I think this is an accurate description:
“the pseudoscientific belief that empirical evidence exists to support or justify racism (racial discrimination), racial inferiority, or racial superiority; alternatively, it is the practice of classifying individuals of different phenotypes or genotypes into discrete races. Historically it received credence in the scientific community, but is no longer considered scientific. Scientific racism employs anthropology…and other disciplines or pseudo-disciplines, in proposing…the classification of human populations in physically discrete human races, that might be asserted to be superior or inferior.”
Let’s break that definition down and examine it a little. A pseudoscientific belief—not true science. Its purpose—to justify racism, racial inferiority, or racial superiority. Its methodology—finding different methods of classifying humans so as to order them, to rank them, to assign some a position of superiority while relegating others to an inferior status, all in the guise of science. Although this kind of thinking has its origins as far back as the 5th century BC in ancient Greece, I focused on its strongest period, from the 1600s to the end of WWI. I read the words of men whose names were familiar to me—Robert Boyle, Voltaire, Carl Linnaeus, Benjamin Rush, to name a few—as they detailed their methods for ranking people, and was amazed by the approaches they used—the width of the nose, the ratio of the leg bones, the shape of the toes and fingers, the shape and size of the cranium, and on and on. One proposed that being black was “a heredity skin disease,” and that it could be cured. I was surprised to learn that intelligence testing was developed in the early 1900s because “social scientists agreed that whites were superior to blacks, but they needed a way to prove this in order to back social policy in favor of whites.” I felt as if I were reading “evidence” from the past on the flatness of the earth, or medical practices that involved leeches or bleeding or other practices that seem so foreign to us now. To be honest, I was dismayed by what I read. In spite of the fact that scientific racism has been thoroughly discredited and was formally denounced by UNESCO in 1950, its ideas continue to be promoted as “scientific proof” in the literature of white supremacy. That was something important to know.
All my readings about scientific racism involved the ordering, the ranking of humans according to race. Nothing I found spoke of blacks as having no souls. I knew it was there somewhere since Haynes had mentioned the “scientifically fashionable hypothesis that blacks were actually pre-adamite humans or soulless beasts” in his book Noah’s Curse. But since what I was really interested in was this teaching with a biblical justification, I refocused my search. It didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for. A book published in 1900 with the title The Negro A Beast, by a man named Charles Carroll. The description in Google Books read, “This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it. This work was reproduced from the original artifact, and remains as true to the original work as possible.” I had a feeling this was it; I downloaded the book immediately, turned to the title page, and began to read.
“THE NEGRO A BEAST”
. . . OR . . .
“IN THE IMAGE OF GOD”
The Reasoner of the Age, the Revelator of the Century!
The Bible as it is!
The Negro and His Relation to the Human Family!
The Negro a beast, but created with articulate speech,
and hands, that he may be of service to his master—the White man.
The Negro not the Son of Ham,
Neither can it be proven by the Bible, and the argument of the theologian who would claim such, melts to mist before the thunderous and convincing arguments of this masterful book.
. . . BY . . .
Who has spent fifteen years of this life, and $20,000.00 in its compilation.
PUBLISHED BY AMERICAN BOOK AND BIBLE HOUSE. ST. LOUIS, MO. 1900.
I went on, reading the publishers’ announcement about the book, noting their declaration that “we are…convinced that when this book is read and its contents duly weighed and considered in an intelligent and prayerful manner, that it will be to the minds of the American people like unto the voice of God from the clouds appealing unto Paul on his way to Damascus.”
I’ve read these words numerous times, yet reading them again even now causes me to flinch, produces a revulsive reaction in me. I recoil in disgust. I hurt for those of African-American heritage who have been subjected to this kind of thinking and the actions it has produced. While I haven’t read every word of the book, I’ve read as much as I could endure, enough to see what I needed to see. The chapter titles alone told me enough. In the final chapter, I found exactly what I was looking for:
“Chapter X. The Bible and Divine Revelation, as well as Reason, all Teach that the Negro is not Human.
“In A. D. 1867, there appeared in the United States a work entitled, ‘The Negro, What is His Ethnological Status?’ by the Rev. B. H. Payne, who wrote under the nom de plume of ‘Ariel.’ He asserted that the negro is ‘not the son of Ham,’ that he was ‘not a descendant of Adam and Eve,’ that he is simply ‘a beast,’ and that he has ‘no soul.’ The work produced a marked sensation, especially in ‘Church circles,’…History will yet accord to ‘Ariel’ the proud distinction of being the first man of modern times to openly and fearlessly declare the negro ‘a beast,’ and support his declaration with scriptural proof.”
So there it was: the point of origin (for “modern times,” that is) for the monstrous, perverted teaching I’d first heard from my father. The words of a “Reverend” who wrote under the pseudonym “Ariel” (I don’t wonder why he used a false name), published in 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War, when the structure of a society had changed, when people were afraid. Payne broke into the chaos of that time with a message that allowed them to maintain their position of superiority and control, and “supported his declaration with scriptural proof,” in effect legitimizing his position by avowing, “This is God’s Way!” Every time I read his words I have the strong desire to stand before him and shout, Woe to you, ‘Reverend’ Payne! “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourself do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” He is long dead; tragically, his words live on.
In reading further in Carroll’s book, I was to learn that not only did he proclaim that the Negro has no soul; it was also his assertion that any offspring are also soulless. He makes that clear in this imagined Q&A with one he dubs an “enlightened Christian”:
“‘But,’ says the enlightened Christian, ‘If a man is married to a negress, will not their offspring have a soul?’ No; it is simply the product resulting from God’s violated law, and inherits none of the Divine nature of the man, but, like its parent, the ape, it is merely a combination of matter and mind. ‘Then, if the half-breed marries a man, will not their offspring have a soul?’ No! ‘Then if the three-quarter white marries a man will not their offspring have a soul?’ No. ‘If the offspring of man and the Negro was mated with pure whites for generations, would not their ultimate offspring have a soul?’ No!”
As you can imagine, this book caused quite a stir in Christian circles in its time. Carroll’s arguments proved very persuasive to a society in which white people were searching for ways to retain their superior status after the demise of slavery. Thankfully, Carroll’s writings did not go unchallenged. In 1901, William G. Schell published a 238-page reply, stating that his work was intended to prove “That the Negro Is Human from Biblical, Scientific, and Historical Standpoints.” I’ve read most of this book and found it much more useful than another 1903 reply by W. S. Armistead. Armistead spent most of his 542-pages venting his outrage; he set the tone in his Preface by calling Carroll’s theories “a damnable heresy!” On that point, I wholeheartedly agree with him. What I find disturbing is that in both replies to Carroll, the authors continue to hold the position that the Negro is indeed human, but an inferior human whose place is in servitude because of the Curse of Ham.
Unfortunately, Carroll found ears eager to accept his teachings. They found their way into the literature of the growing Nazi movement of that time, into the teachings of white supremacist groups, into the teaching of churches. And they proved prolific, persistent, resilient. The WMU woman of the 1970s had obviously embraced them as truth; so had my father. They certainly weren’t alone.
Not long ago I was talking to a friend from long-ago college days. He told me he had worked for a short time in a Christian bookstore in the 70s, something I hadn’t known. He said he had once been tasked with throwing out a large amount of old literature, and had been shocked when he read some of the books and booklets he was throwing out. They were filled with the kind of teaching promoted by Carroll, as well as the “Curse of Ham” theology. Those ideas had fallen out of favor by that time, as we know, so literature promoting them had quietly been tossed out, not to be spoken of again. The rule of silence held, the truth was buried.
A couple of years ago I was telling a friend the story of the WMU woman in Switzerland. When I got to the part where she stated, “Blacks have no souls,” he interrupted me and said, “Yeah, that teaching was around when I was a kid.” I couldn’t have been more surprised, since he was in his late 30s and had grown up in a Mormon family. I asked him where he had heard it. His answer was, “In Georgia, when I visited the Baptist church.” That would have been in the mid-80s. The teaching was still around even then. And it’s still around now.
A few weeks ago I was watching some footage from a recent white supremacy rally and saw a sign that read: “Go Back To The Trees!” Now I know where that kind of thinking comes from, and that it purports to be supported, even mandated, by the Bible. This is but one of the lies that must be exposed.
So now we know, the source of this injustice has begun to come into focus. What now? What do we do with what we know? That’s something we still have to explore; the story has only begun. For now, I’d like those of you who are reading this and have no African American heritage to do this: Try to imagine what it would be like to have come from generations of people who have not only had to fight not be considered inferior, but have had to fight to be seen as human. Imagine what you might feel: frustration, anger, resentment, discouragement, despair. Think deeply, and allow yourself to begin to understand.
I began this post with a quote from Russian novelist and historian Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in which he warns about the dangers of keeping silent about evil. I want to end with something else he said, words that resonate in my spirit, words I think we all need to ponder, then to embrace and to allow to take root in our hearts:
“What is the most precious thing in the world? I see now that it is the knowledge that you have no part in injustice. Injustice is stronger than you, it always was and always will be, but let it not be done through you.”
 “The Race Question”, UNESCO statement, 1950.
 Haynes, Stephen R. Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery, p. 202.
 Carroll, Chas. The Negro A Beast, p. 148.
 Jesus, Matthew 23:13
 Carroll, p. 58
 Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle