Many interpreters have questioned the “mark” placed on Cain after he kills his brother Abel. The notion of the “mark of Cain” as dark skin is a familiar interpretive tradition. Less well known are interpretations that treat the mark as white skin. This article traces how Black interpreters connect the “mark of Cain,” white skin, and White violence.
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1 Juan, in Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, story by Tarell Alvin McCraney (A24, 2016).
2 Translations of biblical texts are from the NRSV unless otherwise specified.
3 For surveys of scholarship on Cain and his mark, consult R. W. L. Moberly, “The Mark of Cain—Revealed at Last?,” HTR 100 (2007): 11-28; and Claus Westermann, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John Scullion, 3 vols. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984-1986), 1:312-14. On interpretations of Cain, consult James L. Kugel, “Cain and Abel in Fact and Fable: Genesis 4:1-16,” in Hebrew Bible or Old Testament? Studying the Bible in Judaism and Christianity, ed. Roger Brooks and John J. Collins, CJAn 5 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 167-90; and Ricardo J. Quinones, The Changes of Cain: Violence and the Lost Brother in Cain and Abel Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
4 For interpretations of the mark of Cain as the origin of African peoples, consult David M. Goldenberg, Black and Slave: The Origins and History of the Curse of Ham, SBR 10 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2017), 40-42, 153-55, 238-49; Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 178-82; and Ruth W. Mellinkoff, The Mark of Cain, Quantum Books (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 76-80.
5 In Gen 9, Ham sees the nakedness of his father Noah and tells his brothers Shem and Japheth. When Noah learns what Ham has done, he does not curse Ham but Ham’s son Canaan (v. 25). Even so, the text is usually called the “curse of Ham.” On this “curse of Ham,” consult Rebecca Alpert, “Translating Rabbinic Texts on the Curse of Ham: What We Learn from Charles Copher and His Critics,” in Re-presenting Texts: Jewish and Black Biblical Interpretation, ed. W. David Nelson and Rivka Ulmer, Judaism in Context 16 (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2013), 29-41; Stacy Davis, This Strange Story: Jewish and Christian Interpretation of the Curse of Canaan from Antiquity to 1865 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2008); and Justin Michael Reed, “The Injustice of Noah’s Curse and the Presumption of Canaanite Guilt: A New Reading of Genesis 9:18-29” (PhD diss., Princeton Theological Seminary, 2020). For interpretations of this curse and its connections to race, consult Jeremy Schipper, “Religion, Race, and the Wife of Ham,” JR 100 (2020): 386-401; Schipper, “The Blessing of Ham: Genesis 9:1 in Early African American Scholarship,” BibInt (forthcoming); Sylvester A. Johnson, The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity: Race, Heathens, and the People of God, Black Religion, Womanist Thought, Social Justice (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); and Thomas Virgil Peterson, Ham and Japheth: The Mythic World of Whites in the Antebellum South, ATLA Monograph Series 12 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1978).
6 On the curse of Ham and issues related to enslavement, consult Goldenberg, Curse of Ham; Goldenberg, Black and Slave; Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); and David M. Whitford, The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era: The Bible and the Justifications for Slavery, St Andrews Studies in Reformation History (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009).
7 F. Harrison Rankin, The White Man’s Grave: A Visit to Sierra Leone, in 1834, 2 vols. (London: Bentley, 1836), 1:50-51.
8 William Fox, A Brief History of the Wesleyan Missions on the West Coast of Africa: Including Biographical Sketches of All the Missionaries Who Have Died in That Important Field of Labour, with Some Account of the European Settlements and of the Slave-Trade (London: Aylott & Jones, 1851), 12.
9 William Winwood Reade, Savage Africa: Being the Narrative of a Tour in Equatorial, Southwestern, and Northwestern Africa; With Notes on the Habits of the Gorilla, on the Existence of Unicorns and Tailed Men, on the Slave Trade, on the Origin, Character, and Capabilities of the Negro, and on the Future Civilization of Western Africa (London: Smith, Elder, 1864), 24-25.
10 Richard Francis Burton, Wit and Wisdom from West Africa; or, A Book of Proverbial Philosophy, Idioms, Enigmas, and Laconisms (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1865), 124.
11 Mary Henrietta Kingsley, West African Studies (London: Macmillan, 1899), 384. While Cain’s killing of Abel appears in the Qur’an (5:27-32), Cain and Abel are not mentioned by name. Also, the Qur’an does not mention Cain’s turning white with fear. God sends a crow that scratches the earth, and, seeing the crow, Cain realizes that he can bury his brother and thereby conceal his brother’s nakedness.
12 Ibid., 385. The biblical text does not indicate that Abel had children.
13 Fanny D. Bergen, ed., Animal and Plant Lore: Collected from the Oral Tradition of English Speaking Folk, Memoirs of the American Folk-lore Society 7 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1899), 80.
14 Newbell Niles Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1926), 4-5. Puckett credited Hattie Harris in the “list of informants” (599-604). He observed further that this story was similar to those recorded by Mary Kingsley and Fanny Dickerson Bergen.
15 William Pickens, American Aesop; Negro and Other Humor (Boston: Jordan & More, 1926), 23 (emphasis original).
16 “Extract from Sambo’s Sermon,” Free Press [Tarborough, North Carolina], March 28, 1828, 4 (emphasis original). The line “Strate is de road and narrer is de paff which leadeff to Glory” is a paraphrase of Matt 7:14: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (KJV). Eston Everett Ericson quoted the “Extract from Sambo’s Sermon” in an essay on folklore in the Tarborough Free Press, a weekly rural North Carolina newspaper (Ericson, “Folklore and Folkway in the Tarboro [N. C.] Free Press [1825-1850],” Southern Folklore Quarterly 5 : 124). Ericson describes the alleged sermon as one of two “humorous pourquoi (‘why?‘) stories that are found in successive numbers [of the Free Press] in 1828. One tells why the white man is white, and the following week a correspondent answers with one as to why the negro is black” (ibid.).
17 Maria Remington Hemiup, Law of Heat: Original Observations, Expansion of Ice in Harmony with the General Law, General Law of Heat in Connection with Hypothesis of Planetary Movement (Geneva, NY: Gazette Steambook, 1886), 108 (emphasis original).
18 John Bernard, Retrospections of America, 1797-1811 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1887), 130.
19 Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 85-86. In the main text, Levine quoted or summarized three sources: Burton, Wit and Wisdom from West Africa, 124; Kingsley, West African Studies, 384-85; and Hardin E. Taliaferro, Fisher’s River (North Carolina) Scenes and Characters (New York: Harper, 1859), 188-89. In addition, without quotation, Levine cited several other sources (460 n. 9). Levine cites Ericson’s article but not the “Extract from Sambo’s Sermon” in Ericson, “Folklore and Folkway in the Tarboro (N. C.) Free Press (1825-1850).”
20 For representative examples, consult Ernest Allen Jr., “Identity and Destiny: The Formative Views of the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam,” in Muslims on the Americanization Path?, ed. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John L. Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 163-214, here 169 n. 13; Mia Bay, The White Image in the Black Mind: African-American Ideas about White People, 1830-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 123; and W. T. Lhamon Jr., Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 118-20.
21 Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 85.
22 Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 35.
23 Goldenberg, Black and Slave, 41-42. In Goldenberg’s corresponding footnote (42 n. 55), he writes, “Levine, Black Culture, pp. 85-86 records several versions of this tale. The story was also told by Marcus Garvey; see Colin Kidd, Forging of Races, 35, and Mia Bay, The White Image in the Black Mind (Oxford, 2000), p. 123.” Yet Bay did not mention Garvey in this context. Rather, she cited Levine as her only source to support her claim that, according to an “enduring Creation legend, white people came about as a result of Cain’s fratricide, which made him pale with horror and fear” (Bay, White Image in the Black Mind, 123).
24 Goldenberg, Black and Slave, 41-42. Here Goldenberg referred not only to skin etiologies based on the mark of Cain but also to those based on Adam, Miriam, Gehazi, and others. See, e.g., Num 12:10 and 2 Kgs 5:27 KJV; and see n. 29 below.
25 On Marcus Garvey, consult Rupert Lewis, Marcus Garvey, Caribbean Biography Series (Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2018); and Adam Ewing, The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement and Changed Global Black Politics, America in the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).
26 Marcus Garvey, “Whether We Will Accept Civilization as It Is or Put It under a Rigid Examination to Make It What It Ought to Be as Far as Our Race Is Concerned,” in Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey, ed. Bob Blaisdell (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), 87. Similarly, consult lesson 11 in the curriculum of Garvey’s “School of African Philosophy” in which Garvey stated, “Cain killed Abel for his success” (Marcus Garvey, Life and Lessons: A Centennial Companion to The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, ed. Barbara Bair and Robert A. Hill [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987], 260).
27 Marcus Garvey, “The Tragedy of White Injustice,” in The Poetical Works of Marcus Garvey, ed. Tony Martin, New Marcus Garvey Library 2 (Dover, MA: Majority Press, 1983), 4. The lines “Eating their dead’s flesh and sucking their blood / Relics of the Mediterranean flood” may allude to the idea that the descendants of Cain survived the flood by escaping to Europe because the flood was limited to areas known to the biblical authors. On the idea of survivors of a limited flood, consult Kidd, Forging of Races, 64, 71, 88-89, 134-35.
28 Garvey taught this course to four women and seven men who became regional commissioners of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association upon graduation. The next year, Garvey offered the lessons to people of African descent as a correspondence course available through mail order for a fee of twenty-five dollars. On Garvey’s “School of African Philosophy,” consult Bair and Hill, Marcus Garvey, Life and Lessons, xlix; and Charles L. James, “Foreword,” in Message to the People: The Course of African Philosophy, ed. Tony Martin, New Marcus Garvey Library 7 (Dover, MA: Majority Press, 1986), ix-xiii, here x-xii.
29 Bair and Hill, Marcus Garvey, Life and Lessons, 269. According to the KJV, which was the translation that Garvey used, “Miriam became leprous, white as snow” (Num 12:10), and Gehazi became “a leper as white as snow” (2 Kgs 5:27). Often scholars note that, unlike the KJV, Num 12:10 and 2 Kgs 5:27 in the MT simply read “like snow” and do not include the word for “white.” For example, Emerson B. Powery and Rodney S. Sadler Jr. explain, “The Hebrew text does not include the adjective ‘white’; nevertheless, the KJV continues to influence many translations, including the NRSV translation of 2 Kings 5:27: ’So he left his presence leprous, as white as snow.’ One recent translation, the Common English Bible, alters the color analogy: ’And Gehazi left Elisha’s presence, flakey like snow with skin disease’” (The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016], 104 n. 87). By contrast, “white” (לבן) appears in Hebrew in Isa 1:18, which the KJV translates as “they shall be as white as snow” and in Ps 51:7 (v. 9 in Hebrew), which the KJV translates as “I shall be whiter than snow.”
30 Garvey’s reference to Cain’s whiteness as “the affliction of leprosy” draws on earlier notions that biblical characters with leprosy were the progenitors of the White race. These notions are attested in literature by persons of African descent but not in the biblical story of Cain. The idea that God marked Cain with what is often mistranslated as “leprosy” is attested in early Jewish literature (Gen. Rab. 22:12). Consult Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, 7 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998 [originally published by the Jewish Publication Society of America, 1909-1938]), 1:112, 5:141 n. 28; Mellinkoff, Mark of Cain, 20. On צרעת, often mistranslated as “leprosy,” consult Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 3A (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 816-24. In the KJV, used by Garvey, skin that has become what is translated as “leprous” is repeatedly described as “white” (Lev 13:4, 10, 13, 16, 17, 19, 20, 24, 28, 39, 42, 43). Thus, it is unsurprising that Garvey associated white skin with leprosy. Garvey was not the only Black leader to claim that God turned Cain into a leper. According to Hans A. Baer, in 1938 Father George Willie Hurley, who founded the Universal Hagar’s Spiritual Church in Detroit in 1923, claimed that “Whites are the offspring of Cain, who had been cursed with a pale color because of leprosy” (Hans A. Baer, The Black Spiritual Movement: A Religious Response to Racism [Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984], 94). The idea that biblical texts involving “leprosy” served as origin stories for the White race was well established by the 1930s. For example, in William J. Anderson’s 1857 autobiography, he wrote, “Gehazi was scared, and he went out from the Prophet white as snow. We perceive, therefore, that there have been white men ever since that time” (Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson Twenty-Four Years a Slave, or: The Dark Deeds of American Slavery Revealed; Also a Simple and Easy Plan to Abolish Slavery in the United States, together with an Account of the Services of Colored Men in the Revolutionary War, Day and Date, and Interesting Facts [Chicago: Daily Tribune Book and Job Printing Office, 1857], 61-62). On Anderson’s interpretation of Gehazi, leprosy, and race, consult Powery and Sadler, Genesis of Liberation, 102-9. For other interpretations of Gehazi, Miriam, leprosy, and race by persons of African descent, consult the discussions and citations in Allen, “Identity and Destiny,” 169 n. 13; Bay, White Image in the Black Mind, 214; Goldenberg, Black and Slave, 42 n. 56; and Kidd, Forging of Races, 265.
31 Baron de Vastey, The Colonial System Unveiled, ed. and trans. Chris Bongie (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2014), 104.
32 For a detailed discussion of David Walker and his Appeal, consult Peter P. Hinks, To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).
33 David Walker, Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles, Together with a Preamble to the Colored Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly to those of the United States of America; Written in Boston, in the State of Massachusetts, Sept. 28, 1829, 2nd ed., with corrections (Boston: D. Walker, 1830), 63-64.
34 On the reception of Vastey among African Americans in the nineteenth century, consult Chris Bongie, “Introduction,” in Vastey, Colonial System Unveiled, 27-80, here 79 n. 53.
35 “Which of the Races Is Descended from Cain?,” The Anti-Slavery Record, 1.11, November 1835, 9-10, here 10. Unlike Vastey’s French text, the 1835 English translation that was circulated throughout the nineteenth century includes the term mark when describing how God punished Cain for the murder of Abel.
36 Robert Benjamin Lewis, Light and Truth: Collected from the Bible and Ancient and Modern History, Containing the Universal History of the Colored and the Indian Race from the Creation of the World to the Present Time (Boston: Published by a Committee of Colored Gentlemen, Benjamin F. Roberts, Printer, 1844), 326. This Cain reference is not in the 1836 edition of Light and Truth.
37 Henry Bibb, “To Our Old Masters” (Jan-Feb 1851), in The Black Abolitionist Papers, ed. C. Peter Ripley, 5 vols. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 2:125.
38 “A Knotty Problem,” Langston City Herald, 13 April 1895, 1.
39 James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial, 1963; repr., New York: Vintage International, 1993), 40-41.
40 On the development of womanist biblical interpretation as more than a by-product of feminist biblical interpretation, consult Nyasha Junior, An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015).
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