"Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart."
-- I Samuel 16:7
If it hadn't been for the slides returning missionaries showed in our small New England church, I might not have known how the African race looked until I went to college in the city of Boston.
My first encounter occurred when a classmate, an exquisite tenor named Gilbert Neal, asked if I would accompany him on the piano. "Gil," his wife and son lived in an apartment on campus and I was a frequent guest in their home. Soon after I met ministerial student B. Sam Hart. Sam needed a pianist, too, and for a few months we traveled to a small AM radio station to tape the initial segments of what, for him, would be a lifetime endeavor.
Readus Watkins, a well-dressed journalism major, completed the trio who made a good impression of their race on this sheltered girl from the all-white country. That impression would be a bulwark in the years that followed as our family first became part of the military community, and eventually settled in the South.
I think of my delayed exposure to racial prejudice every time I read a Civil War revival letter in the newspaper, or the country celebrates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Like most experiences it's difficult to understand something that's never happened to us. But when I began researching the history of Columbia County, my exposure to racial problems, not only in the South but all across the "New World," went into fast-forward.
I noticed right away that, when written from the African-American point of view, the stories of hard work, physical abuse and family separation wrenched me with sorrow. And when I read from other authors that "Negroes are an inferior race, created to do hard work, etc.," I was sad, too. But when I learned that more 19th-century authors wrote from agenda than from fact, I soft-pedaled my initial response, and tried not to make judgments about issues I knew only fragments about. I didn't grow up here, I told myself.
"Doesn't it say in the Bible that Noah's son, Ham, who is supposed to be the father of the Black race was cursed by God, and that he and his descendants were to be the servants of the white man?"
My friend, who did grow up here, was only repeating what he had been taught. His question, however, sent me to the Bible to locate the source of this theological curse. I found it in Genesis 9:25:
"And (Noah) said, "Cursed be Canaan (Ham's son; not Ham himself). The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers."
How easy to stop there, jump to conclusions, and accept the racial divide as Biblically based. But reading what happened before verse 25 reveals a different meaning.
Some time had elapsed since Noah, the righteous man God spared from the flood, had emerged from the ark. One night when Noah was drunk, Ham made fun of his father while his brothers showed him more respect. The angry outburst followed this exchange. But the curse was uttered by Noah, not by God.
Long before Noah's time, there was another incident involving a curse, and the speaker that time was God. The setting was the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve had sinned, and God was pronouncing their sentence. To the woman he said, "...with pain you will give birth to children; your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you" (Genesis 3:16).
For a long time I thought those who preached the superiority of man over woman were only repeating God's plan. But on further study I learned that this announcement of man's domination over women was God's prediction for sinful mankind, not his plan.
What better way to celebrate the life of Dr. King, or to treat the roles of men and women, than to spend the rest of our lives drawing closer to the image of God in which all of us were created, rather than fulfilling the angry outburst of a drunken man or the sad prediction of a holy God that some of us have turned out to be.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com)
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