The Shame of a Father and the Curse of Slavery

In Go Tell it on the Mountain, Baldwin includes the biblical allusion Noah cursing Ham’s descendants into a life a servitude. In the King James version, the story goes that Noah slept drunk and uncovered in a tent, and “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without” (Gen 9: 22). This resulted in Noah waking up and disowning his son that Baldwin describes: “Ah, that son of Noah’s had been cursed, down to the present groaning generation: A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren” (191). This story became the foundational text for justifying slavery on biblical grounds as historians racialized Ham as Black and his descendants were deemed to be Africans. This story returns to our initial question of what it means to be Black and explores the origins of the concept of race. Ham’s racialization as a Black figure links a divine proclamation of ancestral slavery to the present-day racial hierarchy.

Baldwin connects the biblical story to John seeing his father exposed. “Sometimes leaning over the cracked, ‘tattle-tale’ gray bathtub, he scrubbed his father’s back; and looked, as the accursed son of Noah had looked, in his father’s hideous nakedness.” John saw his father naked and connected an intimate moment of family privacy with the sin of indecent sexuality. This shows how Black men are sexualized and are held to a high standard of acting honorably within the family. John is held to a high, almost impossible moral standard by his father, but is still punished for viewing the shame of his father. The vagueness of the sin of John seeing his father naked connects to the lack of clarity in the Bible on what transgression Ham is committing. Many interpretations view Ham as a sexual offender and voyeur while others think he castrated his father or had relations with his mother while Noah was drunk. Regardless, Ham’s transgression was a crime against family honor and slavery was the proper punishment of life without honor. These biblical interpretations serve as a projection of white sexual fear and codes of honor. Baldwin sees himself and other Black men suffering from the legacy of the curse saying, “How could John be cursed for having seen in a bathtub what another man—if that other man had ever lived—had seen ten thousand years ago, lying in an open tent?” This also builds John’s shame in his sexuality towards men if he cannot even view his naked father without being reminded of the curse of Ham.