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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Slavery (p. 57)

From chapter "Invisibility"

I’ve been thinking about Ham getting cursed by Noah, and I’ve been thinking about how it happened. Here’s the story: Noah got drunk and passed out naked in his tent. Ham came in, saw “the nakedness of his father,” and went outside to tell his brothers. His brothers picked up a garment, walked backward into the tent, covered their father, and made their way out, the whole time keeping eyes averted from the sight of Noah’s naked body.

I can picture the brothers, and the scene. Though the sun has slid only partway up the morning sky, the air is already hot. A dry wind brings with it the smell of goat and cedar smoke. Shem and Japheth open the flap to their father’s tent. They know without speaking, without thinking, that they must keep their attention on everything—anything—but their father’s body. Their father’s body—the nakedness of their father’s body—ceases to exist. They have a task, which is to cover something they cannot acknowledge, to cover something that is not there. They walk backward, never stumbling, because even though they have never done this before, never covered their father’s nakedness that does not exist—or have they? they have no idea—their feet know where to step. They smell but do not smell the sourness of Noah’s breath—the sharp bitterness of the rank wine—and hear but do not hear the rumbles and catches of his snoring. They do not touch his body as they cover him with cloth, but the garment fits perfectly over the parts they must never see. They walk quickly, purposefully, yet also absently, to the front of the tent, and emerge into the morning that is already hot, and smell the dry wind that brings with it the scent of goat and cedar smoke.

I picture also Ham, as he walked in earlier, saw his father’s body, the upturned head, gaping mouth, exposed throat, splayed arms, hairy chest, with hair dwindling down his belly, then becoming coarser, thicker, near his exposed genitals. Ham steps closer, looks at his father’s legs, belly, neck, parts of his father he has never seen like this.

These images have stuck with me since I was a child. Even then, reading the story, which takes only a few short verses in the Bible, I was able to feel the oppressive heat of the tent and smell its rancid air. I always wondered what was so wrong with what Ham did. What was he supposed to not look at, and why was he supposed to not talk? Why did his brothers go to such great lengths to not see?

In my mind, Ham’s first impulse in the tent is to simply keep staring as he realizes, perhaps for the first time, that his father is merely human. His next impulse is to cover his father, then leave and pretend he did not see what he now knows he saw. Then he has a third impulse, which is to leave without covering his father, and to tell his brothers of his newfound understanding. As he considers, he looks away to the flap of the tent, looks back to his father’s body, looks more and more closely still, then finally turns and walks out side, into the daylight.


The historical arguments in support of slavery were as straightforward as the religious. Slavery and other forced labor, the argument asserted, have always been the bedrock upon which civilization is assembled. In 1837, William Harper wrote a carefully reasoned analysis of the role of slavery in our society. He said, “President Dew [another speaker at the conference where he first delivered this message] has shown that the institution of Slavery is a principal cause of civilization. Perhaps nothing can be more evident than that it is the sole cause. If any thing can be predicated as universally true of uncultivated man, it is that he will not labour beyond what is absolutely necessary to maintain his existence. Labour is pain to those who are unaccustomed to it, and the nature of man is averse to pain. Even with all the training, the helps and motives of civilization, we find that this aversion cannot be overcome in many individuals of the most cultivated societies. The coercion of Slavery alone is adequate to form man to habits of labour. Without it, there can be no accumulation of property, no providence for the future, no taste for comforts or elegancies, which are the characteristics and essentials of civilization. He who has obtained the command of another’s labour, first begins to accumulate and provide for the future, and the foundations of civilization are laid. . . . Since the existence of man upon the earth, with no exception whatever, either of ancient or modern times, every society which has attained civilization has advanced to it through this process.” Friedrich Engels, no fan of slavery, said much the same thing. “It was slavery that first made possible the division of labour between agriculture and industry on a considerable scale, and along with this, the flower of the ancient world, Hellenism. Without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art and science; without slavery, no Roman Empire. But without Hellenism and the Roman Empire as the base, also no modern Europe. We should never forget that our whole economic, political and intellectual development has as its presupposition a state of things in which slavery was as necessary as it is universally recognized.”

They’re right. The evidence to support the historical necessity of slavery is just as solid, the logic as inescapable, as that supporting slavery’s divine ordination. Slaves built the levees, canals, and granaries vital to the agricultural revolution. They built the pyramids of Egypt and the great hydraulic systems of China. Every great ancient city was built by slave laborers. “Let it be remembered,” Harper noted, “that all the great and enduring monuments of human art and industry—the wonders of Egypt—the everlasting works of Rome— were created by the labor of slaves.” Indeed, without slave labor there would have been neither Bronze nor Iron Ages: until modern times, no sane person ever uncoerced became a mineworker (and even today it often takes either coercion or relatively high wages in depressed communities). The work is simply too hard, too dangerous, the conditions too dismal. Only prisoners, captives, and slaves—three branches from the same tree—ever entered the underworld, and even then did so only under the lash, or at the point of a sword.

Slavery was a central concern of governance from the time of the first nation-state. The Code of Hammurabi, the earliest known set of laws for governing an empire, prescribed death for anyone who harbored a fugitive or otherwise helped a slave to escape. The relationship between the law and bondage goes back even farther: Indeed, the oldest extant legal documents don’t concern the sale of land, houses, or even animals, but slaves.

Slavery’s use was so central to the foundation of civilization that it dictated the design of early cities, for example Mohenjo-Daro, where the great food storehouse was located within the citadel’s heavy walls, protected, by armed soldiers, not against foreign marauders but against the citizenry itself. Social critic Lewis Mumford noted with characteristic understatement the placement of this storehouse. “Planned scarcity and the recurrent threat of starvation played a part from the beginning in the effective regimentation of the urban labor force.”

Slavery was just as necessary to the Greeks as it had been to earlier civilizations. At the height of Greek democracy, Athens contained more slaves—about sixty thousand—than citizens. Until a slave revolt in 103 B C E, more than ten thousand slaves worked the famous silver mines at Laurium. It was commonly presumed that the labor of slaves allowed citizens the leisure to conduct their democracy. An equal presumption was that democracy predicated on slavery not only was democracy, but the way democracy (and the world) should be. As Aristotle firmly stated, “Humanity is divided into two: the masters and the slaves; or, if one prefers it, the Greeks and the Barbarians, those who have the right to command; and those who are born to obey.”

Rome, too, was built on centuries of slavery. Slaves quarried stone for cities, and they built the cities themselves. They built the aqueducts that brought water to the cities. And they built the fortunes of the rich: the use of slaves was the customary way in which prosperity was created. By the end of the Republic, there were probably two million slaves in Italy, accounting, during the next couple of generations, for probably one-third of the total population of the nascent Roman Empire. A half-million new captives were required every year.

“Servitude,” Harper noted, “is the condition of civilization.” It seems pretty clear, then, that if you want civilization, you’ve got to have slavery, or at least servitude. To undo slavery—if this argument holds—would be to undo the civilization we—at least those of us who might be considered slaveholders—all enjoy.


I understand now what was wrong with what Ham did, and why Noah had no choice but to curse and enslave him, because I now understand that it’s not so important to this story what happened—if it happened at all—thousands of years ago in what has since become a godforsaken desert. What’s more important is the lesson that can be pulled from this cautionary tale, which is that in order for a system of domination to be maintained (remember, Noah had the power and will to enslave one of his sons and all of that son’s descendants to his two others and theirs) rigid protocols must be maintained, which include first and foremost that one must never see those in power as they are—in this case, naked—nor especially to perceive them as vulnerable—in this case, passed out. To see them at the same time naked and vulnerable is to find oneself no longer susceptible to any power of theirs save physical force.

In order for a slave—or, for that matter, a slaveholder—to become free, a series of successive perceptions must be realized. First, the person must perceive that the owners (and slaves) are merely human, that is, putting all rhetoric aside, that there exists a dichotomy of privilege and exploitation, and that the privilege is a result of the exploitation. The Greek form of democracy was made possible through the labor of slaves. The wealth of Romans was lifted from the same source. Aristocratic culture in the antebellum South— with its clichés of mint juleps, formal balls, and beautiful Southern belles saying “fiddle-dee-dee” in the face of trouble—was based on the sweat and blood of black slaves (as well as land taken from its original inhabitants).

The second realization is, once again, that the owners and slaves are merely human, meaning, this time, that the exploitation and consequent privilege are not inevitable, but the result of social arrangements and force (as well as a huge dollop of bad luck on the part of those enslaved). The citizens of Mohenjo-Daro obeyed not because they were inferior but because they would starve if they did not.

Likewise, many Greek or Roman slaves were kidnapped in razzias, or full-fledged military assaults. Black slaves in the American South were either captured or born into slavery. Although damn bad luck often determined which individuals would become slaves and which would remain free, the existence of a class of slaves has always been the result of political, economic, and military decisions.

The third realization is yet again that the owners are merely human, by which I now mean they are vulnerable. Wealth does not protect them. I was going to qualify this by saying it doesn’t protect them from death, nor even from direct violence from the slaves (a knife in the throat kills the rich as surely and quickly as it kills the poor), but the truth is that wealth doesn’t protect them in any but an illusory sense from much of anything. The wealthy are still susceptible to disease, sorrow, loneliness, pain, and, of course, death.

The difficulty comes—and here is the real beauty of the story of Noah and his sons—when, like Ham (or at least my vision of Ham), you find your way through these shifts in perception and see the patriarch naked and vulnerable. What do you do then? Do you, like Ham, talk about what you have seen? As the story makes clear, there are grave strictures against doing so, with severe consequences.

Or do you follow the lead of Ham’s brothers, and reap the privilege that comes from averting your eyes?

There is another question, however, that I really want to understand. If Ham was enslaved not simply because Shem and Japheth needed the extra labor (in other words, not simply for purely economic reasons), and if this story works as a metaphor to help us understand the relationship between perception and exploitation, and if a class of people today still exists whose exploitation leads to the privilege of others, then what, precisely, is it that those who are exploited see (or have seen) about those in power? What is it that their relationship reveals that so frightens those who enslave and control these others?