The (misunderstood)

curse of ham

The “Curse of Ham” represents one of the many examples of a Biblical narrative that is better known for its misinterpretations than it is for its actual source text (See also: Homosexuality is [not] a Sin). It stems from the story in Genesis 9 where Noah curses Canaan (not Ham) for seeing him naked. The first stage of the weaponization of Genesis 9 was likely to “justify” enslaving the Canaanites under the Israelites. More recently, and ongoing today, the Curse of Ham is used to justify the modern-day enslavement of people of African descent. It was also used, to a violently effective degree, in the Rwandan Genocide. This myth hinges on the unfounded claim that Canaan is the “father of the African people,” and thus his curse extends to all people of African descent.

What does Genesis 9 really say about Ham?

In cases of widely misinterpreted texts like this, wherein the predominant narrative about it bears little resemblance to the actual language of the text, the best course of action is to state facts.

Common (mis)Interpretations:

"African skin is dark because Ham was cursed for seeing Noah naked, and this curse lasts to this day."

(Related to this belief is the added notion that Ham's other two siblings, Shem and Japheth, represent all Asian lineage, and European lineage, respectively).


In fact, Genesis 9 says nothing of the skin color of Ham, Canaan, nor Noah for that matter. The details of the story in the ninth chapter of Genesis have nothing immediately to do with race or ethnicity; that association was added on by Europeans looking to justify their enslavement of persons from Africa. To make this point perfectly clear, it is important to remember that Ham, Shem and Jepheth (the main characters in Genesis 9), are all sons of Noah. They certainly came from the same race, and therefore no blessing or curse placed on one and not the other could justifiably extend to one of their races and not the others'.

Common (mis)Interpretations:

"The Curse of Ham explains the constant subjugation of the African people and justifies why slavery took/takes place"*

*Please note, these are paraphrases of damaging beliefs about this Scriptural passage; these do not in any way reflect the convictions of the host of this webpage.


Noah cursed Canaan only- not Ham, nor his descendants. According to Jewish tradition, only God would have the power to curse or bless generations, and God is alarmingly absent from this part of the story! In fact, a few verses before this text a blessing was extended to Ham, Shem and Japheth. It would be more logical (and unharmful!) to understand that blessing to extend to Ham’s future generations, rather than an abrupt curse uttered by a drunken Noah.

How have these intepretations of genesis 9 shown up in the world?

The curse of Ham was instrumental in the Rwandan Genocide. Before the Belgians arrived, the Hutus and Tutsis enjoyed a successful social order and understanding amongst themselves. There was no concept of race or hierarchy. The Belgians arrived and, with them, they brought a Biblical (mis)understanding of race which they imposed upon the Rwandan people. The International Mission Board (IMB) writes, “Europeans ascribed biblical explanations to these roles, insisting that they could see in Tutsis’ physical features that they were descendants of Semites. The same ‘science’ that was used to justify slavery also measured nose width and calculated average height in order to demonstrate Tutsi superiority.”

The subtlest suggestion that the Tutsis were superior to the Hutus tipped the scales into a sharp downward slope toward genocide. After decades of political satire, social marginalization and classist separation, the two groups became enemies. Then the Genocide began.

It is clear that the “scholarship” of this myth, if it can be called scholarship at all, only surrounds some of the ugliest chapters of human history. It is a human lie and requires correction at every opportunity.