“Black Adam”, What Was the Color of the First Humans?

As the movie Black Adam has just been released, we thought it would be interesting to re-publish this text previously proposed in French. The DC Extended Universe Studios offers us here Adam as a DC Comics hero, thus extending the vein of Afro-futurism, which has recently become very popular, with Black Panther (Ryan Kyle Coogler, Marvel 2018) or The Woman King (Gina Prince-Bythehood, Sony, 2022).

The Bible has played a key role in the production and essentialization of human differences. The mark of Cain (Genesis 4:15) and the curse of Ham (Genesis 9:18-27), are the best-known examples, which served to justify the enslavement of black people. However, beyond slavery, these stories also answered the central question of the color of early man. For if Adam and his mate were supposedly white, as most Christian representations testify, and if all the men who populate the planet are their descendants, how to explain the diversity of human phenotypes?

Polygenic theories were marginal in modern times and considered a form of heresy. Isaac La Peyrère, who published in 1655 about a dual creation in the Bible (that of the preadamites, then of Adam and Eve), was thus forced to abjure his work in Rome before Pope Alexander VII. From then on, second half of the 18th century, the phenotype of Adam and Eve became, in a Christian world dominated by monogenism, a key resource for theories on the equality or hierarchy of peoples and “races”, later mobilized by African-American and Afro-Caribbean pastors to assert racial equality, or even in some cases the racial superiority of Blacks.1

In another entry (in French), we studied the first racial counter-genealogy based on the Table of Peoples, published in 1827 by a young Afro-Jamaican physician, William George Smith.2 The author revealed (without taking any position) the existence at the turn of the nineteenth century of a vast debate on the color of the first men, on which the African-American theologies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries relied heavily. Many African-American pastors took up Father Labat’s old theory about the red color of Adam:

If we consult the Scriptures, it assures us that Adam was formed from the loam of the earth, & it is noticed that virgin lands are usually red or russet, & it is from there that the name of the first man came, for Adam means red or russet.3

This theory had reached them through British abolitionists who had been careful to ignore Labat’s passages on the mark of Cain and the inferiority of Blacks, such as the Virginia settler John Mitchell (1690-1768)4, the Anglican priest Pete Peckard (1718-1797) or the Manchester physician Thomas Jarrold (1770-1853).5 The latter proclaimed the idea of racial equality between whites and blacks, all having derived or degenerated from the original red.  In the nineteenth century, this idea is found in the writings of several African-American intellectuals, such as the historian Robert B. Lewis6, the Presbyterian minister Henry Garnet7, and the abolitionist Martin R. Delany. The latter writes:

It is, we believe, generally admitted among linguists, that the Hebrew word Adam (ahdam) signifies red – dark-red as some scholars have it. And it is, we believe, a well-settled admission, that the name of the Original Man, was taken from his complexion.8

At the same time, other African American pastors argued that Adam and Eve were black – like the land of Eden from which they were made. This was the case with A.M.E. Church pastor William J. Anderson, who wrote in 1857:

This earth or place where man was formed was in or near the garden of Eden, where the ground was quite black or dark; no one believes that it was white and therefore the first man was black.9

This idea was old and had already been suggested by the Dutch physician Petrus Camper (1722-1789). In a speech given in 1764 at the University of Groningen, he attacked color prejudice and the stories of the Mark of Cain and the Curse of Ham, pointing out that all men were black to some extent, some more, some less, and that variations in phenotype were accidental:

Be Adam created black, brown, tanned or white, his descendants, as soon as they spread out over the wide surface of the earth, necessarily had to change in color and shape according to how the country, the particular foods and illnesses differed.10

Later on, the same idea is found in the Scottish physician John Hunter (1728-1793), who observed that the change of colors in the natural world always went from dark to light shades. Thus, when some specimens of the same species were black, it is certainly that the species in question was originally black.11

The notion of a black Adam did not always serve a discourse on racial equality. The Bristol physician James Cowles Prichard (1786-1848), a convert to Anglicanism, linked blackness to original sin. Adam and Eve were white and civilized when they lived in Eden, but they became black at the time of the fall. With the development of civilization, all men would become white again, color being the visible mark of their rank in the civilizational process. Prichard thus reconciled monogenism and white superiority, without having recourse to an increasingly abused curse of Cham.12

Black Version of Genesis. Noah and his three children, by Max Radiguet, 185213

In 1852, the novelist Max Radiguet brought back the following story from a trip to Peru:

Noah, say the Negro marabouts, was of black race. He had three sons who were black like their fathers. Towards his last moments, he revealed the existence of a marvelous cistern that he had discovered and that would completely transform whoever immersed himself in it. Japheth alone did not hesitate to dive into it and soon came out of the marvelous water in the form of a beautiful Caucasian adolescent. Shem then made up his mind; and finding only wet silt, he rubbed his body with it, which was enough to change the ebony black of his skin into ochre. At this sight, Cham leapt on his feet and hands to the bottom of the cistern, but the mud dried under his embrace, and only the soles of his feet, the palms of his hands and his big lips retained the color so coppery Japhet.14

This so-called Afro-Peruvian story, which claims that the first men were black, from Adam to Noah, was circulated across the Atlantic. It was thus translated and reproduced in a Louisiana newspaper in 1853, before returning to France where it was published by Abbé Bauron in 1892, and the same year by the Haitian journalist Benito Sylvain.15 Here again, the superiority of the color white, an expression of a divine blessing, is accommodated by a black origin of humanity.

Rev. H. M. Turner16

By the end of the nineteenth century, the idea of a black Adam was already dominant in African American churches. In this sense, the speech given by A.M.E. Church bishop Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915) to the Chicago Congress of Africa in 1893 was a turning point. For Turner, Adam and Eve were black. But these primitive blacks gave birth to the red Egyptians, who in turn bequeathed their knowledge to the whites. This stance was not new, but the press of the time specified that it was not the opinion of a marginal, like John Jasper (1812-1901), an African-American pastor convinced that the sun revolves around the earth, but rather the most educated and eloquent black theologian in America.17 Soon his speech was relayed or commented on in the entire press, including internationally. In Paris, the Haitian journalist Sylvain Benito evokes: “The disturbing revelation of Monsignor Turner, which has thrown the pseudo-aristocracy of the United States into such a deep turmoil”.18 The newspaper La Libre parole writes in turn:

Were Adam and Eve Negroes? This is the question being asked by the American public, moved by a recent statement of Bishop Turner, president of the African Society of Episcopal Methodists. The bishop, who is said to be a great authority, asserts that Adam and Eve must have been Negroes, and he cites many facts from geology and anthropology in support of this view.19

Bishop Turner’s speech played a central role in the trivialization of the narrative of the black origin of the first men in African American religious circles, a narrative that became increasingly subversive from this date onward, to the point of serving as the basis for a black supremacism that theorized the unworthy origin of whites. We find it in the mouths of the prophets William S. Crowdy and Franck S. Cherry, initiators of the black Hebrews, and much later of Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam: God made Adam from the dust of the earth, and the earth cannot be white.

Mural paintings in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Port-au-Prince. From left to right, frescoes by Rigaud Benoit, Philomé Obin and Castera Bazile, in Jean-Marie Drot, Voyage au pays des naïfs, 1986, Hatier, p. 166. Rights reserved.

Salnave Philippe-Auguste, Gardens of Eden (detail), 1972, in Jean-Marie Drot, Voyage au pays des naïfs, 1986, Hatier, p. 146. All rights reserved.

1. C. Kidd, « Was Adam white or black ? », The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600–2000, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 29-33.

2. W. G. Smith, « African Genealogy », Freedom’s Journal, New York, Vol. 1, No. 23-25, août 1827, p. 90.

3. J.-B. Labat, Nouvelle relation de l’Afrique occidentale, Paris, Pierre-François Giffart, 1728, T. 2, p. 256.

4. Quoted in C. Kidd, loc. cit.

5. P. Peckard, Am I not a man ? And a brother ? Cambridge, J. Archdeacon, 1788, p. 7-8 ; T. Jarrold, Dissertations on the Form and Colour of Man, Londres, Cadell and Davies, 1808, p. 243.

6. R. B. Lewis, Light and Truth: From Ancient and Sacred History, Portland, D.C. Colesworthy, 1836, p. 11.

7. H. H. Garnet, « The Past and The Present Condition, and the Destiny of the Colored Race: A Discourse  », Speech delivered at the Female Benevolent Society of Troy, NY, 14 février 1848 (DigitalCommons).

8. M. R. Delany, The Origins of Race and Color, Philadelphie, Harper & Bros, 1879, p. 11. A similar discourse can be found among the pastor of the A.M.E. Church, Georg Brent, for whom Adam is however yellow, in « Origin of the White Race », African Methodist Episcopal Church Review, Vol. 10, 1893. in S. W. Angell, A. B. Pinn (eds.), Social Protest Thought in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1862-1939, University of Tennessee Press, 2000, p. 150-152.

9. W. J. Anderson, « Appendix. Chapter II. Scriptural Wiews of Colors, etc. – How the First Black and White Man Came », Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-Four Years a Slave, Chicago, Daily Tribune Book and Job Printing Office, 1857, p. 61-62.

10. Speech reproduced in Miriam Claude Meijer, « Petrus Camper on the Origin and Color of Blacks », History of Anthropology Newsletter, Vol. 24, No. 2, 1997, p. 3-9.

11. John Hunter, Observations on Certain Parts of the Animal Œconomy, Londres, 1786, p. 200. This argument is taken up a few years later in Richard Payne Knight, An Analytical Inquiry Into the Principles of Taste, Londres, Luke Hansard, 1805, p. 15.

12. Franziska A. Augstein, « The Origins of Mankind – was Adam Black ? », James C. Prichard’s Views of Mankind. An Anthropologist Between the Enlightenment and the Victorian Age, Dissertation, University College London, 1996, p. 293-307.

13. Max Radiguet, « Version nègre de la Genèse », Almanach de L’Illustration, Paris, Pagnerre, 1854, p. 28.

14. Ibid.

15. The Planters’ Banner, Franklin (Louisiane), 9 juin 1853 (Chronicling America. Historic American Newspapers) ; P. Bauron, « La légende des trois races », Les missions catholiques, No. 1194, Paris, 22 avril 1892, p. 197-198 ; B. Sylvain, « Les trois races », La Fraternité, organe des intérêts d’Haïti et de la race noire, Paris, mai 1892, p. 1.

16. H. M. Turner, African Letters, Nashville, Tenn., Publishing House A. M. E. Sunday School Union, 1893.

17. « Black Adam in Eden. Bishop Turner’s Strange Theory », Indianopolis News, 17 août 1893, p. 5 (Indiana’s Digital Historic Newspapers Program).

18. Benito Sylvain, « Le livre d’or de la race noire », La Fraternité, organe des intérêts d’Haïti et de la race noire, Paris, 11 octobre 1893, p. 1 (Gallica).

19. La libre parole, No. 504, 5 septembre 1893, p. 2 (Gallica).

Citer ce billet
Baptiste Bonnefoy (2022, 24 octobre). “Black Adam”, What Was the Color of the First Humans? ReLRace - Religions, lignages et « race ». Consulté le 24 avril 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/tl8m

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