The symbolism of black and white babies in the myth of parental impression

The symbolism of black and white babies in the myth of parental impression – Critical Essay

Wendy Doniger

AN ANCIENT and enduring cross-cultural mythology explores what the texts generally perceive as a paradox: the birth of white offspring to black parents, or black offspring to white parents. This mythology in the Hebrew Bible is limited to animal husbandry, but in Indian literature from the third century B.C.E. and Greek and Hebrew literature from the third or fourth century C.E. it was transferred to stories about human beings. These stories originally express a fascination with the dark skin of “Ethiopians” (a term that seems to apply to sub-Saharan Africans in general), and a (nonracist) fantasy of white children born to them. But when ideas about human race arise in Europe after the sixteenth century, the stories reverse their color schemes and shift their emphasis to investigations of the (racist) paradox of black children born to white parents. In our day, racism is clearly a strong factor in the media fascination with court cases about in vitro fertilization in which black children are born to white parents. This development suggests that the symbolism of black and white was not originally, nor need be now, racist, but that, once racism is current, it is hard to reclaim the nonjudgmental innocence of the earlier texts.

Many of these texts explained the paradox of children who differ from their parents in color by invoking the concept of parental impression (sometimes called maternal imprinting or maternal imagination), which argues that whatever a woman (or, rarely, a man) thinks of or sees at the moment of conception (or, for a woman, sometimes in the course of pregnancy) influences the physical form of the child. (1) This doctrine, which was known in ancient Israel, in Greece, in ancient India, and in Europe well into the twentieth century (Doniger and Spinner, 1998: 97-130), primarily addresses an entirely different obsession–the problem of paternal insecurity–and generally draws heavily on sexist and misogynist attitudes toward women. Yet, when it was appropriated into the narratives of off-color offspring, it offered, in place of the more obvious explanation (adultery, and mixed-race adultery, to boot), an alternative fantasy that softened the culpability of women. So, too, when applied to stories of color-contrasting offspring in European narratives, even after the sixteenth century, the idea of parental impression functioned as a force against racism (and hereditarianism in general); the Lamarckian or Lysenkan idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics–the privileging of nurture over nature–argues against the belief that one’s racial stock determines who one is. (2) Thus this doctrine, farfetched as it seems to us (and seemed to many people throughout its history), dulled the edge of ancient antagonism toward women and modern European antagonism toward the descendants of the “Ethiopians.” A study of the variations of this myth across cultures has much to tell us about the ways in which myths about women and myths about people of dark skin color are transformed under the pressure of later tropes of sexism and racism.

The Hebrew Bible

It all begins with a story from the Hebrew Bible in which animals give birth to offspring of different colors, through the power of parental impression. The patriarch Jacob promises to work for his father-in-law, Laban, asking only for the colored lambs and mottled kids from among the flock as his wages. When this episode is recounted in Genesis 31:1-12, God determines the out come of Jacob’s wager with Laban as an angel reveals the trick to Jacob in a dream; but the naturalistic explanation in Genesis 30:25-43 credits the clever use of ancient breeding techniques. Knowing that the specified mottling is unusual, Laban assumes that he will prosper from this deal; but this is not to be the case. Jacob takes fresh rods from almond, plane, and poplar trees and peels off strips and patches of their bark; he then places these variegated staves in front of watering troughs. As the animals come to drink, they breed, and while they are breeding, the females see the rods. In this way, the patterns Jacob made by exposing the white of the wood are imprinted on the offspring; stripes, spots, and patches produce streaked, speckled, and brindled animals, respectively.

Even in this early and foundational text, the breeding of animals is implicitly analogized to the breeding of humans–more precisely, to the deceptions that women work on men. The trick that Jacob played on Laban repaid Laban for the trick that Laban had played on Jacob; where Jacob substituted variegated rods (phallic rods? ramrods? the objects of desire?) for the solid-colored rams within the field of vision of the ewes, Laban had substituted Leah for Rachel (the object of desire) on the wedding night (Genesis 28:15-24). The women here are manipulated by their father, just as the ewes were manipulated by Jacob, (3) but Rachel and Leah must have colluded to some degree; at the very least, they knew of the deception when Jacob did not, and hence had the upper hand in sexual knowledge (Doniger, 2000). The biblical episode of the rods of Jacob became a paradigm often cited by later authors; with the unsurpassed authority of Scripture, “the rods of Jacob” became a shorthand notation for the idea of parental impression. The principle of animal husbandry that underlies the story of Jacob is also attested to in post-biblical traditions–Greek, Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic–taking on the different colorations of those interpretive contexts.

Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin Sources

The women are the victims of an unwanted sexual substitution in a more complex set of interactions narrated in the Mahabharata, the ancient Sanskrit epic composed between the third centuries B.C.E. and C.E. in north India. In this story, the widows of a king who died childless are forced to submit to a substitute who will father for them sons that the Hindu levirate law regarded as the descendants of the dead man. The surrogate, the sage Vyasa, is unsatisfactory for several reasons, but primarily because of his strange colors: he is dark (krsna), but he has matted orange hair and a red beard. The first woman whose bed he enters closes her eyes and gives birth to a blind child. The second one grows pale and so gives birth to a son who is pale and is named “Pale,” Pandu (Mahabharata, 1933-1969: 1.100). Here the wrong color of the father produces a wrong color in the mother, and these two discolorations join to produce a child who is the wrong color. Whatever the medical significance of “pale” (sickly pallor? albinism?), it is evidently linked symbolically to Pandu’s great problem: he is cursed to die if he ever has sex with any of his wives. And since he is the legal (though not biological) father of the heroes of the Mahabharata, his pallor has far-reaching consequences: the combination of his failure to procreate and his premature death precipitates the tragedy of the epic. Significantly, the norm here is dark skin, the aberration light skin–an aberration regarded as the result of mental (more probably emotional) and visual rather than physical influences: the woman’s abhorrence and revulsion as she looked at Vyasa made her conceive a son who was pale.

A far more positive, but still highly problematic visual influence on an embryo is described in the Ethiopica (An Ethiopian Story) of Heliodorus, who lived in Syria in the third or fourth century C.E. In this, one of the earliest texts to apply to human genetics the principles implicit in the story of Jacob and the rods, Persinna, queen of the Ethiopians, abandons her daughter Charikleia because the child is, unlike her mother, white, and the queen fears accusations of adultery. Since Persinna knows she is innocent, she deduces the cause of the lack of resemblance and preempts any accusation by abandoning the baby. Her fears prove well justified; when Charikleia, years later, claims her heritage, her father, King Hydaspes, insists that she cannot be his child: “Your skin has a radiant whiteness quite foreign to Ethiopian women…. How could we, Ethiopians both, produce, contrary to all probability, a white daughter?” (Heliodorus, 1989, book 10, chap. 14: 568-9). She answers that the child’s color is the result of parental impression: during the act of conception, Persinna had gazed on a picture of Andromeda, an image that her husband had not intended her to see. At this point, we learn that there is, on the armband worn by Charikleia, an inscription from Persinna, explaining why she had abandoned her child, Charikleia. The part of the inscription that concerns us reads:

Our line descends from the Sun and Dionysos among gods

and from Perseus and Andromeda and from Memnon too

among heroes. Those who in the course of time came to

build the royal palace … made use of the romance of

Perseus and Andromeda to adorn the bedchambers. It was

there one day that your father and I happened to be taking

a siesta in the drowsy heat of summer…. Your father made

love to me, swearing that he was commanded to do so in a

dream, and I knew instantly that the act of love had made

me pregnant…. But you, the child I bore, had a skin of

gleaming white, something quite foreign to Ethiopians. I

knew the reason: during your father’s intimacy with me the

painting had presented me with the image of Andromeda,

who was depicted stark naked, for Perseus was in the very

act of releasing her from the rocks, and that image had

unfortunately shaped the embryo to her exact likeness. I

was convinced that your color would lead to my being

accused of adultery, for what had happened was so fantastic

that no one would believe my explanation…. (Heliodorus,

1989, book 4, chap. 8: 432-3).

Andromeda was the daughter of the king of Ethiopia, but Greek artistic convention generally represented her with white skin (see J. R. Morgan in Reardon, 1989: 433, citing Achilles Tatius 3.7, and Philostratos Imagines 1.29). Fortunio Liceti, in the seventeenth century, objected to this aspect of the story: “To a natural philosopher’s eyes, since Andromeda was born to Cepheus and Cassiopeia, the king and queen of Ethiopia, she was black” (Huet, 1993: 23). But this is precisely why Andromeda is invoked here: although she was regarded as ethnically black, she was conventionally represented as white. She is thus the ideal liminal creature to lure Persinna across the color line. And so Charikleia, whose lack of resemblance to her own parents is problematic, resembles her ancestor Andromeda in two ways: she is the daughter of an Ethiopian king and she has white skin.

Persinna’s explanation was not regarded as sufficient proof of her innocence of adultery; its rejection is an interesting bit of evidence of the fragility of the doctrine of parental impression at that time. For proof, the painting of Andromeda was brought out of the bedroom, and Charikleia stood beside it: “The exactitude of the likeness struck them with delighted astonishment.” But the final proof of her identity, in addition to the cultural ring that her mother had left her (the ring that Hydaspes had given her at their wedding), was a natural ring, her birthmark, “like a ring of ebony staining the ivory of her arm!” Thus Charikleia was black after all, at least in the mark from her mother that answered to the ring of patriarchy. By emphasizing the color, rather than the form or beauty of the child, Heliodorus was drawing on the literature of animal husbandry, which emphasizes unusual color, but now this color was associated with a particular group of human beings, the Ethiopians.

Persinna calls this parental impression unbelievable (and the court at first dismissed it), but a considerable number of people were ready to believe it. Indeed, this very story of the black queen with the white daughter was retold on many occasions. Jerome, one of the Church fathers, writing between 386 and 390 C.E., regards it as “not astonishing” (nec mirum) and reconnects it with the story of Jacob and the rods:

He would make the ewes and she-goats be mated; so that … they

might conceive such kind of offspring they were viewing

in the mirror of the waters as the shadows of the rams

and he-goats mounting them from above. For because of

the rods placed in the drinking-troughs, even the colour of

the mirror-images was variegated.

Now it is not astonishing that this is the nature of female

creatures in the act of conception: the offspring they produce

are of such a kind as the things they observe or perceive

in their minds in the most intense heat of sexual

pleasure. For this very thing is reported by the Spaniards to

happen even among herds of horses; and Quintilian, in that

lawsuit in which a married woman was accused of having

given birth to an Ethiopian, brought as evidence in her

defence that what we have been describing above is a natural

process in the conception of offspring (Jerome, 1995: 67).

Jerome ingeniously imagines that the ewes and she-goats looked not at the rods but at the conflated image of the rods and the reflection, in the trough or stream, of the male animals mounting them; he also casually conflates “observing” (perspexerint, accidental visual impression) and “perceiving in their minds” (mente conceperint, intentional mental imagination), two actions that other texts took care to distinguish.

But Jerome then moves from sheep to horses, more particularly foreign horses, presumably more hot-blooded than either sheep or non-Spanish horses (a country perhaps suggested to Jerome by the ethnicity of Quintilian, who was from Spain). Color is extremely important in the breeding of horses; to this day, people will choose a horse for its color (roan, chestnut, and so forth). Sexist images are easily superimposed on the ancient mechanisms of animal husbandry, in which color is an essential factor, through the implicit equation of animals with women, particularly women engaged in an animal act. From horses Jerome moves on to the woman who gave birth to an “Ethiopian,” as reported in a lost controversia (a legal fiction or hypothetical case) by Quintilian, from the first century C.E. Although Jerome does not tell us the significance of the Ethiopian child of, presumably, non-Ethiopian parents, we might assume that, linked as it is with Jacob’s rods, it has some relationship with color.

Later Judaism (4)

One of the oldest compilations of Jewish commentaries, roughly contemporaneous with Heliodorus, presents several glosses on the verse, “And Jacob took the rods” (Genesis 30:37). The first two glosses, like Genesis 31, explain the episode by miracles (the water in the troughs miraculously turned to semen, or angels came down to help Jacob); but the third gloss, like Jerome, connects this text with the Ethiopian tale–using Heliodorus’s version of the colors:

It so happened that a Kushite [Ethiopian] king married a

Kushite woman who bore him a white son. The king seized

the son and went to [the] Rabbi. He said to him, “Consider

whether he is my son or not.” The other responded, “Are

there pictures in your house?” “Yes.” “Black or white?”

“White.” “Because of this, you have a white son” (Bereshit

Rabbah 73:10).

How many marriages did the rabbi save in this manner? This version reads like a CliffsNotes version of the story of Persinna giving birth to Charikleia. (Preuss noted the connection between the Hebrew and Greek texts; 1978 [1911]: 392.) Unlike Persinna, however, the Kushite woman does not realize that she will be accused of adultery, nor does she understand why she has a white child; she is robbed of the agency that Persinna had in the Greek text. This Hebrew text, like many others, shifts its perspective from the mother to the reaction of the father, who is alarmed to have a white son; the unexpected change in skin color as usual raises the suspicion of adultery. It would be difficult to hazard a guess as to who (Quintilian or Jerome or Heliodorus or the rabbis) got the story from whom (one from another, or all from another, unknown, source). But it is possible that the rabbis found Heliodorus’s story such an apt illustration of the idea of parental impression, already present in Genesis 30, that they appropriated the episode, reworking it to their own ends.

The tale of the Ethiopian queen who gave birth to a white baby reappears in the rabbinic discussions of the judicial ordeal of the suspected adulteress: (5)

Our rabbis said: When a woman is with her husband and is

engaged in intercourse with him, and at the same time her

heart is with another man whom she has seen on the road,

there is no greater adultery than this; for it is said, The wife

commits adultery, taking strangers while under her husband

(Ezekiel 16:32). Can there be a woman who commits adultery

while under her husband? It is this one, who has met

another man and set her eyes upon him, and while she carries

on intercourse with her husband, her heart is with him.

The king of the Arabs put this question to Rabbi Akiba: “I

am black and my wife is black, yet she gave birth to a white

son. Shall I kill her for having played the harlot while lying

with me?” Said the other, “Are the figures in your house

painted black or white?” “White,” he said. The other

assured him, “When you had intercourse with her, she fixed

her eyes upon the white figures and bore a child like them.

If you are surprised at such a possibility, study the case of

our father Jacob’s flock, which were influenced in their conception

by the rods, as it says, And the flocks conceived at the

sight of the rods (Genesis 30:39).” The king of the Arabs

acknowledged the justice of Rabbi Akiba’s argument. In our

case as well, Moses hinted in the Torah at a similar situation

by saying, [If you have gone astray, though you are] under your

husband, and if you be defiled, and some man has lain with you

besides your husband (Numbers 5:20; Bemidbar Rabba 9:34 in

Mirkin, 1977:213 ff.).

Now the parents are Arab, but the point is the same; the version in Tanhuma–a compiled Hebrew text completed by the eighth century–says that the king of the Arabs told Rabbi Akiba that he and his wife were Kushite, Ethiopian, but had a white child (Tanhuma, Naso, 7). As usual, the proof-text is from Genesis 30, “the rods of Jacob,” but now one of the characters cites the rods of Jacob to explain the Ethiopian problem, whereas the previous midrash (commentary) told the Ethiopian story to explain the Biblical story of the rods of Jacob. In fact, this judicial text adduces both stories (Jacob and the Ethiopian) to explain the relationship between parental impression and adultery, the latter epitomized in a verse from Ezekiel that is not about a human woman at all: Jerusalem is personified as the unfaithful bride of the Lord.

A condensed version of the Ethiopian story appears in The Holy Epistle (Iggeret HaKodesh), a thirteenth-century Kabbalistic sex manual that elaborates upon motifs in the Babylonian Talmud. As usual, it cites the story of Jacob’s rods as a proof-text, but it arranges the colors in the Quintilian fashion:

[A queen] had a black baby though the king and she was

white and extremely comely. The king wanted to kill her

until a wise man came and said, “Perhaps you thought of a

black man at the time of intercourse.” They examined the

matter and found black designs on the drapes in their conjugal

room. She said that she had looked at these black figures

during intercourse and thought of them. This is just

like the sticks of Jacob (Cohen, 1993: 142-4).

Of course, it is not “just like” the sticks (the translator’s terms for what we have been calling the rods) of Jacob: the impression is accidental, and problematic to the father, in part because the passive, accidental visual impression is here combined with an active, mental act on the part of the woman. But when the wife falls in love with art, she is innocent; the art is not adulterous.

The ethnic aspect of the stories of the black queen and the white queen contributed in the Middle Ages to Jewish arguments about the different colors of Christians and Jews. At this time, some Jews argued that the lighter skin color of the Gentiles was the result of the Gentiles’ immoral habit of making love during the day, when they could see “the faces on attractive pictures” (Berger, 1979: 224, 340.) Here light skin, resulting from parental impression, is clearly a negative factor, evidence of immorality. Other texts offered another, related reason for making love only at night, again incorporating the fear of improper offspring. The Talmud cites a tale about Imma Shalom, wife of Rabbi Eliezer, who asked her husband why they made love only at midnight; he replied, “So that I do not set my eyes on another woman, begetting sons who are as bastards” (Nedarim 20b; cf. Kallah 50b and Kallah Rabbati 52a). (Such eugenic precaution assumes that in the middle of the night there would be no one out and about whom Rabbi Eliezer might look upon and thus receive an image he might then imprint upon his own progeny.) This is a relatively rare example of paternal impression; Rabbi Eliezer is concerned not that his wife will hear or see someone other than him, but that he himself will see or hear someone other than her. But it is still a negative phenomenon, one to be avoided: Rabbi Eliezer makes sure that he does not make a false impression upon his unborn child. The point that is significant for our purposes is that the light-skinned child is equated with a bastard: it is a child of the wrong color. For the dark-skinned Jews, light skin was the problem. In the nineteenth century, the darker color of the Jews was attributed either to a belief that the Jews themselves were originally a black race or to a belief that they had mixed with Africans. (6) But this idea was now influenced by the modern concept of race keyed to skin color.

In Quintilian’s text, as cited by Jerome, the colors are reversed, in comparison with the Heliodorus story with which Jerome begins: the Ethiopian is the child, and the parent is white. Indeed, since Quintilian’s text must have preceded Heliodorus’s, we might say that Heliodorus reversed Quintilian’s colors. In any case, Quintilian’s colors, a white woman giving birth to a black child, represent a more logical choice of a meaningful problem for a white author, which is to say for the author of most of the extant relevant documents from this period. (The Jews are liminal, lighter than Ethiopians but darker than Christians). Yet, though some later texts (Jewish and Christian) do regard blackness, rather than whiteness, as problematic (in the children of white parents), it was Heliodorus’s version, the black woman giving birth to a white child, not Quintilian’s, that was more often cited in later Jewish and Greek literature. (It was also, as we shall see, the dominant pattern in the literature of African-Americans, where it had a more logical place). This prevalence of stories about white children is puzzling, unless we assume that the whole story, which is after all about a reactive back-formation (“What could have produced a child of the wrong color? Perhaps it was the sight of someone of the wrong color …”), is itself first expressed in a reactive back-formation (“Imagine if a black queen were as concerned about a white baby as we white people [like Quintilian] are concerned about a black baby …”). Such a possible back-formation must not, however, be taken as evidence of a racist attitude toward the baby of the “wrong” color, for which there is no evidence of this in the ancient and medieval periods during which the Heliodorus paradigm was of such great concern. To understand this point, we need to consider, briefly, the development of racist attitudes to dark skin.

Racial and Preracial Prejudices

A more likely explanation of the prevalence of the Heliodorus syndrome (white child to black parents) over the Quintilian syndrome (black child to white parents) is offered by the evidence that Europeans were far more curious about the dark skin of other peoples than about their own (light) colon Renato G. Mazzolini has argued, with massive documentation, that from 1640 to 1849, Europeans were increasingly obsessed with the recurrent question: “Why are the Ethiopians black?” (Mazzolini, 2002: 13). For some authors, “such enigmatic and disconcerting phenomena as leukoderma and albinism … represented a return by Negroes to mankind’s original colouring.” That is, the sudden appearance of white children to black parents (“leukoderma and albinism”) is explained by a third hypothesis, after adultery and parental impression: that white was the original human skin color, black a later development, so that white children of black parents are reverting back to the type of some distant white parents. This belief lives on, in a modified and inverted form, in stories we are about to consider in which the children of parents “passing” as white revert to the darker type of distant black ancestors. The question then became: “Why did some people (Ethiopians) become black?” Some European authors analogized this “change” to the transformations that take place in the colors of animal pelts from one season to the next (Mazzolini, 2002: 15). This too is a variant of an ancient trope that dates back to Jacob: using animal husbandry as a model for human propagation.

Mazzolini argues that only scant traces of racism are to be found in the Middle Ages and the fifteenth century. After that, however, Europeans began to classify Africans, first socially and politically, then on the basis of “scientific” and anatomical investigations of skin color. The interest in the cause of the skin color of sub-Saharan Africans was then combined with the use of skin color as a criterion for the classification of humankind. Debates about human pigmentation were the first categorizations of physical difference; black and white was the basic polarity, and yellow and red merely “arbitrary abstractions.” Still there was no notion of biological race. But “collective perceptions” of Africans began to be formed in the early sixteenth century when, “for the first time in the history of mankind, the Europeans introduced a system of colour-based slavery (or what is generally called ‘racial slavery’) which profoundly altered their perceptive evaluation of the people that they subjugated.” Thus, in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the notions of “species of men” or “races of men” began to emerge “mainly from the combination of skin colour with geographical distribution” (Mazzolini, 2002: 27), and in the context of the political subjugation and denigration of people of color. Well into the eighteenth century, Europeans classified and ranked human beings on the basis of language, geography, and culture, not color (Wheeler, 2000.); the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1771) had no interest in what we now think of as race, but the second edition just a decade later (1781) had much to say about the relevance of skin color to ethnic identity. The concern with skin color in premodern societies cannot therefore be called racist, since those societies did not have a theory of race. To the degree that attitudes to dark-skinned people in these stories are negative (and, as we have seen, they seldom are negative), they could more properly be called xenophobic or, perhaps, preracist (in the sense of a “precancerous” growth), or racialist (Morrison, 1992). (7) Thus, in the ancient world, skin color was seldom a deciding factor in identity, seldom connected with an ethnic group. Its prevalence in the stories of children of the “wrong” color is primarily a device for the exploration of the doctrine of parental impression, a doctrine in which the feared “Other” is female rather than black.

Paternal Insecurity

The theory of parental impression mutes the power of the real “other” man, the obvious villain of the piece; the complex mechanical causations of impression obscure the affective dimension of wives falling in love with other men. There may have been a real man, but she merely imagined him, through the adultery of thought. This is then further distanced by the suggestion that she merely imagined a man who does not in fact exist (such as a character from fiction or mythology); then that she imagined an artistic representation of a real or unreal man; and, finally, the texts imagine that the husband takes charge and deliberately places a picture of another man in the bedroom for his wife to gaze on–as a model for the desired child, certainly not the desired lover–while he makes love to her. But the repressed knowledge of adultery is always there, and bursts out in various paranoid forms. To men who fantasized that mental acts influenced the quality of their offspring, the very survival of the species depended on the sexual fantasies of their women. Skin color (often compounded by eye color) is regarded as a dramatic sign of paternity. Hence, these myths may simply be using what might be called preracist criteria in the service of another agenda broader than racism: the agenda of paternal insecurity.

Many people in the ancient world probably did not know who their parents were: fathers died, mothers died, and the tribe or society helped out and farmed out the abandoned children. “Pater semper incertus,” as the old Latin saying goes; the father is always uncertain (with the double meaning of that word: we are uncertain about who the father is, and he is uncertain, anxious). The Hindus say, “[Only] god knows the ‘Song of God,’ [only] the mother knows the father” (krishna jane gita, mata jane pita) and Salman Rushdie suggests that the god Shiva beheaded his son Ganesha because he suspected his paternity, as mysterious as that of Jesus Christ (Rushdie, 1999: 58). The problem of being certain of your father is pointed out in the Odyssey (1.215-16), when Telemachos, asked if Odysseus is his father, replies, “My mother says that I certainly am his, but I myself do not know. For no one himself knows his own father.” A rejected suitor in Fumiko Enchi’s Masks expresses the man’s fear:

A man may try as hard as he likes, but he’ll never know what

schemes a woman may be slowly and quietly carrying out

behind his back. Children–think what endless trouble

men have gone to over the ages to persuade themselves that

the children their women bore belonged to them! Making

adultery a crime, inventing chastity belts … but in the end

they were unable to penetrate even one of women’s secrets.

Even the sadistic misogyny of Buddha and Christ was nothing

but an attempt to gain the better of a vastly superior

opponent (Enchi, 1983: 133).

This is a brilliant statement of the power of male paternity paranoia and of the even greater subversive power of women.

The uncertainty of biological paternity skews the symmetry of the child’s identity: it is a truism (and was an article of faith for both Jews and Nazis) that you are more likely to know who your mother is than who your father is, presumably because (unlike your father) your mother must have been present at your birth. But in fact you do not always know who your mother is, as myths like the tale of Oedipus remind us. Mothers are harder to lose than fathers, but as Oscar Wilde pointed out, people are careless (“To have lost one parent might be considered a misfortune, but to have lost two seems like carelessness”). (8) Rushdie has imagined a situation in which one of three sisters, who live together in an impregnable castle, has a child: “But who was pregnant? … Nobody ever discovered, not even the child that was born … The sisters, by virtue of dressing identically and through the incomprehensible effects of their unusual, chosen life, began to resemble each other so closely that even the servants made mistakes” (Rushdie, 1983: 19). And the child never learns who his true mother is. Yet the belief that “a mother is always a mother, since a mother is a biological fact, whilst a father is a movable feast,” as Angela Carter put it (Carter, 1991: 222-3), underlies the pervasive problem of paternal insecurity; and the belief that “mother is as mother does” underlies the darker side of the mythology of both stepmothers (or abandoning mothers) and unfaithful wives.

What seems most astonishing in all of the mythology of parental impression is the extent to which most of our sources reject what seems the most plausible explanation for the birth of a child who does not resemble his father–namely, the fact that some other man fathered hi–win favor of men’s fantasies about women’s fantasies. If your wife gives a birth to a child who looks just like your best friend, it needs no ghost come from the grave to explain the cause. Our premodern sources knew this, too; Heliodorus had Persinna say, “What had happened was so fantastic that no one would believe my explanation.” Yet the moderns believed it despite themselves. Voltaire, writing in 1765, believed in the power of the parental impression, despite himself: “This passive imagination of easily shaken brains often produces in children the visible marks of an impression that the mother has received; there are innumerable examples, and the present writer has seen such striking ones that he would accuse his eyes of lying if he doubted them, and although this influence of the imagination is inexplicable, no other influence explains the matter any better” (Voltaire, 1765: 561). Nor did Montaigne doubt what he had heard: “There was presented to Charles, King of Bohemia and Emperor, a girl from near Pisa, all hairy and bristly, who her mother said had been thus conceived because of a picture of Saint John the Baptist hanging by her bed” (Montaigne, [1965], 1.21: 75; see also Huet, 1993: 13, 19-20; and Laqueur, 1990: 129). This could happen because the woman misinterprets what she sees, and her mistaken perception of what she has seen imprints the child: “Thus, the furs covering John the Baptist are ‘translated’ into a hair-covered body” (Huet, 1993: 21). In the eighteenth century, the Siamese twins Judith and Helena were thought to be connected “because early in her pregnancy their mother had been foolish enough to watch dogs mating” (Dekkers, 1994: 83). We may note the recurrence of animals as a precipitating factor in this mythology derived from animal husbandry. The emphasis on color in the stories that concern us here is a part of the general emphasis on physical (visual) resemblance, which usually made other factors, like behavior, for instance, seem irrelevant in establishing paternity. To this mindset, the best way to answer the question, “Whose child is it?” was to ask another question: “Whose face does it have?”

Even the woman’s active imagination, far more threatening than her response to an image prepared by her husband, was not as threatening to her husband as a real man glimpsed in the street or market, who could stamp the unborn child even if he subsequently made love to the woman only in her fantasy, never in the flesh. The simpler idea (adultery) does seem to have occurred to some of the later Christian authorities on paternity (and to some Jewish and Hindu sources). Thus, Dr. James Blondel remarked, in 1726, of one of Malebranche’s cases, that the mother lied and Malebranche was too naive to recognize this, an argument that, as Marie-Helene Huet remarks archly, “had never been made by those disagreeing with Malebranche” (Huet, 1993: 66). And Jean-Baptiste Demangeon wrote, in 1807: “As for dissemblances, it is not unreasonable to believe that, when they are not prompted by adultery, they result from some disorder in the functioning of the organs of nutrition” (Huet, 1993: 78). Yet this, too, is puzzling: since all these men believed that women did in fact lie and commit adultery all the time, and since they did, sometimes, cite adultery to explain “dissemblances,” why did they not invoke that belief more often in this context? The answer may lie in two rather different factors: the men’s desperate need for some sort of assurance of paternity and their genuine curiosity about what we would now call genetics, particularly about the problem of nonresemblance, a curiosity that transcended even the highly charged agenda of male insecurity.

European and American Literature: From the White Side

Racial, or racist, aspects of parental impression enter the stories explicitly in European literature. Ambrose Pare, writing in the sixteenth century, retells the Heliodorus version of the Ethiopian queen and then tells the Quintilian version of the colors, for good measure:

Hippocrates saved a princess accused of adultery, because

she had given birth to a child as black as a Moor, her husband

and she both having white skin; which woman was

absolved upon Hippocrates’ persuasion that it was [caused

by] the portrait of a Moor, similar to the child, which was

customarily attached to her bed (Pare, 1982:38-9). (9)

The story about Hippocrates, though probably apocryphal (Huet, 1993: 31), was widely cited during the Renaissance (Pare, 1982: 190, n. 47). “Moors” appear, always in negative roles, in a number of English Renaissance dramas about sexual deception. (10) And racial and sexual violence may compound, rather than deflect, one another. So common is this theme that William R. Bowden suggested, “A psychologist might be curious as to why a surprisingly large number of [sexual masquerades] involve Moors, real or pretended” (Bowden, 1969: 121). So might a cultural critic.

Arthur Schnitzler mocked the theory of parental impression in “Andreas Thameyer’s Last Letter” (1918), a story about a suicide note written by a man unwilling to admit to himself that his wife had betrayed him with a black man:

Martin Luther himself–as one can read in his after-dinner

speeches–knew, in Wittenberg, a man who had a death

head because his mother had been frightened by the sight of

a corpse while she was pregnant with him. [Here he cites

Heliodorus’s tale of the Ethiopian queen, and other cases

noted by Malebranche, Hamberg, Weisenburg, Preuss, Limbock,

and others.] In 1737 in France a woman gave birth to

a son when her husband had been absent for four years, and

she swore that she had, during that period, dreamt of the

passionate embrace of her husband. The physicians and midwives

of Montpellier declared that this was quite possible,

and the court at Havre declared the child legitimate….

And it happened to me, and to my wife, who was true to me,

as truly as I am living at this moment. Our child is now fourteen

days old…. My wife has been true to me, and the

child that she bore to me is my child. She had a shock in her

pregnancy, in August, when she was at the zoo with her sister

Fritzi, where these foreign people had camped, these

uncanny black people [diese unheimlichen Schwarzen]….

Wednesday she and her sister Fritzi went to the zoo, where

Negroes had camped. I myself saw these people later, in

September…. My wife was terrified, and alone, for Fritzi

had suddenly left her, to go off with a married man who has

a rather bad reputation … My wife waited for Fritzi for two

hours, and then the gates were shut, and she had to go. She

told me all this, with her arms around my neck as I sat on

her bed, and she trembled in fear, and I was afraid, too,

though I didn’t know then that she was already carrying our

child (Schnitzler, 1918: 220-28; author’s translation).

Once again, animals shadow the relationship with people of other ethnicities, which now we may indeed call races; the encounter takes place at the zoo.

The argument turns upon the layered meanings of the phrase, “Sie hat sich versehen,” which means, literally, “She mis-saw” (on the analogy of verhoren, “to mis-hear”), that is, “She made an oversight, a mistake,” then, “She had a (visual) shock,” and more particularly, said of pregnant women, “She had a (visual) shock in her pregnancy”; “She received a maternal impression.” (11) So a pregnant woman who sees something mistakenly has a shock that imprints a mistake upon the embryo. In Schnitzler’s story, the husband’s suspicions of his wife are projected onto the disreputable married man with whom the wife’s sister has an affair and are further enflamed by his racist attitude toward the black people who shocked his wife. These emotions keep breaking through the argument that this sort of thing can be explained by men of science, and they finally drive him mad.

The modern European mythology of passing plays upon the tension between two different racist criteria: the superficial and most immediately obvious criterion of blackness, the so-called phenotypical criterion, is skin color, while the legal criterion, invisible, is descent from a person regarded as black (that initial judgment being made on the basis of any of a number of criteria, including, of course, skin color). People who pass as white pass the superficial criterion of color but are using the legal criterion of ancestral blackness, in their self-definitions; if they have black children, the first criterion will kick back in and they will be doubly damned. In Mark Twain’s 1894 novel about passing and racism, Pudd’nhead Wilson, a white baby and a black baby are exchanged, and the black child, who looks white, is raised as white. The racial masquerade is shadowed by a sexual masquerade, for, like so many of Twain’s characters, both the black mother and the passing son cross-dress. The ease with which the son escapes from the house where he has committed a murder simply by jettisoning his female disguise, raises questions about the superficiality of both sexual and racial identity, as Susan Gillman argues: “If ‘male’ and ‘female’ are as readily interchanged as ‘black’ and ‘white,’ then gender difference may prove to be as culturally constituted, as much ‘a fiction of law and custom,’ as racial difference” (Gillman, 1989: 79). The son’s on-going racial masquerade works because no one really notices slaves as individuals; and his temporary gender masquerade works because the black man who passes as white also passes as a woman on the day of the murder–and no one really notices women as individuals. That he escapes by putting on (and taking off) his mothers clothing makes him at last, symbolically, entirely assimilated to her and to her race, which he has so viciously denied throughout his childhood and early manhood. But when, after that, his mother masquerades as a man to escape from slavery (slavery into which her son has sold her), she has completed the circle, rejecting the maternal persona that drove her to sacrifice herself for her undeserving son. (12)

The concern for the color of children in narratives of passing is reflected in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Coleman Silk, born of black parents but passing as a Jew, is attracted to a Jewish woman with very frizzy hair, and the narrator remarks, “There floated through Coleman the eerie, crazy fear that all that he had ever wanted from Iris Gittelman was the explanation her appearance could provide for the texture of their children’s hair” (Roth, 2002: 136). Later, Coleman’s sister has more to say about that fear:

He was testing fate with so many kids. Because they were

genetically linked to the past he had repudiated, there was

always the chance, you see, that they might be a throwback

in some distinguishing way…. Think of the havoc he could

create in their lives if their children were born recognizably

Negro. So far he has been lucky … But think of his daughter,

who isn’t married yet. Suppose one day she has a white

husband, as more than likely she will, and she gives birth to

a Negroid child, as she can–as she may. How does she

explain that? And what will her husband assume? He will

assume that another man fathered her child. A black man

at that (Roth, 2002, 320).

Once again, the hypothesis of sexual dishonesty vies with the hypothesis of racial dishonesty. In Faye Kellerman’s novel The Ritual Bath (1986), a white Jewish woman, raped by a black man, gives birth to a white baby girl, who grows up, marries a white man, and gives birth to a black baby, whereupon all hell breaks loose. Clearly this story, and in particular the tension it represents between Jews and African-Americans, is an enduring theme.

Mary Ann Doane notes that relatively few films have been made about the quandary of “passing” because of the visual dilemma that it poses: What does the actress look like when she is supposed to look like a black person who looks like a white person? The simple answer is, a white person (Doane, 1991: 235). The irony of racism inheres in the fact that people who do not look black at all are defined as black by nonvisual criteria, invisible genealogical criteria, though the convention still assumes that they may be identified by skin color. Thus, casting a white woman as a passing black woman results in white as black as white. The viewer experiences “a curious distanciation…. There is one body too much” (Doane, 1991: 235). A third extra body is produced in the two films based on Fannie Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life (1934, and then the imitation in 1959). On one occasion, a black woman passing as white is asked by friends to serve at table; she carries the tray of food on her head and announces, “I learned it from my mammy and she learned it from her massuh befo’ she belonged to you.” As Doane comments on this scene, “The representational convolutions involved in this scene are mind-boggling. The spectator is faced with a white (Susan Kohner the actress) pretending to be a black pretending to be a white pretending to be a black (as incarnated in all the exaggerated attributes of Southern blackness). Ontology is out of reach” (Doane, 1991: 237). Just as the girl serving the tray pretends to be black, which she is, her mother on one occasion pretends to be her mother, which she is–a trick she might have learned from Moses’ mother in a comparable situation. A similar sort of self-impersonation takes place in Roth’s novel, when Coleman Silk, passing as white and Jewish, tells everyone that on one occasion, “because his name didn’t give him away as a Jew–because it could as easily have been a Negro’s name,” he’d once been identified, in a brothel, as black and had been thrown out (Roth, 2002: 16). These reversals of reversals produce a kind of vertigo so that the “true” race is obscured, or, more precisely, revealed to be the unknowable and meaningless nonsense that it is.

The ancient tales of black women giving birth to white children, through the implicitly positive influence of works of art (positive, in the view of these texts, because art is superior to nature, not because white is superior to black), yield, in later cultures, to racist fantasies about white women cuckolding their husbands with actual black lovers. This shades off into the racist and sexual obsession with the myth of the white woman raped by the black man, which also becomes a colonial myth in novels such as E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

The American Experience: From the Black Side

We have noted several explanations that the texts offer for the dark color of the Jews. Another argument is that, since the Jews did not permit intercourse during the woman’s menstruation, and Gentiles did, Jewish children were born without any initial redness, but gradually grew blacker, like plums, while Gentiles were born with an unhealthy redness but gradually grew lighter, like apples. Indeed, the widely observed phenomenon of dark parents giving birth to lighter children who gradually grow darker, which African-Americans refer to as “browning down,” may be one of the sources of the stories about Ethiopians giving birth to white children and is widely noted in African-American literature.

The complexity of the interaction between the racist mythology of the “throwback” from the white side and its reinterpretation from the black side is afforded by the icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Regla, attested as widespread in Cuba from the testimony of Bishop Morell in 1755 to the present day. (13) The Virgin of Regla is depicted as a brown woman, Mary, holding a white child, the Christ child. Her mythology reflects several important aspects of the actual relationships between brown women and white children in Cuba during the period in which African men and women were enslaved there and then long after the official abolition of slavery in 1886. First, many Afro-Cuban women were employed as wet nurses, mammies, for white children, making Regla, in E. Perez’s words, “Heaven’s au pair” or “the world’s Wet Nurse”; one of her epithets is “Mother-of-Moist Nipples” (Perez, 2003). Second, other Afro-Cuban women were raped or seduced by their white masters. And, third, still others engaged in the process of blanqueamiento or “whitening” or, a common euphemism, “improving the race”–remarrying or having children with someone lighter in pigmentation than themselves–or “passing” for white themselves by straightening their hair, applying bleaching creams, and so forth. Any or all of these overdetermined factors may be read into the image of the Virgin of Regla, as well as a contrast with the image of the woman of mixed race, the mulatta, whose position was well summed up by a colonial from Brazil: “White women are for marriage, African women for labor, and mulattas for fornication” (Perez, 2003, citing Freyre, 1964: 20).

A very different attitude to mulattas, and to the white children of people of color, is expressed in Imperium in Imperio, written by Sutton Elbert Griggs in 1899; it is a passionate indictment of racism and a complex study of miscegenation. One of the two male protagonists, Bernard Belgrave, is the child of a famous white senator who secretly marries a mulatto woman; her father was a wealthy white man and her mother the man’s black servant. Their child, Bernard, is thus three-fourths white and light-skinned, and he functions throughout the book as a mulatto (the term used by the book); he goes to a school for black children, but is privileged by the teacher because of his light skin. The senator never publicly acknowledges him but privately helps him, and he grows up to become a famous and successful public figure, the leader of his people. On the other hand, when Bernard falls in love with a beautiful black woman, Viola, who loves him, she commits suicide rather than marry him, for she has vowed never to marry a mulatto; she believed, she says in her suicide note to him, “that the intermingling of the races in sexual relationship was sapping the vitality of the Negro race and in fact was slowly but surely destroying the race” (Griggs, 1922 [1899]: 172). (14) Bernard becomes a hardened, militant revolutionary, who “could not sacrifice his race for his best friend. Viola had taught him that lesson” (261).

The other protagonist, Belton Piedmont, is the black child of black parents; he marries a black woman named Antoinette, and they have a child:

Belton bent forward to look at his infant son. A terrible

shriek broke from his lips. He dropped the lamp upon the

floor and fled out of the house and rushed madly through

the city. The color of Antoinette was brown. The color of Belton

was dark. But the child was white! (Griggs, 1922: 136-7).

He leaves her immediately, assuming that she has committed adultery with a white man: “Like the multitude, he supposed that his failure to properly support her had tempted her to ruin.” And yet he never stops loving her, and he blames his troubles not upon her but upon racism: “Color prejudice … sent, as he thought, cruel want with drawn sword to stab his family honor to death.” And the mother?

Antoinette Nerval Piedmont had been tried and excluded

from her church on the charge of adultery. She did not

appear at the trial nor speak a word in her own defense … The

only person about whom she was concerned was Belton.

She yearned oh! so much, to be able to present to him

proofs of her chastity: but there was that white child…. As

the child grew, its mother noticed that its hair began to

change. She also thought she discovered his skin growing

darker by degrees. As his features developed he was seen to

be the very image of Belton. Antoinette frequently went out

with him and the people began to shake their heads in

doubt. At length the child became Antoinette’s color, retaining

Belton’s features…. The people began to feel that she

was a martyr instead of a criminal…. The church met and

rescinded its action of years ago (Griggs, 1922: 256).

Only years later, when Belton is about to die, does he go to find her to say goodbye. (Bernard, the tormented and frustrated mulatto, has persuaded his people to go to war against America, and Belton, who has suffered far more at the hands of white people, refuses to go along and is to be shot, at his own request.) Her first words to him are, “Belton! There is your white child! Look at him! Look at him!” And when he sees the striking resemblance, “By and by it began to dawn on him that that child was somehow his child.” To confirm his belief, she shows him a series of photos of the child: “Belton discerned the same features in each photograph, but a different shade of color of the skin.” And the first words that he speaks are, “O, God, what crime is this with which my soul is stained?” (Griggs, 1922: 257-8). A poignant metaphor of color, transferring to his own soul the “stain” that he had wrongly imputed to his wife because he did not find it literally upon the skin of his child. (These several meanings surely color the title of Philip Roth’s novel of passing, The Human Stain.) No simple answers are offered to these complex intertwinings of sex and race, but the author is clearly on the side of love between individuals, men and women, parents and children, of any race, and against the ideologies that pollute those relationships. In this context, the birth of a white child to black parents is both a personal sexual tragedy and part of a broader political tragedy, both based on false judgments: in the personal case the false assumption of adultery and in the public case the false criterion of race.

Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing, focuses on the fear of a “throwback,” when a woman passing for white gives birth to a child with blatantly black characteristics. Where the concept of parental impression argues that the child’s appearance reveals the mother’s hidden thoughts, the mythology of passing argues that it reveals her (racial) past; the “throwback” is an extreme test of sexual deception, and a fine example of what Freud called “the return of the repressed.” Thus, in Passing, a woman who “passes” and is pregnant by her white husband, who knows she is black, worries: “They don’t know like we do, how it might go way back, and turn out dark no matter what color the father and mother are…. It’s awful the way it skips generations and then pops out. Why, he actually said he didn’t care what color it turned out, if only I would stop worrying about it. But, of course, nobody wants a dark child” (Larsen, 1969: 60). (This strongly echoes a modem European editor’s racist reaction to Heliodoms’s Ethiopian queen: “One must not forget that, for a young black woman like the princess of the Ethiopica, the most beautiful baby in the world is a white baby” [Soranos d’Ephese, 1988: 83.]) Another black woman in the novel, Clare, is married to a man who does not know she is black. Her lie of passing is equated, in the eyes of her (black) friend Irene, with Clare’s lie of pretending she is not sleeping with Irene’s husband–or, in the eyes of the author, with Irene’s lie of pretending that she does not know about the presumed adultery–or, in the eyes of some critics (Garber, 1995: 444), with Irene’s lie that she herself does not desire Clare. In one scene, Clare masquerades as herself, pretending to be a white woman pretending to be a black woman. On another occasion, Clare’s husband tells a story: “When we were first married, she was as white as–as–well as white as a lily. But I declare she’s gettin’ darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.” And he laughs, and Clare laughs with him.

The judgment that a white child has been born to black parents conceals untenable assumptions about racial purity, both the judgment that the parents are “black” in the sense of having nothing but black ancestors (an unlikely assumption given the long history of interaction between people of European and African stock), and the judgment that the child is “white” (in the sense of having at least one equally “pure white” parent, ditto). Today, a person’s subjective judgment that he or she is black or white is a combination of several overlapping criteria, such as physical appearance (primarily but not only skin color), the person’s own knowledge or presumed knowledge of his or her ancestry, the public perception of that ancestry, and personal feelings (Mills, 1998: 50-53). Yet, despite the wide knowledge of both the “browning down” effect and the history of miscegenation in America, in Harlem throughout the last century, light-skinned children born to black parents continued to be regarded with the suspicion that they were the product of adultery between the mother and a white man, inspiring an emphasis on resemblance typical of the mythology of paternal resemblance: “He looks like his father spit him out.” (15) And “browning down” may be taking on a new meaning now. On Martin Luther King Day, in 2002, one white child, born of white South African parents who had moved to America, said to his schoolmates, “I’m African-American, too.” When the other children said, “No, you’re white,” he replied: “I used to be black, and I’m getting lighter every day.” (16)

Contemporary Science

Paternal uncertainty continues to evoke racist reactions in present-day European and American culture. Apparently there was (in 1998) a paternity case pending for 1 of every 100 children in the United States–about 750,000 cases. DNA testing has become commercially popular, advertised on billboards (1-800-DNA-TYPE), taking the mystery out of this once mysterious matter even as it testifies to its enduring human appeal. “An incredible number are just doing it for their own peace of mind,” said Caroline Caskey, president of the Identigene lab that answers the call to 1800-DNA-TYPE. But Dr. Amanda Sozer, director of another lab, remarked, “It gives people the chance of getting an answer they may not want to get” (Belluck, 1997: 4.1). Nowadays, the scientific permutations of surrogate motherhood, egg donors, and other reproductive technologies exacerbate parental instability–and extend it into new legal tangles–far more than DNA testing assuages it.

Modern science has also intruded into the mythology of uncertain racial parentage. A case involving color was reported in the Lancet in 1890: a woman, when four-months pregnant, had been startled by a black and white collie dog (animals again); she gave birth to a child whose “right thigh was encircled by a shining black mole, studded with white hairs” (Chapman, 1890, cited in Ellis, 1906, vol. 5: 219). The mole is strongly reminiscent of the black birthmark in the form of a ring on Charikleia, in the tale told by Heliodorus. In our day, over a century later, a case that would have been explained, in other times and other places, by a theory of parental impression, was made possible by the modern medical techniques of in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination. In this case, a 1995 legal suit that presented an exaggerated version of the quandary of the white queens with black babies, the test tube replaced the male parent. A Dutch couple that had failed to produce a child on their own had twin boys by means of in vitro fertilization. One was blond, the other dark; blood tests confirmed that the dark one was the child of a man from the Caribbean island of Antigua, whose sperm had accidentally been given to the woman along with that of her husband. The couple made public their distress: “There’s always the suggestion that Wilma has been to bed with someone else,” said Wilma’s husband, Willem. The biological father, however, asked the fight question: “Do they love the child?” (“Twins,” 1995: 38; I have paraphrased everything but the direct quotes).

Apparently they did; in any case, they kept both twins. The phenomenon of two fathers for twins is rare in humans; it happens only when a woman has sexual relations with several men in close succession at a time when she has more than one egg susceptible to fertilization. (There was a lawsuit in which a German woman who had given birth to twins sued an American soldier for paternity; a DNA test indicated that he was the father–of one of the twins). But it is quite common among animals–and in mythology. In Greek mythology, Alcmena gave birth to twins when she slept first with her husband and then with Zeus (in the form of her husband); one twin was like her husband, the other like Zeus. In vitro fertilization thus re-invokes the mythology of both double fathers and twins.

In March, 1999, two women, one black, one white, who were being treated for infertility by the same doctor in the same midtown Manhattan fertility clinic, had appointments to be implanted with fertilized eggs on the same spring day. A month later, the white woman was pregnant with twins, and the black woman was not. A mistake had been made: some of the eggs that impregnated the white woman were her own and had been fertilized by her husband, but DNA tests showed that some came from the black woman. And indeed, the white woman gave birth to twin boys, one white, one black. The black couple sued for custody of the black child, and the white mother gave him up. According to her lawyer, “She is doing this because she loves her boys, and she is a victim here, not the culprit. She doesn’t look at them as white and black. She looks at them as her sons. She is torn apart by this. She holds the babies, she feeds the babies, she cares for them. But at the same time, she doesn’t want to deprive her son of being with his biological mother” (Yardley, 1999: B1). Barbara Katz Rothman, a City University sociologist, compared this incident with the “similar case [that] occurred recently in Holland” and noted that in that case the woman is now raising both children. “Such cases, she said, raise murky philosophical questions” (Yardley, 1999: B3). Indeed, they do, and have done for centuries: What was it that made the Dutch couple love the black child and keep it, and drove the Manhattan woman to give up the black child even while she protested that she was colorblind and loved him?

It happened again in July 2002, according to an article entitled “Whites Have Black Twins in In-Vitro Mix-Up”:

LONDON, July 8–A white couple have become the parents

of black twins after a mistake by a fertility clinic during

in-vitro fertilization in what appears to be the first case

of its kind in Britain…. The case also involves a black couple

who sought treatment at the same clinic but did not

have any children afterward. A court case this fall will

address the question of who the legal parents are. The government

would not comment on the mix-up, which apparently

occurred when both couples were treated at an

undisclosed National Health Service clinic.

No genetic tests are carried out to ensure that the right

embryos are implanted into the right woman, so fertility

clinics rely on a complex set of checks to avoid mistakes. In

this case, The Sun reported, it is unclear whether the black

couple’s fertilized egg was mistakenly implanted in the

white woman, or whether the black man’s sperm had been

used to fertilize the white woman’s egg. “Apart from being

a tragedy for the parents involved, it is also a major embarrassment

for the National Health Service,” a health service

official told The Sun. “Great steps have been taken to ensure

that this sort of thing never happens. It must be a one in a

million chance. The big problem now is, who are the real

parents of the twins?” (17)

What is the “tragedy” that the health service official assumes? Is it simply that parents gave birth to children other than their own biological children, or that the children were of the wrong race? Put differently, is the myth of black and white children simply the extreme and most obvious, visually obvious, instance of the much broader issue of paternal insecurity, or is it about the feelings that people have about people whom they regard as significantly Other?

Is All Black and White Symbolism Racist?

We have seen that in many of the European stories, recorded at a time when theories of race were widespread, the idea of parental impression acts as a force against racism (and hereditarianism in general). And I have suggested that these myths may simply be using criteria of skin color in the service of another agenda, broader than racism: the agenda of paternal insecurity. Is all black and white symbolism racist? More precisely, in the scenario of color-coded children, which combines the concerns of paternal insecurity, sexism, and general “otherness,” why is it always blackness and whiteness that play this critical role rather than some other characteristics, such as hair or eye color?

Black and white symbolism goes far back and far down. Throughout most of the period in which black and white people have known one another–which is to say most of recorded human history–black and white symbolism was not racist. Often the story’s assumption that black is not beautiful, or good, plays upon values that black people and white people might share. The primary experience, long anterior to the social fact of racism, might well be the experience of night and day or, with Melanie Klein, the milk and the nonmilk of the two breasts, also a black/white experience if you wish (Klein, 1948; Doniger O’Flaherty, 1976: 321-369). Without reference to skin color, black may also be associated with goodness (cool shade, creative chaos) or evil (darkness, dirt). People who hunt at night, who live where it is too hot to do much during the day, or who like to go out to buy cigarettes at g A.M., prefer the night; other people are happier in the light. Shadows, too, mean different things in different cultures. In India, which tends to be hot, shade is welcome. As Ann Gold reminds us, “The term shadow has connotations of benevolence and protection (shelter from the sun)–not of frightening darkness” (Gold, 1988: 38). There is a Sanskrit saying that there is no shade like a mother.

Even where skin color is an issue, white is by no means always supreme. Just as black is beautiful in many mythologies, so, too, black skin is often beautiful. Many African mythologies depict dark people as beautiful, and white as an aberration (Bonnefoy, 1991). Frank M. Snowden, Jr., in Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience, argues that the Greeks were innocent of what we would call racist attitudes to dark-skinned people (Snowden, 1970), although some reviewers regarded him as naive. Evidence in his favor might include the positive Greek attitude to the black Athena and black Demeter, as well as Poseidon’s friendship (in Homer) with the “blameless” Ethiopians among whom he feasts, oblivious to the needs of his (presumably lighter-skinned) Greek friends (Homer, Odyssey 1.22, 5.282-8, etc.). Mazzolini agrees that color prejudice did not exist in the ancient Mediterranean world. Beyond Europe, the great Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, as we have seen, regarded pallor as the problem, not dark skin, and it considered the dark heroine Draupadi, also called “Krishna” (“the Dark Woman”), all the more beautiful for her dark skin. But a preference for Hindu brides with light skin color–classist rather than racist, since the lower castes and tribal peoples of India generally had darker skins–soon came to be attested in India and was already well in place before it came to be exacerbated by the overt racism of the colonial experience. The appendix to the Mahabharata, around the fourth century C.E., tells a story of the wife of the sun god who ran away from her husband because his own rays had given him a sunburn, and she did not like his dark skin (Harivamsa 8.148; Doniger, 1999: 4446). A few centuries later, but still before the Muslim presence, and long before the British, a group of medieval Sanskrit texts tell a long story that begins like this:

One day the god Shiva teased his wife, the goddess Parvati,

about her dark skin; he called her “Blackie” (Kali) and said

that her dark body against his white body was like a black

snake coiled around a pale sandalwood tree. When she

responded angrily, they began to argue and to hurl insults

at one another. Furious, she went away to generate inner

heat in order to obtain a fair, golden, skin (Padma Purana

1.46.1-32, 47-108,119-121). (18)

Clearly, ideas about skin color were changing, but not under the influence of any possible element of racism. In our day, the blond and brunette wigs worn by women in Hollywood movies who pretend to be other women are simply the most obvious ways to distinguish women in disguise; the brunette is not always the evil one, and, in fact, the evil blond bombshell (often played by Sharon Stone, though most notoriously by Glenn Close in Fatal Instinct) is the dominant Hollywood image of female evil.

But even if these oppositions between black and white were originally metaphysical or personal, or even classist, as soon as people with racial ideas tell these stories, race gets into it and rides piggyback on, indeed “appropriates,” other kinds of symbolism that might be keyed to skin color, and the stories of black and white children must henceforth be read in that new light. As Leavy points out, “Although folktales may not be intentionally racist, they often perpetuate damaging stereotypes” (Barbara Fass Leavy, 1994: 217, n. 17). Marina Warner’s meditations on the blonde are very much to the point: “The adjective’s double resonance–in French, Italian, German, Spanish–of beauty and light coloring corresponds to the English usage of ‘fair’ since the Middle Ages: the Old English meaning of beautiful, or pleasing, developed by the thirteenth century into ‘free from imperfections or blemish’ and by the sixteenth carried explicit connotations of ‘a light hue; clear in color'” (Warner, 1995: 363). The Nazis, of course, took up the theme of light and dark (a.k.a. blond and swarthy) from their own version of Indo-European mythology and racialized it in a different way, to use primarily (though not only) against the Jews.

Thus, when stories about light and dark children were recorded in the European tradition, they almost always took on racist overtones; race relations are not consciously prominent in most of the stories we have considered, but we may well suspect unconscious assumptions and biases that drive the seemingly innocent plots. The threat of the Other Male is not the only form that this paranoia takes; there is an equally pervasive terror of the Other Woman, which also uses black and white symbolism. Stith Thompson, the Linneaus of folklore, included “The Black and White Bride” in his wide survey of folktale motifs (a cross between the periodic tables and the Dewey Decimal System) and called it “Tale Type 403.” The version of the story retold by the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century, at a time when racist theory was riding roughshod all over the country that was in the process of becoming Germany, could be summarized as follows:

The Lord asked two stepsisters the way to the village. One

refused to help, and the Lord cursed her to be black as

night and ugly as sin. The other was helpful, and the Lord

granted her wish to be as beautiful and fair as the sun. The

king saw the fair girl’s picture, fell in love, and asked her to

marry him. But as the bride was traveling to the castle, the

stepmother used her magic to make the coachman (the fair

girl’s brother) half-blind and the fair maiden herself half-deaf,

and the black girl put on the clothing of the fair girl

and pushed her from a bridge. A white duck emerged from

the water. The black girl married the king, whose sight had

been clouded by the stepmother’s magic. The white duck

revealed herself to the king, who cut off her head with his

sword, and she changed back to the white bride, just like

her picture. Now knowing what had happened, the king

had the witch and her black daughter put to death, and he

married the white bride (The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales,


“The blackness of the substitute bride,” Leavy writes, “is clearly symbolic. Where she is not specifically black, she is often ugly and swarthy, such as the Arab girl in a Turkish variant and the impostor in a Norwegian version, where one would not expect to find a dark-skinned woman…. In many Hispanic examples, the stories … focus … on the conflict between a wife and a wicked Negress who tries to impersonate her” (Leavy, 1994: 217).

The white duck may be an atavism of the white swan maiden (with the black double) perhaps best known from Swan Lake, which replicates the symbolism of the black and white brides. This swan maiden is not really a swan at all, but a princess bewitched into the false form of a swan: the white swan, Odette, is impersonated by a black swan, Odile, the alter ego, or substitute (black) bride, who fools the prince, thus condemning Odette to remain forever under the swan spell (Beaumont, 1982: 19-40). Odile was a black swan when the ballet was first performed by the Imperial Ballet at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1877. (19) In an attempt to eliminate the racism that modern consciousness came to see in the black swan, some subsequent race-sensitive productions made all the swans either white or black. A 1986 production by the New York City Ballet (designed by Alain Vaes) dressed all the swans, except for Odette, in black, while a 1989 production directed by Mikhail Barishnikov dressed all the swans, including Odile, in white (Croce, 1989: 105-7). But once again race and sex interact, and other productions reversed gender rather than color. Erik Bruhn’s 1967 production for the National Ballet of Canada changed the evil magician into a Black Queen, the alter ego of the Prince’s mother (Fanger, 1998, vol. 6: 35). Reversing the genders in a different way, Matthew Bourne’s 1995 production for London’s Sadler’s Wells ballet company made all the swans male, arguing, against a long tradition, that swans are intrinsically male, “big, aggressive birds” whose wing span “is better suggested by male musculature than female” (not to mention the long neck …). He also hoped to make sense of the original scenario, which he found “pretty weird–a man falling in love with a bird, then not being able to spot the difference between a white swan and a black one…. I just wanted to explain how the story could happen, in a plausible context, without magic spells.” (Parry, 1998, section 2: 29). It is difficult to see how the shift in gender contributes to this euhemeristic enterprise, nor how it covers the ground of the black/white switch (unless, of course, the male swan were to appear as a female in the second act, in drag or in the closet, as it were …). The Ballet Trockadere de Monte Carlo actually put on a hilarious Swan Lake, in drag: casting men, but dressing them as female swans. Once again, we see how gender issues run along a parallel track to racial issues.

Eve White and Eve Black, the alter egos of the protagonist of The Three Faces of Eve, were apparently so named by the therapists who collected the data; critics of the book dryly remark, “We suppose that the ‘White’ and ‘Black’ have some connotative significance” (Osgood and Luria, 1954; reprinted in Thigpen and Cleckly, 1957: 284). This seems a good supposition. But precisely what is the “connotative significance” of black and white in these stories? Leavy notes that the heroine of animal groom tales is often imprisoned by a black man instead of the traditional beast, and she remarks, “The racist implications of the equation of blackness with loathliness or evil are obvious” (Leavy, 1994: 219; 217, n. 91). And, I would add, with animals. Black and white animals play a telling scene in the film, After the Thin Man (1936): Nick and Nora (William Powell and Myrna Loy) return home after a trip to New York with their light-colored terrier Asta. Asta rushes out to the backyard and finds “Mrs. Asta” (as her doghouse proclaims), a terrier who closely resembles him, surrounded by a litter of pups that look like their parents–except for one black pup. Asta looks suspicious, and then finds a black (presumably male) terrier coming into the yard through a hole he has dug under the fence; Asta chases him out and closes up the hole. Is this a racist scene? Would it have been possible to make the point, a sexual point, with a dog of a dramatically different shape or size, for instance, rather than a different color? Our decision on this point may be influenced by our knowledge of film history: D. W. Griffith’s epoch-making film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), set firmly in the racial attitudes of the American South, depicts the antebellum South as an Edenic world in which the races lived in perfect harmony; as part of this image, we see black and white dogs playing happily together (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002: 28).

Where does this leave us? When a text says that a white woman is horrified to discover that she has given birth to a black child, or when Belton Piedmont gives “a terrible shriek” at the sight of his white baby, what is the source of the horror, the terror? Does the child prove that the “white” mother is “black” and has been passing, as is the fear in the passing novels? Does it prove that the mother has been impregnated by a man other than her husband (and only incidentally other than her race), as the tales of male insecurity argue in both white and black contexts? Does it prove that either of these mothers has seen or thought about a man other than her husband, as the tales of parental impression argue? Or does it prove that such a woman has desired or actually yielded to a man of another race? All four are possible, and they are by no means mutually exclusive. Black and white symbolism is a powerful force that has, alas, been used so often for harmful purposes that we can no longer appreciate its other possible applications, any more than we can think of “gay” as simply meaning lighthearted. Things happen; symbols change.


(1) Imprinting is the more common term, but the word has come to be more readily associated with Konrad Lorenz’s work on the “imprinting” of young animals and, hence, is confusing in this context.

(2) I owe some of the ideas in this last sentence to a personal communication (August 1999) from Benjamin Braude, who is developing them in a forthcoming book.

(3) The speckled ewes double for Rachel, whose name in Akkadian means “ewe,” a pun that plays a role in the scene in which Jacob meets, and desires, both Rachel and the sheep (Genesis 29:9-11).

(4) The Judaic materials in this section are the contribution of Gregory Spinner; see Doniger and Spinner (1998).

(5) The ordeal, called Sota, is described at Numbers 5:12-31, and in the Mishnaic tractate of that name.

(6) personal communication from Sander Gilman, October 5, 2002.

(7) Morrison’s piece, a study of the hidden presence of black people in white literature–an interesting analogy to the subject of this essay-makes a nice distinction between racialism (regarding some people as belonging to another race) and racism (hating them for it).

(8) This much-quoted bon mot appears in The Importance of Being Ernest. When Lady Bracknell asks Jack, her prospective son-in-law, “Are your parents living?” and Jack replies, “I have lost both my parents,” Lady Bracknell remarks: “To lose one parent might be regarded as unfortunate; to lose both is careless.” This is the text as it is most often cited, and as it appears in the Oxford standard edition of Wilde (1990), as well as in the classic film with Michael Redgrave. But in present-day performances it is usually cited as I have it in this text. A shorter version, also widespread, appears in the Vintage edition (1946: 449); Lady Bracknell simply says, “Both? … That seems like carelessness.”

(9) According to Pare, Ceard said the story came from Hippocrates’ Opera, section III, “De natura pueri,” perhaps through Sylvius.

(10) Samuel Harding’s Sicily and Naples (1640), John Marston’s Sophonisba (1605), John Fletcher’s Monsieur Thomas (1615), William Rowley’s All’s Lost by Lust (1619), Philip Massinger’s The Parliament of Love (1624) and Novella (1632). See Desens (1994: 69).

(11) Havelock Ellis refers to “the conception of a ‘maternal impression’ [the German versehen]” (Ellis, 1906, vol. 5: 218).

(12) Racial and sexual “passing” overlap similarly in Samuel Harding’s revenge play, Sicily and Naples (1986 [1640]), when a man’s daughter masquerades as a boy, and his son masquerades as a Moor.

(13) All that I know concerning this icon I learned from an essay by E. Perez (2003).

(14) I am indebted to Carla Peterson for telling me about this amazing novel, in the course of her perceptive and informative response to an early draft of this paper that was presented in Washington, D. C., October 5, 2002.

(15) Personal communication from Pamela Jenn, October 9, 2002.

(16) personal communication from Jill Berkowitz, a South African psychoanalyst, on October 5, 2002.

(17) The story continued: “In a similar case in New York in 1999, a 40-year-old white woman who gave birth to two children–one white and one black–after in vitro treatment agreed to return the black child to his biological parents after it was determined that she had been implanted with the wrong embryo.

“In 1993, a Dutch woman who gave birth to twins was astonished to find that one had much darker skin than the other. A year later, DNA tests revealed that the hospital had mistakenly mixed sperm from the woman’s white husband with that of a black man from the Dutch Antilles. In that case, the woman kept both babies.

“Doriver Lilley, 37, who had six years of in vitro treatment and who also gave birth to twins, told the Reuters news agency today that she had dreaded such a mistake taking place during her own treatment. ‘It’s always there in the back of your mind–what if they’re not mine?’ she said. ‘What if they put them on the wrong shelf?.'” (Lyall, 2002: A10).

(18) The same text, with some variations, appears in the Skanda Purana 1.2.27-29 (the version translated in Doniger O’Flaherty, Hindu Myths [1975: 251-261]) and in the Matsya Purana 154-7 (the version translated by Shulman in God Inside Out (1997: 156); Doniger (2000: 70-71).

(19) Libretto by Vladimir Begichev and Vasily Geltser, choreography by Julius Reisinger; later reworked by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa in St. Petersburg.


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Wendy Doniger is Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of History of Religions in the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her recent publications include a new translation of the Kamasutra (with Sudhir Kakar, 2002) and The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade (2000).

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