The symbolism of Black and White babies in the myth of parental impression

Wendy Doniger
University of Chicago
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” , and a 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 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 , which argues that whatever a woman thinks of or sees at the moment of conception influences the physical form of the child. This doctrine, which was known in ancient Israel, in Greece, in ancient India, and in Europe well into the twentieth century, 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 , 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 ; 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. Thus this doctrine, farfetched as it seems to us , 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
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