03/25/2014 05:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2014

Noah's No Hero

This weekend, millions of movie goers will watch Noah battle the elements and wrestle with visions. He'll talk; he'll feel. He'll build the ark to house hundreds of diverse animals. What he will not do in the film, and what he hasn't done in any American film about Noah, is curse Canaan. In fact, according the list of film characters, Canaan is not in the film (nor is he listed in the 1928 version). Why does it matter? Well, in American history, what Noah said about Canaan has been far more important than what he did with wood (see this piece by Laura Turner for a similar take).

In the book of Genesis, the chapters on the ark and the flood have no words from Noah. There is no recording of any of his feelings -- whether he experienced dread or delight, happiness or sadness. None of that is present. After the waters recede and the people and animals are on land, however, Noah opens his mouth. To be honest, the world may have been a better place if he never did. As the story goes, Noah planted a vineyard, drank some wine, and fell asleep. After Noah awoke, he cursed his grandson (for seemingly no reason), "Curse be Canaan!" Noah blurted out, "The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers." Quite the hero (#sarcasm)

Noah's curse has a variety of names. Sometimes it is called the Curse of Ham. Sometimes it is referred to as the Curse of Canaan. By any name, the implications have been great. As the story moved forward, several of Ham's sons moved to what later became known as Africa. In the United States, the religious story was grafted onto racial logic and the "curse" became a justification. Time and again, white Americans used it to justify the enslavement of Africans and African Americans (white Americans were not the first to use it, but they did so with gusto). Even after slavery died, the curse continued as a folk theology. In the era of Jim Crow segregation, it was put to work to defend lynching, legal inequalities and generic racial hatred.

Noah left a legacy and it wasn't just through his ark. If you go to the movie, you may want to consider who is not present or what storylines are placed in the background. The story of Noah is not just about a flood, an ark and a seemingly monster God. It is also the story of a grandson cursed, of religious words used for centuries to justify oppression, and of a legacy our nation has yet to confront fully.