Leprosy & Race: Making Skin “Color” A Disease

“Then a man with a serious skin disease came to Him and on his knees, begged Him: ‘If You are willing, You can make me clean.’ Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out His hand and touched him. ‘I am willing,’ He told him. ‘Be made clean.’ Immediately, the disease left him and he was healed. Then He sternly warned him and sent him away at once, telling him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go and show yourself to the priest and offer what Moses prescribed for your cleansing as a testimony to them.’ Yet he went out and began to proclaim it widely and to spread the news, with the result that Jesus could no longer enter a town openly. But He was out in deserted places and they would come to Him from everywhere.” ~Mark 1.40-45, Holman Christian Standard Bible

There have been many attempts to explain the differences found within the human family from the earliest of times until now. Endlessly in awe and confounded by the fact that we are not all the same, many of us are unable to move beyond our external distinctions. Unable to imagine that the differences are not indicative of differentiations in worth and ability, each community believes itself to be God’s example, God’s choice, God’s leading people of the earth. We still don’t know what to make of our differences and so we tell stories, make diagnoses and draw conclusions as to why persons do not look like us or why we don’t look like them.

A legend attributed to those indigenous to what is now the United States of America suggested that “the ‘black’ man had been left in the oven for too long; the ‘white’ man had not been in the oven long enough but the ‘red’ man had come out just the right color.” The Greek myth involving Phaethon, the son of Helios, who asked his father if he could drive the sun chariot and while doing so lost control of it, burning parts of Africa has been employed to explain the variations in skin pigmentation within the human family. Even the story of the leper whose skin was made “clean” has also been used to imply that socially colored ‘black’ skin is the preferred and natural appearance of humanity while ‘white’ skin is lacking in color and in need of a cure. Those socially defined as “white” were referred to as the “pale race” and their skin was viewed as leprous. However, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, leprosy “causes skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness that gets worse over time; it is caused by the bacterium Mycobacteriumleprae.” This is leprosy, its symptoms and cause.

Our skin, no matter its social coloring, is not indicative of this disease or any other. It need not be changed with the pseudo- healing lather of skin whiteners or tanners, as this was the way that it was created. Let skin be skin and nothing more. It is not a measure of success, an indicator of beauty, a sign of wealth or social perfection. And it is not a symbol of disease. It is simply skin: epidermis. It is natural; it is normal. It is healthy. It is our perspective on skin that is not and needs a miraculous healing from the hand of Jesus Christ.

Additional Readings

Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Power: Leprosy, Race and Colonization of Hawai’i

‘The Island of the Unclean’: Race, Colonialism and ‘Chinese Leprosy in Great Britain in 1891-1924

Anderson, W, Leprosy and Citizenship

Anderson, W, Disease, Race and Empire

Arnold, D, Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth Century India

Arnold, D, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness

Bashford, A, Imperial Hygiene

Buckingham, J, Leprosy in Colonial India: Medicine and Confinement

Gilman, S, Disease and Representation: Images of Illness from Madness to AIDS

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