First of all, let’s get this out of the way: Yes he was. By today’s standards, based on descriptions from people who met him, if you were shown a photograph of the real Beethoven and then asked to guess his race, I guarantee you 99% would say “black.” It’s a shame photography wasn’t really a thing back then. From a privilege standpoint, even if his ancestors had never set foot in Africa from the second the first humans branched out into other continents, his contemporaries often mistook him for being a member of the Moor society (anyone who tells you the Moors “weren’t black, they were more like Arabs” probably makes the same false assumption of the Ancient Egyptians). In all likelihood, he had a fair amount of African ancestry based not only on his general description, but because of the fact that his family came from Spanish-occupied Belgium when a large number of Spain’s occupying forces in that area were descended from the Moors. But yes, if Beethoven were alive today, ancestry aside, he would be treated as a black man by society.
However, this post isn’t intended to convince you he definitely had African ancestry. Short of going back in time, swiping a DNA sample, and testing it against other people from the region, there’s no way of actually proving that, especially given how badly-kept, apocryphal, and easily-revised ancestral records were at that time.
This post is meant to ask the question “Why not?” The only arguments that I’ve seen in favor of him not being black are either flimsy alternate explanations to the evidence in favor of him being black (usually called “rebuttals” even though they’re no more provable than the arguments they’re meant to refute), or “Prove to me he was.”
“You prove to me he wasn’t!” is my automatic response to this.
Here’s the thing about history: It can’t be trusted. It’s written by the people with power, and people with power, believe it or not, generally do not care about lying if it means keeping that power. The contributions of People of Color in history are almost always marginalized when a white man can be given credit for them. This is why the ancient Egyptians are shown as being incredibly light-skinned and the Moors are barely mentioned in many academic historical discussions.
Which brings me back to my oft-visited, favorite form of horrible sneaky racism: Thinking of white as a “default race.” The only evidence that Beethoven was white comes from paintings and busts, most of which were painted either after he died by people who’d never met him (destroying their credibility as historical evidence) or in a society where black people would often “present as” white (which, if someone were attempting such a presentation, it would make sense for them to commission portraits where they look as white as possible, also casting doubt onto their credibility). There’s the word of almost everyone who ever met the man describing him as black (in more detail than Rue and Thresh were described as being black in “The Hunger Games,” although of course, some people assumed they were white as well), and this portrait of Beethoven, which was his favorite, and he considered so accurate that he gave copies to his friends and family who wanted a picture of him:
The point here is that even though the evidence in favor of him being black is overwhelming and the evidence against is insignificant at best, people are eager to overlook the descriptions of people who met him face-to-face and the portrait he regarded as most accurate in favor of the assumption that he was a white man.
It’s fair to say that many white Americans assume everyone is white until given direct indication otherwise. I’ve met many people to whom it had never occurred that Jesus might not be white until his birthplace was directly brought to their attention. Hell, I’ve met people who (having only heard his voice) were surprised to find out James Earl Jones was black.
So to assume Beethoven was white based on nothing but people coming up with possible other explanations for everything else is a little problematic, because at a certain point, it’s like you’re trying to look for reasons he can’t be black that aren’t there.
If he has no African ancestry, then all of the following must be true:
- His skin was so dark that, despite not being black, was often mistaken for being black.
- The rhetoric used to describe him matched up perfectly to then-contemporary description matched that used to describe the Moors completely by coincidence.
- Despite the following two things, his family came from Spanish-occupied Flanders (now Belgium) during the Moors’ reign over Spain without including any African genetics.
Or, the following one answer to all points of evidence:
So basically, my problem here is that people are more willing to accept multiple coordinating outlandish explanations that reassure them Beethoven might not have been black (and, in their minds, the fact that we can’t empirically prove it means we should stop talking about it completely) than they are to accept one simple explanation that wraps everything up in a nice bow and changes nothing other than reveal historical whitewashing and increase awareness that yes, Africa was a major player in World history rather than (as it’s so often erroneously cast) a secondary character in a Eurocentric version of World history. The fact that people need empirical proof he was black but don’t even need a logical argument to convince them he was white is all kinds of problematic. I could write a book on how racist that is.
Challenging Eurocentrism in history is going to uncover a lot of times when whitewashing has occurred (see: How just about everything good Abraham Lincoln did for black people was something Frederick Douglass told him to do). While yes, there is a chance Beethoven was completely white, that answer is less likely than “historians intentionally left out certain details to keep people from challenging the stereotypes about black people they were spreading to ensure their continued ability to oppress them,” or, as it’s more commonly known, a “dominant narrative.”
So maybe Beethoven wasn’t black. Maybe he was. The evidence presented wasn’t an attempt to convince you one way or another. It was intended to show you that while someone who says “I believe Beethoven may have been black, and not, as previously assumed, white” can answer the follow-up question of “why do you believe that,” a person who says “I don’t believe Beethoven was black” can’t. There’s nothing to suggest he couldn’t have been black. They could argue “I believe Beethoven might not have been black” and present alternate lines of reasoning, but since that’s the dominant narrative already, you’re not challenging a well-established assumption, and you’re not going to get any disputes because “might not” is implied in the “might” argument.