UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
[The author of this essay retains the copyright. Permission is hereby granted to make copies for personal or classroom use so long as this statement and the name and address of the author are included with each copy. The essay is also available via anonymous ftp or WWW at: ftp://oi.uchicago.edu/pub/papers/AMRoth_Afrocentrism.ascii.txt where it was first publicly posted on 26 January 1995.
It has also been submitted for publication in the Newsletter of the American Research Center in Egypt.
Ann Macy Roth Visiting Assistant Professor of Egyptology Howard University firstname.lastname@example.org
"What color were the ancient Egyptians?"
This is a question that strikes fear into the hearts
of most American Egyptologists, since it so often presages
a barrage of questions and assertions from the Afrocentric
perspective. Few of us have devoted much thought or
research to the contentions of the Afrocentric movement,
so we nervously try to say something reasonable, and
hope that the questioner won't persist and that we
won't end up looking silly or racist or both.
In late 1993, I received a temporary appointment to the faculty of Howard University and began teaching Egyptological subjects to classes that were almost entirely African-American. As a result, I have been dealing with Afrocentric issues on a regular basis, and have spent a good deal of time and energy thinking and talking about them. Since my appointment, many of my Egyptological colleagues at other universities have asked me about Afrocentric sentiment at Howard and my strategies for teaching traditional Egyptology to the students who espouse it. The tone of these inquiries has demonstrated to me both the curiosity and the discomfort that American Egyptologists feel about Afrocentrism. This attempt to write an account of my impressions is partly inspired by such questions, which I have had difficulty answering cogently in short conversations. More importantly, however, I have come to believe that the Afrocentric movement has a great potential to advance or to damage our field. Which of these directions it takes will depend upon the degree to which traditionally- trained American Egyptologists can come to understand and adapt to its existence. This essay is my attempt to speed that process.
"Afrocentric Egyptology," as practiced today, has an international scholarly literature behind it. (The movement is, if anything, more prominent in France than it is here, to judge from the numerous displays of Afrocentric books and journals I saw in Paris book shops last summer.) In America, however, Afrocentric Egyptology is less a scholarly field than a political and educational movement, aimed at increasing the self- esteem and confidence of African-Americans by stressing the achievements of African civilizations, principally ancient Egypt. As such, it is advocated in popular books, textbooks, and even educational posters sponsored by major breweries. It has apparently thus far enjoyed considerable success in its educational aims. As a result, it is being taught to students from grade school through the university level all over America, and its tenets are frequently cited as established fact by the media and the educational establishment. Coming to Howard as part of a tentative Egyptological experiment, I was amazed at the quantity of Egyptology that was already being taught, in courses ranging from drama to mathematics to philosophy. (An Afrocentric work by Ivan van Sertima on Egypt is included in the recommended reading for freshman orientation.) The movement continues to grow in importance and influence, and, whatever one thinks of its content, it has an increasing degree of popular acceptance by a large audience.
This kind of Egyptology has little to do with the Egyptology that we professional Egyptologists practice, and many of us currently regard its incursions upon our field as a nuisance. We see it only when its exponents ask aggressive and seemingly irrelevant questions in classes and public lectures, or make extravagant claims about ancient Egyptian achievements (the harnessing of electricity, the conquest of large parts of southern Europe), citing authors of dubious credibility and outdated theories and translations (often by E. A. W. Budge). Especially annoying are those who combine Afrocentrism with the age-old mystical-crackpot approach to our field, claiming for the Egyptians fantastic lost skills and secret knowledge. In most cases, our reaction to Afrocentrism is avoidance: we deal with the issue by dismissing it as nonsense, by disparaging the knowledge of its proponents, and by getting back to "real" Egyptology.
By doing this, however, we are both ignoring a danger and missing an opportunity. The number of African- Americans who are taught this material is growing, and we will increasingly have to deal with its inaccuracies and exaggerations simply in order to teach our students. This gap between our field and the Afrocentric version of it is not going to go away; if we ignore it, it will surely widen. And by setting ourselves against the whole phenomenon in an adversarial and often condescending way, we make it impossible for the responsible educators involved in the movement (and there are many) to tap our expertise and improve the accuracy of the materials they teach.
At the moment, however, we have the opportunity to narrow the gap by taking a more positive direction. By granting that an Afrocentric perspective may have something to offer our field, we can exorcise the defensiveness and hostility that is so often engendered by the assertions of Afrocentrists. By making our classes more hospitable to those with Afrocentric views, we take the first steps towards training a new generation of Afrocentric scholars in the traditional methods of our field. They will then be able to correct and improve the argumentation of Afrocentric scholarship so that the content of their movement benefits from traditional Egyptology's decades of research and hard-won conclusions. Afrocentric Egyptology need not necessarily conflict with traditional Egyptology; it seems to me possible to combine the two, to the benefit, perhaps, of both.
First, however, it is necessary for traditional Egyptologists to understand the underpinnings of Afrocentric Egyptology. Its contentions, as I have encountered them, fall under four rough rubrics: (1) that the ancient Egyptians were black, (2) that ancient Egypt was superior to other ancient civilizations (especially that of the ancient Greeks, which is seen to be largely derivative), (3) that Egyptian culture had tremendous influence on the later cultures of Africa and Europe, and (4) that there has been a vast racist conspiracy to prevent the dissemination of the evidence for these assertions. Most traditional Egyptologists recognize these contentions, but do not understand the motives behind them, and so deal with them in a counter- productive way. I will address them one by one.
1. The contention that the Ancient Egyptians were
Black. Like most of us, it had never occurred to me
that the ancient Egyptians were any color in particular.
Neither black nor white seemed an appropriate category-
-they were simply Egyptian. This view, in fact, is
probably the one held by most Egyptians themselves,
both ancient and modern. As we know from their observant
depictions of foreigners, the ancient Egyptians saw
themselves as darker than Asiatics and Libyans, and
lighter than the Nubians, and with different facial
features and body types than any of these groups.
They considered themselves, to quote Goldilocks, "just
right." These indigenous categories are the only
ones that can be used to talk about race in ancient
Egypt without anachronism. Even these distinctions
may have represented ethnicity as much as race: once
an immigrant began to wear Egyptian dress, he or she
was generally represented as Egyptian in color and
features. Although there are occasional indications
of unusually curly hair, I know of no examples of people
with exaggeratedly un-Egyptian facial features, such
as those represented in battle and tribute scenes,
who are represented wearing Egyptian dress, though
such people must have existed.
As for indigenous categories in modern Egypt, I have been told by most of the modern Egyptians with whom I've discussed the question that, if they had to use the categories of the modern Western world, they would describe themselves as white. (There are some exceptions, but few would describe themselves as black.) As evidence of this, one can point to the consternation that was produced in Egypt when it was announced that the black actor Lou Gosset would portray President Anwar Sadat in a biographical film. There exist terms in modern colloquial Egyptian Arabic to describe skin color, most commonly "white," "wheat-colored," "brown," and "black." In practice, however, these terms are frequently applied inaccurately, so that people are (flatteringly) described as lighter in color than they actually are. The term "black" is viewed almost as a pejorative, and is rarely used. This categorization of the modern population is only partly relevant to the question, although it contributes to the reluctance of Egyptologists working in Egypt to describe the ancient Egyptians as "black."
I have encountered arguments that the ancient Egyptians were much "blacker" than their modern counterparts, owing to the influx of Arabs at the time of the conquest, Caucasian slaves under the Mamlukes, or Turks and French soldiers during the Ottoman period. However, given the size of the Egyptian population against these comparatively minor waves of northern immigrants, as well as the fact that there was continuous immigration and occasional forced deportation of both northern and southern populations into Egypt throughout the pharaonic period, I doubt that the modern population is significantly darker or lighter, or more or less "African" than their ancient counterparts. It should be noted, however, that we really do not know the answer to this question. More research on human remains needs to be, and is being, done.
But what of scientific racial categories? The three races we learned about in grade school? In talking to several physical anthropologists, I have learned that these three races have no clear scientific meaning. Anthropologists today deal with populations rather than individuals, and describe ranges of characteristics that occur within a population as being similar to or different from the ranges of characteristics of another population, usually expressing the degree of affinity with a percentage. There is no gene for blackness or whiteness, and nothing that can allow a scientist to assign a human being to one or the other category, beyond the social definitions of the culture in which the scientist is a participant. While anthropologists sometimes describe people in terms of the traditional three races, this is not a result of applying objective criteria based on clear biological distinctions, but is instead a shorthand convenience. Such judgments work backwards from the social categories to arrive at an identification that would be recognized by a member of society. For example, when a forensic anthropologist gives the race of an unidentified dead body as "white," it is simply a prediction that the "missing person" form with which it will be compared probably described the person that way. Scientific determinations are thus just as dependent upon social categories as more impressionistic judgments are.
Even comparative studies can be biased by the assumptions that underlie them. Some "Eurocentric" criteria for race acknowledge the wide variety of physical characteristics found in Europe, and define as "black" only those populations that differ markedly from all European populations. As a result, populations that resemble any European population are excluded from the category "black." This is often what happens when scientists are asked about the remains of ancient Egyptians, some of whom closely resembled southern Europeans. By this model, only Africans living south of the Sahara desert, which separates them more markedly from European gene pools, are defined as "black." The categorizations arrived at by reversing the same procedure are equally extreme. If the range of physical types found in the African population is recognized, and the designation "white" is restricted to those populations that have none of the characteristics that are found in any African populations, many southern Europeans and much of the population of the Middle East can be characterized as "black." This method was at one time adopted by "white" American schools and clubs, which compared applicants to the "white" physical types of Northern Europe, and found that many people of Jewish or Mediterranean heritage did not measure up. Neither of these ways of determining "race" can result in a definitive division between "black" and "white," because those are not in fact distinct categories but a matter of social judgment and perspective. What is a continuum in nature is split into two groups by our society. (The terms "African" and "European," although easier to distinguish because of their geographic basis, are no less subjective and problematic as cultural categories.)
Race, then, is essentially a social concept, native to the society in which one lives. It is anachronistic to argue that the ancient Egyptians belonged to one race or another based on our own contemporary social categories, and it is equally unjustifiable to apply the social categories of modern Egypt or of ancient Greece or any other society, although all of these questions are interesting and worthy of study on their own. The results tell us nothing about Egyptian society, culture and history, which is after all, what we are interested in.
This is not, however, what the Afrocentrist Egyptologists are interested in. They want to show that according to modern Western categories, the ancient Egyptians would have been regarded as black. This approach is not invalidated by the cultural limitations of racial designations just outlined, because it is an attempt to combat a distinct modern, Western tradition of racist argument, a tradition which has the effect of limiting the aspirations of young African-Americans and deprecating the achievements of their ancestors. This argument contends that black peoples (that is, peoples that we would describe as black) have never achieved, on their own, a satisfactory civilization, and by extension can never achieve anything of much value. "Look at Africa today," argue the adherents of this notion, ignoring the added burdens imposed by economic exploitation, cultural imperialism, and a colonial past on most African nations, and ignoring the African states which do not appear regularly in the newspapers. "Look at history," they add, discounting Egypt as part of the Near East and ignoring (generally through ignorance) the other great African cultures.
These misconceptions are argued in many parts of American society. President Richard Nixon was quoted as making several of these arguments in the recently released diaries of his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. Similar assertions were made occasionally in the more intemperate discussions of the Los Angeles riots. And I understand that the Pennsylvania chapters of the "Klu Klux Klan" give each new member a leather-bound book with the gilded title Great Achievements of the Black Race, which is filled entirely with blank pages. Is it any wonder that the members of this maligned group want to inscribe on those blank pages the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx, the gold of Tutankhamun, the Asiatic conquests of Thutmose III, and the fame and political acumen of Cleopatra?
At this juncture, however, many Egyptologists miss the point. "Why not use Nubia?," I have been asked, "or any of the other great African civilizations? Why can't they leave Egypt alone?" The answer is that these other civilizations did not build pyramids and temples that impressed the classical writers of Greece and Rome with their power, antiquity, and wisdom. Nor have most modern Americans and Europeans heard of the civilizations of Nubia, Axum, Mali, Ife, Benin, and Zimbabwe. Hannibal is famous enough to be worth claiming, but few other non-Egyptians are. The desire to be associated with historical people who are generally acknowledged to be "great" by the Western cultural canon accounts for the frequent and (to Egyptologists) puzzling contention that Cleopatra was black, despite the fact that she was demonstrably descended from a family of Macedonian generals and kings who married their sisters, and therefore had little claim to either a black or an African origin (although one of my Classicist colleagues at Howard tells me that her paternal grandmother is unknown, and might have been Egyptian). The reason she is identified as black is that, among modern Americans, she is probably the best known ancient Egyptian of them all. Shakespeare and Shaw wrote plays about her, her life has been chronicled in several popular films, and her name is regularly invoked in our popular culture to signal the exotic, the luxurious, and the sexy. In this sense, "Afrocentric" Egyptology is profoundly Eurocentric, and necessarily so: it plays to the prevalent cultural background of its intended audience.
If the question of the race of the ancient Egyptians is entirely subjective and political, then, why does it bother Egyptologists at all? Why would we rather the Afrocentrists "used Nubia"? I think our reasons are largely related to the tenuous place our field holds in academia. Afrocentrists see Egyptologists as a strong, academically supported, establishment force; but despite, and perhaps even partly because of, the popular fascination with its contents, Egyptology tends not to be taken quite seriously by people who study other parts of the ancient world. Already many noted departments of Near Eastern Studies with extensive faculty in ancient Mesopotamia and the Levant do not feel it necessary to teach or support research in Egyptology at a similar level. We fear, perhaps, that if we endorse the view that ancient Egypt was a "black civilization," we will further cut ourselves off from our colleagues who study other civilizations contemporary with ancient Egypt. At the same time, there is no place for us in African studies departments, which generally tend to address questions related to modern history and current political and social problems. While anthropologists working in Africa may offer us insights and models, the methods and concerns of our field require more, rather than less, contact with scholars studying other ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures. We have been too isolated for too long as it is.
The politics of the situation, as well as the requirements of course topics such as archaeology, make it important for us to deal with the question of the race of the ancient Egyptians in our university classes. My own method, developed long before coming to Howard, is to be very explicit about my own views on the question. I give a lecture on the land and the people of Egypt, normally very early in the semester, before the question is brought up by students, and I try to present the question neutrally, without defensiveness or antagonism. I explain the social nature of racial categories, and the categories used by the Egyptians themselves, their representation of foreigners, and the frequency of foreign (Asian and African) immigration to Egypt in all periods of its history, extending back into the Paleolithic. Discussions of geography and language are also useful here. It is also necessary to address the political question. In doing so, I often make use of Bruce Williams' observation (which really goes to the heart of the matter) that few Egyptians, ancient or modern, would have been able to get a meal at a white lunch counter in the American South during the 1950s. Some ancient Egyptians undoubtedly looked very much like some modern African- Americans, and for similar historical reasons. Very few, if any, of them looked like me. I also explain the politics of the question in modern Egypt. Finally, I explain the irrelevance of the political question to the subject I will be teaching, a circumstance that allows me to respect the students' political convictions (which I treat rather as I might treat a religious conviction), and should allow them to learn about Egyptian culture in my class without violating their beliefs. By making my position clear at the outset, I forestall the Afrocentric students' speculations and attempts to "trap" me into committing myself to the exaggeratedly "Eurocentric" views that they might otherwise assume I espouse. It also reassures students that they can come to me with questions about their Afrocentric readings, or their own Afrocentric questions about course materials; the topic is no longer taboo. It is impossible to build bridges if we discourage discussion.
2. The contention that the Egyptians were the greatest
civilization in history. Contrary to the expectation
of most Afrocentrists, most Egyptologists are less
bothered by the contention that the Egyptians were
black than by the exaggerated claims made about the
achievements of Egyptian civilization. These claims,
including attribution to the Egyptians of great mathematical,
scientific, and philosophical sophistication, are often
based on misinterpretations or exaggerations of the
evidence, and in some cases pure fantasy and wishful
thinking. Many of the arguments advanced show a complete
ignorance of (or disregard for) the facts of chronology,
for example, the contention that the Greeks "stole"
their philosophy from the library at Alexandria and
then burned it down to cover their theft, or the claim
that the architecture of Greek peripteral temples was
borrowed from the eastern mamisi at Dendera.
Paradoxically, while it is in the details of this contention that Egyptologists find the most grounds for outrage and dismissal of the entire movement, this is also the area where we can do the most to help the Afrocentrists move towards a more rigorous and respectable scholarship. In principle, few Egyptologists would deny that ancient Egypt was a great civilization, and that the ancient Egyptians achieved wonderful things and made unique contributions to history and global culture. It in no way detracts from these contributions that they had terrible difficulties adding fractions because of a ludicrously clumsy system of notation, or that they did not understand the importance of the brain, or that they may have borrowed the idea of writing from Sumerian civilization. On these points the Afrocentrists need to develop a better appreciation of where the strengths of Egyptian civilization really were. Most Afrocentrists do not want to be in the position of teaching their children things that aren't true. However, because of the political desire to find great Egyptian achievements in areas that the West values, and because of the limited material available to them and their limited familiarity with the culture, they often misinterpret the evidence and seize upon unsubstantiated ideas that fit their agenda.
The way we can help here is not, however, to argue against these misunderstandings and mistaken ideas individually. There are too many of them, and the arguments tend to be both unpleasantly adversarial and futile.
"See, this is a model of an ancient Egyptian glider- plane."
"Actually, it's a Late Period model of a bird. If the Egyptians could fly gliders at that period, don't you think Greek and Egyptian sources would have mentioned it? "
"But it's aerodynamically perfect!" "Well, of course it is; it's a bird." "But it's different from all the other bird models. Besides, what do you know about aerodynamics?"
This sort of argument gets us nowhere. The only strategy that is effective is more fundamental. We must familiarize students with the evidence and the way one argues from it. Students who have read translations of ancient Egyptian literature and other texts and discussed how social and cultural deductions can be drawn from primary sources will generally not stand for assertions about ancient Egypt that are blatantly contradicted in these texts. Likewise students who have read about the forms of pyramids and the theories about their construction, or who have become familiar with Egyptian tomb iconography, will not believe claims that do not correspond to the evidence they have seen. (There will, of course, be ideologues who will hold on to their groundless convictions in the teeth of the evidence, but most of them will have dropped the class after the initial discussion of the race of the ancient Egyptians.) Teaching students a more source-based, critical approach not only will improve their ability to evaluate the contentions of Afrocentric Egyptology, but should help them deal with other subjects as well, and lays the foundation for academic and other work that will give them pride in their own achievements as well as their heritage. Moreover, an explicitly source-based approach has the added advantage of forcing us to reexamine our own basic assumptions.
When Afrocentrists base their conclusions on the evidence, the results can serve their purposes without violating the sensibilities of scholars. The validity of the evidence also lends authority to the ideological position being argued. One example that goes some distance towards this goal is an Afrocentric poster given me by one of my students, designed and produced by a group called the Melanin Sisters, for grade-school children. The poster is decorated with hieroglyphs and urges the reader to adopt behavior in accordance with the ancient Egyptian concept of Ma'at. As a guide to the requirements, the Negative Confession is quoted (albeit with some substitutions for the weird bits). Another student showed me a book called Hip-Hop and Maat, which again uses the Negative Confession, as well as selections from Egyptian wisdom literature, to construct a system of morality that the author contrasts favorably with the street ethics prevalent among many young African-Americans. (Unfortunately, I did not make a note of the bibliographic information, and I've been unable to find the book again.) The use of actual Egyptian evidence in developing Afrocentric materials could be encouraged and made more authentic if Egyptologists took a less adversarial attitude toward its creators.
If we teach Afrocentric students to find evidence for their assertions and to construct convincing arguments, there will always be the possibility that they will use these tools to argue points that we find uncongenial to our pictures of Egyptian civilization. At a conference some years ago, I praised an innovative and provoking argument to a colleague, and his reply was, "Yes, I suppose it was interesting, but just imagine what they will do with it." To use such fears of exaggeration in the popular sphere (regardless of whether they are justified) as an excuse for suppressing arguments that contradict our own reconstruction of the past is unjustifiable and unscholarly. Political bias is unavoidable, so the current wisdom goes, and we all find it more difficult to accept some arguments than others, depending upon our own previous ideas or our feelings about the person making the argument. But such predispositions are something that we all deal with frequently, and should have learned to set aside. We are scholars, and we should not be afraid of the truth, whatever it turns out to be.
3. The contention that Egyptian civilization had
extensive influence on Europe and Africa. This argument
really has two parts, which are in some ways symmetrical,
but which have two entirely different motivations.
The argument for Egyptian influence in Europe is an
extension of the argument for the overall superiority
of Egypt to other cultures: by rooting Greek and Roman
civilizations in Egypt, Africa can be seen as the source
of the civilization we find most impressive: our own.
The argument for the influence of Egypt on other African
civilizations, in contrast, is intended to allow modern
African- Americans (who are in most cases the descendants
of people abducted from non- Egyptian parts of Africa)
to claim the Egyptian cultural heritage as their own.
The half of this question that has been most discussed of late is the claim that Egypt colonized Greece, and that classical Greek culture is essentially Egyptian. Greece is traditionally viewed by Western culture as the source of beauty and reason, so (again, for political reasons) it is felt especially important to show that ancient Egypt was extremely influential in its development. Black Athena, Martin Bernal's work on the question, has been at the center of the recent debate on this claim, and has given it a degree of prominence and respectability in the non- Afrocentric scholarly community. Despite this, I feel strongly that Bernal's books do an ultimate disservice to the cause he is trying to advance. In the short term, of course, they have brought both the issue and Bernal himself to the forefront of public consciousness. However, his arguments are so chosen and presented that they cannot serve as a solid foundation for the academically credible Afrocentric Egyptology that he hopes to create.
In many cases, Bernal has either intentionally misled his readers by his selection of evidence or he has neglected to investigate the full context of the evidence on which he builds his arguments. He routinely cites late Classical traditions that support his argument, and ignores the Egyptian evidence that doesn't. A good example of these problems is his discussion of the connections of Egypt with bull cults on Crete (vol. II, pp. 22-25, and more fully as Chapter IV, especially pp. 166- 184). After an initial foray proposing dubious connections between Min, bulls, Pan, and the Minoan king Minos, Bernal connects Minos to Menes and the name of Memphis, Mn-nfr, because of their phonetic similarity and their connection with the bull cult of Apis. (Mn-nfr, of course, comes from the name of the mortuary temple of Pepi I and has nothing to do with Menes, who is called the founder of the Apis cult only by a late Roman writer.) The name of the Mnevis bull also contains the magic letters mn in the Classical sources. The fact that the name was consistently written Mr-wr by the Egyptians is not mentioned in the summary, while in the fuller argument it is dismissed as "confusion among the three biconsonantals mr, mn and nm" in words referring to cattle (possibly due to onomatopoeia). The fact remains that the Mnevis bull is only rarely called anything but Mr- wr. The "winding wall" sign in Mr-wr, which is also used in mrrt, "street," is connected in his summary with the labyrinth of the Minotaur.
The result of these arguments is a "triple parallel": the connection of a bull cult in both Egypt and Crete "with the name Mn, the founding pharaoh, and a winding wall." But in Egypt neither the name Mn nor the founding king was clearly connected to the Apis cult; and the connection of the "winding wall" sign with the Mnevis bull was probably purely phonetic. The triple parallel reduces to a single coincidence: the founding king of Egypt and the most famous king of the Minoans both had names with the consonants "Mn." This relationship, as Bernal points out, has been discussed by previous scholars. That both countries had bull cults, like most other ancient Mediterranean cultures, is hardly worthy of remark. The following discussion of "the bull Montu" is even more tenuous, since Montu is generally characterized as a falcon, and is no more to be equated with the Buchis bull with which he shares a cult place than the sun god Re is to be equated with the Mnevis bull. That these arguments are flawed does not prove Bernal's conclusions wrong, of course; but such arguments can never prove him right, and in the meantime they obscure the debate.
The connections and contacts between Egypt and the Greek world have long been recognized, and Bernal misrepresents the degree to which modern scholars suppress evidence for them. Certainly the influence of Egyptian statuary on Archaic Greek kouroi is widely accepted, among Classicists as well as Egyptologists, although the differences in their function and execution are obviously of importance too. In arguing for an Egyptian colonization of Greece, however, Bernal and his followers disregard the extensive Egyptian textual tradition (surely if Thutmose III had conquered southern Europe and set up colonies there he would have mentioned it in his annals, for example), as well as the arguments of the scholars who have been investigating these questions for decades. Most of Bernal's arguments, interestingly, rest on the Greek textual tradition, which was of course a product of its culture's own cultural and political situation and requirements, and often made use of the Egyptians' antiquity and reputation for wisdom. By crediting the Greek evidence over the Egyptian, European over the African, Bernal takes advantage of the fact that his Western audience is more familiar with (and more inclined to credit) the Classical tradition than the Egyptian. That few of the myriad reviews of the series have been written by Egyptologists is an obvious indication of the European provenience of his evidence.
If we are honest, most Egyptologists would admit that we would like nothing better than to find indisputable evidence that all Western culture derived from Egypt; such a discovery would make us far more important, more powerful, and wealthier than we are today. Because of this bias, we are justifiably cautious in making such claims.
The other half of this contention, that Egyptian civilization had a wide influence in the rest of Africa, is argued most prominently in the writings of Sheikh Anta Diop. Many turn-of-the-century scholars made such a claim, and they are widely and reverently quoted in the Afrocentric literature to support the more recent contentions. Interestingly, their motivation was essentially racist. The invention of the "Hamitic" racial group, defined as a population essentially "white" in skeletal features, but with the peculiar anomaly of dark skin, allowed some early Egyptologists to categorize the Egyptians and the Nubians as "white." Then, working on the racist assumption that "blacks" were incapable of higher civilization, they attributed anything that looked like civilization in the remainder of Africa to "ancient Egyptian colonization." While there is a rather pleasant poetic justice in the fact that the flawed conclusions resulting from these racist assumptions are currently being used to argue for the connection of all Africans and African culture with the glories of ancient Egypt, the evidence for these conclusions is hardly acceptable from a scholarly point of view. As with the European conquests and colonies hypothesized by Bernal, African conquests and colonies beyond Upper Nubia are unlikely because of the silence of the Egyptian records, although other kinds of contact are not impossible.
These two contentions of Egyptian influence outside of Egypt are among the most difficult Afrocentric claims to deal with. Unlike the question of race, these are not subjective judgments, and yet like the question of race they are yes-no questions that lie at the heart of the Afrocentric hypothesis. In particular, to deny the claim that all Africans are descended culturally and genetically from the ancient Egyptians is seen as an attack on African- Americans' right to claim the ancient Egyptian heritage as their own. At the moment, these claims have neither been definitively proved nor disproved, so it is probably wisest to take an agnostic position regarding them. The nature and extent of Mediterranean connections with ancient Egypt are worthy of further study, and may offer scope to arguments more truly Afrocentric than those propounded by Bernal. In Africa, too, there clearly were connections of some kind with areas beyond Nubia, as we know from the depiction of trade goods; and the degree of contact with Western Africa through Libya and the Oases has not been exhaustively studied. All of these areas have been receiving more attention in recent years, and it may be that there was more contact between Egypt and the rest of Africa, or between Egypt and Europe, than our current interpretations allow. If there was, let those who would argue it argue from evidence rather than authority.
4. There has been a scholarly conspiracy among
Eurocentric Egyptologists to suppress evidence about
the blackness of the ancient Egyptians, their greatness,
and their influence on European and other African civilizations.
This is probably the most offensive manifestation of
Afrocentrism we encounter, implying as it does that
Egyptologists as a group have routinely abandoned their
scholarly integrity, simply in order to further some
racist agenda. (As an epigrapher, I find the charge
that we have recarved the faces of Egyptians represented
in tomb reliefs particularly ludicrous.) Its most
frequent manifestation is the Napoleon-knocked- the-nose-off-the-Sphinx-so-no-
one-would-know-it-was- black contention, a silly argument
that demonstrates the movement's unattractive paranoia.
For the evidence against this, incidentally, I refer
the reader to a fascinating article by Ulrich Haarmann,
"Regional Sentiment in Medieval Islamic Egypt,"
BSOAS 43 (1980) 55-66, which records that, according
to Makrizi, Rashidi, and other medieval Arab authors,
the face of the Sphinx was mutilated in 1378 A.D. (708
A.H.) by Mohammed Sa'im al-Dahr, whom Haarmann describes
as "a fanatical sufi of the oldest and most highly
respected sufi convent of Cairo."
Although some Afrocentrists may have found individual Egyptologists uncooperative, for reasons made clear above, we are hardly likely to deny the achievements of the Egyptians. In one sense, we are far more Afrocentric than the Afrocentrists, since we try, where possible, to study Egyptian civilization on its own terms, rather than comparing it to our own culture. Most of us have developed a great respect for the skills of the Egyptians: their abilities and sophistication as sculptors, writers, diplomats, theologians, painters, architects, potters, bureaucrats, builders, warriors, and traders will not be denied by those who have studied the results of their work. Even greater skill is apparent in the suitability of these achievements to the needs of the ancient culture as a whole, and this suitability is better appreciated the better one understands the cultural context in which the achievement occurred. To yank a building or a statue or a poem from its indigenous cultural milieu in order to compare it with its Western counterparts is decidedly Eurocentric, especially when one uses the Western products as the standard against which the Egyptian are to be judged; and yet, for political reasons, this is the most common approach of the Afrocentrists.
In another sense, however, the contention that Egyptologists are Eurocentric has at its center a kernel of truth. Any Egyptologist who proposes to do something constructive about the Afrocentric movement must admit that, in its origins and to some extent in its current preoccupations, Egyptology is a Eurocentric profession. It was founded by European and American scholars whose primary interest was in confirming the Classical sources and in confirming and explicating the Old and New Testaments for the furtherance of Christianity. A look at the earliest Egypt Exploration Society publications illustrates the way that early scholars "sold" their work by connecting it to familiar Classical and (especially) Biblical names and places: The Store City of Pithom and the Route of the Exodus (1885), Tanis (1885), Naukratis (1886 and 1888), The Shrine of Saft el Henneh and the Land of Goshen (1887), The City of Onias and the Mound of the Jew (1890), and Bubastis (1890). Furthermore, the fact that the cultures to the north and east of Egypt provide texts that we can use to correct and augment the Egyptian evidence, while those to the south and west do not, provides a third reason for concentrating our research on foreign relations to the northeast. Insofar as Nubian cultures have been studied, they have until recently been seen as distorted and somewhat comical attempts to replicate their great neighbor to the north. Because of these circumstances (the Classical focus of Western culture, Christianity, and the distribution of writing), as well as the often unconscious racism of early scholars which has affected the shape of our field, Egyptologists have too often ignored the rest of Africa.
This ignorance has not been complete. As a result of the birth of cultural anthropology around the turn of the century, there was a great interest in finding the origin of Egyptian traditions in those of "other primitive cultures," i.e., the societies of contemporary Africa, which were taken as models for what Egypt was like "before civilization." This rather weird perspective led to such anachronisms as the claim that the ancient Egyptian jubilee ceremony "derived" from the alleged eighteenth- century African practice of killing a king who became too old to rule effectively.
Despite the nature of the underlying assumptions, this early work in anthropological comparisons contains many interesting ideas. (I have found the work of A. Blackman especially rich.) Such similarities between cultures, reviewed and reworked to accord with current scholarly standards, may help explicate some of the puzzling elements in Egyptian culture. It must be remembered, however, that similarity does not prove influence, or even contact. As the archaeology and cultural anthropology of Africa becomes better known, and as Egyptologists, Afrocentric and traditional, become more familiar with and sophisticated about African cultures, it may be that patterns of such similarities can be identified, categorized, and traced with sufficient scholarly rigor to show routes of contact. These are important questions, and represent an area where the Afrocentric perspective might make substantial contributions not just to the education and self-esteem of African-Americans but to the international scholarly field of Egyptology as well. Such discoveries would add immeasurably to the resources of the entire field of Egyptology, widening our horizons and broadening our understanding of Egyptian culture.
Afrocentric Egyptology, properly pursued, has the
potential to achieve important political goals: improving
the self-image of young African-Americans and enhancing
their belief in their own potential for achievement,
by combating the racist argument that no one from Africa
or with a dark skin has ever achieved anything worthwhile.
The less exaggerated and the more rooted in accepted
scholarly argument its teachings are, the more authority
the curriculum will have. As the movement grows more
sophisticated and better grounded, and as mainstream
Egyptologists grow commensurately more accepting of
its perspectives, it will, I hope, be possible to do
away with the defensiveness that so often characterizes
Afrocentric teachings currently. Instead of learning
a doctrine on faith, teachers of Afrocentrism should
encourage students to investigate the primary evidence
and refine our knowledge of Egypt and other African
civilizations on their own, truly Afrocentric, terms.
Teachers should not worry that students will find
that ancient Egypt was not a great civilization after
all--on the contrary, the deeper one goes into its
cultural productions, the more one comes to appreciate
the ingenuity of the Egyptians.
At the same time, Afrocentric scholars with traditional training can serve as a useful corrective to the European vantage point inherent in traditional Egyptology, by focusing on questions that it might not occur to traditional Egyptologists to ask. We all ought to help train these scholars. The level of interest and enthusiasm about ancient Egyptian culture is amazingly high in the African-American community. When I first arrived at Howard University, I was stunned by the enthusiasm I met with, both from my own students and from students outside of my classes (not to mention the prevalence of Egyptian- themed clothing and jewelry). At Howard, Egyptology is not a peripheral field in which one might take an elective as a novelty or to add an exotic line to one's law school application--Egyptian culture is seen as a heritage to be proud of, and something worth learning more about. Whether or not one agrees with the premise that inspires this enthusiasm (and, as I've said, this is largely a matter of faith and definition), there is a real potential for the expansion of our field among these students. While some Afrocentric students will lose interest once they get past the political questions, others will remain fascinated by the culture. A few of these may go on to become Egyptologists, whether with an Afrocentric agenda or not. Others will enter other professions, enriched by an appreciation for a culture other than their own, but to which they feel some connection.
In a time when university administrators talk endlessly of bottom lines and judge the validity of scholarly fields by the number of students they attract, we cannot afford as a field to ignore such an audience for the material we want to teach. In view of the growing influence of Afrocentrism in the educational and larger community, we cannot afford to maintain our adversarial attitude towards it and to refuse to contribute to its better grounding in Egyptological evidence and research. Most importantly, as scholars and teachers, we cannot afford to ignore enthusiastic, talented students with new perspectives that have the potential to expand both our academic field and our understanding of ancient Egypt.
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