As most people should know by now, February is Black History Month, in which we celebrate the contributions of black people who are often left out of institutionalized Eurocentric history education. In this post, I want to approach the topic ancient history’s contribution to black history in pop culture, a complex and sometimes problematic topic.
Ancient Egypt plays a sort of contested role in the representation of history in pop culture. On the one hand, you have the whitewashing of ancient Egyptian figures, from Charlton Heston’s The Ten Commandments, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, and the recent Gods of Egypt.
On the other, you have Eddie Murphy and Iman as a pharaoh and his queen and Magic Johnson as a member of their court in Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” video, and Nas’ face on Tutankhamun’s death mask on the cover of his I Am… album.
Depictions of black people as Egyptians are part of a reaction against the whitewashing of Egyptian history, and purport to reclaim a history denied to them.
Debates in the academic sphere have raged about how we would fit ancient Egyptians into the modern concept of race. Some argue that Egyptians were indeed black. Some argue they were more like modern Egyptians, and akin to most Middle Eastern peoples. Nobody who is taken seriously argues they were white. What is important to realize, though, is that:
Egyptians did not categorize people into races in the same way that we do today.
The concept of races based on skin color is essentially a European invention, and the white supremacist ideas that came from it were based in part on European ethnocentrism and by the false application of evolutionary principles after Darwin. Ancient cultures grouped people according to other characteristics. Famously, Classical Greeks categorized people by language: if you spoke Greek, you were Greek, if you didn’t, you were one of the barbaroi, a word from which we get “barbarian” in English.
In Pharaonic Egypt, people were classified by their place of birth. With a cosmology in which Egypt itself was placed at the center of the world, people born in Egypt were considered to be superior to those who were born outside of it. The Egyptians actually went pretty far in their racism: in some of their texts, they didn’t even consider people who born outside of Egypt to be completely human. In one text discussing people who lived further down the Nile —that is, people in modern Sudan or South Sudan—, the language of Africans is described as less intelligible than that of apes.
So, yeah. Ancient Egyptians were pretty effing racist.
But has past racism ever affected peoples’ views of ancient cultures?
European culture appropriated the trappings of Greek and Roman culture, though the Romans conquered them and the Greeks considered them inferior. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, in particular, Neoclassicism became popular in Western and Northern Europe, as these countries began discovering the archaeological past of their southern European neighbors. Ever wonder why government buildings are so frequently made of white marble and almost always incorporate columns and domes and look like Greek and Roman temples? They’re a physical manifestation of this claim to a connection with the ancient past; an attempt to demonstrate continuity with ancient Greece and Rome. These buildings give legitimacy to the institutions that are claiming this legacy.
And it apparently did not matter to them that the Romans were imperialists who colonized Western Europe, killed indigenous peoples, and forced migrations in order to promote stability. It doesn’t matter that the Greeks were only vaguely aware of these places, but looked down upon them as non-Greek speakers. Western culture still portrays Greece and Rome as its ancient heritage.
The reason probably is that people in that part of Europe were preliterate when the Greeks and Romans were around, meaning they had not yet developed writing. It is difficult to get people excited about their ancient past when there are no stories about them. People identify with history most easily when they know about people, mythologies, and events from the past. Lacking that, Europeans turned to Greece and Rome, the nearest ancient societies to which they had a connection.
And so a similar thing is, I would say, ongoing in black culture. There are plenty of ancient societies in Africa, including Great Zimbabwe, the Songhai, Mali, Ghana, and Meroitic cultures, not to mentions the Nubians,and Aksum, but none of them match the deep antiquity or prolific writing tradition of Egypt. Rameses, Nefertiti, Hatshepsut, Khufu, Imhotep, all these people have stories, and left monuments that can inspire people today about an ancient past.
Egyptian culture had an enormous impact on the cultures to its south, in what is now Sudan and South Sudan.The Nubians, Napatans, and Meroites that lived there, often under Egyptian domination, were so inspired by the culture to their north that there are more pyramids in their lands than there are in Egypt itself.
In Egyptian art, the way the people living south of Egypt are depicted fits with the modern conception of a black race. That’s not to say that this distinction was important to Egyptians; it was a representation of physical realities. What was important to Egyptians was that they were not born in Egypt, and that’s the only reason Egyptians considered them inferior.
For most of Egyptian history, the lands to the south of Egypt were treated as trading partners at best, lands to be conquered at the worst.
But then, around 760 BCE, Kashta, the ruler of the Napatan Kingdom, centered about 400 km north of Khartoum, the modern capital of Sudan, conquered parts of Egypt. his son, Piye, managed to conquer the rest of the Nile valley, starting the period that is known in Egyptian history as the Kushite Dynasty. During its height, the Kushite Empire extended from the southern borders of modern Turkey to northern Ethiopia. Their rule over Egypt lasted for about 100 years.
The most famous of the Kushite pharaohs is Taharqa, because he figures prominently in the Kushite military struggles with the Assyrian Empire, centered near modern Mosul, for control of the Levant. He even appears in the Bible (2 Kings 19:9, Isaiah 37:9) as Tirhakah, king of Kush, who sent an army to stop the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s advance on Jerusalem. Taharqa was unable to stop Sennacherib, and eventually the Assyrians conquered the rest of Egypt. Taharqa’s son Tantamani was the last Kushite ruler of Egypt, though their dynasty continued in Nubia. Taharqa embarked on an impressive building program, restoring many temples throughout Egypt, including the famous Temple of Karnak in Thebes.
Anyway, the Western conception of race continues to complicate the way history is depicted in pop culture. It is undeniable, however, that the legacy of Egypt has had a major impact on African culture in the past and present, and particularly among people in the African diaspora, who lost the connection to their own histories when it was erased during the slave trade.