The Controversial Blackness (or lack thereof) of Ancient Egypt

Featured Image: Nick Brundle/Getty Images

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My first historical love was the history of Ancient Egypt. One of my fondest memories was my Dad gifting me this large coffee table book with pictures of various artifacts from Ancient Egypt. My tiny fingers flipped through the pages as I was mesmerized by the pictures of Ancient Egyptian jewelry, clothes, and hieroglyphics. My young mind was in love with the story of King Tut and how Nefertiti was his stepmother. I theorized over his sudden and mysterious death and that of his young wife (who happened to be his cousin). Anything Ancient Egypt at that time in my life I gravitated towards with a passion.

As I grew older, my intellectual sophistication came and went, but I still enjoyed a good story about Ancient Egypt. I fell in love with the works of Michelle Moran, a white woman from California who chose to write about Ancient Egypt. She wrote three books that to this day, I think fondly of: The Heretic Queen, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra’s Daughter. All three of these books deal heavily with Ancient Egypt, but Cleopatra’s Daughter is the book that is important for where this story is going. While I have not read the book in years, the story is pretty simple: Cleopatra had children with Julius Cesar and Marc Antony (both Roman men). Upon her death, the children were sent to Rome, the two sons died in childhood (albeit under mysterious circumstances) but Cleopatra’s daughter survived to adulthood. Her marriage was arranged by none other than Augustus and she became a queen of a small kingdom.

Around this time, I also began to watch Rome on HBO, which in all honesty is a great show, but as you can imagine it was a show about Roman history with a sprinkle of Cleopatra here and there. Overall, it is a show about white people for white people. A show where the darker the skin of the actor, the more likely they would be a slave or servant. But, the last season dealt with the story of, you guessed it, Cleopatra. Cleopatra in this show was played by white British actress Lyndsey Marshal. Marshal did very little to hide her British accent, in fact, all of the actors and actresses had the same lazy British accent, no matter where the character was said to be from. But that raised a question for the first time — what race are the people I have been reading about for years? I began to do something that should be considered illegal, and I began to impose our racialized ideology on the ancient world. I began to see these real-life people in terms of Black and White, literally.

To further my confusion, one day, I stumbled upon the “Black Conscious Community” which uses Ancient Egyptian symbols and phrases. One of the first lessons I learned was Ancient Egyptians were Black. Not only was Cleopatra Black, but Ancient Egypt was a Black society. It is hard to not be captivated by the stories of Jesus being Black, Cleopatra being Black, hell even Buddha is Black in certain Black Conscious circles. I watched the documentary Hidden Colors and was convinced all the books I read were totally false and white-washed. Which they were, but I was on the edge of a historical conspiracy theory without noticing.

While the race of Ancient Egyptians is a controversy, that neither archeology nor science has been able to give a definitive answer on, I feel it is important to flush out a few facts on how history and people operate. Nobody denies that “Sub-Saharan” is a region dominated by Black people, but the fact is nothing that would stop Black people from migrating from places we call Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, and other countries to Egypt. It is also important to keep in mind that Egypt was an empire that colonized and practiced imperialism, which would colonize different empires, which would include Black people. Also, historically, cities are diverse places, to say Egypt was one racial group becomes silly when you truly sit with the facts. When people speak of Ancient Egypt, they do not speak of the farmers, slaves, and laborers. They are speaking of the Pharaohs, priests, and administrators of this ancient empire. But, again, Egypt was an empire ruled by many types of people; Greeks, Persians, Nubians, Romans, Libyans, and many others, so even the demographic of people in power is up in the air at times.

These conversations usually happen between people of color, with a certain bitterness and racism involved at times. While we bicker, Hollywood makes movies about Cleopatra casting an Israeli actress that served in the IDF as Cleopatra. What Hollywood has done to Cleopatra is turn a woman who ensured two-grain ships traveled down the Nile River handing out free grain to all Egyptians, into a woman who only thought of sex and passion with powerful men. Movie after movie about Ancient Egypt depicts Black people as servants and slaves while pharaohs, queens, and invaders are played by white people and white-passing people. While I have no hope Hollywood will one day not be racist, we can talk to each other a little nicer about historical theories and facts and not dive into tropes touted by white “Egyptologists” centuries ago.