Time for Egyptology to stop deciding who’s Black and who’s not

Twitter feed 3 June 2020

“Black” pharaohs again

The photograph (above) shows a panel of a Third Dynasty official named Hesy-Ra and was found at his mastaba (tomb) in Saqqara. Hesy-Ra was an important man and held a number of titles, including one that has subsequently been interpreted as dentist (Great ivory cutter). The panels are of considerable interest because they show Hesy-Ra aging over time and thus are cited as an attempt to represent the subject not only so that he is recognisable, but realistically so. I mention this because many Egyptologists often declare that ancient artists did not seek to represent the physical appearance of the subject in their portraits. This has become another way of denying pictorial representations to identify the racialised identity of the people of Kemet. Like the idea of designating the descriptor of Black Pharaoh to the Twenty Fifth dynasty rulers, this reaction has become the norm. 

However, I digress. The panel was used (extremely effectively in my opinion) by @TS_Afrikology to respond to the an earlier tweet: The pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty were not Egyptian but Kushite (from the region of the 4th cataract in what is now Sudan) and depicted by the Egyptians as having darker brown (black) skin, hence ‘black pharaoh’.

It is no secret that Egyptology is embedded in the racist ideologies of those who founded the discipline. I have written and spoken about this at length in the past. This blog has also discussed how problematic using the term “Black Pharaoh” for rulers from Sudan, while excluding those from Ancient Egypt, really is. And there have been guest posts on the subject by S.O. Keita. However, seeing this tweet yesterday (at a time when there is a growing a international pressure to address systematic racism and inequality and with a focus on people of African descent) made me wonder why an academic discipline that studies an African culture isn’t also reflecting on its interpretation of the construct of race.

Rather than responding in a manner that can appear defensive and authoritarian, Egyptologists today could open up a dialogue and perhaps review their stance on the use of a modern racialised term that most are simply not qualified to judge. Now would be the ideal time to start. And White academics need to understand that they are not qualified to tell people of African heritage and descent who is black and who is not.

7 thoughts on “Time for Egyptology to stop deciding who’s Black and who’s not”

  1. White in the US is pretty simple. If you have almost untannable skin, and narrow nose and straight hair, you are white.
    So they leave everyone else to be NOT white, therefore brown and black.
    So even the Greek invaders became black after the first generation of mixing with Kemites.
    If One is going to be bigoted with cognitive dissonance, at least be consistently dissonant.

  2. Thank you for your blog it is fascinating,true to form, and in a real sense refreshing to learn from a true expert. The study of Africa is on the rise for me now that blogs like this one is in existence. Keep going and keep teaching us for I’m willing to digest these new facts that are as old as hell.

  3. I really believe it’s nothing more than unconscious bias. The belief for a long time was that only people of Eurasian descent could have possibly built such an empire like Kemet, and that African people were “primitive”, etc. Despite the fact that Nubia, the very kingdom Egyptologists dismiss as the only Black representation of the Nile Valley, was certainly a great kingdom in its own right.

    We oftentimes only think of people practicing racism as ignorant, uninformed, or if they are educated, intentionally bigoted. We certainly do not think of supposedly well-meaning scientists as individuals who could allow prejudice to distort their interpretation of scientific findings. But we see it all the time. This was the same thing that happened with that study that was done with the mummy skulls from Abusir, as if one burial site examining mitochondrial DNA from mummies relatively late in Kemet’s history would say anything about the kingdom’s demographics over the span of its entire history. I do find it interesting that other studies done to determine the ethnicity of Kemet mummies which turned up with the results of them being African were typically deemed unreliable….then all of a sudden, this study is deemed totally reliable. Give me a break…

    1. The Eurocentrism in Egyptology runs deep – they’ll do anything to stop the world seeing the Black PanAfrikan nature of Kemet.

    2. I think to attribute it to “unconscious bias” is a bit charitable. I can’t buy that in spite of the abundance of evidence, they’re merely willfully obtuse. For some, perhaps, but for many and especially those in the most powerful seats, I don’t think this is the case. I think the disdain for blacks and the need to believe in black inferiority for the sake of their fragile, race-focused egos is that strong that they’ll twist, turn, and contort in any way to distort it. There’s also a “don’t get out of line” aspect, in that to acknowledge black origins in any substantial way jeopardizes ones’ career. And, of course, they’ll illogically lean on their position of authority if you dare question or challenge them in any way.

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