Ancient Egypt and White Nationalism: The Co-option of Egyptian Identity
Zachary Morgan, Western Carolina University
Ancient Egyptian civilization. Just these simple words conjure a bombardment of imagery to any reader: from massive pyramids, noble Sphinxes, and regal pharaohs with wealth unimaginable. The history and culture of Egypt has always been a source of fascination with academics and the public alike, and for good reason.1 Ancient Egypt is universally recognized as one of the premier civilizations of the Ancient world and an outlier to the common narrative of the West being the foundation of civilization. Because of this, interpretations of the biological racial identity of Ancient Egypt have played a critical role in forming various ethnic, cultural, and political groups’ perception of their heritage and identity.2 This has led to conscious attempts of these groups to claim the legacy of Egypt as their own through a variety of methods, creating uses and abuses of history that have been directly linked to the political and cultural concerns of the time.
Considering that the claim of this paper is to support the idea that Egyptian history has been critical in creating heritage and national identity throughout history, for both white nationalists and African/African American activists, the periodization covered by this paper will be quite long. Analysis will begin by examining ancient sources that the Egyptians themselves left behind. This will be an attempt to capture as accurate an understanding as possible of how the Egyptians viewed themselves, to make more obvious the abuses that occurred later. Most historiography on ancient Egypt suggests that Egyptians were well aware of the “skin color” differences of their time, a fact which would be utilized by white nationalists to support an xenophobia against many of the races that would attempt to claim them.3 This did not stop white and black groups from both attempting to claim the legacy of Egypt, however, especially in America as it began to move towards Civil War.
The next section of this paper will focus on the historiography of the Civil War era, focusing primarily on US writers. This will shed light primarily on how racial science theories were utilized to discredit the idea of African Americans possessing the ability to form a civilization. Comparisons to more modern sources will begin in this era due to it being the first time in American history the racial identity of Egyptians became intensely argued, largely due to attempted justifications of slavery. Most historical writings of the day presented the belief that no “dark race of men” had ever been equal to the white race.4 This belief caused many academics to assume that all great civilizations of the past had been created by the white race, since it was believed they were the only ones capable of such a feat. Historians of the time used this belief to claim that the success of the Egyptian civilization was a direct result of it being Caucasian, again proving the inferiority of African Americans.5
The third section will shift ahead in time to the period from World War I to World War II and that era’s struggles over utilizing Egyptian history to construct national and ethnic identities. Historiography of this era is directly connected with the aims of European imperialism. The rise of imperialism coinciding with the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb tied politics and Egyptian history more closely together than had ever been seen.6 This connection created a historiography that utilized Egyptian history to promote European ideals of imperialism, always at the expense of the native peoples. This message naturally created a backlash within the African American community that would reach its height during the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement.
As the Civil Rights movement gave African Americans the confidence to fight the segregation of Jim Crow, activists and academics were also encouraged to create a new historiography that emphasized the importance of black history. This caused them to reject the imperialist ideals of Egyptian historiography and to claim that the treasures and cultural heritage of Egypt should be analyzed in a purely African context.7 The new historiography directly challenged the belief of the aforementioned Civil War era historians, who believed that no Africans had ever created a civilized culture before the arrival of white Europeans.8 Naturally, the popularity of this new belief generated a severe response from the white academic community, who attempted to support the old claim of the superiority of white civilization.
Debate guaranteed that the controversy of the racial identity of Egypt would continue into the modern era, again proving its long legacy.
The final section of this paper will focus on specific modern-day controversies regarding the racial identity of Egyptians. Interesting to note, modern “historiography” has largely been led by the public, since academics discussing the race of Egyptians had been considered taboo since the 1970’s.9 Thus, much of the debate has been carried out in the public eye, focusing on the very specific issue of the racial identity of certain Egyptians, especially King Tut and Cleopatra. The success of these public debates varies and may suggest that historians should once again take a more active role in engaging the question of the racial identity of the Ancient Egyptians.
As mentioned above, ancient Egyptians were aware of perceived differences that existed between different races and geographical locations, and by examining the art and relics they left behind one can see how this awareness shaped their worldview. The Egyptian elite primarily saw themselves as possessing a dark red/brown complexion, while associating stereotypical “black” and “white” ethnicities with the Sudanese and Nubians.10 Egyptian depictions of these races were often negative, especially in the fourteenth through tenth century B.C. For example, on the throne dais of Nefertiti of the fourteenth century, one can see black Nubians chained in servitude alongside “blonde” Anatolians.11 In the tomb of Horemheb, archeologists also discovered a hieroglyph of an Egyptian brutalizing a Nubian captive.12 This suggests that both black and white races were treated, at best, as second-class citizens in the early kingdoms of Egypt, damaging the argument that either was responsible for the foundation of Egyptian civilization.
Furthermore, examining Ancient Egyptian laws and decrees also discredits the idea that Egypt was originally a black or white society. In 1425 B.C., the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenophis 2nd said of Nubians, “Don’t be at all lenient with Nubia! Beware of their people and their magicians!”13 As far as societal acceptance, sources suggest that Egypt followed a protocol like the Romans; acclimating to the language and culture of Egypt was the basic ingredient of becoming an Egyptian.14 Foreigners, such as Nubians, were forbidden by a decree of Pepy 1st from harvesting lands in pyramid towns and from entering religious temples. This again suggests that black Africans had little to do with the foundation of Egyptian civilization, and that the rhetoric that would appear later was a result of the irresistible attraction of the power of Egypt to white supremacists.
After examining the complicated message provided to us by the ancient sources themselves, one might be tempted to ask how such an obvious abuse of history occurred. To begin answering this question, one must first consider Herodotus’ writings in the fifth century B.C. Considered by many to be the Father of History, Herodotus was possibly the first known foreigner who wrote on Egypt whose work has survived. Therefore, Herodotus created an early interpretation of Egyptian race that others would seek to counter years later. Interestingly, this interpretation would later be utilized to support the Black African Theory of the 1970s: the belief that Egypt was primarily a black civilization. Naturally, this hypothesis would later be challenged by white supremacists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, making it critically important to the controversy.
Herodotus wrote on Egyptians in the fifth century B.C., long after the Nubians had emerged from their dark age during Egypt’s earliest dynasties and after Egypt had become a land of foreigners. This abundance of foreigners doubtlessly appeared alien to Herodotus, which caused him to emphasize the “otherness” of the Egyptians in his writings. For example, in the Histories of Herodotus he describes Egyptians as black or dark, a common stereotypical description of Africans.15 In an even more influential description, Herodotus claims that a Greek priestess was well known to be Egyptian due to her black skin.16 This goes beyond just a passing description; it suggests that individuals with dark skin were commonly associated with Egypt by the Greeks.
Herodotus’ writings had a great deal of influence on other Greek writers as well. His influence was so widespread that many academics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries later claimed that Greek historians were in universal agreement that Egyptian civilization was a product of black Africans.17 Academics also cited Greek poets and writers such as Aeschylus, who wrote of Egyptians as possessing black limbs.18 Herodotus’ vast influence made him the established authority on the racial categorization of the Egyptians, meaning his interpretation was the one that would have to be discredited to combat the Black African Theory.
Renewed interest, and intensified abuse, of Herodotus’ writings on Egypt came about with the rise of the race controversy of the Atlantic slave trade. Interestingly, his work was used by both sides of the debate to support their beliefs. Abolitionist Constantin François de Chasseboeuf wrote in 1787 that “the Ancient Egyptians were true negroes of the same type as all native-born Africans.”19 In 1838, historian A.H.L Heeren used Herodotus as his main source to support his theories on Egyptian society, including their racial demographics. 20 Historians’ frequent acceptance of the findings of Herodotus demonstrates that he was considered by historians to be the authority for Egyptians being black, which caused him to be the first individual attacked by white supremacists seeking to uphold the institution of slavery.21
Attempts to discredit Herodotus began in earnest in the 1830s, as mentioned above, due to the desire of pro-slavery historians to protect slavery from abolitionists. Many academics were motivated to ruin Herodotus’ credibility as an Egyptian historian, while also creating their own interpretations of Egyptian primary sources. An early attack appeared in 1833, in the New England Magazine, claiming that individuals in Egyptian tomb paintings possessed no characteristics that matched a “black appearance.”22 As the abolition movement in America intensified, attacks on the Black African Theory became rooted in proving the inferiority of Africans, which would justify their slave status. White Americans attempted to claim the greatness of Egypt for themselves, rewriting the historical interpretation of Egypt for their own ends.
In 1851, John Campbell’s novel Negro-Mania: Being an Examination of the Falsely Assumed Equality of the Various Races of Men set the tone for what many historians of the Civil War era would repeat. The novel rebranded the racial identity of Egypt to prove the natural inferiority of Africans. He boldly claimed that the Caucasian makeup of Egypt should be obvious simply because their civilization progressed politically and territorially, believing that a pure “Negro” society would naturally have collapsed.23 This theory is clearly more influenced by the political concerns of the time than with actual evidence. As we have seen, while Egypt likely was not originally a black African civilization, whites were often ostracized and persecuted against in a similar manner. Campbell’s proslavery scholarship was clearly an attempt to reduce Africans of the past to the status of the present: “inferior” slaves in the service of “superior” masters.
Campbell’s narrative was naturally popular among pro-slavery academics and was supported by many during his time. Prominent American surgeon Josiah C. Nott coauthored Types of Mankind in 1854, a medical study dedicated to proving that Africans were intellectually inferior to Caucasians and that civilizations such as Egypt were Caucasian.24 A professor of anatomy named Samuel George Morton also concluded that “Negroes” possessed the same status as servants and slaves in ancient Egypt as they did in nineteenth-century America, a clear attempt to historically justify American slavery. These widespread beliefs were very popular and produced a significant amount of scholarship, ensuring that they would remain relevant beyond the Civil War and into the era of imperialism and World War I.
Historical research on Egypt during the era of World War I carries many similarities to that which occurred during the Civil War era. In the same way that pro-slavery academics framed their research to support their identity and self-conception as superior to their slaves, European imperialists used a variety of methods to support their claims on their colonies in foreign nations. This era was characterized by the rise of colonial archeology and colonial museology, which grew to prominence as Europeans strengthened their control on Egypt.25 Essentially, the dual rise of archaeology and museology, along with the spread of European imperial power, created a rhetoric regarding ancient Egypt that was extremely difficult for the Egyptians to escape. Evidence of the power of colonial rhetoric can be seen in the large number of countries that participated in crafting this message and the variety of methods they utilized to spread it.
Egyptology prior to the outbreak of World War I mirrored the nationalistic competition of that era. European nations—and eventually the United States—all competed to be recognized as the ones who had founded the still young discipline.26 This created a very Euro-centric analysis of Egypt, with many historians and archeologists claiming that their own civilization and wisdom had originated in Egypt. This led to European nations competing to establish a monopoly on the recovery of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, such as when Auguste Mariette gained a monopoly for the French in 1863.27 England and Germany would eventually rise to compete with the French monopoly on excavation, each trying to use archeology and museum displays to claim the glory of Egypt for themselves. This competition further distanced ancient Egyptian discourse away from the Black African Theory, a practice which proslavery Americans would continue in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Early American Egyptology was characterized by a desire to utilize Egypt as a forerunner to American civilization, causing the narrative to be controlled by older white conservatives. In 1881, fueled by a fear of what they saw as excessive popular democracy, white Americans arranged for the completion of the Egyptian-style Washington Monument.28 This monument was meant to be a symbol connecting the power of ancient Egypt to the current American democracy. Another piece of evidence worth noting is Edwin Blashfield’s Evolution of Civilization dome painting of 1896, which directly portrays Egypt as a step towards American civilization.29 It is also important to note that the Egyptian man in the painting appears to be depicted as more Caucasian than African, likely a result of the artist’s American-centered mindset. Artistic works such as this directly connect Egypt to a nation that conceived of itself as a white nation, rather than with Africa.
The investment in archaeology during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries also demonstrates how important the claiming the legacy of Egypt was to the West. Some archeologists such as Theodore Davis and Lord Carnarvon could pour millions of dollars into archeology and museums, an incredible amount at the time.30 The passion and competition is also astounding, such as when the French resorted to extortion to prevent the Germans from returning to Egyptian research after World War I.31 All this fierce competition served to make Egyptology Eurocentric for much of the first half of the twentieth century. While this might not seem directly related to Egyptian racial theories at a first glance, it did indeed have a significant impact. This Eurocentric emphasis caused Egypt to be considered the precursor of white civilization, rather than a black one. The dominant narrative would face its first significant challenge with the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun, which would create a debate between Caucasians and African Americans over ownership of his treasures.
Unsurprisingly, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb drew keen interest from white and black audiences alike. When describing his find, archeologist Howard Carter remarked “Gold, everywhere the hint of gold.”32 In the initial response to the discovery, Eurocentric archaeologists and researchers attempted to nationalize the findings for white audiences.33 This once again created a rhetoric dominated by white audiences, a rhetoric which would be fiercely challenged by the African American community with the emergence of the Civil Rights movement. The debate over King Tut ensured that Egypt would remain both a relentlessly researched historical topic, as well as a continued source of conflict between the white and black communities.
The excavation of King Tut’s tomb was marked by Orientalist racism from the very beginning. Several prominent archeologists digging around the time of the discovery clearly possessed white-supremacist views. For example, archeologist George Reisner once described the Egyptian people as a “half-savage race,” going on to mock their ignorant and uncomprehending nature and to claim that the majority were illiterate.34 In 1915 Clarence Fisher, who was employed by Reisner, complained profusely when Reisner took “a native black man” into his employment. He wrote to Reisner that “it is usually accepted that the word of a white man is better than that of a native… you have thought it best to think otherwise.”35
Perhaps the most shocking example of Europe’s perceived racial and cultural superiority can be seen in the remarks of Herbert Winlock, an employee of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, when asked if he would consider hiring an educated elite Egyptian. Winlock refused on the grounds that the Egyptian people had been a dominated race for thousands of years, which had given them “an intellectual facility to twist facts.”36 As the prior analysis of Egyptian artifacts shows, this claim has no basis in fact. Hieroglyphs, statues, and other artifacts suggests that it was the Egyptian race that dominated other peoples. It is indeed ironic seeing someone twist the facts to claim that another is likely to twist the facts. While this blatant racism may seem shocking to us today, it certainly makes European and American reactions to the uncovering of King Tut more understandable.
Europeans and Americans had two prime periods of interest in the King Tut discovery.
The first was in the 1920s following the initial discovery, when imperial ambitions made the find very relevant to European powers. This can be seen when examining the patterns of Egyptian archeology and tourism, which spiked in the early 1920s and declined as excitement over the discovery faded.37 An imperial agenda could be seen in the discovery very early on, when Lord Carnarvon refused to allow local press to cover the discovery’s announcement, denying Egyptians a role in portraying the discovery to the public.38 Egyptians were repeatedly denied access and ownership by what was being portrayed as a demonstration of the imperial power and glory of Great Britain.
If one were to ask why Great Britain was so concerned with claiming the credit of King Tut for themselves, one need only consider the global politics of the time. Great Britain’s empire was on the decline, and the Egyptians had been, as the magazine British Outlook put it, playing with the idea of self-government for years.39 To combat this movement, Britain presented King Tut in their 1924 British Empire Exhibition as “The British Empire in Microcosm” with the goal of displaying the accomplishments of the archeologists in the British Empire, rather than the Egyptians themselves.40 This created a Eurocentric narrative of King Tut and Egypt that would persist for many years, denying both the native Egyptian and broader African communities any credit in the glory of Egypt. The Eurocentric narrative would face its greatest challenge in the 1960s with the rise of the Black Power movement and the reinvigoration of the Black Egypt movement.
The second spike in interest in the King Tut artifacts occurred in the 1960s, when Tut’s artifacts were sent on tour in America, as evidenced by the increased occurrence of keywords regarding King Tut in the New York Times.41 This return to the spotlight was largely a result of the Nation of Islam and Black Power movements’ attempt to claim Egypt as a black nation and the resistance of the American academic community. The Nation of Islam was particularly interested in Egypt due to its predominantly Islamic population, which supported their rhetoric of ancient black Muslim greatness.42 This link reinforced African-Americans’ commitment to proving their connection to the legacy of Tut and Egypt, believing that it served as a way to deconstruct segregation. Furthermore, Civil Rights and Black Power leaders were inspired to construct a variety of methods to prove this supposed link, which in turn inspired a significant white backlash.
When the Tut exhibit first went on tour throughout America, it initially generated a great deal of interest among white supremacists. White Americans sought to nationalize King Tut through museum tours and merchandising, once again making Egypt a symbol of European greatness rather than African. This excitement assisted in engineering the creation of the modern blockbuster approach to American museums, cementing museums as an important nationalist tool.43 Instead of utilizing museums to portray something that was considered alien and foreign, Americans used them to present King Tut as part of a universal heritage. This universalist narrative caused Tut and Egyptian history to be reimagined as a universal source of lessons and treasure, a vision that would soon be passionately argued against by African Americans.
One of the men most responsible for the universal heritage idea was Thomas Hoving, who was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The museum exhibit he planned played a key role in ensuring the universal history narrative would be controlled by the United States. Hoving believed that the purpose of his exhibit was to evangelize and teach people about the great art of all civilizations.44 This message once again calls back to Blashfield’s Evolution of Civilization in implying that Egypt was just another step in the ultimate creation of American civilization. Hoving’s dedication to using the beauty of art to teach universal messages was so strong that he repeatedly ignored expert suggestions on significant pieces he should include in the exhibit. Hoving openly admitted, “I didn’t listen. I knew what I wanted.”45 This methodology is directly opposed to the goal of history and anthropology, creating a message that was based more in racial and cultural prejudice than fact.
In her book Epic Encounters, Melani McAllister presents a fascinating theory of why Americans were so determined to claim possession of King Tut in the 1970s. She argues that fascination with the treasures of Tut was directly linked to the oil crisis of the 1970s and America’s desire to possess “their” (Americans’) oil in the Middle East.46 By portraying Tut’s treasures as universal artifacts that would not have been recovered with Western help, Americans could also claim that they deserved access to Middle Eastern oil that could not have been recovered without their assistance.47
It is also worth noting that the universal heritage narrative was at least partially responsible for making commodities a tool of nationalism.48 Tut commodities were often inexpensive, such as T-shirts, mugs, calendars, and other items accessible to the everyday individual. These commodities gave Americans the perception that they could reclaim what they had supposedly lost to the Middle East, regaining their supposed common heritage and universal possessions.49 As Steve Martin noted on an episode of Saturday Night Live, Tut had become commercialized by Americans with trinkets, toys, T-shirts, and posters.50 Clearly commercialization had become an important tool of the American nationalist narrative, helping to support the narrative that white civilization was responsible for, and deserving of, the treasure of Egypt.
Much of the Black Power narrative regarding King Tut was intended to challenge the Euro-American belief that King Tut’s treasures were part of a universal history that concluded with Euro-American civilizations. One can only imagine how many African Americans likely felt when they saw Blashfield’s Evolution of Civilization. The fight against the universal heritage theory intensified in 1978, when the City Council of Los Angeles established February 12 as King Tut Day. While this single day might not seem significant at first glance, it was a deliberate attempt to associate Black History Month with Egypt. The City Council said that King Tut Day would be a celebration of “the rulers of the eighteenth dynasty” who were all “black, ‘negroid,’ or of black ancestry, and would be classified as black if they were citizens of the United States today.”51
As African-American passion for Egypt intensified, activists and academics began a conscious and deliberate attempt to discredit the Eurocentric Egyptian historiography that had come before. Black journalism and media became full of attacks on white theft of Egyptian heritage, highlighting the importance that the media would possess in the coming conflicts. In 1977, the magazine Sepia described the Tut exhibition as a rip-off and an insult to African and African-American communities.52 This sentiment was echoed by an Amsterdam Times editorial claiming that the treasures of Tut were the property of black culture, and that the American Tut exhibit was the product of “the demented minds and racist lies of white historians.”53 The passion and variety of these attacks against white views on Tut demonstrate the importance of this counternarrative for the African American community. If Africans could claim what was considered to be the precursor to European civilization as their own, it would discredit the belief that Africans had never managed to create “real” civilization before European colonization.54
What does all of this debate have to do with today’s scholarship? Rather than modern scholarship continuing the white-versus-black debate of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it seems to be following a trend of downplaying or discrediting the importance of race. Glimpses of this shift could be seen as early as 1978, when the Metropolitan Museum published a booklet titled “Tutankhamun and the African Heritage.” While the booklet acknowledged that race was the most important question of civilization for some, Egyptians never truly possessed a single unifying physical characteristic.55 Using a more balanced and objective approach to some of the same carvings and paintings examined in the first section of this paper, the booklet concluded that many ethnicities had positions of prominence in Egypt, and that racial categorization was not a useful practice in Egyptology.56 This shift appears to be following the popular, politically correct trend succeeding the Civil Rights movement, which claimed that color-blindness was the true goal of racial equality.
The modern color-blind narrative has been supported by the theory that the Egyptian people were indigenous to the Nile Valley, thus preventing them from being claimed by either white or black society. In the same year that the “Tutankhamun and the African Heritage” was published, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) almost unanimously supported the theory that Egyptians were native to the Nile and that the white and black ancients originated outside of the Sahara.57 By 1998, the American Anthropological Association argued that race was useless when studying human biology, arguing that stereotypical racial lines were too easily and frequently crossed.58 This again supports the conservative color-blind message of the post-Civil Rights era; attempting to end a controversy by claiming it never existed in the first place.
This switch of narratives based on the political climate of the day reinforces a central theme of this study, that our analysis of Egyptian race often tells us more about ourselves than it does about the Egyptians themselves. It appears that we have attempted to simplify the narrative of Egyptian race, using it as a source of assurance and comfort rather than debate.59 In 2001, Stuart Tyson Smith argued that our classification of Egypt depended on modern American cultural standards, which allowed us to classify Egyptians as black.60 This theory implies that the legacy of Orientalism still lingers, causing us to characterize nonwhite European societies as “the other.” This further contradicts the idea that the racial controversy of Egypt has ended, which should encourage historians to not simplify their research in the vain hope of calming controversies.
Modern research has also contradicted the archeological evidence that we examined in the first section of this paper. Classics professor Frank M. Snowden claims that the ancient world, including Egyptians, did not share our “hierarchal notions of race,” and that status had no connection with race.61 This contradicts many of the ancient paintings and carvings that have been uncovered which frequently depict Nubian blacks and Caucasians in positions of servitude and slavery. While it is true that the demographics of Egypt were altered over the years by the frequent foreign invasions they experienced, there is still ample evidence that Egypt at certain points did possess some type of racial hierarchy. This conflict raises an important question for historians and Egyptologists; is the claim that Egypt possessed no racial hierarchy any less damaging than the racial superiority beliefs that preceded it?
To sum up the position of present-day scholarship, current views on the race of ancient Egyptians are just as conflicted and contradictory as they have always been. Even the introduction of modern technology has yielded few conclusive results. In 2005, anthropologists from France, America, and Egypt used CT (computed tomography) scans of Tut’s skull to conclude that he was a North African.62 However, most medical experts argue that analyzing skulls provides an inaccurate indication of race.63 This has led to many historians seemingly giving up on the questions entirely, leaving it to the public to determine the race of the Egyptians. Terry Garcia of National Geographic claimed the Tut reconstruction of 2005 was “a medium tone” and “midrange,” due to his belief that we will never know the race of King Tut or ancient Egyptians with any certainty.64
After examining all the controversy and conflict that has influenced the racial categorization of ancient Egyptians, it seems necessary to attempt to provide a blueprint on where historians can go from here. As Margaret Macmillan attests, history should be utilized to teach us humility, awareness of ourselves, skepticism, a desire to back up our work with evidence, and always the drive to ask ourselves: “Is there another explanation?”65 This is clearly the opposite of what Egyptian race historiography has accomplished, utilizing cherry picked evidence to support a pre-conceived narrative. Egyptian history for years has been on a sort of hamster wheel, going around and round throughout the years but never truly breaking any new ground. I would suggest two methods that could steer Egyptian racial historiography in the right direction: professional historians taking a more active role and preventing the simplification of history, and a more active use of Applied History.
Perhaps Barry J. Kemp said it best when he declared that the Egyptian race had become too taboo of a topic for professional historians and scientists, allowing the general public to take control of the debate.66 This practice creates a watered-down and oversimplified version of history that offers no value to the present. Simplification has occurred in areas relevant to our topic. Conservative control of the Civil Rights narrative has erased memory of the Martin Luther King Jr. who advocated for deconstruction of institutional racial barriers and framed segregation as a national problem.67 This narrative created our color-blind view of racial equality, which has undoubtedly contributed to the current color-blind view of ancient Egyptians.
Simplified views of race provide no real help to either Egyptian historiography or present-day issues. Insisting that race does not and has never mattered seems foolish when viewing news reports on the Charlottesville riots or Black Lives Matter protests. Pretending that the problem does not exist provides no assistance to the present and conceals more than it reveals about the past.68 If the historiography continues this path in the modern era, it will cease to be relevant or useful for anyone. If historians truly wish to take control of the Egyptian race controversy, we must take a more active role and prevent the oversimplification of history by non-professionals.
Perhaps one of the best ways that historians could frame the narrative on Egyptian race is by utilizing the field of Applied History, a field largely developed by Graham T. Allison. Allison believes that historical events should be utilized for perspective in modern scenarios, helping the world plan possible solutions and strategies for current and future problems.69 While Graham utilizes this method to give America advice on how to avoid war with China, Applied History could be reasonably applied to addressing race controversies. If historians focused less on attempting to erase the controversy and instead acknowledged its existence, they would be better equipped to create a solution. This solution could then be modeled to solve other race-related controversies, something that is sorely needed in our current political and social climate. I would in no way claim that this paper has provided a solution that future historians can use to answer these questions, but perhaps the problems and abuses it has revealed will inspire future historians to take up the fight.
The Egyptian race controversy has plagued the academic community for years, creating some of the most nationalized and goal-oriented history ever seen. A variety of political and social pressures have motivated historians, anthropologists, and scientists to attempt to construct a narrative that pleases the worldview of their preferred demographic. These narratives have typically ignored various pieces of historical and scientific evidence, which has contributed to the misinformation that currently exists among the public. It is the duty of historians to project accurately how complicated this issue has been and to prevent it being simplified for a political agenda. It is indeed possible that by correcting the mistake of past historians regarding Egyptian race, history itself could be made more relevant and beneficial for future generations.
1 Nicolas-Christophe Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1992), 1.
2 Donald Malcolm Reid, Contesting Antiquity in Egypt: Archaeologies, Museums & the Struggle for Identities from World War I to Nasser (Cairo, Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press, 2015), 1.
3 Maj Sandman, Texts from the Time of Akhenaten (Brussels, Belgium: Fondation Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, 1938), 95.
4 John Campbell, Negro-mania: Being an Examination of the Falsely Assumed Equality of the Various Races of Men (Philadelphia, PA: Campbell & Powers, 1851), 6.
5 Campbell, 10.
6 Reid, 51.
7 Melani MacAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000
(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 140.
8 Stanley B. Alpern, The New Myths of African History (Boston, MA: Boston University, 1992), 27.
9 Barry J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization (London, UK: Routledge, 2016), 47.
10 Donald B. Redford, From Slave to Pharaoh: The Black Experience of Ancient Egypt (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 6.
11 Redford, 6, fig. 1.
12 Redford, 9, fig. 2.
13 Redford, 6.
14 Redford, 9.
15 Herodotus, The Histories of Herodotus, trans. Henry Cary (1904; repr., London: Forgotten Books, 2017), 103.
16 Herodotus, 119.
17 Cheikh Anta Diop, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality (Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books, 1997), 2.
18 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], The Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Deciphering of the Meroitic Script: Proceedings of the Symposium Held in Cairo from 28 January to 3 February 1974, (Paris: UNESCO, 1978), 26.
19 Constantin François Volney, Travels Through Syria and Egypt, in the Years 1783, 1784, and 1785, vol. 1 (London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1787), 81.
20 Arnold Hermann Ludwig Hereen, Historical Researches into the Politics, Intercourse, and Trade of the Carthaginians, Ethiopians, and Egyptians, 2 vols. (Oxford, UK: D.A. Talboys, 1838).
21 “Ancient Egyptians,” The New-England Magazine, October 1833, 273. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/wu.89066341744
22 “Ancient Egyptians,” 275.
23 Campbell, Negro-mania, 11.
24 Josiah Clark Nott, Types of Mankind: or, Ethnological Researches, Based upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1854), 103.
25 Reid, Contesting Antiquity, 1.
26 Reid, 19.
27 Reid, 21.
28 John A. Wilson, Signs and Wonders upon Pharaoh: A History of American Egyptology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 33.
29 Edwin Blashfield, “The Evolution of civilization, dome of rotunda,” ca.1896-1900, photograph, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/91480638/
30 John M. Adams, The Millionaire and the Mummies: Theodore Davis’s Gilded Age in the Valley of Kings
(New York: St. Martins Press, 2013), 145.
31 Reid, 87.
32 MacAlister, Epic Encounters, 133.
33 Reid, 51.
34 James L. Gelvin, “The Middle East Breasted Encountered, 1919-1920,” in Pioneers to the Past: American Archaeologists in the Middle East, 1919-1920, ed. Geoff Emberling (Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2010), 25.
35 Clarence Fisher to George Reisner, 20 May 1917, box 30, folder 3, Clarence S. Fisher Expedition Records, Penn Museum Archives, Philadelphia.
36 Reid, 61.
37 Reid, 62.
38 T. G. H. James, Howard Carter: The Path to Tutankhamun (London: Taurus Parke, 2008).
39 Reid, 72.
40 Illustrated London News (London, UK), January 19, 1924.
41 Reid, 52.
42 MacAlister, 99.
43 MacAlister, 125.
44 Thomas Hoving, Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 33.
45 Hoving, 34.
46 MacAlister, 135.
47 Edward W. Said, Covering Islam (New York: Random House, 1997).
48 MacAlister, 140.
49 MacAlister, 138.
50 Saturday Night Live, season 3, episode 18, featuring Steve Martin, aired April 22, 1978, on NBC.
51 “Egypt Antiquities,” The Tut Resolution, microfilm, Schomburg Center, New York Public Library.
52 Legrand H. Clegg II and Lisbeth Grant, “Big Tut Rip-Off!,” Sepia, November 1977, 39.
53 Sylvester Leaks, “Tutankhamen: Black Art Overlooked by White Eyes,” New York Amsterdam News,
April 7, 1979, 69.
54 MacAlister, 143.
55 MacAlister, 143.
56 Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History 91, no. 4 (2005): 1234.
57 UNESCO, The Peopling of Ancient Egypt.
58 “AAA Statement on Race,” American Anthropologist 100, no. 3 (1998): 712-713.
59 Margaret MacMillan, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (New York: Modern Library, 2010), 15.
60 Peter Der Manuelian, review of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, by Donald B. Redford,
Journal of the American Oriental Society 122, no. 4 (2002): 884-885.
61 Mary R. Lefkowitz, Black Athena Revisited (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 122
62 Guy Gugliotta, “A New Look at King Tut,” Washington Post, May 11, 2005.
64 Evan Henerson, “King Tut’s Skin Colour a Topic of Contreversy,” U-Daily News, June 15, 2005.
65 MacMillan, 170.
66 Kemp, Ancient Egypt, 47.
67 Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement,” 1234.
68 Hall, 1235.
69 Graham Allison, Destined for War: America, China, and the Thucydides Trap (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 217.