It’s been over half-a-century since most African countries severed the chains of European colonialism and officially gained their independence, and during the intermediate years between then and now the academic community has largely come to the point of acknowledging, albeit kicking and screaming, that humanity and much of civilization as we know it have their roots in Africa. But while science firmly places humanity’s origins inside the continent, Hollywood has apparently changed very little since the world supposedly did away with its colonial racist past. Two major studio films will be released this year – The Gods of Egypt,(directed by Alex Proyas) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (directed by Ridley Scott) – which will attempt to portray historically-based events that occurred in Ancient Africa, but with all-white actors being cast in the lead roles. Adding insult to injury is the fact the only roles in which people of color have been cast, at least in the latter film, are those of guards, assassins, “lower class civilians”, thieves, and oh yea… servants. Never mind the reality that during the historical period in which these movies are supposed to have taken place, virtually no white person had yet even stepped foot anywhere in Africa, particularly not in Egypt.
While it is tempting to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and assume that it was never their intention to be so racially-biased in favor of white actors, the images accompanying the soon-to-be-released motion picture films quickly dispel any notion of that being the case. (*) There is no better example than that of the Exodus movie’s recreated monuments of the 19th dynasty Pharaoh Ramesses II, the actual ones being over 2,700 years old and located at Abu-Simbel right next to Egypt’s border with Sudan. The face of the Exodus movie statue bears not even the slightest resemblance to the actual monument on which it was based.
HERE ARE THE FAKE “RAMSES II” MONUMENTS THAT APPEAR IN RIDLEY SCOTT’S EXODUS FILM:
THESE ARE THE ACTUAL MONUMENTS LOCATED AT ABU-SIMBEL IN EGYPT RIGHT NEXT TO THE BORDER WITH SUDAN:
Either the creators of this film have never laid eyes on a photograph of the monuments in question, something that could have been rendered with a quick Google search, or they deliberately sought to “de-Africanize” the Pharaoh’s features by giving him an appearance they thought looked more like a “caucasian”. Particularly irritating is the man who’s been cast in the role of the great King of Egypt himself, a white Australian-born actor by the name of Joel Edgerton. Granted I’ve never heard of the man before this. He may be an excellent actor as far as I know. That doesn’t change the fact that he looks incredibly ridiculous trying to pull off the role of Ramesses II. Judging by the three images I’ve collected below, it appears as if the producers believe that the problem of having a white-as-a-ghost actor in the role of an Egyptian king can be rendered by simply borrowing a can of John Boehner’s orange-tinted sunless spray tan. I guess this is supposed to give him an “exotic” look:
While some might argue that it doesn’t really matter much since the story of “Exodus” is in itself mostly mythology anyway, that doesn’t change the fact that Hollywood is intentionally perpetuating the myth that civilization was somehow conceived of by white men. The Gods of Egypt meanwhile falls nothing short of hilarious in its bogus attempt at recreating the Black Gods of early Africa whose origins are firmly rooted in the Great Lakes region of inner-equatorial Africa. A British and a Dutch actor, both of them white, will be facing off in the roles of the Nile Valley Gods Horus and Set. Here’s a look at how that’s turning out:
And here are what the actual Gods of the Nile Valley looked like:
Many of the articles that have appeared online criticizing the casting of all-white actors seem to be of the opinion that what they call “Middle Eastern” actors should have been cast in their stead, but in truth Arabs aren’t exactly indigenous to the Nile River Valley either. The origins of Ancient Egyptian Civilization lie at the source of the Nile River. Aside from the Supreme Being, most of the Gods of the Ancient Nile Valley were actually people who lived before 5000 B.C. and, upon their deaths, were deified and thereafter worshiped. The earliest inhabitants of the land we now call Egypt came from the south near the great lakes region, and it is to them that modern civilization as we know is to be attributed. Traveling north from the land known to the ancient world as Ethiopia, civilizations sprung up all along the Nile Valley such as Axum, Ta-Seti, and Kerma. According to the oral tradition recorded by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus in the 1st century B.C. during his sojourn in Africa, Egypt began in earliest antiquity as a colony or extension of Ethiopia itself. As one noted French Egyptologist wrote in the late 19th century, “By the almost unanimous testimony of the ancient historians, they (the Egyptians) belong to an African race which first settled in Ethiopia on the Middle Nile: following the course of the river they gradually reached the sea.” [Maspero, Gaston. The Dawn of Civilization. (1894).] Also contributing to the populating of northeastern Africa were the various Africans who migrated over an extended period of time towards the Nile River as the once-green pastures of the Sahara gradually dried up and became a barren desert.
It wasn’t until circa 3100-3500 B.C. when a King called Aha Min (referred to as ‘Menes’ by Greeks and subsequent historians) emerged from the south to conquer the Nile Valley kingdoms all the way up to the Mediterranean Sea. This is the first time in recorded history that the two lands known as Upper Egypt (located in the south) and Lower Egypt (located in the north) were unified to form a single entity. We should note, however, that “Egypt” is a word of Greek origin and the ancient inhabitants of the land never used it to refer to either themselves or their country. The proper word was Kmt (Kemet), the plural form of the word Km (Kem) meaning black. It was a descriptive word which was used in this case in reference to themselves, not the soil of the land as Eurocentric Egyptologists would have you believe. When describing themselves as if to distinguish themselves from foreigners, the term used was kmtjw. As the late great historian, Egyptologist, anthropologist, linguist, and physicist Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop demonstrated at the UNESCO 1974 Symposium that was held in Cairo, Egypt, there is no reference to land in either of these terms. The correct “hieroglyphic” (or ‘medu-netcher‘ as it was originally called) that one would use to refer to the black earth, black land or soil would be kme or some variation of it. Another term used by the ancients to describe their nation, Rmt kmt, does contain a reference to land. However, the ‘km’ is still a reference to the color of the people, translating to “men of the country of the black men”. [For the most thorough accounting of this and other evidence proving the African origin of the people of Ancient Kemet, please read the excellent paper written by Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop titled “Origins of the Ancient Egyptians” featured as part of Volume II in UNESCO‘s extraordinarily comprehensive 8-volume General History of Africa series.] It is of no insignificance that the United Nations’ Cairo Symposium commenced with the participants being in general agreement that the architects and creators of early Egyptian civilization were in fact migrants from “the Great Lakes region in inner-equatorial Africa.”
It wasn’t just the ancient Egyptians who described themselves as black in color either. Ancient writers the world over described the Egyptians in terms that left no ambiguity as to what they looked like. The most respected of ancient Greek historians, the man European scholars lauded as “the Father of History”, Herodotus, himself described the appearance of the Ancient Egyptians he came face to face with during his 5th century (B.C.) travels, remarking “that they are black-skinned and kinky-haired.” (Those are his exact words as they appear in The Histories: Book II.) The famous scientist and philosopher known as Aristotle also provided a description of the Egyptians’ appearance a century later in a statement that, while xenophobic, is still rather telling. Attempting to explain what he believed to be a correlation between physical appearance and personality traits, Aristotle wrote, “Those who are too black are cowards; like for instance, the Egyptians and the Ethiopians.” And as late the 2nd century AD, after many successive invasions of the land, the Greek writer Lucian described an Egyptian character in his Navigations as “not merely black; he has thick lips and his legs are too thin”, while Strabo described both Ethiopians and Egyptians as “darker than Hindus”. [Van Sertima, Ivan. (1986). The Journal of African Civilizations. Great African Thinkers: Cheikh Anta Diop. Pages 42-46.] And finally there’s Ammianus Marcellinus who, during the time that Egypt was under Roman domination, traveled from Rome to Africa and recorded in his Book XXII how “the men of Egypt are mostly brown or black with a skinny and desiccated look.” All throughout antiquity the people inhabiting ancient Egypt were referred to by the Greeks as ‘melanchroes‘, literally meaning black, as opposed to ‘leucochroes‘ (white) or ‘phrenychroes‘ (brown or dark red).
Why then does the average Egyptian dwelling in the modern Arab Republic of Egypt look significantly different from the original inhabitants of the Nile Valley? The answer lies in the many successive invasions and occupations that began taking place during the latter half of the 1st millennium B.C. Prior to about 1700 B.C., there were virtually no white people anywhere in Kemet aside from maybe a few Asiatic servants who trickled into the Delta. The first foreigners to appear on record came in very small numbers at first and were a group of Semitic people known simply as the Hyksos, which translates to ‘rulers of foreign lands’. (It was long believed that hyksos meant ‘shepherd kings’, but this has proved inaccurate.) At first their presence was welcomed in the kingdom, but as chaos and unrest spread throughout Kemet at the close of the 14th dynasty, the Hyksos were able to take advantage of the situation by usurping the throne of Lower Kemet and establishing themselves as rulers of an area which extended from the Mediterranean in the north to just below the city of Memphis in the south. Depending on which historian one relies on, the Hyksos rule in Lower Kemet lasted either 200 or 500 years in what’s been designated the Second Intermediate Period in Egyptian history. Whatever the case, the majority of Egypt was still governed by the native Egyptian population. By the time the Hyksos were driven out entirely by the last rulers of the 17th dynasty circa 1500 B.C., all of the greatest monuments for which Egypt is best-known for – the largest of the pyramids and Heremakhet (best known as the ‘Sphinx of Giza’) were at least as old as 1,000 years already. Ancient Egypt really began its decline, at least as far as its native history is concerned, with a wave of successive invasions and conquests that would eventually change the racial makeup of the people of the land and even the culture. The Assyrians conquered for seven years beginning in 656 B.C. Then came the first of what would amount to three different conquests by the Persians in 525 B.C. (the final was in 629 A.D.), followed by the conquest of Alexander the “Great” of Macedonia (Greece) in 334 B.C. and the beginning of the 300-year rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Greek occupation was brought to an end by the all-powerful Roman Empire in 30 B.C. Egypt was essentially reduced to a vassal of the vast Roman empire during its 700-year occupation, but with the rise of Islam as a serious competitor to Christianity as a world religion, a small army of Arabs was able to conquer Egypt in 639 A.D. A major influx of Arabs into Egypt occurred in the next four years and by 643 A.D. Egypt was a largely Arab country. Aside from a later influx of Turks during the medieval rule of the Mameluks, the population has since remained majority Arab. But, as Professor Molefi Kete Asante points out, “The presence of Arabs today in Egypt should not be read as an ancient presence just as White presence in Australia should not be read as an ancient presence. The same for America.”
Let us not forget that the science of modern Egyptology is itself rooted in the 19th century era in which scientific and academic racism flourished, when Europeans did everything in their power to colonize not just land and people, but the various fields of academia to promote their “scientific” theories of white racial superiority. It should come as no surprise then that the earliest European explorers found ways of attributing everything extraordinary they found in the continent as the creation of white people. They even designated the Black people inhabiting East Africa (perhaps because they saw in them a strong physical similarity to Ancient Egyptians as they were described in the Greek texts) as “Hamites” or “black-skinned caucasians”. This is the double-standard white Egyptologists and anthropologists subjected people of color to. When it came to the study of the most glorious civilizations of antiquity, the Black people who were at the root of it suddenly became “caucasian” or at the very least classified as “non-negroid”. But when it came to deciding the rights of the people who shared these same characteristics in countries under white colonial rule, these “black-skinned Caucasians” suddenly became “Negroes” again in the eyes of the law. The archaeologists who garnered the highest respect from the academic community were usually the ones whose conclusions were the most racist. German Egyptologist Richard Karl Lepsius declared confidently that even Ancient ‘Nubia’ – located in modern-day Sudan – was a civilization that “belonged to the Caucasian race”. The British Egyptologist Richard A. Reisner echoed Lepsius’s sentiment without a single bit of evidence to bolster his claim other than his own white supremacist ideology. “Nubia’s leaders, including Piye,” wrote Reisner, “were light-skinned Egypto-Libyans who ruled over the primitive Africans.” Reisner’s racism was so insistent that, despite all of his “respectability”, he reconciled the unanimous testimony of the ancient Greek writers who described the Egyptians and Ethiopians as Black by saying that they were only referring to “the inert mass of the black races of Africa” who he says were a subjugated caste that “had never developed either its trade or any industry worthy of mention.” A doctor by the name of Joseph Maes wrote in a 1924 article that ancient megaliths located in West Africa could “not have been executed by the black race” because the megaliths “require a considerable amount of effort… without any relationship to the natural functions of eating and copulating which alone interest the black man.” (Maes also described himself as an expert in “Black psychology”.) And finally there’s James Breasted, America’s foremost Egyptologist during his lifetime and the founder of the Oriental Institute in Chicago, who once famously wrote in 1926, “The evolution of civilization has been the achievement of this Great White Race.” The “negroid” and “mongoloid” races, he proclaimed, were “geographically so remote” that they “had no direct connection with the main stream of civilized development of which we of the west are a part.” (**) Breasted of course failed to realize that during the prehistoric era in which civilization began to emerge in Africa followed by Asia, his “Great White Race” as he calls them was largely confined to the caves of Europe where extremely icy weather prevented them from leaving.
And yet, even as European colonialism and imperialism flourished, there were some European specialists who did in fact recognize Kemet for the indigenous African creation that it was. They were entirely shunned by the larger academic community, however, or at the very least conveniently ignored. Foremost among them was Gerald Massey, the author of Ancient Egypt: the light of the world. Others included A. H. L. Herren and Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, the latter writing in his late 19th century book about Egypt: “The pre-historic native of Egypt, both in the old and in the new Stone Ages, was African and there is every reason for saying that the earliest settlers came from the South.” Eugen Georg in his 1931 book, The Adventure of Mankind, reached the same conclusion as Massey and Budge, holding that “Blacks were the first to plow the mud of the Nile; they were the dark-skinned, curly-haired Kushites.” In the latter half of the 20th century a whole field of Africans and people of African descent who specialized in every major field of science made the cause of restoring Africa’s proper place in world history their own, producing irrefutable evidence that Africa was both the cradle of humanity and civilization itself. Some of the most prominent names of this African-centered, or Afrocentric, approach were the late Senegalese scholar Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop, Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, Dr. John G. Jackson, Dr. George G.M. James and Dr. Molefi Kete Asante just to name a few. Together they struck at the heart of white supremacy in higher education like nothing ever had before or since. The reaction of the traditional Eurocentric academia was hysterical, and many right-wing traditionalists still openly mock and deride Afrocentrist curriculum because of what it represents. They feel threatened by African and African Diaspora people studying and interpreting their own history on their own terms, instead of terms drawn up and favored by the white establishment.
Why then has the larger European and Euro-American academic community sought to thwart, undermine, erase, downplay and bury the earliest evidence that the origins of classical civilization are firmly rooted in Africa? The British journalist Flora Shaw, writing 100 years ago under the name of ‘Lady Lugard’, seems as if she might have known the answer:
“If this should prove the case and the civilized world be forced to recognize in a black people the fount of its original enlightenment, it may happen that we shall have to revise entirely our view of the black races, and regard those who now exist as the decadent representatives of an almost forgotten era, rather than as the embryonic possibility of an era yet to come.” [quoted from Christianity Before Christ. Jackson, John G. (1985). Page 177]
To put it another way, to acknowledge this would be to acknowledge the extent of the crime that’s been committed against the African men and women of the world, and it would undermine the entire racist logic underpinning the brutal systems of capitalism and imperialism. Count comte de Volney of France recalled in 1787 the revelation that came to him as he beheld the only face of its size to have truly withstood the test of time. Gazing at the gigantic ‘Sphinx’ of Giza, he began to gain a sense of the magnitude of what was being done to the Africans. It was then that it dawned on him
“…that this race of blacks who nowadays are slaves and the object of our scorn is the very one to which we owe our arts, our sciences and even the use of spoken word; and finally recollect that it is in the midst of the peoples claiming to be the greatest friends of liberty and humanity that the most barbarous of enslavements has been sanctioned and the question raised whether black men have brains of the same quality as those of white men!”
That the roles of these historically Black and Brown characters are still being reserved for only the palest of faces speaks volumes about the continuing racism against African people. It sends a message that just about anyone is allowed to take credit for and bask in the glow of African civilizations except for African people themselves! But if there’s one thing Europeans and people of European descent should remember, it’s that just because some might perceive themselves as being the present-day masters of the globe, it doesn’t mean this was always the case, nor is it guaranteed they shall remain so in the future. Empires in history rise and fall; even the United States will prove no exception.
* When the situation is reversed, however, and a Black actor is cast in a role that’s been traditionally reserved for white actors, the backlash from angry white fans has been generally furious. For example, there’s that time when Donald Glover was seriously considered for the part of Peter Parker in the Amazing Spider Man movie, Quvenzhané Wallis was cast to star in the little orphan Annie remake, and most recently when it was announced that Michael B. Jordan would be playing Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four live-action movie. These are fictional stories by the way.
And oh yeah, the Council of Conservative Citizens (the modern spin-off of the White Citizens Council) actually organized a boycott of the movie Thor because the talented actor Idris Elba was cast in the role of ‘Norse’ God Hiemdall.
** As further testament to just how far James Breasted’s racist historiography reached, here’s a direct quote from Georgia’s segregationist Dixiecrat Senator Richard Russell, explaining his reason for his filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
“I’m not an anthropologist, but I’ve studied history. And there is no case in history of a mongrel race preserving a civilization, much less creating one.” [Quoted from Judgement Day: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the laws that changed America. Kotz, Nick. (2005). Page 134.]
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