“Was Cleopatra black?”… no but it’s more complicated than that

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The question of Cleopatra’s ethnicity has echoed from Egyptians to the black diaspora, the British and Americans as each try to lay claim to the Queen of the one of the greatest African Empires of all time.

Having just returned from Egypt on our honeymoon, where we completed a nile cruise, enjoyed the beauty of the nile, Karnak and Abu Simbel, witnessed the mathematical genius of the megalithic Pyramids, I felt motivated to shed light on this issue of Cleopatra’s race which presented to us since the Jada Pinkett Smith documentary on the queen.

Was Cleopatra black?

Black is a very Eurocentric term. It bubbles most of us of African descent into a homogenous group. Would the Ancient Egyptians be classed as black by European standards? Dark reddish skin, thick lips with twists in their hair? Many of them yes. Just as many modern today Egyptians would be classed by Europeans as black.

Myself and my wife were consistently spoken to in Arabic and the Egyptians were shocked when we explained that we were of Jamaican descent and not Egyptian.

“but your face is Egyptian!…” they replied. One even asked if Jamaica was in Africa, as he was so sure of our similarities.

But would you spot Cleopatra walking down the high street and think she was a fellow member of the African diaspora? Most definitely not

The Ptolemaic Dynasty

In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great of Greece invaded Egypt and rid them of Asiatic rule. The Egyptians welcomed him and his generals as they built huge statues in honour of Egyptian Gods and even declared their own Gods, for example Apollo, as incarnations of their Gods ie Horus

Edfu Temple, Egypt built during Greco-Roman Egyptian rule

Alexander the Great died and his general, Ptolemy, inherited rule of Egypt. The Ptolemaic dynasty (ie family line) begins. Cleopatra the VII is descendant of this Greek dynasty.

Cleopatra was a Greek ruler of an African Empire.

The problem with “Black”

The problem with “black” is that it means relatively little. In Egypt, I met people who looked like me, my family, my friends from India and Greece. Being an African country and being so close to the original site of mankind, it would naturally be diverse because all of human DNA started in Africa. In other words, the entire colour palette is in Africa.

Black is a very Eurocentric term. It made sense 500 years ago because it expressed extremes in appearance between continents and also divided the oppressed and the oppressor. But the more focused we become in our analysis, the more useless this rather large net of “blackness” becomes.

The appearance of Ancient Egyptians

The many faces of Egypt speak for themselves. We see a diversity which in itself is truly African. Loose curls, tight curls. Dark skin, reddish skin. Thick lips, thinner lips etc.

We cannot homogenise the faces of Egypt just like we cannot homogenise Haille Selassie, Nelson Mandela, Queen Nerfertiti, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Queen Nanny etc and put them into one group.

Their identity is black only in a western view. Those who haven’t experienced colonisation cannot be squashed to fit this rather rigid criteria that we have inherited.

Furthermore, as a Jamaica descendant, I can’t claim Egyptian history. The Egyptians descend from those early humans who travelled North East to Egypt, East to Kenya, the Sudan and South to the tip of Africa.

I descend from those who went West to form the great kingdoms of Songhai, Oyo, Ashanti, Soninke and later Ancient Ghana.

And yet I can’t claim them. The geniuses who built these empires, who threw off the shackles of slavery and overthrew their oppressor; I cannot claim their work.

But I can draw inspiration. Inspiration of what a mind, body and spirit can achieve with focus.

These are examples of the idiocy of racism. That complexion and African’ness is no barrier to academic, commercial, philosophical, scientific, creative or spiritual brilliance.

These people aren’t for us to claim. But they are our northern star to direct us forward.

Was Cleopatra black? No. We’re the ancient Egyptians black? It depends who and where you ask.

My Roots Go Deep

I’m currently writing a graphical novel to help to educate the children of our communities in the beauty of the history which is theirs to draw wisdom from.

Please subscribe to my website via the link below for more information as we continue to grow this graphic novel into something spectacular.

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