is a general approach to scholarly research that attempts to avoid the values and assumptions imposed by the European tradition, and, where possible, to look at questions from an African perspective. In historical research, in particular, the effect is to focus on Africans and the peoples of the African diaspora as active agents in history, rather than viewing them as the passive pawns of social forces at the periphery of historical events, as the European historical tradition has tended to do. The approach has the dual goals of reducing the distortions in historical reconstructions and, as a consequence, correcting distortions in the perception of people of African heritage in their own eyes and in the eyes of society in general. In this second, more political goal lies an inherent danger of the Afrocentric approach: that, in its effort to counteract negative distortions, it will simply substitute new distortions for the old.
Related to (and to some extent a reaction against) the French Négritude movement, the Afrocentric approach has several sub-approaches, each with its own proponents. Several of these approaches are related to the history of people of African heritage who live in societies with larger populations of European heritage; they may focus on the religions of West Africa, for example, or the lives of Africans within the institution of slavery. However, probably the most popular variety of Afrocentrism is the approach that Russell Adams (1993) has labeled “Nile-Valley Afrocentrism,” which centers on the ancient Egyptian and, to a lesser extent, the ancient Nubian civilizations; and it is this aspect of the movement that concerns Egyptology and Egyptologists.
The basic tenets of Nile-Valley Afrocentrism are a reaction to the prejudiced view sometimes encountered in societies of predominantly European heritage, that all important social, intellectual, and technical achievements are European in origin. This view has as corollaries the contention that there has never been a great African civilization, and that people of African heritage are incapable of great achievements. The Afrocentrism that focuses on the Nile Valley attempts to refute this by pointing out that ancient Egyptian civilization was an African culture, and that the ancient Egyptians would be identified by modern Europeans and Americans as “black.” These claims have been argued particularly by Cheik Anta Diop (1981) and I. von Sertima (1989), supported by some depictions of Egyptians in Egyptian art; counter-arguments based on classical terminology for Egyptians and other African peoples have been put forward by Frank Snowden (in Lefkowitz and Rodgers 1996). The opinion of physical anthropologists on the question is far from unanimous, but they generally avoid the question by arguing that race is a social rather than a biological categorization.
The view that the ancient Egyptians were black is often supported by the contention that one of the ancient names of Egypt, Kmt, is to be translated “land of the black people” rather than “the black land,” as Egyptologists generally translate it. For this reason, many Afrocentric writers prefer to use the term “Kemet” rather than “Egypt,” “Kemetology” rather than “Egyptology,” “Kemetian” rather than “Egyptian,” and “Kemetic” rather than “hieroglyphic writing.” Two major objections to this understanding of the word Kmt are its failure to deal with the similarly construed term Dšrt, “the red land,” which clearly does not refer to red people; and the grammatical objection that, had the Egyptians wanted to write “land of the black people,” they would have used a nominalized nisbe formation on the nominalized adjective kmwyt/kmtyt—that is, kmw or the feminine collective kmt (“black ones”) + y (pertaining to them) + t (place), followed by human determinatives and plural strokes. Such forms are unattested.
A second type of claim by Afrocentric writers is that the ancient Egyptian culture was considerably more advanced than Egyptological scholarship allows. Such claims have included technological advances, such as the contention that the Egyptians built a primitive glider that allowed them to fly and that they had learned to harness the power of electricity. Their knowledge of mathematics has been extended to include the value of π (pi) and the Pythagorean Theorem. Claims for philosophical and ethical development have also been made—for example, by Maulana Karenga (1996), whose discussions of Egyptian ethical beliefs are both modest and generally well supported by the ancient evidence. More common, however, are claims of mental and spiritual knowledge that surpass those of any recorded culture, including telepathy, levitation, and prophecy. Many of the technological claims, and all the mental claims, for the ancient Egyptians are more extreme than the claims of race, because they are much less a matter of modern perceptions.
Perhaps the most widely debated of the Afrocentric claims is the assertion that Greek culture, the revered root of Western civilization, either was Egyptian in origin or borrowed many of its achievements from ancient Egypt. Particularly prominent is the contention that the Greeks, and Aristotle in particular, “stole” their philosophical ideas from the Egyptians, which was first propounded in George James's Stolen Legacy (1954). James's book has severe chronological problems (Aristotle is said to have stolen much of his oeuvre from the library of Alexandria, which was founded some time after his death), but more recently Afrocentric scholars have tried to argue a more general borrowing by attempting to find philosophical concepts in Egyptian religious literature. Related claims are made by other writers who identify famous Greek people (Socrates, and with only slightly more justice, Cleopatra) as Egyptian.
The debate about the relationship between Egypt and Greece has centered around the work of Martin Bernal (1987–1991) who does not consider himself an Afrocentrist, but who seems to support many of the same goals as Afrocentrists. His books claim that much of Greek culture originated in Egypt, whence it was communicated through a kind of cultural imperialism, backed up by military force in the Middle and New Kingdoms. His arguments are almost entirely based on classical texts; they include the Greek accounts of Egyptians that claim them as ancestors, the Athenian versions of myths which often ascribe foreign origins to other cities, and superficial similarities between numerous Greek words and those of Egyptian and Semitic languages. An uneven but cumulatively devastating collection of critiques of Bernal's arguments has been compiled by Mary Lefkowitz and Guy Rodgers (1996).
The fourth claim of Afrocentrists is related to the previous one. In addition to having initiated or dominated ancient Greek culture, the ancient Egyptians are credited with all known African civilizations. This contention that Egyptian civilization spread throughout all parts of the continent is often supported by citations from nineteenth-century scholars, who attributed any monument or work of art found on the African continent to Egyptian influence, as P. L. Shinnie (1971) has pointed out. The most prominent proponent of these ideas is the late Senegalese scholar Cheik Anta Diop (1981), who claimed that close parallels between the Egyptian language and Wolof, as well as the religious beliefs of both cultures, point to Egyptian origins for his own culture. Egyptian origins have been claimed for African cultures as far distant in space and time as the builders of Great Zimbabwe, a third-to-fifteenth century stone fortress and town in southeastern Africa. For members of the African diaspora, these claims have the advantage of allowing all peoples of African origin to trace their origins to the ancient Egyptian culture.
Finally, and most troublesome to Egyptologists, many Nile-Valley Afrocentrists claim that there has been a conspiracy among non-African scholars to obscure ancient Egypt's African characteristics, its great achievements, its formative role in Greek philosophy and culture, and its close relationship with other African cultures. The most common of these claims is that there has been a concerted effort to knock off the noses of ancient Egyptian statues (most notably the Sphinx) to disguise their African appearance. This accusation is most often leveled at Napoleon Bonaparte, who is said to have shot the nose off the Sphinx—a claim that is manifestly incorrect, not only because earlier Western representations of the Sphinx depict it with its nose missing (for example, the drawing published in 1755 by Frederick Norden) but also because medieval Arabic texts attribute the damage to a Muslim fanatic in the fourteenth century CE (see Haarmann 1980). Other statuary and relief art is said to have been mutilated as well. Moreover, any attempts Egyptologists have made to refute some of the unsubstantiated claims about foreign conquests, Egyptian origins, and exaggerated Egyptian achievements are identified as part of this conspiracy.
It cannot be denied that many Egyptologists of previous generations shared the racist views that were endemic in their societies, and their work has often reflected this. In some cases, this racism had the effect of denigrating the achievements of the Egyptians (as can be seen, for example, in some of the condescending descriptions of Egyptian religious beliefs or thought processes); in other cases, the solution was to consider the Egyptians as entirely unconnected with the rest of Africa, an argument that can be supported by the geographical isolation of the lower Nile Valley, but only to a limited extent. One of the valuable contributions of the Afrocentric movement is that it has made Egyptologists aware of the extent to which their generally held beliefs may be distorted by racist assumptions.
The initial formation of the field of Egyptology was based on philology: the desire to read the hieroglyphic texts on Egyptian monuments. The hope of early scholars was that these texts would prove to contain confirmation and elaboration of the events recorded in the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Their background knowledge about Egypt was based on classical and biblical sources, and their primary concern was to address the questions that those sources raised. In addition, their research was often dependent on the support of the general public, and it was thus necessary to relate it to things the public already knew about, again classical writers or biblical events. The search for connections between Egypt and other cultures was therefore oriented almost entirely toward the cultures of the Mediterranean and the Near East. Not only were these cultures more interesting to scholars who already had a background knowledge of classics and the Bible, but they were also literate, so contacts among them could easily be traced.
Connections with African cultures were less interesting to early Egyptologists for the same reasons; most of these scholars had little knowledge of the African cultures to the south and west of Egypt. Even when Nubian culture became better known, it was viewed as a pale and inaccurate imitation of Egypt. Since much of its art obviously was related to the pharaonic tradition, it was evaluated primarily in terms of the accuracy with which the Egyptian forms were copied; there was little appreciation of its distinctive Nubian characteristics and the creativity with which the borrowed forms were manipulated to serve the purposes of a very different culture. Moreover, the Nubian and Libyan cultures with which the Egyptians interacted had no written language—it is not even certain what kinds of languages they spoke. Therefore, it is impossible to trace influences such as loanwords, stories, borrowed divinities, names, and the like. To see such connections, it is necessary to see both sides of the equation: one needs to compare the Libyan or Nubian version to the Egyptian version to determine whether they are sufficiently similar to support an argument for connection. But there are no contemporary Libyan or Nubian versions to compare.
The lack of information about adjacent African cultures, their lack of written languages, and the strong formative influence of classical studies and the Bible, when combined with the racist assumptions of the society in which early Egyptologists lived, resulted in a very strong eurocentric bias in Egyptology at the most basic levels. This Eurocentrism has been pointed out by the Afrocentrists, and the reexamination of many of these fundamental questions that is currently taking place in the field is to some degree attributable to their influence.
Not all effects of Afrocentrism are equally useful, however. The movement has many problematic aspects. Afrocentrists, too, are products of the Western intellectual tradition, and they have usually adopted the values of Western culture no less than the Egyptologists they criticize. Indeed, the very focus of Nile-Valley Afrocentrists on Egyptian culture betrays their acceptance of the Western tradition that admires Egypt but neglects most other African cultures. There is also the problem of Afrocentrism's assumption that the African continent is the only logical geographical category to which Egypt can belong, when in fact “Africa” is largely an arbitrary, modern Western conceptual category no less arbitrary than the category of race. The Egyptians saw themselves as surrounded by three peoples: the “Asiatics” (a broad category encompassing all the cultures to the north and east), the Libyans, and the Nubians. There is no evidence that the Egyptians defined themselves as “African” or felt themselves more closely connected to their Libyan or Nubian neighbors than to their neighbors in Western Asia or (later) Europe. The concept of “Africa” that groups Egypt geographically with other African cultures and separates it from “Western Asia” or “Asia” is only an artifact of the Western concept of “continents.”
Other problems with Afrocentrism are methodological. Because the real impetus behind Afrocentric contentions is the hope that people of African descent will better appreciate the achievements of their people, the analyses of Egyptian evidence tend to emphasize (and sometimes exaggerate) evidence that suggests the superiority of Egyptian developments in ethics, technology, politics, philosophy, and the like. Evidence that would argue against these claims is disparaged and, if possible, discredited. Such tendentious reasoning obviously is undesirable in scholarship.
Despite these flaws, the Afrocentric approach has considerable currency in modern education, particularly in elementary education in the United States, usually in areas with large African-American populations. The curriculum most often taken as a model is the Portland Baseline Essays, a collection of materials that was prepared for the school system in Portland, Oregon. Many of these materials, particularly the science sections, are seriously flawed, but they have sometimes been adopted, nonetheless, in the belief that the increased self-esteem of the African-American students and their consequent improved levels of achievement will outweigh the inaccuracies of the materials.
The ultimate role that Afrocentrism will play in the field of Egyptology is yet to be decided. A positive and stimulating synthesis will be possible only to the degree that Egyptologists and Afrocentrists are willing to be open-minded and work together in accordance with accepted scholarly standards.
- Adams, Russell. “African-American Studies and the State of the Art.” In Africana Studies: A Survey of Africa and the African Diaspora, edited by Mario Azevdo, pp. 25–45. Durham, N. C., 1993. The author distinguishes and describes various types of Afrocentrism in addition to what he calls “Nile Valley Afrocentrism.”
- Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. 2 vols. New Brunswick, N.J., 1987–1991.
- Diop, Cheik Anta. “The Origin of the Ancient Egyptians.” In General History of Africa II: Ancient History of Africa, edited by G. Mokhtar, pp. 27–57. Paris, 1981. A summary of many of Diop's positions.
- Haarmann, Ulrich. “Regional Sentiment in Medieval Islamic Egypt.” Bulletin of the Society for Oriental and African Studies 43 (1980), 55–66. A study of medieval Egyptian attitudes toward the pharaonic past, including the episode of the damage to the Sphinx.
- James, George. Stolen Legacy. New York, 1954. A problematic work much cited by Afrocentrists, claiming that Greek philosophy was taken from Egypt.
- Lefkowitz, Mary, and Guy Rodgers, eds. Black Athena Revisited. Chapel Hill, N. C., and London, 1996. Essays criticizing the claims of Martin Bernal's Black Athena.
- Roth, Ann Macy. “Building Bridges to Afrocentrism: A Letter to my Egyptological Colleagues.” Newsletter of the American Research Center in Egypt 167 and 168 (1995), 1, 14–17 and 1, 12–15.
- Shinnie, P. L. “The Legacy to Africa”. The Legacy of Egypt, edited by J. R. Harris, pp. 435–455. Oxford, 1971.
- von Sertima, Ivan, ed. Egypt Revisited. New Brunswick and London, 1989. A collection of essays (many reprinted from other sources) by authors writing from Afrocentric positions or whose views accord with Afrocentrism.
Ann Macy Roth