By Oscar H. Blayton
2022 will be remembered as the year European museums began to return stolen and looted artifacts to the African cultures to whom they belonged.
But while some physical items are finding their way back home, the stolen histories and legacies of African people remain locked away in the dungeons of white supremacy.
The centuries-old practice of European appropriation of African culture and achievement has, not surprisingly, created a keen sense of suspicion within the African diaspora towards European assertions of racial classifications of historical figures.
The discovery of the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun in November 1922 precipitated a blizzard of news reports out of Egypt as archaeologists cataloged and removed items from the burial chamber where the African ruler had lain for thousands of years. Then in January 1923, the press went silent. After 28 articles were printed by the London Times and 43 were printed by the New York Times during a two-month period, there was an unexplained silence.
This silence did not go unnoticed by the Negro World, the newspaper published by Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. In the summer of 1923, an editorial in the Negro World gave voice to the suspicion that the news had dried up because the archaeologists had discovered that Tutankhamun was Black and wanted that fact covered up. According to the editorial, “white Americans call nothing creditable Negroid if they can possibly find another name for it.”
While the Africaness of the ancient Egyptians was given much credibility by many white historians and academics, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 ignited arguments about the presumed race of the ancient Egyptians.
Just prior to the arrival of the “King Tut” exhibit in Los Angeles, California, in 1978, Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of the city, signed a resolution passed by City Council declaring Sunday, Feb. 12, 1978, “King Tut Day.” This resolution was linked to Black History Month and pronounced that Tut was an exemplary Black man. It also proclaimed King Tut Day as a celebration of Black culture. In part, the resolution stated:
“Whereas each of the rulers of the eighteenth dynasty … was either black, ‘negroid,’ or of black ancestry, and all would be classified as black if they were citizens of the United States today; and …
“Whereas it is particularly important to focus on positive black male images during Black History Month in order to instill self-esteem in and encourage self-discipline among young black males, who are often deprived of positive black images.
“Now, therefore, be it resolved that the Los Angeles City Council (declares King Tut Day) … for the increased cultural and historical heritage which has brought much awareness and enrichment to our community.”
This resolution, with the official weight of the City of Los Angeles behind it, declared that Tutankhamun was Black, and thus he represented a proud heritage for African Americans. This was because if Tutankhamun could be identified as Black, ancient Egypt could be reclaimed as a Black civilization. And by extension, the foundations of “Western Civilization” itself could be identified as Black culture.
But acclaim for Blackness is always met with resistance. A few months after the Los Angeles resolution was passed, the King Tut exhibit was moved to New York City’s Museum of Metropolitan Art. In preparation for the exhibit’s arrival, the museum published a small booklet titled “Tutankhamun and the African Heritage.” The booklet’s stated purpose was to address concerns about the racial composition of Ancient Egypt’s population in a balanced fashion. But it is reported that in the end, the booklet declared, without empirical evidence, that the population of ancient Egypt was more “caucasoid” than “negroid.”
Because of white America’s attempts to disassociate Egypt from Africa, there have been constant complaints from the Black community over what has been seen as a whitening of Tut and of Egypt. The cover story of the November 1977 edition of Sepia magazine decried “The Big Tut Rip-off! (National Insult to Blacks).” The arguments around the Blackness of Tutankhamun were seen as just another attempt to rob Black folk of their rightful place in history.
However, in 1974, the International Scientific Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) held its symposium on “The Peopling of Ancient Egypt” and published its report in 1981. During this symposium, Professor Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese historian, anthropologist, physicist and politician, presented empirical evidence that from the Upper Paleolithic era to the dynastic epoch of Egypt, the whole of the Nile River basin was populated by Negroid peoples. Through a very long and methodical process using linguistics, physical anthropology, possible ancient migration patterns out of central Africa into Egypt, visual authentication of the representations of ancient Egyptians on their monuments, among other methods, Diop established a factual record of the African roots of the Ancient Nile Valley civilization and the origins of Ancient Egypt that has not been successfully refuted to this day.
Diop’s scholarship brought credibility to another Black scholar, George G.M. James. In 1954, James published his then-controversial book, “Stolen Legacy.” In “Stolen Legacy,” James argued that Greek philosophy was stolen Egyptian philosophy and that the Egyptians educated the Greeks.
After convincingly making his case in his book, James states:
“Now that it has been shown that philosophy, and the arts and sciences were bequeathed to civilization by the people of North Africa and not by the people of Greece; the pendulum of praise and honour is due to shift from the people of Greece to the people of the African continent who are the rightful heirs of such praise and honour.
“This is going to mean a tremendous change in world opinion, and attitude, for all people and races who accept the new philosophy of African redemption, i.e. the truth that the Greeks were not the authors of Greek philosophy; but the people of North Africa; would change their opinion from one of disrespect to one of respect for the Black people throughout the world and treat them accordingly.”
Unfortunately, George G.M. James was naive in his belief that truth and knowledge would be accepted over the desire to maintain white supremacy. The persistent and pernicious efforts to deny and hide the human accomplishments that have come out of Africa are dramatized by a Richard Pryor skit in which he portrays an archaeologist, who, along with three white archaeologists, unseals and enters an Egyptian tomb and discovers documented evidence that Africans had accomplished great achievements down through the ages. But while Pryor is intensely focused on the discovered documentation, the three white archaeologists quietly sneak out of the tomb, reseal it with Pryor in it and call for it to be bulldozed because there is “nothing to learn” there.
White supremacists will never yield to the truth if that truth threatens white supremacy. And it is up to all people of good conscience to work to bring all truths into the light.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia. His earlier commentaries may be found at https://oblayton1.medium.com/