Q&A: Ancient Egypt in African history

A person posed the following question: Since most of our ancestry derives from West Africa, why does African history always focus on Ancient Egypt?
My response: I don’t think that African history only focuses on Egypt (Kemet), however the focus on Egypt among African Americans goes back to the 19th Century, wherein its grand legacy was seen as a means of redeeming the false notion that Africa was devoid of history and that Africans had never created a great civilization. If we were to survey the historiography of 19th and mid-20th Century African American intellectuals, we do see a significant focus on Egypt, but there were also a fair number of intellectuals writing about other, later civilizations; consider for instance Du Bois’s groundbreaking texts The Negro and Black Folks Then and Now, as well as Carter G. Woodson’s The African Background Outlined. All of these texts offer a fairly balanced treatment of Black history.

To be sure, there are critiques to be made of a “lop-sided” focus on Egypt, particularly if such a study does not alleviate our often impoverished knowledge of the rest of Africa. Many argue that as Diasporan Africans, we should be more acquainted with the history of West and Central Africa. I agree with this, but also add that it is important to understand African history as a continuum that spans from ancient Egypt and Nubia to the present day.

The desert

The problem is that many of us know so little about who we are as a people, that we seek refuge in the desert. Those of us who understand the importance of an African worldview must show that the desert is a wasteland, not a safe haven, and lead our people to an oasis instead.


Many of us exist as signifiers of what is often a forgotten or ignored past. As Cynthia Dillard asserts, in this era forgetfulness is encouraged. Loss of historical knowledge augments the malleability of human beings, enabling those with power to forge them into whatever material they desire. Some of us have suggested that such is not to be the fate of the descendants of the enslaved and the colonized. Herein, history becomes, as Anderson Thompson says, “a heavy weapon in the battle for freedom”.

The past

The desire to return to times when one stood on ground of greater surety, the past, is more a reflection of the unresolved tension in facing the ever unfolding future than it is a true reflection of the past’s illusory certainty.

The tragedy of our situation

The tragedy of our situation is not simply what has happened, but what, as a result, can never be. It is this gap between what would be optimal and ideal, and what is that we must reconcile ourselves with. This reconciliation need not be capitulation, but a resolute commitment to forge the future out of an imperfect past.

Kheper and Maat: The Kemetic conception of the consubstantiality of the cosmos and humanity (an excerpt)

Yet we are reminded of Dr. Carruthers’s thinking about centrality of Maat as a governing principle in the affairs of humanity. Maat provided the basis for Kemetic governance, established the form and character of Kemetic deep thought, established the conceptual framework from which the Kemetyu (people of Kemet) studied the cosmos, and so on. Thus Maat’s role in the terrestrial (ty gbb or Earthly) sphere, like her role in the celestial, was the establishment of transcendent order. This is even apparent in periods of calamity or social upheaval, where Maat is invoked as the natural condition, which subsequent to the expulsion of isfet (disorder), must be restored. The ontological significance of this point cannot be understated, for while Maat is the antithesis of isfet, Maat is the natural and optimal condition of the world. Isfet is an aberration, one that can only be corrected via Maat’s reascension.

Just as Kheper represents an iterative cycle, this cycle is bound within the ethical and cosmological framework of Maat. And while the disruption of Maat may occasion the dominance of isfet during periods of crisis, isfet was always perceived as an ephemeral condition. This view was based on the worldview of the Kemetyu which viewed time on both the cosmic and social scales, cosmic time pertaining to the grand scale of happenings since the sep tepy, and social time pertaining to the affairs of humanity. These were not opposing temporal frameworks, as the sep tepy was frequently invoked as a standard via which Kemetic society could be measured. This is also evident with the invocation of weheme mesu (the repetition of the birth), which like the invocations of sep tepy called for a restoration of Maat in national life. This circumstance offers the greatest profundity with respect to the significance of these ideals for African people today.