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”.
I am unafraid. I face the future certain that it will be daunting, certain that this species’ fate is imperiled, certain that my community is in the midst of a confluence of crises. I did not arrive at an awareness of these crises lately. I have lived with this consciousness for decades.
Nothing (save change) is inevitable. Entire planets are being born while others are being annihilated at this very moment. Species rise and fall. Nations come into being, some reaching their developmental apex, while others fade–becoming footnotes of history. Change is the only universal constant. Change is experienced as pleasant and unpleasant, but it is inevitable. I accept and embrace this reality.
However my acceptance of this is not the only basis of my lack of fear. I am unafraid because I know that humans make and remake society. I know that people, if sufficiently determined, if endowed with the faculty of intelligence and powers of imagination can accomplish great things. I know that this potential holds the power to create change advantageous to our survival, sufficient to alleviate crises. Thus, I remain open to the possibility that we will resolve to bend fate to our wills.
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.
I just watched The Birth of a Nation with a local rites-of-passage program that I help to coordinate. The film is quite riveting. I did not watch it expecting a historically accurate rendition of the life of Nat Turner. I expected it to do what I have seen similar films accomplish such as Malcolm X, Panther, Quilombo, Besouro, and so on–that is to offer a depiction of historical events based only partially on the documented history, while providing a generous degree of creative embellishments. One benefit that films like this offer are that they often provide a basis for communal dialog. In this sense this film has not disappointed.
As it relates to the plot, the film does a great job of capturing the depth to which Africans struggled to sustain their humanity within a monstrous system. The beauty, complexity, and tragedy of African life during the period was captured in ways that were deeply compelling. The dramatization of the fictionalized Nat Turner moving from being a child possibly destined for war, to learning how to read, to his growing disillusionment within the institution of enslavement, to his ultimate choice to take up arms against it was wonderfully dramatized. The depiction of this particular journey is augmented via the clear struggle of Nate Parker’s Nat Turner between finding comfort and nominal acceptance within the barbarity of chattel enslavement or becoming a voice and instrument of his people’s deliverance. The emotive dimension of armed struggle as a process of not only the exacting of vengeance, but asserting one’s collective right to self-determination was captured in ways that unfolded rather vividly.
The film employed a range of visual devices that captured the dynamic expression and retention of traditional African cultural practices in the Americas. Though the historical accuracy of these as it relates to the life of the historic Nat Turner is questionable, this portrayal is situated within the actuality of African spiritual, language, artisan, artistic, and cosmological retentions in the Americas. These depictions, particularly the ones of traditional African spirituality that intersect with the young Nat, are a reflection of the paths of the many other men and women who viewed enslavement as wholly illegitimate and intolerable, and as such resolved to confront and destroy it, whose works and deeds were often preceded by invocations of various African ancestors and divinities reflective of war and bravery.
Though their victories were incomplete, after all few victories were as complete as the Haitian revolution, they did serve to inspire subsequent generations. The names of these determined ancestors were spoken on the tongues of the living, giving resonance and relevance to their spirits among those who would follow in their footsteps. They, as Nat Turner, became more than martyrs for the cause of African redemption, they become symbols of backs unbent, minds not destroyed, and souls not broken. They became symbols of resistance. They illustrated the words of Fred Hampton, that “you can “kill a revolutionary, but you can never kill the revolution”. Their ascension to the realm of symbolic representation made them immortal. Thus their works, their deeds still stir the imagination. They remain exemplars of ancestral instruction.
This is not a perfect film. But it is one that may yet keep the thought and spirit of African liberation in our hearts and minds. The historic Nat Turner was compelled to move against the dehumanization of his people by what he witnessed, what he knew to be true, and his faith that the struggle for justice would inevitably be rewarded by victory. His struggle existed in the liminal space between that which was improbable and that which was imperative. The improbable eradication of an intolerable reality was an imperative that he did not, could not ignore. All missteps aside, The Birth of a Nation makes this unequivocally clear. It reminds us of Nat Turner’s sacrifice and symbolic significance today. The historical Nat Turner’s legacy challenges us to both ask and answer “What future, if any, do African people have outside of the mandates of the oppressive system that began in chattel slavery, continued under state-sponsored racial subordination (Jim Crow), and on to the system of mass-incarceration today?”
Central to the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson was an on-going investigation of the context of terror visited upon Black bodies (Du Bos 2007a; Woodson 1990). For these scholars the assault upon African humanity was not merely a localized dilemma isolated to a marginal epoch of American history, rather it was a central process in the creation of America’s racialized social order, and beyond this, a key component in the modern global system wherein the humanity of African people was a secondary consideration to their utility as vehicles of or impediments to the acquisition of capital (Du Bois 2007b; Woodson 1990, 2004). Both Du Bois’s and Woodson’s work compels for us to look at the context of enslavement as a foundational moment in the erection of the contemporary power of the west. This process propelled the expansion and entrenchment of a domestic colonial project, in addition to fueling subsequent processes of conquest abroad. Within the domestic milieu, the political-economy of Black subordination via the system of state-sponsored racial subordination necessitated the implementation of an epistemic regime of terror (Du Bois 1978a, 1978b). This process has maintained a dual focus consisting of the oppression of Black bodies via instruments of coercive control, and the subjugation of Black minds via processes of mis-education (Du Bois 2002, Woodson 1990).
What must be asked is not whether this campaign has abated (it has not), but rather how a liberatory form of Black education might more effectively resist this assault? Du Bois and Woodson recognized that Black people, as ever, stand at the precipice, facing on one side a familiar tyranny and on the other a new world that exists just beyond the bounds of our knowing and the fruits of our unfettered social agency. As Du Bois queried in 1960, we must ask again, whither now and why (Du Bois 1973b)? Ultimately we must ponder to what extent has realization of liberation been obscured via the highly efficacious management of Black bodies and minds in the schools of America (Du Bois 1973a; Woodson 1933)?
I recently learned of a t-shirt that shows a derivation of the word Htp and precedes to link the term with a range of problematic behaviors which are counter-productive to the interests of the Black community. I wonder how many people will wear the shirt, but can’t read this text below:
. This is the word Htp. It is a noun, and is defined by Dr. Rkhty Amen in her book Mejat Wefa as “Offerings, satisfaction, peace, greetings.”
I’m all for critiquing shallow and superficial thinking, but the term Htp (some pronounce it hotep or hetep) emerged out of one of the most vibrant Black intellectual movements of the late 20th Century. It was but one of a host of concepts borrowed from Nile Valley Culture and Civilization that was used in an attempt to understand more deeply the grand historical and cultural arc of African people as captured in the works of Cheikh Anta Diop and others. It was utilized as one small means of reviving the language of kmt or ancient Egypt, a language which Diop and Theophile Obenga shows exhibits strong connections with extant African languages. Diop’s research noted the same thing with regards to the culture of kmt and corresponding practices in pre-colonial and modern African cultures. In this way, ancient Egypt can be viewed as a vital component in the historical chain of events linking people of African descent today to their ancient past.
That this term is also used by some people who may be limited in their understanding or commitment to broader visions of social transformation does not invalidate the original thrust that gave rise to the invocation of terms such as Htp in the 1970s and 1980s from scholars such as Jacob H. Carruthers, Rkhty Amen, and so many others. Nor does it make these specious derivations (hotepping, hoteps, etc.) the most logical, appropriate, or intelligent terms to critique contradictory behaviors born of our shared oppression. Decolonizing one’s consciousness requires a new language, and can be achieved without a visceral and ahistorical rejection of one’s past.
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.
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.
The Black Pharaohs is merely the latest reflection of the on-going intellectual assault being waged against African culture, African history, and African people. We are besieged on all sides, surrounded by an implacable foe bent on our annihilation.
For some the connection between this seemingly informative film and the Intellectual War that Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers wrote of may not be obvious. Some may see this film as a valuable acknowledgement of the role of Africans in the ancient Nile Valley. Others may see it as setting the record straight as it relates to the history of Kush (Nubia). Yet, this film represents the traditional forms of duplicity characteristic of European’s historiography of African people. This perpetration of falsehood is not simply about sowing seeds of confusion, rather it is about posing our ancestors as the villains in a complex political drama, continuing on the narrative of African mental enfeeblement, and perpetuating the myth that Europeans are central or even relevant to the reconstruction of Africa’s ancient past.
Years ago during a presentation on Kush, Dr. Anderson Thompson stated that while the white intellectual world was unwilling to loose their hold on Kemet and its history and embrace the obvious notion that it was an African (Black) civilization, that they were willing to acknowledge the obvious blackness of Kush—offering a concession of sorts to African-Centered scholars. In this paper I examine The Rise of the Black Pharaohs as a multi-layered message. I argue that this film simultaneously concedes to African-Centered scholars a share of Kemet’s legacy, while also derisively characterizing that legacy.
Representation as reality reconstruction
Cultural Studies scholar Stuart Hall discusses the role representation. Representation has a dualistic nature. It is the re-presentation of reality. It is also the process of constructing a form that stands in for reality. Herein representation is afforded immense power in the constitution of reality. Thus media representations of us and our ancestors are not a casual affair, but are a means to construct reality in a manner often detrimental to our interest.
Truth and falsehood
There’s an African proverb from present-day Mali that states “A lonely truth can be brought down by a pack of lies.” This proverb offers the image of truth as a lone traveler on the road who finds themselves unwittingly surrounded by a gang of fiendish bandits appearing out of nowhere. Truth fights courageously, but in the end is subdued by the thieves. This proverb suggests that truth, though righteous and just, can be overwhelmed by falsehood. This relationship is at the core of The Black Pharaohs. The lonely truth of the African presence in the Nile Valley is enveloped within a web falsehoods that ultimately contribute to its undoing.
The film offers an overview of the relationship between Kemet and Kush. It discusses the Kemetic occupation and annexation of Kushite land at various junctures. It also discusses the eventual ascendance of Kush and its conquest of Kemet with the establishment of the 25th Dynasty. Finally, it discusses the eventual fall of the 25th Dynasty, the decline of Kush, and the efforts of modern archaeologists to reconstruct this history. However throughout the film were a number of dubious claims. I will discuss each of these in turn.
The first problematic claim was the idea of enmity was the normalized state of foreign relations between these two societies. The featured experts on Kush assure us that Kush was a site of continuous subjugation by Kemet, that the Kushites were so loathed that the Kemites practiced form of “…racial profiling”, as they, among other things, portrayed the Kushites as “…more tribal, more savage…”. Thus it is Kemet, not modern Europeans, who are the architects of race and racism. It is the Kemites who constructed the iconography of tribalism and savagery, not 19th and 20th Century Europeans. And it is Kemet that is credited with initiating the campaign against African culture and humanity, and not modern Europe.
Elsewhere I have written that “…the enterprise of history itself is not simply a matter of methods of inquiry, or the application of tools of investigation, but rather it is a process that is directed or informed by the ideational imperatives of the period of its conceptualization” (Rashid 2014, 32). Thus history, as with all human enterprise, is a function of culture. It is not simply a matter of the technical application of methods, but reflects the ideational imperatives of the society, most notably its worldview constructs.
The argument that antagonism was the driving force in Kemet-Kush relations is in part based on the European worldview, wherein the political relations of Kemet and Kush can only be viewed in militaristic terms, terms of dominion and subordination (Carruthers 1997). What is most notable here is that this oppositional dichotomy does not consider the possibility of ancestral, cultural or political affinity between these two societies. The very designation of Kush as the source of the Black pharaohs, suggest that Kemet is the source of pharaohs that are non-black. Thus while the blackness of Kush serves to moor it to the African world, one can only presume that Kemet’s mooring is to western Asia by implication. Therefore at the center of the presumption of natural and deep hostility between Kemet and Kush is the implied racial difference, and with it the racialization of the Kushites as inferiors. This assertion seeks to drive a wedge between the affinity of these societies, and link Kemet to the historical arc of the modern European world and its loathing of Africans.
This argument most aptly captures the degree to which a cultural worldview effectively shapes what is known. I call this phenomenon the epistemic horizon and describe it as a dynamic perimeter of knowledge or awareness. It proscribes the bounds of what is known and knowable. If culture, or more specifically worldview is a mediator of what is known and knowable then the capacity of European scholars, socialized within an ontological tradition of whiteness and the political-economy of white supremacy must, by necessity, enter into the study of African history and culture fettered by these conceptual frames. This poses a number of quandaries with respect to modern Europeans and their ability to forthrightly deal with Africans and their history.
The second problematic claim was that Kush lacked a cultural center, instead adopting the culture of their Kemetic conquerors. Thus Kemet is now also guilty of cultural imperialism, and the Kushites the victims of cultural suppression.
There are a number of puzzling things about this claim. One is that it ignores archaeological evidence from early Kush (such as the incense burner from Qustul) that displays iconography associated with Kemet. The anteriority of these images predates any Kemetic military incursion into Kush, thus refuting the thesis that military conquest was the principal means of any Kemet-Kush knowledge transfer. Another plausible, but absent idea from the film was that Kemet and Kush shared a common culture, one that although variegated, shared a common basis and origin.
The cultural imperialism argument fails to capture the synergistic relations of the various societies that emerged along the Hapi Iteru (Nile River). Furthermore, What this argument does succeed at reinforcing are white supremacist claims of African intellectual inferiority. Thus while the film’s commentators critiqued the archaeologists of the colonial period (most notably George Reisner) for their anti-Black racism, they reify these claims in their wholesale dismissal of Kushite cultural agency.
The third false claim is that the geographical orientation of Kemet was towards Western Eurasia, not Africa south of the first cataract. This is evident when the film’s narrator states that the Kemites, during one of their many campaigns against Kush, sees Jebel Barkal for the first time. The obvious implication here is that Kemet’s origins lie, not to the South, deeper in Africa’s interior, but to the North in Eurasia. Thus Kemet’s ancestral and cultural moorings in Africa have been severed, and it has instead been made a child of Eurasia, and Africa south of the first cataract is presented as a land of mystery (or plunder) for the ancient Kemites.
This film and its numerous deficits are not aberrations. These are not careless mistakes, or hapless errors. This is an assault on African history. Worse still, it is an attempt to undermine the efforts of Africans working towards historical reclamation by disparaging the achievements of our ancestors, and by extension, seeking to diminish the importance of our work as scholars to explicate their history. This assault however is not isolated. It is merely a repetition of earlier strikes against, and rather than incapacitating us, it reminds us to rally our forces, maintain vigilance, and to strike back knowing that this is intellectual warfare.
ASCAC and the defense of truth
The work of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilization provides an essential vehicle to facilitate both the reconstruction and dissemination of African history. It provides a mechanism via which we can augment our capacity to defend the historical legacy of African civilization, in addition to sustaining our efforts to reconstruct and restore it. Central to this work is the importance of ASCAC and affiliated groups expanding our outreach capacity so as to maximize our capacity to shape the consciousness of our people. This work should utilize every available means: study groups, publications, conferences, streaming media, and so forth.
Undefended, truth will fall prey to marauders. The defense of truth is our collective charge. We must stand vigilant.
Carruthers, Jacob H. 1997. “A Memorandum on an African World History Project.” In The Preliminary Challenge, edited by Jacob H. Carruthers and Leon C. Harris, 356-361. Los Angeles: Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations.
Rashid, Kamau. 2014. “Thoughts on Returning Home and Healing the Casualties of Intellectual War.” Kemetic Voice no. 1 (1):31-35.