The Cleopatra Controversy

Feature Article The Cleopatra Controversy

Queen Cleopatra, a new docudrama to be released by Netflix on May 10 is creating a maelstrom of controversy as Arab and persons of Greek heritage accuse Jada Pinkett Smith and Netflix of stealing their cultural thunder by portraying Cleopatra as a bi-racial (Black) woman. After all, everyone knows that Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemaic (Greek Caucasian) rulers of Egypt. Equally well known is the fact that the current Arab ruling class in Egypt is not Black either so how dare Smith and Netflix so shamelessly appropriate Greek and Arab culture.

As a person of African ancestry who is aware of the cultural appropriation practiced by other races against Black people, I do have some sympathy for the Greeks and the Arabs. If Cleopatra was a full-blooded Greek or a mixture of Greek and non-Black Arab then Black people should release our racial claim on her and let the Greeks and the Arabs be proud of their famous ancestor. Jada Pinkett Smith and Netflix may have however inadvertently provided Black intellectuals with a teaching moment that allows for the exploration of a topic that is of far greater importance to people of African ancestry.

Much of the Greek and Arab animus against the casting of a Black woman in the role of Cleopatra stems from a much broader controversy about the role occupied by Black people in Egyptian history. Caucasian and Arab scholarship seem to be in agreement that the glorious civilization developed on the African continent in Egypt was not an indigenous Black African civilization. Omniscient Caucasian intellectuals have even gone to far as to state with great certainty that Black people had no civilization until it was bequeathed to them by Asians, Arabs, Caucasians and (wait for it) extraterrestrials.

Without doubt, one of the most distinguished Black scholars to push back against the Eurocentric contention that Black Africans were civilizationally challenged was the great Senegalese intellectual Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop. In 1974 Diop and Dr. Theophile Obenga of Congo engaged a number of European and Egyptian scholars at a symposium organized by UNESCO.

The first chapter of Vol. II of the UNESCO sponsored General History of Africa makes for some very interesting reading and should be perused by any one interested in the subject of ancient Egyptian history and the role played by Black Africans in the origin of that civilization. Diop marshals together a number of arguments in support of the Black origin of ancient Egyptian civilization.

Diop contends, as did the great African American scholar John Henrik Clarke, that Europeans and others could quibble all they cared to about the academic credentials of Herodotus, Aristotle, Diodorus, and Tatius but they should at least concede that these contemporaries of the ancient Egyptians had good eyesight. Diop called to the witness stand eleven contemporaries of the ancient Egyptians who all seemed to be of the optical conclusion that the Egyptians, the Ethiopians and the Colchians were all highly melanated people.

Diop attempted to show just how African ancient Egypt was in geography, language religion, physiology, iconography, culture, self-description and phenotype. Diop argued that a melanin study of the mummies in the museum of Cairo would go a long way in helping to determine their racial affinity. Regrettably, the Arab authorities in Egypt decline to give Diop the permission he sought to carry out such tests.

Another very interesting argument forwarded by Diop was rooted in the Old Testament scriptures. In Genesis 10, Misraim is listed as one of the sons of Ham. Ham, as every good Bible student knows, is supposed to be the father of the Black race. Misraim is the name given to Egypt in the Hebrew scriptures. The five books of Moses or the Pentateuch are embraced by Jews, European Christians and Moslems. The Pentateuch places Egypt squarely in the Hamitic or Black camp.

Since European Christians including the Greeks, Jews, and Muslims happily reject any Hamitic association they should get the point that Jada Pinkett Smith and Netflix are alluding to which is that only a Hamitic or Black person can legitimately make the claim of being an original Egyptian. If Cleopatra was 100% Greek, then she was not an original Egyptian. This point must be conceded by Black people. If she was a mixture of Greek and Arab then once again, she could not have been an original Egyptian. If, however Cleopatra also carried the original dominant Hamitic gene then that opens the door for a mix raced Cleopatra with the original Black Egyptian phenotype.

Lenrod Nzulu Baraka is the founder of Afro-Caribbean Spiritual Teaching Center and the author of The Rebirth of Black Civilization: Making Africa and the Caribbean Great Again.

Lenrod Nzulu Baraka