[image description: A bust of King Tutankhamun showing him with dark skin and text overlaying it, “Ancient Egyptian ‘Blackness’ in the Graeco-Roman Imagination”]
Alex Proyas’s new film “The Gods of Egypt" is getting ready for release in 2016, and to nobody’s surprise was formerly slated to have an all-white cast starring Gerard Butler, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (from "Game of Thrones") and others. After a determined campaign by petitioners pushing for more historic accuracy, black actor, Chadwick Boseman was cast in a supporting role in the film adding a drop of color to the all-white cast.
But why are we still having this discussion in the first place? Why does it take a petition drive for a white director making a film about ancient Egypt to think, “Oh wait, maybe ancient Egyptians didn’t look like they were from Scotland?” Why do Hollywood representations and the popular imagination of ancient Egyptians almost always cast them as either white people (in the modern sense) or as really “tan white people”? I find conceptions and constructions of race and ethnicity to be fascinating, and have explored it in my research during college, and also on this site in my extended piece on conceptions of “Whiteness” in European contexts.
The “debate” on ancient Egypt, though, frankly bored me because race is not a biological but rather a social construct. For us to retroject our own conceptions of race onto the past is inherently anachronistic and so if “blackness” meant little to ancient Egyptians and the world they inhabited (despite them clearly being a black and brown people) then why should it matter to me?
[image description: A movie still of the white British-American actress Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in the 1963 film Cleopatra]
I was therefore fascinated to stumble across an extended work of scholarship by a young scholar named Tristan Samuels titled “The Riddle in the Dark: Rethinking ‘Blackness’ in Greco-Roman Racial Discourse.” In this extensive 146 page work, Samuels explores the constructions of “blackness” from the Greek and Roman perspective. These, the actual ”dark skinned white people” (in the modern sense) of antiquity clearly and systematically labeled and saw Egyptians and other peoples as “black” in their world (as a racial characteristic and parameter in “othering”), and so this “debate” did in fact matter. Much of this essay will therefore be spent exploring the ideas laid out in Samuels’ impressive work, but to start I’d like to explore how the ancient Egyptians saw themselves.