Black Skin, White Skulls: The Nineteenth Century Debate over the Racial Identity of the Ancient Egyptians

Black Skin, White Skulls: The Nineteenth Century Debate over the Racial Identity of the Ancient Egyptians

Parallax
Volume 13, Number 2 (2007)
pages 6-20
DOI: 10.1080/13534640701267123

Robert Bernasconi, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Philosophy
Pennsylvania State University

Not so long ago, the question ol the racial identity of the Ancient Egyptians passed beyond the narrow confines of academia onto television and into the national newspapers when, in the wake of  Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. he and certain Afrocentric historians like Molefi Kete Asante, were criticized by Mary Lefkowitz and others for not respecting proper scholary standards However, my aim in this paper is not to expose the errors made on either side of the argument, still less to decide the racial identity of the Ancient Egyptians. This latter task assumes that we have agreed on ways of classifying the races which, given the fact that contemporary biology does not recognize racial classifications, we do not. My aim in this essay is to perform the long overdue task of documenting how the Ancient Egyptians were racially identified during the late eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century. In particular, I will support, suitably modified, the contention of the Haitian thinker AntĂ©nor Firmin, that it was not until 1842 that the Philadelphian physician, Samuel George Morton, became the first person to present a sustained scientific argument according to which the people of ancient Egypt belonged to the White race. The debate between Bernal and Lefkowitz reminds us that many people today are still heavily invested in the question of the racial identity of the Egyptians. In order to understand why this is so, it is necessary to know why it was such a major issue in the nineteenth century.

At the end of the eighteenth century the argument was already beginning to be heard that if the people of ancient Egypt were African in a way that attached them to the so-called Ethiopian, Black or Negro race, then the attempt to match the hierarchy of civilizations to the hierarchy of races, which Europeands had already defined in the late eighteenth century, could not be sustained. The stakes were particularly high as the Greeks had been explicit about their debt to the Egyptians. In 1787, Constantin François Volney had published his Travels through Egypt and Syria and had declared that the Copts, who at that time were widely thought to be the descendants of the ancient Egyptians, still had largely Negro characteristics. Four years later, Volney published The Ruins, or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires, some editions of which include the lines: ‘A race of men now rejected from society for their sable skin and frizzed hair, founded on the study of the laws of nature, those civil and religious systems which still govern the universe.’ Volney did not initiate this idea, which relies on the testimony of, among other ancient authors, Herodotus, who described the Egyptians as having black skin and wooly hair…

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