Ownership of History in the Cleopatra Blackness Debate: Whose feminist icon?

Ownership of History in the Cleopatra Blackness Debate: Whose feminist icon?

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By Peter Selib | Summer 2023

The recent uproar over Netflix’s production of a docu-series about Cleopatra has raised a debate about race, gender, and the writing of history. Among conflicting charges of “blackwashing” and “racism,” fundamental questions are being discussed regarding whose history is being written, to whom does Cleopatra “belong,” and relatedly, for whom is she a feminist icon? Through investigating the recent controversy with a particular focus on the representation of history and its audience, especially regarding Afrocentrism as a movement, this essay will uncover how the intention of Cleopatra’s race is presented. The intention behind her race becomes focal to this discussion as it makes claims to a major source of Egyptian identity and of a historical figure whose biography is vital to Egypt’s history and society.

Queen Cleopatra is the second season of the Netflix multi-season docuseries African Queens. As soon as the trailer for the season was released, controversy started over both the narrative of the trailer presenting Cleopatra as a Black queen as well as the choice to cast a Black actress in the titular role. A considerable amount of this backlash has been undeniably and blatantly racist, with many American, European, and Egyptian voices decrying the “blackwashing” of Cleopatra and claiming her as part of a white, European tradition based on her Macedonian Greek ancestry. As a counter argument, others, especially those from the afro-centrist tradition, have stated that Cleopatra was an African figure and therefore Black or some sort of mixed race, with some stating that Egyptians themselves were Black before the coming of the Arabs in the seventh century. The series’ producers have argued that Cleopatra’s ethnicity is not the focus of the show. However there was an intention to depict the queen as coming from a mixed ethnic background to reflect theories about Cleopatra’s ancestry and “the multicultural nature of Ancient Egypt.” Yet at the same time, its executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith stated unequivocally that the race of the queens was central to the series: “We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter, and just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them.” Similarly, episode one of Queen Cleopatra opens with Professor Shelley P. Haley stating that her grandmother told her: “Shelley, I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black.” This line was also featured prominently in the season’s trailer. As the first episode continues to position Cleopatra, her heritage and culture, and her position in society, Haley and other scholars repeatedly discuss the Ptolemies, to which Cleopatra belonged, and what they call the “indigenous people” of Egypt. The series inconsistently refers to Cleopatra as Ptolemaic and Egyptian, but also makes clear that Cleopatra was distinct from the “indigenous Egyptians” over whom she ruled. Of course, Cleopatra’s historical character was complicated, and she was both a Ptolemy and a ruler of Egypt. While the docu-series presents the issue of her identity as part of an ongoing and non-political scholarly debate, the conscious decision to present Cleopatra as Black and African was admittedly, by Pinkett Smith, about presenting this history “for my daughter, and just for my community.” This political component in the presentation of the series is critical to understanding the backlash coming from many Egyptians. Scholar on Egypt Sara Khorshid has argued that most Egyptians are not objecting to the show primarily because of racism or a Black actress playing Cleopatra, although that is certainly an aspect. Rather, Egyptian viewers are upset about the challenging of “anti-Black racism in the United States through revisionism of another racialized people’s own history.” Khorshid gets to the heart of the matter: Cleopatra’s race is used, in this case, as part of an ongoing debate within non-Egyptian, Western society about identity, especially among a historically marginalized people.

The docu-series’ most prominent historian Haley “claimed” Ancient Egyptian history in her previous scholarship, where she argued that Cleopatra is a “symbolic construction” of “voicing Black African heritage.” She adds that when Black Americans say that ancient Egyptians were Black they are “claim[ing] them” as part of their own culture and history. Specific to Cleopatra, the Queen “reacted to the phenomena of oppression and exploitation as a Black woman would.” There are two key issues at the heart of the matter: place and race. Cleopatra was undoubtedly a figure in Egyptian history, and Egypt is a part of Africa and its history. However, among certain scholars and activists, African history has been defined in recent decades as Black history, a history to which non-Black North Africans are excluded. This started with the 1971 book by Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization, which claimed Egypt was a Black civilization that slowly went from “Black Egypt turning brown and white.” It later goes on to describe, in Orientalist language, how the “Arab hordes” invaded in “steady streams” and that “refugee movements… came in unchecked and alarming waves… and the Arabs swarmed into Africa across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.” This narrative is picked up by Professor Molefi Asante, whose writings equate Blackness and Africanness, and wrote about how the Greeks stole the culture of the African Egyptians. However, he states that Cleopatra was herself a Black African queen. Regarding the further loss of this Black heritage in Egypt, Asante writes: “The Arabs, with their jihads, or holy wars, were thorough in their destruction of much of the ancient culture…,” which small groups of Egyptian priests then preserved and carried across the continent. Asante adds, “it is as if small bands keeping just ahead of the Islamic onslaught managed to preserve certain aspects of the traditional culture of Egypt.” Seeing as Asante claims the priests of Egypt were carrying on ancient Black heritage ahead of the Islamic conquest, centuries of Coptic heritage are written out of the narrative entirely. At the center of this matter is not the truth of the history writing, but its political intentions, the violence it does to Egyptian history, and the erasure of major parts of that history.

The key problem is not that scholars are claiming Egyptians to have been Black, but that Egyptians are claimed as part of another’s history without respect to their own. Race, as it functions in this discussion, is a construction of modernity and westernization. Categorizing and writing history based on past people’s races in Egypt and the ancient world is ahistorical. Regardless of Cleopatra’s actual skin color, which is not fully proven as the series itself acknowledges, the dislocation of Cleopatra from Egyptian history and claiming Egyptian history as solely Black-African is the essential problem. The arguments that the series makes about Cleopatra’s identity are a part of the movement of Egypto-centrism, within the larger Afrocentrist tradition. On these movements, scholar Wilson Moses writes that “Egypto-centrism is the sometimes sentimental, at other times cynical, attempt to claim ancient Egyptian ancestry for Black Americans.” This identifies the ancient Egyptian people in “terms of traditional American racial perceptions.” Moses differentiates Afrocentrism as “simply the belief that the African ancestry of Black peoples, regardless of where they live, is an inescapable element of their various identities,” and “the glorification and romanticism of ancient Egypt is clearly only a part of what we call Afrocentrism today.” It is within this part of the Afrocentric tradition that the new Netflix series fits. While Egypt is a part of African history, using this framework in which Ancient Egypt was Black and that Black heritage was then taken from it by invaders, denies the complexity of Egyptian history. Egyptian history is sometimes African, sometimes Mediterranean, sometimes Arab. It is pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. It is local, regional, and global. Regardless of Cleopatra’s race, the Afrocentrist tradition has claimed ownership over and separated one part of Egyptian history from its totality.

A better collaboration over African history and culture by Egyptians and African Americans is possible. In the middle of the twentieth century, African identity — as seen by prominent Black American activists — and Egyptian identity, especially as an anti-colonial identity, aligned. Scholar Hisham Aïdi writes: “grand expectations were forged in the early 1960s when a number of African American intellectuals, such as Malcolm X, Shirley Graham DuBois, Julian Mayfield, and Maya Angelou spent time in Cairo, support[ing] the Nasserist revolution, and saw themselves and Egypt, as part of a rising Africa and third world”. Aïdi adds how an encounter with a “white” Algerian revolutionary led Malcolm X to reconsider his ideas about Africa and Black nationalism, but “…by the early 1970s, … this Islam-friendly Black nationalism was being challenged by an Afrocentrist movement that was staunchly anti-Arab and anti-Muslim.”

Returning to this shared sense of common identity is critical in resolving the current problem. Rather than squabbling over who can “claim” Cleopatra and Ancient Egypt, and excluding modern Egyptians from the discussion, Cleopatra should be upheld as an inspirational figure for all women. She and Egypt’s other queens are prominent figures because their reigns are relatively unique in male-dominated world history. Egyptologist Professor Kara Cooney writes: “Ancient Egypt is an anomaly as the only land that consistently called upon the rule of women to keep its regime in working order, safe from discord, and on the surest possible footing…” This example, she argues, has relevance until today as the Egyptian queens “though long dead, haunt us across the generations with their forthright presences, their intentions, and their unabashed authority, forcing us to question the reasons for their influence and continued relevance today.” While Cleopatra has served as an inspiration to women worldwide, her story and that of other Egyptian queens is critical in the narratives constructed by twentieth-century Egyptian feminists as well. Professor Marilyn Booth has explored how these Egyptian feminists wrote about Egypt’s queens, specifically Hatshepsut, among other famous Egyptian women in order to combat the patriarchal dominance in Egypt, just as other figures were used elsewhere.

In portraying Cleopatra as a strong feminist icon, the Netflix series had a noble goal, but in the fight over to whom that icon belonged, the goal was compromised. Trying to claim Cleopatra as an inspirational figure for one group’s history or another, means taking possession over an important historical figure who could otherwise serve as an inspiration for a much larger audience. Egypt has, by force and by choice, shared these historical women with the world, but once again is faced with not having a choice in that representation. Egyptians are increasingly becoming interested in their own history and “claiming” that history for themselves. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the debuting of yet another Western production appropriating their cultural heritage, without their involvement and consent, raised anger. Egypt has and should be willing to share Cleopatra and all its queens with the world, their stories are a part of the history of Egypt, the world, and all women. However, in writing and telling that story, Egyptians should participate and give consent, and it should certainly not be written to their exclusion.