By having her depicted as a Black woman, Netflix’s “Queen Cleopatra” is creating a stir.
Because all four of my grandparents were Coptic Egyptian, and because the Copts are “acknowledged as the remaining descendants of the civilisation of the Ancient Egyptians, with Pharaonic origins,” I cannot resist but offer my two cents.
First, this business has been going on for quite a long time. One of my very first college research papers (still in my possession, from 1993) was dedicated to debunking this widespread and entrenched claim that ancient Egyptians were black—as in sub-Saharan African Black.
On the one hand, one can sympathize with the motive behind this claim: to give sub-Saharan Africans a source of pride, to present them as one of the first, great civilizations.
On the other hand, you cannot warp the truth—that is, foist a lie—without negative consequences.
For starters, those who claim ancient Egypt was Black commit precisely that one sin they supposedly most abhor: cultural appropriation. Ancient Egypt was Egyptian; to claim otherwise, to attribute its achievements to another race or people, is not just an unconscious, but very conscious, form of cultural appropriation.
Little wonder not a few Egyptians are vexed. One prominent lawyer is even suing Netflix for “blackwashing history.”
The idea that ancient Egypt is a Black civilization can be connected to another, very commonplace mistake: thinking that Africa, in its entirety, is a Black continent.
Although on the same land mass, Black Africa and Egypt are, it is often forgotten, separated by the world’s largest desert, the Sahara. Historically, and even today, this inhospitable and desiccated region was immensely difficult to traverse. There was, moreover, very little incentive for anyone to go on such a life-threatening trek.
Conversely, even though Europe and North Africa are separated by a sea, thanks to the ancient invention of boats, the Mediterranean served as an easily crossed bridge between the two continents all throughout antiquity. Hence why Egypt was an important part of the Greco-Roman world.
In short, and despite how they all appear on a map, Europe and Egypt had an infinite more amount of commerce than did Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa, despite the fact that the latter two are on the same continent and therefore appear closer to one another.
By the way, this is also why the term “African-American” is fraught with ambiguities. Although everyone understands and means by it an American of Black descent, what about people like me? I’m an American, and my bloodline traces directly back to Egypt—which is in Africa. Does that not make me a bonafide African-American?
Such are the confusions brought on by euphemisms: the seven-syllable term “African-American” was apparently coined because the more straightforward “Black” was deemed offensive (to overly sensitive whites, as I’ve yet to meet a Black person offended by that term). As a result, precision in communication is lost.
It’s the same with the term “Asian.” Although Asia is the largest continent and hosts many different races, today, when someone says so-and-so is “Asian,” they have one very specific race in mind—the Sinic race. Meanwhile, Hindus, Arabs, Armenians, Georgians, Turks, et al are left without a continent, since anyone who hears that so-and-so is “Asian” will never think that one of these is meant.
But I digress; returning to Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra, here we point out what should be obvious: not only are Egyptians not racially Black—which I know from personal, familial, and travel experience—but Cleopatra wasn’t even Egyptian. She was Greek, specifically Macedonian, a descendant of Alexander the Great’s general, Ptolemy I.
Little wonder that former Egyptian Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass insists that Netflix’s depiction of Cleopatra “is completely fake. Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was blonde, not black.” (Witness the outraged denial in this brief video to the revelation that another Egyptian queen, Nefertiti, was also not quite so “African” looking.)
Incidentally, in order to get beyond the obvious objection—If modern day Egyptians are not Black, how could their ancestors have been?—the cultural appropriators have long insisted that modern day Egyptians “lightened up” following the seventh century Arab conquest and comingling of Egypt.
In reality, according to recent DNA tests, it appears that, if anything, the opposite is true—ancient Egyptians were lighter, not darker, than their modern day descendants. Apparently the ancients looked more like Levantine peoples: Syrians, Lebanese, etc.
I close by confessing a certain surprise that Netflix’s Cleopatra is receiving any criticism at all. In our post-truth era, where openly falsifying reality receives zero protest, there are already countless films which depict well-known and beloved characters turned Black—including historical figures, such as the formerly pale Anne Boleyn, a fifteenth century queen of England.
As such, who would’ve thought that depicting Queen Cleopatra—who, after all, hails from Africa (“case closed, she’s Black!”)—would cause any backlash?