Just two weeks on the job, and already I'm stepping on toes. Most letters in response to my article, "Black Pharaohs and Reparations" were positive. But a vocal minority of readers objected.
"The ancient Egyptians were a mixed people, at least partly black. …" I wrote. "According to the one-drop rule favored in America, partly black means black." Some readers thought this a "politically correct" statement, unworthy of a conservative.
I beg to differ. Politics is a poor indicator of how someone will side in the debate over Egyptian "blackness." Arch-liberal Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., for instance, is a strident critic of Afrocentrism. In his book The Disuniting of America, he declares that African Americans have no business identifying with ancient Egypt, since their ancestors came from the opposite side of the continent.
"Africa contains some 850 distinct ethnic and linguistic groups," says Schlesinger. "Any homogeneity among slaves derived not from the African tribe but from the American plantation."
That's a liberal talking. On the other hand, some of the kindest endorsements I have received for my book Black Spark, White Fire have come from the right. "A book whose time has truly come," writes black conservative talk-show host Armstrong Williams. "It is refreshing to hear the Afrocentric theory of ancient Egypt argued so persuasively, from a viewpoint that is neither liberal nor conservative, black nor white."
The question of Egyptian "blackness" divides Americans far more along racial lines than political ones. It is like the OJ Simpson case. Most African Americans, in my experience, are at least open-minded about the possibility that the Egyptians may have been black. Most white people reject the idea out of hand.
But what do the experts say? Egyptologist Frank Yurco is widely cited in discussions of Egypt's Africanness. His interest in the subject did not arise from any leftist agenda. Raised by anti-Communist Czech parents, Yurco served proudly in Vietnam as an intelligence specialist. "There was a real Communist threat of expansionism at that time," he says, "and Vietnam was part of that."
In 1971, Yurco brought his Grenadian wife Diane to Egypt. Her blend of African, Scottish, and English ancestry gave her a café au lait complexion not unlike that of many Egyptians.
One day, Diane and an Egyptian friend decided to explore a nearby village, while Yurco was busy with his archaeological work. Onlookers stared at the two women and exchanged comments.
"The short one is definitely Egyptian," opined one villager, within earshot of the women. "The other one is probably a khawaja – a foreigner."
But just the opposite was true. Yurco's wife was the khawaja and her friend the Egyptian. Diane's African blood made her look Egyptian, while her friend's partially French ancestry gave her a foreign appearance.
"Many of the people in Luxor thought Diane was Egyptian," recalls Yurco. "She could pass for an Egyptian very easily. Many African Americans who have traveled in Egypt have been mistaken for indigenes."
Even after centuries of admixture with lighter-skinned Persians, Greeks, Romans, Turks and Arabs, many modern Egyptians still retain the African look of their ancestors. Arabic has supplanted their native tongue. But the language of the pharaohs was unambiguously African. It descended from proto-Afroasiatic, an extinct language spoken in Ethiopia before 10,000 BC.
Yurco does not like to pin racial labels on the Egyptians. As the father of two "biracial" children, he knows the peer pressure his children felt to identify themselves as black. He and his wife taught their children to take pride in both of their parents, not just one.
Yurco applies the same standard to the Egyptians. It is "incorrect," he says, "to view this population, in its great diversity, through the American social lens of black versus white…"
Yurco is right, of course. The label "black" is simplistic. Yet, there seems little doubt that most ancient Egyptians were at least as racially mixed as many people whom we call black in America, from Vanessa Williams to Mariah Carey.
Take the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti. She looks white. Yet, Yurco notes that she had blood relatives with "tightly-curled woolly hair… and strongly Nubian features." So how white could Nefertiti have been?
Then there are the so-called Two Brothers, found in a single tomb. One mummy was pronounced "negroid" by examining anatomists, the other "caucasoid." Yet inscriptions made clear they were siblings.
The picture at the top of this page is a forensic reconstruction made from the skull of Natsef-Amun, an Egyptian priest who died around 1100 BC. If he lived in America today, which racial category do you suppose he would have checked on his census form?
Many would argue that it doesn't matter what color the Egyptians were. In the larger scheme of things, I suppose it doesn't. Yet clearly it matters to many readers of this website, or they would not have written so voluminously or vehemently. As your editor, I consider it my duty to make your interests my own. So don't be surprised if you hear from me again on this issue, from time to time.