Unit 1: Ancient Africa - The Cradle of Civilization
(200,000 B.C. - 476 B.C.)

Unit 1: Class 6: The Whitening of Ancient Kemet/Egypt

Egyptology and Scientific Racism cont.

People To Know
C.F. Volney
"When I visited the Sphinx, I could not help thinking that the figure of that monster furnished the true solution to the enigma (of how the modern Egyptians came to 
have their 'mulatto' appearance). "In other words, the ancient Egyptians were same type as all native-born Africans. That being so, we can see how their blood, mixed for several centuries with that of the Greeks and Romans, must have lost the intensity of its original color, while retaining nonetheless the imprint of its original mold." 
Reflecting on his visit to Egypt, Volley writes:​​​

"Behold the wrecks of her metropolis, of Thebes with her hundred palaces, the parent of cities, and monument of the caprice of destiny. There a people, now forgotten, discovered, while others were yet barbarians, the elements of the arts and sciences. A race of men now rejected from society for their sable skin and frizzled hair, founded on the study of the laws of nature, those civil and religious systems which still govern the universe."

In the American translation of
The Ruins, published in the early 1800s, the editor included a footnote claiming that Volney changed his mind about the African origins of Egypt and omitted all of the passages that made reference to the Egyptians as Black. Consider the revision to the paragraph above, which reads:

Behold Thebes with her hundred palaces; that first metropolis of the arts and sciences; the mysterious cradle of so many opinions; which still govern man without his knowledge.

The American translation of The Ruins eliminates Volney’s initial observations along with the many sources he cited to verify the African origins of Ancient Egypt. Rather than to note a change in perspective, the American version sought to erase any memory of Volney’s initial arguments. This erasure was significant because it also invalidated Volney’s anti-slavery stance. Two years prior to the publication of
The Ruins, Volney reflected on the Black origin of ancient Egypt to reveal the contradictions inherent in racial slavery. In Voyages in Syria and Egypt (1787), he argues:

"Just think that this race of black men, today our slave and the object of our scorn, is the very race to which we owe our arts, sciences, and even the use of speech! Just imagine, finally, that it is in the midst of people who call themselves the greatest friends of liberty and humanity that one has approved the most barbarous slavery and questioned whether black men have the same kind of intelligence as Whites!"

...Inevitably, the race of the ancient Egyptians mattered in a slave society that justified the oppression of Black people based on their presumed inferiority. Ancient Egypt’s achievements as well as its influence on shaping civilization, including that of Ancient Greece, disrupted the myth of the “Dark Continent.” To sustain this myth, the racialization of the ancient Egyptians as anything other than Black or African became a necessary political tool."

These new interpretations as a result of French conquest pointed to the mummies and engravings inside of tombs as evidence of non-African origins. Emphasizing the variations in skin color depicted in these tombs conveniently ignored ample evidence that unmistakably portrayed the Egyptians as African. More significantly, the claim that red, brown, or yellow skin indicated a non-African origin perpetuates narrow interpretations of African features and phenotype. Ironically, the variation in skin color among Black populations in the West did not stop Europeans or American elites from designating these groups as Black and therefore inferior. The one-drop rule prevailed in many parts of the Western world. The notion that a strict phenotype of dark-black skin is the only marker of indigenous, African origin fuels racial myths and ignorance about the African continent and its people.

It is important to reiterate that modern conceptions of race did not exist in ancient times. Yet, the racialization of ancient Egypt as white, light, Asian, Mediterranean, or Caucasian has played a critical role in minimizing Africa and Africans in world history.








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