Why We (Should) Talk about Kemet
Think of Egypt this way. Imagine that Africa is a mother and Egypt is one of her children. One day, a white man, let’s call him Europe, is walking by Africa’s house and sees Egypt playing with her siblings. He immediately takes a liking to Egypt because he believes she’s beautiful. He insists she looks nothing like her siblings, so he attempts to lure her from her home, and when her mother attempts to stop him, he argues that Egypt looks more like him, and doesn’t belong to her, so she should back off.
This is why there’s so much issue with Egypt. The other African civilizations are not being pulled away from Africa, but Egypt is. Now they’re trying to push the bi-continental theory, because the others haven’t worked. I am tired of hearing nonsense such as: “Egypt is in Africa but it’s not African”–Zahi Hawass.
~ commenter Mel, on Abagond's "Diop: Birth of a Negro Myth"
Before I begin, understand that this is not a post about the usual evidence of how the Kemites (or Ancient Egyptians) were a black-skinned African people. This is strictly about why Black people wind up talking about Kemet more often than we do other African civilizations.
Reason #1: Historical Accuracy
Part of being a modern African is to be told (by almost everyone else) you don't have a history, and then have what little history you're "allowed" to have be reported to you inaccurately. And before people start chanting "so long ago" keep in mind this practice is being formally continued until now, in the 21st Century.
Granted, it was much worse before. I have stated here and elsewhere about how both of my parents were born under colonial rule in the Cameroons of West Africa. In fact, imperialism didn't end (on paper, anyway) until my father was about thirteen years old. Now, during the colonial era, it was policy to teach African children that all the great kingdoms and empires in Africa were all built by their "white ancestors". So every realm from the Empires of Ghana, Songhai, Mali, the Mandara Kingdom, Bimbia, Kush, Axum, Great Zimbabwe - in addition to Kemet - were all claimed by white imperialists. This was to push the idea that Africans were inferior, without history and accomplishment.
Needless to say, this policy failed miserably, in no small part to insurrection, the unyielding oral tradition, and the like. However, the white claim to Kemet remains stubborn until today.
Now, the reason for whites' fascination with Kemet is ultimately irrelevant to this post; besides, the opening quoted comment at the top pretty much captures it. Basically, Kemet was a black civilization which existed while the vaunted Europeans were still illiterate barbarians living in huts. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with Eurocentrists who believe the world begins and ends with the infallible greatness of white people. Ergo, in their minds, the Kemites just had to be white.
The African attitude towards Kemet, however, needs to be discussed because it's usually not.
1) Kemet is not that big a deal to your average modern African. Understand that Kemet is literally thousands of years old. It is but one of several black African civilizations, contrary to popular white belief. And just as it influenced the civilizations which followed, other black civilizations influenced it, namely Nubia. In other words, Africans don't worship and fetishize Kemet the way white people do. If you tell a modern, educated black African that Kemet was black, it's like telling them rain is wet or that the wind blows. There is so much "duh" in a statement like, "The Kemites were black" that talking about the blackness of Kemet seems is like giving a whole sermon on how the sky is blue or that the earth rotates - um...no shit.
2) African scholars, on the other hand, tend to pay a little more attention to Kemet. When our scholars study Kemet - in addition to other African civilizations - it's for two main reasons. The first is for fairly obvious academic reasons; they are interested in how Kemet influenced civilizations which followed in specific ways (e.g., language, customs, etc). It's their job to investigate these sort of things.
The second reason is a slightly more African one, and it's simply out of the respect and deference due to all our ancestors. This is principle is particularly important because any African can abide by it, regardless of their religion. In a vast, diverse continent, it's practically a universal concept. Therefore, it's considered appropriate to at least know who came before and what they did.
3) Modern Africans tend to get annoyed with the (White) Kemetic Obsession. Let me explain: I was studying African history - in depth - by the age of eight. I was in primary school in the Northwest Province of the Cameroons. I wasn't in any special classes or receiving extra tutoring when I first learned about Kemet; it was just a standard part of our curriculum. In fact, I recall my teacher treating it like it was no different from Kush or the Empire of Ghana. He didn't gush over it or treat it as though it were superior to any other civilization in Africa. We didn't study it longer than any other civilization. In his eyes, and the eyes of my fellow students, Kemet was just one of many topics to tackle.
What we did dwell on for extended periods, however, was us - modern Africans. We talked a lot about geography, our politics, our economies, etc. Because I lived in a town and not my tribal village, I went to school with kids from several other tribes who spoke several other dialects, and both in class and during lunch we talked about us. Granted, we mostly spoke to one another in either English or Pidgin, but we talked.
We didn't sit and wax nostalgic about the great ancient days. Like most normal people, we talked about the now - our different villages, our cuisines, our funeral rites, our bloodlines (i.e., who was descended from tribal royalty, and who wasn't). In addition to practicing our French, we discussed the different words which were similar in the dialects (e.g., we learned that many tribes in the Northwest say wah to mean "mat", and beri to mean "thanks", ai as a very informal way to say "no" [never to be used with an elder], and Chai! or Ha-ah! as general exclamations). We talked about our market days, and wondered what fashions the nomadic Hausa and Fulani tribes would be bringing to the next market day. We sang the latest makossa and bikutsi tracks, and taught one another songs from our different villages.
My point? Just like white people disrespect us by coming onto our continent to see animals and/or ruins instead of meeting and learning about the people, they disrespect us by being blind not only to who we we were, but who we are.
Which reminds me....
4) The glories of Kemet are sometimes overstated. Hear me out: let's say Kemet was a fandom, which in many ways, it is. It's understandable; Kemet has excited the imaginations of people around the world for several thousand years. It's made its way into poems, operas, paintings, novels, films, television shows, and music videos. We've seen Blacks, Asians, whites, and Latinos of varying shades and origins portray Kemites in media for the past several decades. And this is precisely where we run into trouble, because just like with any fandom, some fans of Kemet have trouble separating fanon...from canon.
There's the issue of what they want Kemet to be and what it represents to them, versus what Kemet actually was. They want to pile on the white European factor, the aliens/29th Century-technology factor, the anything-but-black "multiracial" society factor, while ignoring a couple of major facts:
- Kemet was a black civilization, neither white nor Asian.
- Kemet was not a happy, multicultural, pre-racial melting pot of a society either. Like many pre-colonial (and some post-colonial) African peoples, the Kemites were xenophobic as hell. According to their mythology, marrying a non-black foreign wife was considered "a loser's prize". In Civilisation ou barbarie, Cheikh Anta Diop reports that this was a society which, ironically, looked down on whites in particular. Whites in Kemet were often slaves, and could be killed in broad daylight with neither provocation nor repercussion.
While its monuments, temples, astronomy, religion, and mathematics were great, there were many other African civilizations which rose after Kemet. Their wealth, women, and exquisite cultures were also great, which whites in the West conveniently keep forgetting was precisely what drew their ancestors to Africa in the 1500s...just like Kemet's wealth, women, and exquisite culture drew their ancestors to Africa many centuries before. Whites brought about the destruction of many post-Kemetic African societies...just like they brought about the destruction of Kemet itself.
It's a classic case of a people not knowing (or caring) about their history, and thus repeating it.
Reason #2: Identity