In the latest controversies about race and ancient Egypt, both the warring ‘North Africans as white’ and ‘black Africans as Afrocentrists’ camps find refuge in the empty-yet-powerful discourse of precolonial excellence.
Still from Queen Cleopatra © Netflix.
Two recent controversies have revived the debate over how North and sub-Saharan Africans view themselves and each other. Early in February this year, Tunisian President Kais Saied made racist remarks during a meeting with the National Security Council. He mobilized the far-right ideology of “great replacement” to order the expulsion of undocumented black migrants in Tunisia.
Saied claimed that immigration was a plot aimed at changing his country’s demographic composition. He further alerted his country that “the undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country with no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations.”
The president’s racist comments have triggered a wave of violence and abuse that is directed against thousands of black Africans who reside, study and work in Tunisia (black Tunisian citizens comprise 10 percent of the country’s population). Many accused Saied of perpetuating negative stereotypes, and of stigmatizing an already vulnerable population. At the same time, his regime and supporters defended his statements as being taken out of context. They defended them as reflecting a concern for the safety and well-being of migrants.
The controversy brought attention again to the lingering issues of the discriminatory treatment of black Africans in Tunisia and the Arab world. It also highlighted the uneasy debate over the Arab slave trade. A common reaction among many Tunisians after Saied’s racist attack was to dismiss the Arabs’ involvement in the enslavement of black Africans as a minor event that needs to be historicized as typical of its time.
The Arab slave trade, which refers to slavery in the Arab world, was however a defining stage in the enslavement of black Africans. Black Africans were transported and sold in markets throughout the Arab world. Over a thousand years, from the 7th to the 20th century, a significant number of black people in East Africa and the Horn of Africa were enslaved.
The legacy of the Arab slave trade has had a lasting impact on sub-Saharan Africa. This includes the displacement of populations, the loss of cultural heritage, and the perpetuation of social inequalities. It has left an indelible imprint on the soul of Africa. It has created a lingering rift between North and sub-Saharan Africans. And the Sahara has since turned into a space of violence and solitude.
This bifurcation has now reached the point where Africans have stopped communicating. And when they attempt to discuss their rift, it is only to weaponize symbolic violence and “own the other side.” A negative vocabulary of indifference, zero-sum thinking, and complex social arrangements takes center stage in the double illusion of African solitudes.
On the one hand, there are Africa’s ideals of solidarity and brotherhood that shaped anticolonial struggle and the brief post-independence progress. On the other hand, there is the revival of the muted social domination of North Africans, over the seemingly second-class status of black Africans. This sharp contrast produced the continent’s spatial and ideological split and divided it into two solitudes.
These solitudes were brought into view in a new absurd episode over Cleopatra’s ethnicity and appearance in an upcoming Netflix show. The four-part docudrama casts a mixed-race woman, Adele James, to play the titular character. Excessive reactions ensued: much of the Egyptian regime and online discourse lashed out at the “falsification of Egyptian history.” They lashed out against a blatant “Blackwashing” of a light-skinned Queen with Hellenic features.
Against the backlash, the show’s producers pushed back against the criticism. They insisted that they “intentionally decided to depict her of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra’s possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of ancient Egypt.”
The polemic has since sparked hostile debates about race and representation among Egyptians and black Africans online. Perhaps what best reflects the bleak African solitudes is seeing the dispute over Cleopatra’s racial identity played out depressingly on Piers Morgan’s talk show. A dreadful 10-minute showdown between the famous Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef and the African-American journalist Ernest Owens centered on rehearsing the same claims of cultural vandalism, identity erasure, and Afrocentrism.
The Egyptians and black Africans see ancient Egypt as a symbol of excellence and an evidence of a rich cultural legacy that should be honored and protected. Several groups promoted the framing of the ancient Pharaoh civilization as a black civilization.
This includes the pan-African movement, which was to unite people of African descent worldwide and celebrate the contributions of ancient Egyptians to various fields. This included mathematics, medicine, and architecture. These were to become evidence of black civilizations’ intellectual and cultural prowess.
The two quarreling groups of “North Africans as white” and “black Africans as Afrocentrists” do not completely dismiss the notions that they are “comrades-in-struggle” or “brothers in the same continent.” Yet, these notions are celebrated or muted within a complex process of prestige negotiation.
Prestige as a concept becomes a performative experience that stages and values social and cultural identity. More than an issue of national identity, Egyptology, or race science, the pursuit of excellence and exceptionalism becomes a powerful status signifier that negotiates individual and group prestige.
This emphasis on excellence and exceptionalism as central conditions of perceived prestige is closely linked to the state of the middle class in Africa and the diaspora. The middle class is facing a debilitating recognition. It recognizes its incapacity to propose a total program of social change under neocolonialism. So it finds refuge in the empty-yet-powerful discourse of precolonial excellence. Weaponizing exceptionalism becomes an effortless tactic to mobilize Africans around another meaningless myth. As such, it seeks to accumulate further signs of prestige whenever and wherever it finds it.
Since the modern African middle class sees itself as a global class, it develops the vocabulary of “prestige-speak.”It updates this vocabulary with references to distinctive characteristics of excellence and exceptionalism. The obsession over prestige transcends the limits of national identity. This is because the African global middle class is always anxious to preserve its social and cultural capital in a zero-sum competition with the middle class in the global north.
The Cleopatra controversy has less to do with the importance of accuracy in historical interpretation. It has more to do with the divisive politics of African representation in black American cultural production. The Netflix eight-episode docudrama executive produced by Jada Pinkett-Smith is the latest addition. It adds to a growing media production and discourse library that excessively romanticizes precolonial black Africa as prosperous and noble.
The global African middle class’s pursuit of prestige deepens racial tensions and debilitates the possibility of a genuine and meaningful coming together of Africans in Africa and the diaspora. What’s worse, it reduces the once-revolutionary vocabulary of decolonization, combative present, re-indigenization, dismantling, etc., to a “prestige-speak.” Prestige speak is the phenomenon of the age of hot takes and excessive online presence.
The recurrent controversies around racial identity and precolonial heritage that plague the coming together of Africans on both sides of the Sahara speak to the disenchanting condition of a continent that lost its way. We are only left with a deep sense of two Africas’ solitude that continues to alienate us profoundly.
Haythem Guesmi is a Tunisian writer and critic.
Original Contents by Africa Is a Country