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Much Myth, Little Reality
on 23 July 2012
The only work of Cheikh Anta Diop translated into English, this is condensed from two French publications, one of 1954 based on his rejected doctoral thesis, another of 1967 and a 1973 introduction. Slight inconsistencies between the sections indicate his developing views. It was translated by a professor of French with no background in history, and may have lost something in the translation.
Diop's main theme was that Ancient Egypt should promote an African cultural revival because he claimed Egypt was a black, or specifically Negro (as the term was understood in the ethnography of the 1950s when he wrote), African civilization and the source of all civilisations, including today's Western civilisations. He also claimed that the Ancient Egyptian people had a greater linguistic and cultural affinity with West Africans than with those speaking Afroasiatic languages in the Horn of Africa. He explained the modern composition of the Egyptian population by massive immigration of Persians, Greeks and Arabs after the end of the Pharonic period, without presenting any evidence for this.
Diop was brought up under colonialism and reacted to racist 19th or early 20th century claims by certain Egyptologists that African civilisations, particularly Ancient Egypt, were created by Asiatic "Hamite" or "Caucasian" invaders, not local Africans. Such denial of African achievements is now discredited, but denying they were created by the ancestors of modern Egyptians is no more credible. Supporters of Diop criticise so-called Eurocentric historians for ignoring his work but for his theories to be accepted generally, rather than just by a limited audience, they need to reflect the available evidence.
Diop's main argument that Ancient Egypt was a black or specifically Negro civilisation is based on limited evidence. He claims his studies were original, but he was not the first to propose such a black African origin, although he hardly mentions his predecessors. He does not set out his ideas in logical order, nor examine all the evidence, but jumps between places and times, picking out the details to suit his arguments. He also relies uncritically on ancient myths and legends as evidence.
His argument that Ancient Egyptians were black rests on dubious readings of Herodotus and his studies of the melanin content of mummies. Classicists have argued that the Greek word Herodotus used to describe Ancient Egyptians, melanchroes, is more accurately translated "dark skinned" than black, and he clearly distinguishes between Egyptians and tropical Africans or Ǣthiopians. He makes little reference to the many depictions in Pharonic era tombs and Coptic coffin paintings showing Ancient Egyptians with much the same red-brown pigmentation and appearance as modern ones. These paintings also show different nationalities as of different colours. Diop claims that Egyptian figures were photographed so as to disguise their African features, but does not mention physical examinations of many mummies, which suggest that ancient and modern Egyptians are physically quite similar. Instead, he relies on his own melanin studies which have not been verified independently and which few other researchers accept.
Diop also cites supposed similarities between the modern languages of sub-Saharan Africa, particularly West Africa, and Ancient Egyptian, claiming a common origin for both. Experienced linguists reject claims of any such relationship, and relate Ancient Egyptian to the Afroasiatic language group, including Nubian and Ethiopian languages, but also Hebrew and Arabic. This book omits much of the linguistic evidence Diop put forward in his French works of 1954 and 1967, leaving only a sketchy summary.
Diop was undoubtedly sincere in attempting to promote an understanding of African culture, but his methodology is suspect. He has his followers, but most historians either ignore him or point-out his errors and omissions. The result is two schools of History and Egyptology; an Afrocentric one and a Eurocentric one with no meeting of minds, no basis for synthesis. Afrocentric studies combat the racist argument that Africans have never achieved anything. However, the real success of African states in medieval West Africa is overlooked in favour of a mirage of a black Egypt. Unverifiable claims simply create a marginalised school of study with no engagement with what is still the mainstream and majority view. Diop's ideas originated up to 60 years ago, but his book is still on sale today. Its title "Myth or Reality?" must be judged by modern standards, and the world has moved on since the 1950s.