Position Statements

DeAfricanizing King Tut: A Forensic Fantasy

Dr. Maulana Karenga

King Tut is back in the house and with him comes a new controversy concerning his depiction by the promoters of his exhibition as a reborn White man, reconstructed out of a pseudo-science reminiscent of early European theories of superior races and differing human brain sizes and thus different capacities for culture and civilization. As a part of the ongoing attempt at the racial remaking of ancient Egypt, this new initiative can easily be called a forensic fantasy born of the continuing need to deAfricanize ancient Egypt, counter Afrocentric contentions regarding the Africanness of Egypt and reverse the gains Afrocentric scholars have made in correcting the historical record and creating a new discourse about ancient Egypt and Africa as a whole. It also speaks to the collaboration of the Egyptian government and Egyptian scholars with this falsification of King Tutankhamen’s image and ancient Egyptian history, given their modern split identity as a nation of ancient Africans and of descendents of Arabs who arrived in Egypt in the seventh century.

The controversy raises two interrelated issues. The first is how to respond effectively to the latest efforts to de-Africanize and Europeanize King Tutankhamen and by extension ancient Egypt, its people and its culture. The second issue is how to avoid over focusing on this problem and missing the opportunity to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the awesome legacy of this Africa’s greatest civilization and the world’s greatest civilization of antiquity.

But regardless of the problematic character of the exhibition, it serves several basic functions. First, it reaffirms the splendor, glory and high level of achievement of ancient Egypt, and thus ancient Africa and African people. Second, it offers us an excellent opportunity not only to deepen and expand our own understanding and appreciation of ancient Egypt’s achieve-ments, but also to initiate a discourse vital to the recovery and accurate reconceptualization of this legacy. Finally, the exhibition serves as a reminder of our responsibility to recover, reconstruct and engage ancient Egyptian culture for the purposes set out by that Imhotepian scholar and Egyptologist, Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop. He stated that a recovered and reconstructed legacy of ancient Egypt will aid us in achieving three basic goals: (1) to reconcile African and human history; (2) to build a new body of human sciences; and (3) to renew African culture.

To reconcile African and human history, we must struggle constantly against Europe’s falsification of African and human history, especially its attempt to de-Africanize Egypt. To do this, it seeks to take Africans out of Egypt; Egypt out of Africa, and then Africa out of human history. To take Africans out of Egypt is to deny their presence except as captives or enslaved Nubians, to present a “racial” distinction between Egyptians and Nubians rather than a national one and to selectively present only those images which lean toward mixtures or variation from what is considered prototypical African.

The promoters of the exhibit note in the exhibition catalog that a whitened image of King Tutankhamen represents a “miracle of forensics.” However, it is not a miracle of forensics, but a miasma of falsified and fossilized racist thinking that has produced this whitened caricature of King Tut. It is a fantasy forensics which sees Whites when there is none, overrides the evidence of history and objective observance and manipulates science in the image and interests of white supremacy. Seeking to keep a scientific veneer to this whitening process, the promoters also note that a CT-scan, an x-ray process that produces a cross-sectional image of the thing under study, was made of King Tut’s mummy. But the CT-scan only yielded data on the health, age, height, weight and condition of the skeleton. It did not inform and corroborate the decision to make King Tut White. That decision is derived from a deeper source and longer history. It has its origins in white supremacist ideology which willfully distorts facts and history and only allows things and people white to be right, beautiful, creative and brilliant.

The pursuit and presentation of this forensic fantasy by Europeans has a long and tortured history. It began with the early pseudo-scientific contention that White Semitic invaders taught the Africans of ancient Egypt the arts and ideals of civilization. Then, there were the occultist Whites who conjured up White space beings who descended in “chariots of the gods” to enlighten us. Also, there were those who argued a minor role for Africans in a multicultural mix and those, who unable to prove either of the above, declared the “racial” identity of the ancient Egyptians irrelevant.

The latter two arguments were a counteroffensive to Afrocentric discourse which was rooted in the works of Cheikh Anta Diop and defiantly claimed ancient Egypt as an African heritage and refused to concede or share it. The latest initiative of forensic fantasy is a rearguard action, representing failure on the other fronts and an undignified and embarrassing retreat to familiar grounds of white supremacist claims of having created all things of value and relevance in the world.

Diop has given us adequate, indeed, extensive proof of the Blackness of ancient Egypt. This includes various forms of evidence including melanin, bone and blood tests; ancient Egyptians’ self-definition as Kemetiu, Black people; and eyewitness reports by Greek, Roman and Hebrew contemporaries of the ancient Egyptians. Also, there is the evidence of cultural similarities with other African cultures; the artistic self-presentation of the ancient Egyptians; linguistic affinity of ancient Egyptian with other African languages; and finally, the evidence of geography. Indeed, ancient Egypt is the only country in history that has to justify its geography, that is to say, explain why it’s in Africa when it should not be there, if racists are right about the absence of real or significant history in Africa.

Thus, we need only to reaffirm and expand on these arguments. But we should not spend so much time on defending our heritage from racist claims that we miss the opportunity to recover its rich and ancient insights and use them to engage modern moral and social issues of our time. Indeed, the contribution of ancient Egypt to human civilization in the major disciplines of human knowledge is immense, enduring and well-documented. However, no legacy left by ancient Egypt is more significant and enduring than its ethical and spiritual legacy, Maat which obligates us to constantly struggle to repair and rebuild the world making it more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

It is Kemet, ancient Egypt, which gave humankind the concepts of humans as the image of God and the concept of human dignity which is derived from it, resurrection and judgment after death, preference and care for the poor and vulnerable, care and responsibility toward the environment, the moral essentiality of service and the ethical obligation “to bear witness to truth and set the scales of justice in their proper place, (especially) among those who have no voice.” It is concepts like these which should inform our approach to and embrace of ancient Egypt. For it is these world-encompassing and life-enhancing concepts that form the hub and hinge on which the real and expansive meaning of ancient Egypt to us and the world turns.

Dr. Maulana Karenga is professor of Black Studies, CSU Long Beach, creator of Kwanzaa, chair of the Organization Us, and the National Association of Kawaida Organizations. He is author of Selections from the Husia: Sacred Wisdom of Ancient Egypt and Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics. [www.Us-Organization.org and www.OfficialKwanzaaWebsite.org]

June 20, 2005 The Los Angeles Sentinel