Any venture to remind Negroes of their proud heritage is commendable. If that venture succeeds it is intellectually therapeutic not only for Negroes but for myth-believing Whites who are exposed to the material.
We need to examine the extent to which Diop has succeeded in proving some of the stronger claims that he makes. The analysis given here is very selective, not exhaustive, and our aim is to show some of the pitfalls of argumentation that bedevil the otherwise commendable efforts of some Afrocentrists.
Diop’s fundamental thesis is that the ancient Egyptians were Negroes and he bases his thesis primarily, though not exclusively, on the writings of Herodotus (c. 484-c. 420 B.C.). We treat with the principal references to Herodotus and one to Diodorus. Scholars have examined Diop’s use of ancient writers and some are convinced that he has not been careful enough with the sources he uses.
According to Diop, Herodotus (II.22)110 describes the Egyptians as black. However, as Raymond Mauny points out, the reference cited by Diop does not speak of Egypt but of Libya and Ethiopia, from where the Nile comes. The context finds Herodotus attempting to explain the three theories re the flooding of the Nile advanced by certain Greeks. It is while explaining and rebutting the third view that Herodotus says,
“. . . according to this, the water of the Nile comes from melting snow—but as it flows from Libya through Ethiopia into Egypt, that is, from a very hot into a cooler climate, how could it possibly originate in snow? Obviously this view is as worthless as the other two. Anyone who can use his wits about such matters will find plenty of arguments to prove how unlikely it is that snow is the cause of the flooding of the river: the strongest is provided by the winds, which blow hot from those regions . . . thirdly, the natives are black because of the hot climate.” [my emphasis]
The Greek text of the section calling the inhabitants ‘black’ uses the word melanes which approximates what some would call ‘coal-black or jet-black’. So the Libyans and Ethiopians, according to Herodotus, were very, very black. We shall return to Herodotus’ description of the color of the Egyptians in due course.
Herodotus (II.58), according to Diop, utilizes a black dove which was symbolic of an Egyptian woman. To be more precise, Herodotus is reporting what, allegedly, he heard concerning the origin of oracles in Dodona in Greece and also in Libya. He heard one version from the Egyptians (re two women stolen from Thebes) and a quite different one from the priestesses at Dodona. Concerning the version from Dodona, Herodotus declares (II. 55 and 57)
“two black doves, they say, flew away from Thebes in Egypt, and one of them alighted at Dodona, the other in Libya . . . As to the bird being black, [the priestesses] merely signify by this that the woman was Egyptian.”
If one accepts the symbolism of the version from the Greek priestesses then the most one could defensibly say is that the Greek priestesses saw Egyptians as black. The Greek word for black here is not melanes but melainas/melainan. Melainas means black or dark but not as black as melanes.
According to Diop, Herodotus (II.104) shared the view of the Egyptians that the Colchidans (or Colchians) were descendants of the Egyptian pharaoh Sesostris because the Colchidans “ . . . are black and have crinkly hair . . .” Has Diop been faithful to Herodotus? Yes and no, as the fuller text reveals.
“The Egyptians did, however, say that they thought the original Colchians were men from Sesostris’ army. My own idea on the subject was based first on the fact that they have black skin and woolly hair (not that that amounts to much as other nations have the same) . . .”
It is significant that Herodotus does not argue a similarity between the Egyptians and the Colchidans on the basis of skin-color and hair but on cultural realities; they both practice circumcision, do work in linen in a peculiar way and have similar speech patterns.
Herodotus uses the term melanchroes, translated as black skin here. It could also mean dark skin or brown skin. It is puzzling that Diop calls attention to Herodotus III.101 which deals with the peoples of India and the differentiation between the Padaeans and other Indians even though they all have black skins like the Ethiopians. Egypt is not mentioned at all but Herodotus makes some strange allegations concerning the Indians and as well the Ethiopians.
Diodorus of Sicily, according to Diop, mentions that the Ethiopians were of the view that they were the ancestors of the Egyptians. Even if Diodorus is accurately reporting the beliefs of the Ethiopians one still has to reckon with the historical accuracy of what the Ethiopians believed. But it is instructive to examine the quotation Diop uses from Diodorus and the conclusion he draws from his reading of Diodorus.
“The Ethiopians say that the Egyptians are one of their colonies which was brought into Egypt by Osiris. They even allege that this country was originally under water, but that the Nile, dragging much mud as it flowed from Ethiopia, had finally filled it in and made it a part of the continent . . .
“They add that from them, as from their authors and ancestors, the Egyptians get most of their laws. It is from them that the Egyptians have learned to honour kings as gods and bury them with such pomp; sculpture and writing were invented by the Ethiopians. The Ethiopians cite evidence that they are more ancient than the Egyptians, but it is useless to report that here.”
Immediately after this quotation Diop proceeds to say, “If the Egyptians and Ethiopians were not of the same race, Diodorus would have emphasized the impossibility of considering the former as a colony (i.e., a fraction) of the latter and the impossibility of viewing them as forebears of the Egyptians.”
The logical connection between ‘colony’ and ‘same race’ is not clear. The line of argument that Diop seems to be taking in general, from the sources he uses, is quite simple, simplistic even and unworthy of his intellect.
For Diop, apparently, there is a color syllogism; all blacks are Negroes, the Egyptians were blacks, therefore the Egyptians were Negroes. The syllogism may be valid, logically, but not true, because the major premise ‘all blacks are Negroes’ was not true in antiquity and is certainly not true today.
As C. Loring Brace et al have observed, “. . . skin color in such places as southern India, Melanesia, and the northern part of Australia is every bit as dark as it is in ‘Black Africa’ . . .”
Unfortunately this is not an uncommon type of reasoning among some of those who take pride in being called Afrocentrists. One therefore finds faulty reasoning and overdrawn conclusions simply because writers or speakers do not bear in mind that terms such as ‘black’, ‘African’ and ‘Egyptian’ say nothing clearly or conclusively about racial stock unless one stipulates, as opposed to demonstrating logically, that the terms are synonyms for Negro.
Let me illustrate in passing. G.G.M. James in Stolen Legacy refers to Eratosthenes as a black man simply because he was a native of Cyrene! Chancellor Williams informs, despite contrary evidence, “In ancient times ‘African’ and ‘Ethiopian’ meant the same thing: a Black.” The celebrated Nigerian polymath Chinweizu, in his book Decolonising the African Mind, contends,
“Herodotus, ‘father of history’ among the Greeks, not only acknowledged the antiquity of Egyptian civilization, and its having served as the civiliser of the Greeks; he also gave his eye-witness testimony that the ancient Egyptians were black skinned and wooly [sic] haired. Aristotle, though in an insulting vein, supports Herodotus on the race of the Egyptians when he remarked that the Egyptians and Ethiopians were cowards because of their “excessively black color”. All of which, would make the Egyptians blacks/negroes.”
By this line of reasoning, race can be determined, apparently, from the necessary and sufficient characteristics of black skin and woolly hair. [Recall Herodotus, II. 104, on the non-uniqueness of these.] Of course Chinweizu simply stipulates an equation between blacks and Negroes and that’s that. Continuing the trend of the stipulative, Chinweizu gets more caustic later in the book and advises, while arguing the need for a separate Black World organization,
“Those who are squeamish about being called black or negro are free to substitute the term African, provided they recognize the equivalence of the terms, and use them correctly. After all, an African is defined as a negro, a member of the black race, a native of Africa. Thus, a white African is a contradiction in terms.
“…By the way, from the definition of African, the term black African is tautologous. . . A black African is simply an African; white settlers in Africa are simply white settlers in Africa.”
With all due respects to Chinweizu, this is far too stipulative and prompts obvious and awkward questions for this line of reasoning. For instance, what is a third-generation Afrikaner who has been born and bred in South Africa if not at least an African, though white? What of the ‘coloreds’ in South Africa who have been born and bred in South Africa, are they not at least Africans, though not Negroes?
British Eurocentric thinkers and American Afrocentric thinkers and others also make a similar type of mistake when they fail to see that there is no clear or conclusive synonymous relationship between being Caucasian and being British or between being a Negro and being Caribbean or American.
Regional or national identity must not be confused with ethnicity. Africans are not all, blacks or Negroes. Americans are not all, Caucasians. Jamaicans are not all, Negroes. It must be conceded that some terms of nationality are more suggestive of ethnicity than others and some even double as both national and racial terms. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, readily jump to mind.
Even so a Negro born and bred in China, let’s say, is a Chinese national, though not a member of the Chinese race or ‘people group’.
(From my Amazon Bestseller Rastafari Beliefs: A Critical Analysis)