By: Clinton Davis
Redefining History or Cultural Appropriation?
The virtual world has once again found itself embroiled in a fiery battle that blurs the lines between historical accuracy and racial representation. It’s not just between the white and Black folks of America and Hollywood, this time, Egypt got involved, and it came in like a wrecking ball reminding Americans that there are more than just Black and white people in the world. At the epicenter of this heated debate is Jada Pinkett-Smith's Netflix documentary titled "Queen Cleopatra", staring Adele James. The recent release has triggered a wave of reactions across the globe, sparking conversations that oscillate between applause for pushing representation boundaries and criticisms for historical distortion.
We discussed this in a recent podcast, and the link is at the bottom. The online drama, though common, highlights the importance of these narratives in our society. As we navigate the complex realm of historical interpretation and representation, the Cleopatra controversy brings into focus a fundamental question - What role should historical accuracy play in contemporary storytelling?
The Power of Narrative and Identity
I remember a time in my early teen years where Black brothers of mine filled my head with the idea that ancient Egyptians were Black, meaning there were Black Kings, Black legacy, Black achievement and deep, mysterious history. I imagine my eyes must’ve gone wide with wonderment, then my brows scrunched in deep thought, confused.
People with skin similar to mine, were Kings, what? Royalty … in Africa?
They argued that when the Egyptians were conquered by Europeans, the noses of the Sphinxes were deliberately defaced to deny credit to Black achievement and accomplishment throughout history.
Not only people around me, but these assertions, echoed by cultural heroes like the iconic rappers Nas, members of Wu-Tang and other apostles of the Afrocentric movement, painted a vibrant picture of the past that resonated with me deeply. It was important to me. I held onto that and carried that with me. We were more than they told us.
Teach me, Oh Canada
As a teenager in a pre-internet era, most of my knowledge was shaped by a Canadian educational system that primarily served up a steady diet of European history, coupled with an unflattering portrayal of Black people as slaves and little more. You know the story; Martin Luther King fought for our civil rights in America in the 60’s, and Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus. They skipped over the part where protections for Black Canadians were not written into our own Charter of Rights until 1982.
Black people were Kings and Queens
Generally, we were taught that virtually every culture had Kings and Queens (for the good or bad), including the Mayans, except the Africans. This newfound connection to ancient Egypt provided a refreshing contrast to my ancestors' horror. It was a lifeline to something grander, an ancestral lineage that sparked a sense of pride, history, and honor. It was an empowering revelation that filled me with bewonderment, with possibility, with hope, wonder, awe, and energy. It was a narrative that celebrated our accomplishments, our worth, and imbued us with the dignity of Kings and Queens. I can still feel a bit of reverence I felt hearing those proclamations.
Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Benin, and more
Most North American “Black” people’s ancestors were stolen from West Africa. I wish the heroes of my youth, like Nas, had known more about the great African empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, so that they could have channeled what is more likely our real history into their empowering messages. Such knowledge would have provided a more authentic narrative, one rooted in documented history that we could genuinely claim as our own. But we must not blame them; they too were victims of an education system that highlighted only a fraction of Black history.
“Truths” in the Internet Age
The dawn of the internet age and the explosion of accessible information have brought with them a more nuanced understanding. Historical debates about the racial identity of the ancient Egyptians have long been in debate. Some assert they were white, while others argue they were Black. Recently, the Netflix documentary "Cleopatra," produced by Jada Pinkett-Smith, has brought this debate into the mainstream by boldly declaring Cleopatra as Black.
Deconstructing "Cleopatra": A Documentary Perspective
As much as I understand the emotional resonance of this assertion, and as warmly as I recall the pride these notions stirred in me as a young man, it's 2023, and the historical reality needs to be confronted: it’s almost impossible Cleopatra was “Black” in a Western African/North American sense. Were there “Black” dynasties in Egypt. Absolutely. The Nubian Dynasty over Egypt lasted close to 100 years, from 744-656 BC, about 600 years before Cleopatra (Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt - Wikipedia). There were Black pharaohs, Black statues, Black relics, and rich “Black” History in Egypt.
Netflix’s "Cleopatra" presents a narrative, sure to evoke a broad range of emotions. It tells the story of a woman who ruled one of the world's most powerful empires, but it does so by bending the truth of her racial identity to fit a modern narrative. This revisionist approach, although well-intentioned, borders on the erasure of true Black history.
The True Ancestry of Cleopatra
In reality, Cleopatra was of Greek descent, born in Egypt. She was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Greek origin that ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great's death. As in many kingdoms throughout History, inbreeding was the name of the game in those days to “keep” royalty “in the family” so to speak. There was no mixing and mingling outside of these tight knit circles. This does not, however, diminish her accomplishments as a formidable leader and strategist. Neither does it detract from the historical fact that ancient Egypt was a cosmopolitan society, composed of various ethnic groups, including those of sub-Saharan African ancestry. But to label Cleopatra as Black is a distortion of historical facts, one that could inadvertently undermine the truly rich and diverse history of Black civilizations.
But why they mad, bro?
Why are Egyptians so mad? I’d say the reasons are twofold. First, in North America, race has mostly been divided by “Black” and “white” when it comes to the “Big” issues, leaving other cultures feeling left out, if I’m being honest, and not included in enough conversations. Indigenous people are the people with the farthest reaching claim to the land we’re on, and after that, well, it’s white folk, and “Black” folk. While it’s true that that we are no longer the biggest visible minority, we’ve still left the loudest mark, having been here as long as white people, and we do command the most attention over here in the West. We’ve fought and died for equality, and while North America isn’t perfect, the sacrifice has helped set up a better continent for the mass amounts of immigrants that came after our forced arrival. The world is listening to Egypt right now, and so Egypt is taking it’s turn to speak up while they can before the media moves on to the next “flavour of the month” in the never ending News Cycle. But Egyptians feel culturally appropriated, rightfully so, their ancestors most adorned garments are worn as Halloween costumes, their symbolism adopted, Cleopatra chains were a staple of Black communities in the 90's, and still are, similar to how Black people feel about Black culture being exploited around the globe.
Are Egyptians Racist?
Second, many people on the internet are accusing Egyptians themselves of being racist. Are "Egyptians racist"? No, of course not, I don't believe any one group of people are any one thing, generalizations like that are racist in themselves, if not prejudice. However, I lived in Egypt for a month in 2016. It's intriguing, and awe inspiring. There are rich affluent neighbourhoods, and areas where poverty is staggering and heart wrenching. The people are wonderful. Many are loving, caring, passionate, and thoughtful. But, Egypt does have a reputation for treating it’s Black citizens poorly, and during the month I lived there, I did not see much with my eyes that disputed those claims. People treated me great. I’m interracial, my skin tone matches the majority of Egyptians. They thought I was Egyptian, they spoke Arabic to me at every turn, then they loved that I was Canadian. During my stay, I noticed a concerning pattern: individuals with darker skin tones, reminiscent of West Africans, often appeared reserved and only held positions in what were clearly lower-paying jobs. It was distressing to witness this, and it seemed to echo the discussions I had there, where it seemed societal biases and colorism are prevalent issues in Egypt, manifestations of systemic prejudices and histories that must be confronted and addressed. But there are countless articles on the internet if you search, written by Egyptian people, calling Egyptians out for their racism (let me say there many articles saying the same about Canadians).
From Egypt right now there are scholars, academics and more correctly citing historical inaccuracies about Netflix's new documentary (key word documentary, not fiction or drama). But there is also seething hatred and inappropriate (racist) comments from many others, and it's coming from Egyptians and Black Americans alike. It should be noted that the Cleopatra movie of the 1960's staring the "white skinned" Elizabeth Taylor was also banned in Egypt at for being inaccurate.
Who should play Cleopatra?
So why were Egyptians so mad Cleopatra was portrayed by a Black woman, when the argument is that Cleopatra was not Black, she was Greek-Macedonian …like without a drop of authentic Egyptian blood (from a lineage point of view) as we would know it today, although Egyptian blood carries the DNA of multiple cultures from Eons of colonization by differing nations. To be accurate, it seems Egyptians would prefer Cleopatra played by their oppressors from another time period, and not the time period they were ruled by the Kush nation of Nubians. Casting a Egyptian born Greek woman would've been the most accurate, and I don't know how many of those are around. I really don't.
I’ll also point out that this has been a shining moment for white influencers as well. Eager to be able to take to the stage to finally be able to say something about Black people without reprise, making thousands of videos on YouTube pointing out how horrible “Black people” (but really just Jada-Pinkett Smith are for producing this series.
Seeking Authenticity in History
In our quest for reclaiming our past and rewriting the narratives that have been forcefully fed to us, it's essential to tread carefully. It's a delicate dance between unearthing forgotten histories and not falling into the trap of creating comforting, but ultimately false narratives. We must ensure that our history is not further distorted, even if the distortion is intended to counteract previous erasures. So much of our past has been erased through colonization. And Black North Americans have a rich, amazing culture and history sitting in West Africa that I wish Jada-Pinkett Smith had’ve thought to explore on a deeper level, because I’ve only scratched it’s surface. Our culture has been culturally appropriated in almost every way imaginable for as far back as we know, in ways that would need a completely new blog. We can’t now lift up, in 2023, our culture by erasing another.
As we grapple with the complexities of our history, and the pain of so much history lost at the hands of colonization, rape, murder, burning of history, the theft of our relics, now locked in British museum basements, the disconnection from our ancestors, and more, we must strive to embrace the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. I’ve looked into it. It really doesn’t appear that Cleopatra was Black, once you move away from the blogs and magazine articles. We have a rich tapestry of historical achievements and contributions to humanity that don't require embellishment. Our ancestors built great empires, contributed to the progress of arts and sciences, and left indelible marks on the world, from the plains of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, to the banks of the Nile.
I’m happy I was told those stories as a child. I needed those. They gave me life. Now I need new stories to do the same thing, they just have to be real.
Why all the “Black” and “white” in quotes
Well, I’m a firm advocate that there is no such thing as “Black or white” people, I really just believe we’re all different shades of brown-beige (with a few so brown they DO look Black, and some so pale they DO look white), explored in my previous blog here. Concepts of Black and White people were invented by a commissioned Portuguese writer near the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, and there are almost no references of people being referred to as white or Black before that. Ironically, with all this debate, during the Hellenistic period that Cleopatra ruled in, it was the same. People in that time did not identify by skin colour, but by nation and culture alone.
They’d likely find all this debate quite silly. And I’d hope in a hundred years when racism is hopefully even more behind us, we’ll look back at this time period as quite silly as well. All us humans here so focused on our melanin.
Conclusion: A Journey Towards Understanding
I don't regret hearing the stories I heard as a youth, they meant the world to me. And they served a purpose; empowerment. In the end, historical accuracy matters. It's about owning the narratives of our past, embracing the truth, and refusing to let our identities be warped by misinformation. The Netflix documentary "Queen Cleopatra" may have stirred up debates, but it also highlights the importance of understanding our past and the narratives we choose to uphold. The history of Black civilizations is diverse, intricate, and brimming with accomplishment. Let's continue to explore, celebrate, and share these authentic stories, without resorting to distortion or erasure. After all, our history is rich enough to stand on its own, without the need for appropriation.
In the end, even though many think Netflix is taking an L, my guess is Netflix is still a winner in all this. Among all the hate and bad ratings this series has received, it was probably watched by so many more millions than it would have been had this controversy not been present. Like with the Dave Chappelle controversy of 2021, Netflix is taking home the bag.
To hear or watch Clinton & Hillary discuss this in a recent podcast episode, click here.
Clinton is a entrepreneur, entertainer and activist with interests in retail, beauty, music, real estate, blockchain, farming, and more. He is a founder of BlackLantic, and works with many boards and organizations within New Brunswick, Canada.
With a strong belief that POC need to support, work together, and collaborate, Clinton has spent years driven by a need to make the world a better place for his kids, and people of all cultures/lifestyles to grow up in.
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