Greek and Roman mythology hold a special place in Western culture. It is the precursor to superheroes and postmodern icons, the bastions of the ideals we aspire to be and the vices we want to avoid. Take Icarus, the boy who acquired wings (symbolizing ascension in stature, career, income, etc.) only to be burned by the sun because he failed to heed the warnings of his father.
Or Achilles, who was killed by an arrow to his ankle because it was the only part of his body not strengthened and honed. Despite being the bravest of the Greek heroes in Homer’s “Illiad,” he was done in by this overlooked shortcoming. What’s your Achilles’ heel?
Some may view these stories as symbolism only, serving to increase understanding of a complex existence while others take it further as a reinforcement of Western culture’s domination in media.
*Greek storyteller Aesop told fables that are now used as moral teaching tools to elementary students. The Socratic method is named after a guy – from Greece – whose wisdom was preserved through the writings of Plato. If you popped your head in a math class at all in high school, you’ve heard of the Pythagorean theorem, which is named after the – yep, you guessed it – Greek philosopher Pythagoras.
If you’re, say, a student growing up in the inner-city school system of Atlanta, civilization starts with the Greeks and was honed by the Romans.
So where does that leave Africa, which is considered by many anthropologists, the origin of human life? Or more specifically, what about the contributions that Egypt made to later civilizations? If ancient Egyptians were black, then how is the marginalizing of African achievement in dominant Western texts permissible?
That’s assuming you believe ancient Egyptians were black. Make an assumption at your peril/pleasure.
Contentions are heavy on both sides: Many scholars use archeology and the location of Egypt for grist that ancient Egyptians were black. If you’re an adherent of the Christian faith, numerous verses (Psalms 105:23 and 106:22) refer to Egypt as the “land of Ham.” An article in the New-England Magazine in 1833 also gives strong credence to ancient Egyptians being black. W.E.B. DuBois highlighted the Sphinx’s negroid features in his book, The Negro.
Others argue that any claims to the accomplishments of Egypt by black people has no element of truth to it whatsoever. Egyptologist Zahi Hawess contended that King Tut was not black. Other forensic experts state that ancient Egyptians were of “Mediterranean color”: that they were neither black or white in their skin color. Egypt straddles two regions: Africa and the Middle East. Therefore, many claim, it’s impossible to state one way or the other.
As long as History (note the capital H) is prevalent, history will remain elusive. But maybe our own view of history is skewed. We tend to view it in a vacuum: one period of upheaval/social flux/movements followed by a “dead” period, followed by another period of upheaval/social flux/movements.
“History does not happen in watershed moments. That’s mythic,” said Wendell Marsh, current Fullbright scholar studying in Cairo, Egypt. “History changes every day and we’re the ones that do it.”
Ancient Egyptians developed a society that still confounds the most erudite minds today. This leads to – in typical Western paradigm – a fascination with the source of Egyptian culture. It’s not enough that there is this area by the Nile River that is rich in intellectual resources that we can all draw from. We have to find out the group of people that created this wonder.
For many African Americans, the yearning to lay claim to the achievements of ancient Egyptians is rooted in a desire to assert humanity and gain an identity that History tends to ignore (understatement). So when there is historical evidence that trumps black achievement as the model of modern culture, then why not use historical proof to disprove History?
But perhaps our question should be, “Why does this really matter so much to us?” It is dangerous to place our value in something that a new discovery could disprove. With a subject this explosive and precarious, maybe our humanity shouldn’t be embedded with a possible connection to the first civilization.
What if its discovered that another civilization existed before Egypt? What if extra terrestrials really did build the pyramids? What if black people had nothing to do with the developments in eastern North Africa? Does that mean we’re worthless and without a legacy?
Of course, this isn’t to dismiss the importance of a strong ancestry. Surely it is paramount for African Americans to know that there history does not start with slavery.
Like Janus (derivation of January), the Roman god of gates and doorways, a dual-faced approach is needed. A look in the past is necessary not to sulk in prior tragedies, but to learn lessons to construct a progressive plan forward. A look to the future is needed to envision a “world” where past mistakes are not and cannot be repeated.
Let science worry about who built the Great Pyramid of Giza. There’s still history to be made and remade. And remade.