African Americans were active and energetic participants in the culture of American Egyptomania. Often slighted in the history of nineteenth-century American interest in ancient Egypt, black Americans had what could be said to be the strongest interests of all: as debates in American Egyptomania swirled around issues of race, racial origin, racial capability, and the relation of Egypt to the continent of Africa, African Americans were placed front and center, and were not shy about voicing their opinions. Often black contributions to American discourses of ancient Egypt are partially recognized, but relegated to the realm of religion – images of the Biblcal Exodus, songs of Moses and Ol’ Pharaoh – and it is a widely underrecognized fact that African Americans contributed voluminously in the realms of science and ancient history as well. Especially since Egyptology, ethnology, and race science were in their infancies, literate blacks could have as much claim to authoritativeness regarding these fields as whites, and so the history of American Egyptomania contains writings on race and ancient history from blacks as well as whites.
Black race theorists were well aware that white race theorists were attempting to claim ancient Egypt as a “white” civilization, and then use ancient Egypt as proof of “negro inferiority.” White theorists like Josiah Nott, George Gliddon, and Samuel Morton were, in fact, most famous for just these claims – and so black theorists were automatically countertheorists, always caught in a debate with their white adversaries. Thus, much of the tone of black Egyptomania is plainly argumentative, placing itself in open conflict with the widespread tendencies in white circles to use Egyptology as a means to a racial end. Many twentieth and twenty-first century readers know of the traditions of Pan-Africanism and black nationalism, but fewer recognize the extent to which these traditions began in the nineteenth century, in the context of a debate with racist whites over the question of ancient Egypt.
This selection dates from 1828, and is taken from the New York weekly periodical Freedom’s Journal, the first black-owned and black-operated newspaper in America. Frankly anti-slavery, the pages of Freedom’s Journal were home to black intellectuals, black activists, and black spokespeople of all walks of life. The author of this selection writes under a pseudonym from Washington, D.C., and makes an argument about the relationship between black capabilities and ancient civilizations which is still controversial to this day.
December 5, 1828
FREEDOM'S JOURNAL New York, New York
For Freedom's Journal.
Mr. Editor. - I enclose you for publication in your very useful paper some observations upon the history of our colour, which I have extracted from the "African Repository and Colonial Journal" for March 1825. You will find that our origin is such, that no one, however exalted his station in life, need be ashamed of having descended from black parentage. We may be very degenerated people, so are the Greeks, but this is the result of circumstances not within our control, but that our origin is reproach to us, I most positively deny. We ought to cultivate all the social virtues, improve our intellect, and render ourselves worthy of our origin. - Washington City November 20th 1828.
A Constant Reader.
On the early history of the Negro Race.
To those who are at all acquainted with the early history of mankind, it must afford a curious commentary upon the mutability of human affairs, to hear the strange conjectures which are sometimes indulged about the origin of the Negro-Race, in defiance of all our records of antiquity, both sacred and profane. They are contemptuously spoken of as a distinct order of beings; the connecting link between men and monkies.
Those who talk in this way, do not recollect or perhaps do not know, that the people whom they traduce, were for more than a thousand years (that is ten times as long as this Government has been in existence,) the most enlightened on the globe.
They were called Ethiopians from two Greek words denoting the colour of their skin, and the spirit of adventure by which they were distinguished, together with the superiority which they every where manifested over the nations among whom they dwelt, rendered this name illustrious throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. The father of this once distinguished, although now despised and persecuted race, was Cush, the grandson of Noah. He was himself a Ethiopian, and is so called by the Alexandrine Chronicle, Josephus, Bryant, and other writers of equally high repute.
The nation whom the LXX [?] called "Ethiopians," are in the Hebrew denominated 'Cushor "Cushites," and this is the name by which they were known, wherever the Greek language was not spoken, where Jeremiah says, 'can the Ethiopian change his skin?' the word in the original, is "Cushite."
The Cushites, or Ethiopians, established the first government, and the first regular Police, which history records. The first great city which we have described in history was built by them. They surrounded it with walls, which were, according to Rollin, "in thickness 87 feet, in hight 350 feet, and in compass 480 furlongs, which make sixty miles.' This stupendous work they shortly afterwards eclipsed by another, of which Diodorus says, "never did any city come up to the greatness and magnificence of this" (Diod. Lib. 2. p 90. 98) All those mounds and causeways, (says a modern writer of ability,) the high roads and stately structures which have been attributed to Semiramis of Babylonia, are the works of this people.' Thus at a time when the rest of the world was in a state of barbarism, the Ethiopian family were exhibiting prodigies of human genius, at which mankind have not yet ceased to wonder and which they have never so much dreamed of being able to transcend. They were first located in a beautiful region, between the Euphrates and the Tigris, which taking its name from them, was called "the Country of the Cushdim;" by the western nations Chaldea [?] and in scripture, the land of Shinar. Here it was that the splendid achievements which have just been noticed were performed. In after times, led on by men who are signalized in his story under, the name "of Royal Shepherds," they subjugated the whole of upper Egypt, which they held in bondage for more than three hundred years.
They found that country in a state of barbarism, they left in the monther [sic] of Science, and the mistress of the world! They colonized lower Egypt, which was before scarcely habitable, by the most stupendous efforts which human genius ever conceived, or human enterprize accomplished, they drained a large Lake or rather ocean, and converted a territory, which others had abandoned to hopeless sterility, into one that is celebrated to this day, by travellers and poets, as the garden spot of the earth. And the same daring spirit, which in defiance of Gods
authority, built a city upon the ruins of the Tower of Babel; as if in mere mockery of men threw up pyramids, obelisks, and mausolea, which even now baffle conjecture; and if they were not still standing, and open to the curious of all nations, might stagger the faith of credulity itself.
The Cushites also planted a Colony in the country which lies immediately to the South of Egypt, since denominated Ethiopia proper, (a) And there can be no doubt that the wast region from which our slaves are brought, was first settled by this hardy and adventurous population. Of this there are many proofs - 1st. the striking accordance of complexion, language, manners, customs, &c. by which (with slight shades of variety,) the inhabitants of the south and west, are assimilated to those whom we know to be of Ethiopian extraction. -