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.
This selection is unusual because of its politics: it is taken from the black newspaper The Colored American, but it seems to espouse beliefs which at times are racist and at times are not. This short piece begins as an overview of a recent publication in the field of American archaeology, but then becomes a consideration of racial capabilities in the context of ancient history. It argues that ancient races such as the “American aborigines” (known today as the Mayans and the Incas) were capable of heights of civilization equal to any white race, but then argues that the different races of mankind are not all fundamentally related, and existed as separate races even in the ancient past. The former argument is very progressive, especially for its time, but the latter was widely used as proof of the inherent and unchanging “natural inferiority” of nonwhite races – a fact that this anonymous writer surely knew. Especially interesting because of the unknown race of its author, this selection is a fascinating example of potentially contradictory conclusions.
December 4, 1841
THE COLORED AMERICAN
New York, New York
HISTORY OF THE RED RACE.
We have of late been much interested in the perusal of Bradford's "American Antiquities." We have found it a
treasure, not only of curious facts, but of profitable instruction; and we intend, as convenience serves, to make
some selections here and there which we shall make, will convey but a meagre idea of the work. The investigation
is characterized by a most rigid adherence to facts, excluding conjecture and speculation. There is a multiplication
of testimonies to the several points of argument, which is carried even to a fault. The conclusion to which the
author arrives, is stated at the close in these several particulars: -
1. That the great groups of monumental antiquities, found in Mexico, in the United States, and in South America,
proceeded from different branches of the red race, which is one of the great divisions of the human family.
2. That these nations were a rich, populous, civilized and agricultural people, having extensive cities, roads,
aqueducts, fortifications and temples - were skilled in the arts of pottery and metallurgy, and sculpture, and in the
science of astronomy - had a national religion, a system of laws, and regular forms of government.
3. That from the uniformity of their physical appearance, from the possession of relics of the art of hieroglyphical
painting, from universal analogies in their language, religion, traditions and methods of interring the dead, and
from the general prevalence of certain arbitrary customs, nearly all the aborigines appear to be of the same descent
and origin; and that the barbarous tribes are broken and scattered fragments of a society originally more
enlightened and cultivated.
4. That two distinct ages may be pointed out in the history of the civilized nations the first a long and tranquil
period; the second marked by revolutions, and the subjugation of the old to new and more extensive empires.
5. That the first seats of civilization in this quarter of the world, were in Mexico, whence population was diffused
through both continents of America.
In relation to the question of their origin, it appears -
1. That the Red Race, under various modifications, may be traced physically into Etruria, Egypt, Madagascar,
ancient Scythia, Mongolia, China, Hindoostan, Malaya, Polynesia, and America; and was a primitive and
cultivated branch of the human family - and
2. That the American Aborigines are more or less connected with these several countries, by striking analogies in
their arts, their customs and traditions, their hieroglyphical painting, their architecture and temple building, their
astronomical systems, their superstitions, religion, and theocratical government.
Our author, in answering cautiously the question, when and by whom America was first peopled, favors the
opinion that it was by one of the tribes which were present at the dispersion of the race, at the building of Babel.
We cannot, of course, give all the processes by which he comes to this result. But we purpose hereafter to give
some interesting passages of his book. We have seen occasion, in reading this book, to give up the idea we have
long held, that the differences of color, &c. are the result of climate. It has been proved to our conviction, that the
three divisions of white, red and black, were as marked, soon after the flood, as they are now. - Puritan.