Cheikh Anta Diop, The African Origin of Civilization. (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1974) 318 pages.
A Book Review By Ozodi Osuji
Beginning during his student days at Paris, France, in the 1940s, Professor Diop was obsessed by the desire to prove to a skeptical world that Africans had great civilizations and, indeed, that they initiated human civilizations. Apparently, he had imbibed the self-serving propaganda by racist white scholars that Africans did not have any civilization of note and therefore cannot be expected to mount a civilization. The implicit message in this propaganda is that Africans ought to be ruled by Europeans and that Africans ought to be good boys and allow their European masters to rule them (it is interesting how some human beings ask other human beings to allow them to rule them for their own good even as they tell us that people are out to serve their self-interests, and if so how could some human beings ruling others serve their interests?).
Dr. Diop, apparently, was offended that white folks kept hammering into impressionable students' minds that Africans past was only darkness and that nothing good can be expected to come out of Africa. Thus, from his student days he began writing articles that demonstrated that Africans had great empires. He wrote many articles and the book, The African Origin of Civilization, published in 1974, is a collation of some of his seminal articles on the subject. It is a mere summary of his numerous writings on the subject. Subsequent to this book, Dr. Diop wrote other books on the subject, such as his famous Civilization or Barbarism book.
The man dedicated his entire life to one subject and wrote voluminously on it. Unfortunately, he died rather young, in the 1980s; death cut short his endeavor to enlighten the world that Africans had a glorious past.
Death should not rejoice for despite his early passage to the ancestors land, he managed to make seminal contributions to the discourse on Africa's role in the genesis of civilization.
This book, The African Origin to Civilization, is considered a masterpiece by those Africans and African Americans interested in the subject. To them he made a decisive argument that the first Egyptian civilization was initiated by Africans. As he sees it, Africans started the first great human civilization, Egypt.
Subsequent to the glory that was ancient Egypt other people were attracted to it. We know from history that Semitic and Aryan folk came south from their original home in the Caucasus (now part of Russia); that they trekked into Sumer and then to the entire Middle East. They trekked into what is now called Egypt.
Apparently, the Egyptians themselves did not call their country Egypt, Greeks called them Aiguptos, Egypt; they called themselves Kemit: "the land of the blacks"...this was Dr. Diop's interpretation; his critic, Mr. Mauny, begged to disagree with his perception of Egyptians as black. Mr. Mauny insisted that Egyptians were a brown, Mediterranean people.
Several groups of Semitic and Aryan white folk trekked into Egypt, including Hyksos, Akkadians, Hittites, Philistines, Assyrians, Amorites, Jews, Arabs and Greeks.
In the 500s BC the Persians defeated Egypt and ruled it. In 333 BC Alexander the Great (of Macedonia, Greece) defeated Egypt and Greeks ruled it until 50 BC when Julius Caesar and his Roman Legions defeated Egypt and ruled it.
When the Roman Empire fell, Germanic groups trekked into Egypt and lived there, not to talk about those other Europeans who served in the Roman army (many Roman soldiers stayed back and became part of the Egyptian population mix).
In 640 AD Arab Muslims from Arabia conquered Egypt and since then Arabs have ruled Egypt.
Egypt has been invaded by countless people; all of them left their genes in her gene pool. For our present purposes, the salient point made by Dr. Diop is that whereas the original people of Egypt were black that subsequently non-black persons came on board and Egyptians became a mulatto race, a mixed breed people. Their new mixed status was reflected in their subsequent rulers, Pharaohs: many of whom were white; the last Pharaoh, the one over thrown by Gamel Abdul Nasser in 1952 was an Arab (King Farouk?).
As Dr. Diop sees it, Western scholars felt it in their racial interests to say that Egypt was a white civilization. To prove their hypothesis they selected Pharaohs who were obviously white to show that the country was a white country. Apparently, they conveniently left out the original pharaohs that looked anything but white. Dr. Diop set out to correct this perceived injustice. He did an amazing research and provided a wealth of citations proving his thesis that the founders of Egypt were Africans.
What did the ancient Egyptians call themselves? We know that Egyptians were literate and, as such, wrote about themselves. They called themselves "reddish brown" people.
In the often cited pictographs that Egyptians painted at several places they illustrated their understanding of the human races. They had Horus (their chief god) first on the line, followed by a red brown man (an Egyptian), followed by an African (Nubian, pure black fellow) then followed by a yellow (Asiatic man) and finally a Nordic white man. They implied that there is a god who ruled the world and that next to him were Egyptians followed by Africans, then Asians and that Europeans were last in this scheme of things. They implied that Europeans were the least civilized of the races as they understood them at that time (5000 years ago is the generally accepted time frame but Dr. Diop said 10, 000 years; he tended to be loose with his time frames; most scholars say 6,000 years ago is when civilization began in Sumer).
Let us reiterate; to Egyptians, the Egyptians were the most civilized folk followed by Africans, then Asians and white men the least civilized. White men were the barbarians of their time.
Dr. Diop made much ado about this Egyptians depiction of the relative stages of the various races development, especially the fact that they saw themselves as at the top, followed by Africans.
Dr. Diop tried very hard to demonstrate that despite Egyptians perception of themselves as different from Africans that they were not non-Africans, that they were Africans, and certainly not Europeans, so Europeans could not claim that they began the first great human civilization.
I must admit that I find Dr. Diop's argument tortured! May be it is because of the generation gap between us. I am not obsessed by the need to prove that Africans were the initiators of civilization. I am not of the view that Europeans started human civilization, either. I am not hung up on race and have no need to prove one race better than others.
I do not know how come I came to be disinterested in race hierarchy. All I know is that I just am not interested in ranking the races with some up and some down; I do not even like the word race for to me there is only one human race, Homo sapiens. Biologically, genetically that is, all human beings are 99.999% the same (with the only difference such trivial things as skin color, hair texture and shape of nose).
I have always accepted that there is only one human race and that we are all branches of that race. I have never placed white folks on a pedestal and therefore had no need to pull them down, as Dr. Diop was apparently trying to do.
This book actually is psychological warfare at work; it is an aggressive effort to take white folks down and replace them with black folks, place black folks where white folks had hitherto placed themselves, on top of the racial heap.
Why not? If white folks are so arrogant as to claim that they are better than black folks, why can't black folks reciprocate the favor and place black folks on top? It is racial war going on here; just so you know what Dr. Diop is up to: he is fighting for the black race, jut as white folks fight for their race.
Intellectuals (in this case, professors of history) fight with their pen; their wars are as vicious and destructive as those fought by soldiers at the battlefront.
Dr. Diop is a black soldier. I admire him for fighting for his race, as he understands his race to be. I need, however, to say that since all of us are at some sort of war that I am fighting for the entire human race. I do not identify with any particular race. I simply assume that I am a human being and do what, in my view, serve the entire human races' interest; I am an Adlerian psychologist after all. Alfred Adler defines mental health as tendency to serve social interest and mental illness as tendency to focus mostly on what serves one's self interest, especially if it is at the expense of other people's interests.
I am Igbo Nigerian. Even as a child I could tell that my grandmother and grandfather were not completely African; they were very fair in complexion; they had Caucasian features. My mother and father were fair in complexion. My senior brother could pass for an Italian. I myself look like a mulatto, especially when I was a child; I seem to get darker as I become older.
What is salient is that from the get go of my life I assumed that the various so-called races had sexual intercourse and produced mixed people and that my family members are such people. Thus, when I saw a white person or Asian or African I just assumed that we are the same. I was never hung up on race.
I left Nigeria immediately after secondary school and lived with white kids in my college dormitory and at no time did I see them as different from me. I have travelled all over North America and Europe and do not see people as different from me. Folks have tried their utmost to make me see myself as black and see other people as white or Asian but that did not take hold in my psyche.
And here is something for you to chew on. I lived at Alaska (teaching at the University of Alaska). I had Eskimo friends (they do not call themselves Eskimos; they call themselves by their tribal names, such as Yupik, Inuit and Aleut). They would come to me and place their hands by my hand and ask me how come I am fairer in complexion than them? I am supposed to be an African hence supposedly dark but here we are and I am brown. Eskimos tend to be brown in color. So, how is it that a guy from Africa that is supposed to have been burned black by the sun's heat is brown and guys from a part of the world where the temperature for over six months of the year is often minus 70F are dark; are they not supposed to be fairer in completion than an African?
An urban legend has it that Scandinavians are whiter than other people because they live in the coldest part of Europe. If so how come Eskimos who live in even colder part of the world are brown in color? I have been all over Scandinavia and know that the people are blond alright. But the climate in Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo is not that much colder than the climate in Seattle, Washington (Seattle is called the second largest city in Norway because there are more Norwegians living in Seattle than in any Norwegian city apart from Oslo!).
So, how come Scandinavians are blond and Eskimos who live in ice, so to say, are almost as black as Africans? Does weather really determine human color? Is it the case that we just assume that weather made us what color we are?
There are many things under the sun that we still do not understand. Why do I feel at home in Alaska? I know every nook and cranny of Alaska, from Barrow, land's end (before the Arctic sea begins), to Juneau. I do not even know much about my own Africa for crying out loud! During the winter even Eskimos are bundled in heavy parkers but I walk around in comfortable clothes!
From where I stand I just accept that all people are the same and have never worried my little head with this whole race issue. Apparently, people are different; Dr. Diop was preoccupied with the matter of race (as are many African Americans) and wrote amazingly fascinating stuff trying to prove that the earliest Egyptians were Africans despite the fact that they saw themselves as red-brown people.
I am inclined to take people at their words; I see Egyptians as red-brown people and not jet black Africans (not that the difference in color means anything to me).
Now, if you say that since Egyptians lived in the continent of Africa and Africans come in many colors that fairer Africans are nonetheless Africans I say, good talk. I am motivated to talk about all people as one human race. I am not in denial about the pernicious role of racism in our world; I am just telling you that despite the vanity of white folks trying to impress on folks that they are better than other races I have never paid attention to their lies, and I know a lie when I hear one. Nobody told me that the races of mankind are equal and the same; I just knew it, no argument needed to convince me of self-evident truth. I just assumed that white folk are like me and other human beings; that is the god honest truth of who I am. All talk of racial differences irritates me and I have no time for such silly talk!
What this means is that reading this race crazed book was tedium for me. I had to force myself to read it to the end.
Anyway, looking at the picture of ancient Egyptians that Dr. Diop filled his book with, I would say that they seem like modern day Ethiopians (especially the Amharic); they are probably related?
Who are modern day Ethiopians (the name Ethiopia is given to these folks by Greeks, burnt faces). Are the Amharics, the fairest Ethiopians, an admixture of Semitic folk and Africans? Probably; their languages are related. If so, what is the big deal about it?
As I look at the pictures of ancient Egyptians they do not look like the Senegalese, the Ashanti and Dinka, probably the darkest Africans. But so what? What difference does color really make? To me, none.
What an impartial observer would do is accept the description of Egyptians of themselves as reddish brown people and not tries to fit them into jet black folk for the sake of political correctness.
Egyptians did not see themselves as white or black but as reddish brown and that is how I see them. There is no reason why some human being, from the get go, could not be brown. Egyptians were brown and that is all there is to it, so let us move on and stop engaging in tortured argumentation that does not persuade anyone except those predisposed to accept one's argument, those trying to claim Egypt as their civilization. To me Egypt was a human civilization, not white or any other so-called group's civilization.
Apparently, insecure white racists want to see Egyptians as white to buttress their fantasy that only white folks could have civilization. Insecure black folks are struggling to prove that black folks initiated the first human civilization. It is a mess, I am telling you; I am talking about this race war thing going on out there!
Dr. Diop, a Senegalese of Wolof extraction, was jet black. He probably felt inferior due to his color and then tried very hard to show that the Wolof were ancient Egyptians who migrated southwest, so as to attach himself to a great people that would wipe off his sense of nothingness (I wish that I could get hold of him and fill his head with existential psychology that would make him accept who he is without reference to skin color...as bodies people are born to die, rot and smell worse than feces; appraising the fate of their bodies they feel like they are nothing; many of them latch unto pride in race matters to make them feel special; they can obtain realistic sense of value through existentialist thinking; we have worth just because we are who we are, after all it took the universe 13.7 billion years to evolve us; that which took that long to produce must be significant; at any rate, there is something in us that is eternal, our spirit).
Dr. Diop cited a few Wolof words that seem the same as Egyptian words. He also cited words from a few other African tribes, such as the Yoruba (who also claim to be Egyptians) to prove his hypothesis that Egyptians migrated south and formed the various African people (except the pygmies; poor small people, nobody wants to be related to them!).
Look, I do not care if the Wolof, Yoruba, Toucouleur, Serer, Agni, Fang, Bamum, Moors, Laobe, Peul etc. were from Ancient Egypt or not.
Africans are always claiming to come from other people. My ethnic group, Igbos, these days claim to have descended from the Jews. I ask them: why not the Jews descend from you?
Why is it that Africans always have external frame of reference, not themselves? Is it because they feel utterly inferior and need to be attached to those they feel are superior (Egyptians, Arabs, and whites, Jews etc.) to feel superior? Why can't they just accept themselves as they are without the need to reference them to external others?
I accept myself as a human being and honestly do not have a need to call myself black or white or any other color. Folks have to deal with the fact that there are people who simply see themselves as human beings and have no desire to root their identity in color, black or white or yellow.
The book is really one humongous and ginormous effort to prove that the Negro is the first initiator of human civilization hence a superior race.
Chapter one talked about what (who) were the Egyptians; chapter two reviewed what Europeans said about the Negroes inability to start civilizations and how that makes Egypt a white civilization. Chapter three told us how modern scholars falsified history in other to make the fantasy that Egypt was founded by white men stick. Chapter four dealt with the various claims that Egypt began in Upper Egypt (closer to black Africa hence Africans influenced) or at Lower Egypt (closer to the Mediterranean hence white influenced). After reviewing the literature he came down on upper (south) Egypt origin of Egypt. This is in harmony with his thesis that Egypt is a black civilization since the south was closer to other Africans. Chapter five looked at the possibility that Egypt could have had its origin in Asians who migrated to the Nile Valley (such as Semitic folk). What do Semitic folk look like, White? Did Egyptians see themselves as white? If not then the answer is that they did not come from Asia?
This is not a good argument for after all dark people live in Asia, such as in India, Cambodia etc. I am certainly fairer in complexion than many Indians and Cambodians etc.
Chapter six reviewed what several anthropologists said about the origin of Egypt. Who cares about what these folks say? They are a bunch of academic cowards that say whatever extant society approves; they change their tune with changed times. Nineteenth century anthropologists used to measure folks heads and from that idiocy told folk that white folk were superior to black folks for they allegedly had larger brains. If black folks are shown to have larger brains those same anthropologists will change their tune and tell us that elephants have larger brains and are not as smart as human beings therefore black larger brain means that they are dumb.
Chapter seven reviews arguments in favor of Negro origin of Egypt. Interesting but the matter was not settled. Chapter eight reviewed arguments opposing the Negro origin of Egypt. Ah, the Negro could not have been able to start any big thing; see, in the present world he is shiftless and does not know how to manage anything; all of contemporary black Africa is collapsed, indicating that Negroes cannot run any state, thus they could not have started and managed a great empire, Egypt.
Chapter nine tells us how African folks started in the Egyptian region and then trekked southwards to start other African peoples (except the unfortunate and unloved pygmies).
Chapter ten reviews how Africans organize their society and their view of reality and tells us that they are similar to how ancient Egyptians did all these(this is a poorly made argument...the Africans from my part of Africa are certainly not matrilineal as he said that Egyptians and most Africans are).
Chapter eleven reviews the contributions of Nubia and Ethiopia to the development of Egypt. Agreed; there is such a thing as cultural diffusion; all civilizations were influenced by surrounding peoples and their cultures; white America was influenced by Indians and Africans.
Chapter twelve is his response to an ardent critic, Mr. Mauny. Good presentation of the pros and cons as to who started Egypt, black or red brown people. Dr. Diop said black, Mr. Mauny said Red Brown Mediterranean race. The debate did not settle anything; each party stuck to its guns; no winners or losers just a bunch of insecure kids saying "my story is better than your story, my people started something big and your people did not start anything that big, so you are an inferior person".
Chapter thirteen wrapped things up and told us who started human history, black folk. The idea is that black folks ought to be proud of their history and quit feeling inferior to white folks.
This is good feedback to black folk except that until black folks start contributing to physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, geology etc. and win the same number of Nobel Prizes as white folks do, white folks would continue suspecting that they are superior to black folks.
The solution to Dr. Diop's obvious inferiority complex and desire to restitute with superiority by demonstrating that Africans had superior civilizations in the past is for Africans like him to pay attention to the physical sciences and do as well as other races.
As long as I open my copy of Nature and other Science journals and do not see papers written by black folks something is wrong here. I am saying that the answer lies in black folks doing well in the sciences and not making argument about how they initiated old civilizations; they cannot rest on their past laurels; what matters is today; what are you doing today that blesses the entire world?
In conclusion: this book is a good read for those Africans who for some reasons feel inferior to white folks, who had internalized the nonsense that Africans did not contribute anything worthwhile to civilization. It probably could help them to know that the first civilizations of mankind, Sumer and Egypt, were not white; they were, as the people saw themselves, brown people.
It is not only white folks who can do good work. Only a few thousand years ago white folks were a bunch of barbarians living in caves. Somehow, they pulled themselves out of their caves and have sent a man to the moon. (Plato's story about cave dwellers apparently was allegorical as well as factual; his people, Dorians actually lived in caves and could only see the shadows cast on the wall of the cave by the sun; they could not see the beautiful ambience of the outside world; they could not understand reality as it is, not as their myopic lenses made it out to be. It is for philosophers with clarity of vision like me to tell mankind that we are one people and gets folks to quit talking rot about this or that race.)
Africans must start governing themselves well and build world class universities (the USA alone has over 3000 universities and colleges; how many do we have in a continent of a billion people; we ought to have, at least, ten thousand universities if we are going to compete with America and Europe).
You cannot keep talking about glorious past Africa and not do what you have to do in the present to be as good as the rest of the world, to compete with Asians and Westerners.
I recommend that folks read this book but it is not the panacea we are looking for. The panacea is to pay attention to pure and applied science and establish good governance in Africa.
The next review is:
Carter G. Goodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro. (Chicago: African American Images, 2000) 218 Pages.
June 28, 2012