Ancient Egyptian Studies Movement

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The call to research, recover, and bring forth the legacy of ancient Egypt as a paradigm of achievement and possibility has a long history among African Americans. An early interest in Egypt as a classical African civilization is evident in the 19th-century works of African American activists and writers such as David Walker, Hosea Easton, Martin Delaney, and Henry Highland Garnet. References to Egypt as a model of African achievement appear continuously and in varied sources in the early and mid-20th century. However, the flowering of interests and activities in classical African Studies that resulted in an ancient Egyptian studies movement in the mid-1980s had its roots in the black power movement of the 1960s and the Afrocentric initiative that began in the 1980s. The ancient Egyptian studies movement, in its academic and community dimensions, borrows from and builds on the ongoing cultural nationalist project of the recovery and reconstruction of African culture. This cultural movement is often called by the Akan word sankofa, meaning “to return and fetch it,” and it is a project of continuous research of the past in search of paradigms of thought and practice useful in understanding and improving the present and enhancing the future. It thus became a central aspect of the Africana Studies project, which stresses the interrelatedness of knowledge and practice, intellectual and political emancipation, and the ongoing need for grounding in African culture in all projects of depth and value.
Why Egypt?
The stress on the study of ancient Egypt in particular, and classical African Studies in general, then, grew out of several processes within the Black Studies or Africana Studies movement. Since the 1960s this movement has emphasized a return to the source, that is, to African culture, to extract and engage paradigms of excellence and possibilities and use them to enhance African understanding and assertion in the world. This focus on the study of ancient Egypt and related activities evolved as a movement as a result of several factors. First, it evolved from the intensification of the study of works focused on classical African Studies in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Part of being both educated and informed was to be conversant with works such as George James's Stolen Legacy (1976), John Jackson's Introduction to African Civilizations (1980), Yosef ben-Jochannon's Africa: Mother of “Western Civilization” (1971), Chancellor Williams's The Destruction of African Civilization (1974), and Cheikh Anta Diop's The African Origins of Civilization: Myth or Reality (1974). The study of such works was conducted in both the academy and the community and reflected an increased interest in ancient Egypt and in classical African civilization generally.

The Afrocentric Initiative

Also important to the development of the ancient Egyptian studies movement was the emergence of the Afrocentric initiative put forth by Molefi Kete Asante. Asante outlines his intellectual thrust first in Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change (1980), then in The Afrocentric Idea (1987), and finally in Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge (1990). In these and subsequent works, Asante argues that Africans must be understood and approached as the subjects of their own history, that African ideals must be placed at the center of any analysis that involves Africa, and that these ideals must be gleaned from African culture—starting with classical African culture, especially but not limited to ancient Egypt, or Kemet. This philosophical initiative, offered as a methodology and theoretical framework for critical research, evaluation, and exchange, created a national and international dialogue in the academy, community, and society. Moreover, Asante evolved as a major Diopian scholar and adherent, and thus contributed not only to the discourse on ancient Egypt but also to the embrace and critical understanding of Diop's work and its emphasis on Kemet as Africa's major paradigmatic civilization.
Another major factor in the flourishing of ancient Egyptian studies was the increasing reception and study of the works of the premier African ancient Egyptian studies scholar Cheikh Anta Diop. At first, English-speaking Africans did not have ready access to Diop's works, which were originally written in French. But as Diop's works were translated and made available, they became a central focus of discourse on ancient Egypt and greatly influenced African scholars and lay persons in the United States and the diaspora in general as well as on the African continent. Diop pioneered the African scholarly focus on Egypt as a classical African civilization that not only demonstrated African genius in the world but also provided a source of paradigms for African renewal and continued contribution to world civilization.
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Mohammed Gabre (on left), an Egyptian Egyptologist, with an unidentified African American
Diop's major works translated into English include The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality (1974), Black Africa: The Economic and Cultural Basis for a Federated State (1980), Precolonial Black Africa (1987), and his last work, Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology (1991). His major works that are currently available only in French are Nations Nègres et Culture (1954) and Anteriorité des Civilisations Nègres (1967). These works have made their way into the discourse, however, through the conversations and literature of diasporic scholars who read French. Diop's student and colleague, Theophile Obenga, contributed to this discourse when he was invited to the United States in 1992 by Molefi Asante, who was then chair of the Department of African American Studies at Temple University. Obenga's major works are at present available only in French and include L'Afrique dans l'Antiquité: Egypte Ancienne—Afrique Noire (1980) and La Philosophie Africaine de la Période Pharonique, 2780–330 Avant Notre Ère (1978). His Ancient Egypt and Black Africa (1992), which he wrote in English, has also contributed to the discourse on ancient Egypt.
Diop inspired the ancient Egyptian studies movement to flourish and spread in both the academy and the community. In his major works, the African Origin of Civilization and Civilization or Barbarism, he outlined the basic arguments for the African character of ancient Egypt and its importance to African and world history and civilization. His detailed proofs include cultural, linguistic, anthropological, artistic, and contemporary eyewitness evidence. He concluded that it is a conscious and concerted falsification of history rooted in the rationale and practice of European imperialism that has denied and obscured the African character of ancient Egyptian civilization. In Civilization or Barbarism, Diop argued for the value of ancient Egyptian studies in achieving the following three purposes: (1) reconciling African civilization with history (i.e., ending the great falsification of African and human history), (2) enabling Africans to build a body of modern human sciences, and (3) renewing African culture.
Diop understood that far from being a diversion to the past, a look back toward ancient Egypt is the best way to conceive and build the African cultural future. Diop imagined a recovered Egypt playing the same role in a reconceived and renewed African culture that the Greco-Latin ancient past plays in Western culture. It is this conception of the role of ancient Egypt in African history and culture and in civilization that has informed and guided the flowering of interest in and activity around the project of Egypt's recovery, as well as the founding of professional associations and processes to contribute to this project.

Intellectual Initiatives

Kawaida Institute of Pan-African Studies and Kemetic Institute

The increasing interest in and activities involving ancient Egypt began in the early 1980s, when a variety of intellectual initiatives around ancient Egyptian studies began to take concrete forms and coalesce. Central to these efforts was the work of the Kawaida Institute of Pan-African Studies (KIPAS) in Los Angeles, which is part of the organization Us, and the Kemetic Institute in Chicago. The Kemetic Institute was headed by Jacob Carruthers, who was a professor of inner city studies and political science at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and had dedicated itself to the recovery of ancient Egypt's legacy mainly by teaching the Kemetic language, history, and philosophy in the Chicago community. The institute also has developed a ritual service and a priesthood to conduct it. The Kawaida Institute of Pan-African Studies is led by Maulana Karenga, who is a professor of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, and it serves as the educational and research arm of the organization Us. Us played a vanguard role in the black freedom movement and continues to have national and international influence through its philosophy of Kawaida, its continued organizing activities, the pan-African holiday Kwanzaa that Karenga created, and Karenga's writings, lectures, and teaching.
In the early 1980s, KIPAS began teaching courses on ancient Egyptian history and ethical thought, as well as on the works of Diop and later ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. In addition, Karenga collected, translated, and wrote commentaries on Kemetic sacred texts and held discussions within KIPAS and the organization Us on these texts. The texts are called the Husia, and they have become a standard reference on ancient Egyptian spirituality and ethics. Moreover, it was then that it was first proposed that Maat be used as the name of the ancient Egyptian spiritual and ethical tradition, that Seven Cardinal Virtues (truth, justice, propriety, harmony, balance, reciprocity, and order) be posed as central to the practice of Maat, and that a Sebanate, a body of moral teachers, Seba Maat or simply Seba, students of Maat, be trained to teach ancient Egyptian ethics and spirituality grounded in the Husia.
In this period of development, Us decided to call a conference to identify and engage other scholars and laypersons in the Diopian project of the critical recovery and concrete and creative use of ancient Egyptian culture. Having been assigned the task, KIPAS planned and organized the First Annual Ancient Egyptian Studies Conference, which was held in February of 1984 at Southwest College in Los Angeles. Within the framework of the general Diopian project of recovery, the purposes of the conference as outlined by KIPAS and Us were (1) to identify and build exchanges with other scholars and laypersons interested in the critical study of ancient Egypt; (2) to provide space for presentation of research to fellow scholars, students, and the larger community; (3) to introduce the Husia and ideas related to spiritual and ethical recovery and reconstruction; (4) to offer publication possibilities for research on ancient Egypt through the University of Sankore Press, which joined KIPAS in the project; and (5) to create a permanent organization of scholars and laypersons committed to the Diopian project of recovery and reconstruction.

Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations

Having planned and organized this project, KIPAS and Us reached out to the Kemetic Institute to join the conference. Out of this conference, the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations (ASCAC) was founded. KIPAS gave the ASCAC its organizational origins, its name, and its logo and the University of Sankore Press published its first literature— Maulana Karenga's Selections From the Husia (1984); Jacob Carruthers's Essays in Ancient Egyptian Studies (1984); Karenga and Carruthers's edited volume, Kemet and the African Worldview (1980); and Karenga's edited volume, Reconstructing Kemetic Culture (1990). In its first 3 years, the ASCAC was instrumental in creating an international dialogue and a flurry of activity involving ancient Egyptian studies. It set up a national and international chapter structure; registered 1,000 members by 1987, whom it took to Egypt for its annual conference; began to penetrate the academy and urge Black Studies departments and programs to include courses on ancient Egyptian studies as essential to their curriculum; and established study groups in the community to expand the discourse.
However, due to differences concerning research focus and policy direction, KIPAS and its members left the ASCAC in 1989. KIPAS had established its own program of ancient Egyptian recovery and reconstruction before its initiative to found the ASCAC, which KIPAS had expanded during its work with the ASCAC, so it continued this work in the areas of research, education, writing and publication, and institution building. Eventually, the ASCAC began to shift from an exclusive focus on ancient Egypt to inclusion of West Africa, especially Ghana.

Other Groups

Another factor shaping the development of ancient Egyptian studies at the time was the activities of the Nile Valley civilization group led by Ivan van Sertima. The group held a major conference on Nile Valley civilization in September of 1984, 7 months after the founding of the ASCAC, calling together scholars and ancient Egyptian enthusiasts. But unlike the ASCAC, the group formed no professional organization. However, Ivan van Sertima, who founded the Journal of African Civilization, built the journal into a major source for publication of critical research on Nile Valley and other classical African civilizations and African presence in civilizations around the world.
Central also to the continuous work on ancient Egyptian studies is the annual International Cheikh Anta Diop Conference organized by Molefi Kete Asante and Ana Yenenga. The conference brings together African scholars and other Africanists from throughout the world who are committed to the preservation and continuance of Diop's work, as well as to the overall Afrocentric study of classical African civilization, especially Kemet.

The Future

As a result of the work of the Kawaida Institute of PanAfrican Studies, the Kemetic Institute, the ASCAC, the International Cheikh Anta Diop Conference, and allied scholars and activities, the ancient Egyptian studies movement remains vibrant and productive. Classes in ancient Egyptian studies in departments and programs of Black Studies and Africana Studies have increased and include history, culture, art, language, religion, and ethical philosophy. In addition, major conferences and smaller symposia, seminars, and other forums with this intellectual focus are held regularly. In addition, universities and museums have increased discourse and exhibitions to address a heightened interest in ancient Egypt caused by the Afrocentric initiative in ancient Egyptian studies. And finally, African scholars have produced in English and French numerous works to advance research and increase and sustain interest in the project.

References

Keywords

  • ancient Egypt
  • Ancient Egyptian studies movement
  • Egypt
  • African studies
  • civilization
  • maat
  • Asante

Author(s)

Further Reading

  • Asante, Asante, and Mazama, Ama (Eds.). (2002). Egypt v. Greece and the American Academy. Chicago: African American Images. This is a collection of works by some of the key Afrocentric scholars.
  • Carruthers, Jacob. (1995). Mdw Ntr: Divine Speech—A Historiographical Reflection of African Deep Thought from the Times of the Pharaohs to the Present. Chicago: Center for Inner City Studies. This is an important contribution on African philosophy from ancient times.
  • Karenga, Maulana. (Ed.). (1990). Reconstructing Kemetic Culture. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
  • Karenga, Maulana. (2004). Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics. New York: Routledge. This work discusses the ethical and moral dimensions of the concept of Maat as a matter of African classical philosophy.
  • Karenga, Karenga, and Carruthers, Jacob. (Eds.). (1986). Kemet and the African Worldview. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.