Africa and Africans in Antiquity by Edwin Yamauchi (Michigan State University Press, 2001)

Reviewed by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/2/2001

Edwin Yamauchi has produced a very telling book with the publication of Africa and Africans in Antiquity. It is at once the best re-statement of the traditionalist perspective on ancient Africa and at the same time a symbol of what happens when Eurocentric scholars talk among themselves. I do not believe that it is possible to discover a better overview of the traditional view of Africa in Antiquity than this collection of essays by quite distinguished scholars of ancient Africa. All of the writers for this volume have credentials that suggest their work in the field is long and credible in academic circles. To the credit of Edwin Yamauchi he has collected the papers of this distinguished cadre of scholars in an attractive volume.

Often a reviewer is able to say that a book is uneven in the strength of its contributors; this is not really the situation in this case. Africa and Africans in Antiquity is consistent in both the quality of the writing and the perspective of the contributors. The book emerged from conference papers delivered March 1-2, 1991 at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, under the auspices of the E. E. McClellan Lecture Fund and the Departments of Art, Classics, Geography, Sociology and Anthropology. The nine scholars whose papers were delivered at the conference and the two additional scholars added to the collection represent a formidable who's who in the field of African antiquity. In this sense, the book is a remarkable achievement of consistency.

Of course its beauty as an intellectual project covers a multitude of problems easily revealed when one scrapes the surface of many of the arguments made in the book. I am the first to admit that books often arrive long after their time has come and gone. The fact that the book appears ten years after the papers were presented, and new information emerges, is not the most compelling issue; authors and editors often cannot dictate the publication date of their works and many good publications cannot find a publisher.

However, the most compelling issues for me are in two general categories. In the first place, the book suffers from a lack of theoretical breadth and in the second place it lacks any commitment to the serious scholarship done by African and African American scholars, with the notable exception of the work by the Eurocentric Frank Snowden. Indeed, even Snowden fails to fully understand or grasp the paradigm shift in the thinking done about African antiquity by continental and diasporan Africans.

Snowden is the best example of the African scholar who cannot see beyond the Eurocentric worldview and thus is not able to disentangle himself from the web of Europe's suffocating racism toward Africa. Although Snowden has done meticulous work, unearthing details about Africa's past, he has done so from the standpoint of Africa as an object and Europe as a subject. Thus, his essay "Attitudes towards Blacks in the Greek and Roman World" sets us in the wrong direction. What about attitudes of Greeks in the Nubian and Kemetic World? But alas, this is much too deep for Snowden whose aim is to suggest that blacks were important to the Greeks and Romans as if ancient Egyptians and Nubians appeared when they were recognized in Greek literature. Most contemporary African scholars could care less about what the attitudes of Greeks and Romans were in regards to Africans. What they want to know is about the agency of Africans themselves in antiquity. I don't believe Snowden is able to detach himself from his Eurocentric training long enough to notice that he is asking the wrong question. When Yamauchi entitled his book, Africa and Africans in Antiquity, it was an advance in thinking because he did not consciously tie it to the Greeks and Romans. Perhaps there is a place for such orientation but it is unfortunate that Snowden, the only African writer in the group, could not rise to the theoretical challenge presented by an overwhelming Eurocentric conference. Snowden is not the only author who has this difficulty.

Frank Yurco, a consultant to the Field Museum in Chicago and an instructor at the Oriental Institute's Adult Program, makes a robust contribution to the discussion of Nubia. He is well read in the literature of the day, able to organize it with some rationality, but he is unfortunately unable to escape whatever training he has received from Egyptologists. Consequently what could have been a masterful exploration of the cultural and political agency of an African civilization in its own right ends up in his essay being the discussion of a marginalized Nubia, subservient to Egypt in every way. Of course, the idea of Nubia being peripheral to Egypt grows from the mistaken belief that the Egyptians were not black-skinned people. The problem with this construction is not simply that it is untrue, but more it is systemic in Yurco's understanding of the Nile River valley.

Location is the momentary psychical and cultural space occupied by a critic, theorist, or practitioner of knowledge. In the case of Yurco one can tell his location early in his essay. When he writes several times of the "Egypto-Coptic" style, sense, architecture, language, or whatever, you know to expect a Greco-Germanic interpretation of African antiquity. On a surface level to say "Copt" is to say "Egyptian" and thus to speak of "Egypto-Coptic" style would be nonsense, like saying, "Egyptian-Egyptian" were it not for the more insidious inclination of such terminology. To say "Coptic" introduces the Greek presence in ancient Egypt. There was a significant Greek presence in Kemet only beginning in the 4th century B.C. Therefore, to speak of ancient Africa and "Egypto-Coptic" is a misnomer. But the Eurocentrist can almost never see Africa in its own right, definitionally they must take African ideals and ideas and re-cast them as Greek or European influences. There is no Kemetic-Coptic relationship when Weni and Harkhuf make their journeys into Nubia. At the time of Senurset, Ramses, Hatshepsut, Tarharka, and Piye, the "Copts" do not exist. The word is from "aguptos" from the Greek language. When the Greek speakers of the Divine Language wrote the Kemetic language they used Greek characters rather than the ancient glyphs and called the language "Coptic." This writing system is Greek, not African. The issue is that Yurco's construction would confuse the reader who does not understand his collapsing of time from 3500 B.C. to 300 B.C. Until the time of Alexander of Macedonia there was only a Kemetic, that is, Egyptian heritage; no Egypto-Coptic anything. In fact, the Coptic language did not exist at the time of the Macedonian conquest in 333 B.C.

The one author whose work seems to appear without ideological content is that of Edna Russman, curator of Egyptian Art at the Brooklyn Museum. I found her article on "Egypt and the Kushites: Dynasty XXV" without pomp, bombast, or hyperbole. The writing is careful, scholarly, direct, and does not overstretch the evidence with the Egyptological speculation found in most other pieces in the book. Such speculation I have dubbed the leaning tower of probability because the speculation always leans toward a Eurocentric interpretation and away from an African agency interpretation.

Perhaps of equal seriousness is the fact that no African or African American scholar is cited by any of the writers other than Orlando Patterson cited by Frank Snowden. There are two problems with this lack of citation. In the first place it smacks of racism in scholarship because what is assumed is that nothing written by African scholars on African antiquity is meaningful, even when what they are writing about is Africa and Africans in antiquity. How would it look for a collection of writers to discuss Europe and Europeans in Antiquity and not cite any European descended authors as authorities? Part of the problem the Afrocentrists have addressed is this assumption that Africans cannot teach Europeans anything, not even about their own continent. The second problem with this lack of citation is that it suggests the writers are not familiar with all of the evidence. This is even a more critical fault because it also means they are presenting their data and evidences without an eye toward what African Americans or continental Africans have written in the many African journals as well as the Journal of African Civilization, the Journal of Black Studies, or the Journal of Negro History, as an example. Ancient Africa is not, and cannot be, some special preserve of white authors, particularly since we know that white authors have historically distorted the face of Africa in the interest of service to Europe. While it may be considered radical, the Afrocentric impetus to correct this wrong emerges in a work like the recently edited book by Ama Mazama and myself, Egypt vs. Greece in the American Academy. Another work that has clearly demonstrated a much more enlightened approach to ancient Africa is Christos Evangeliou's When Greece Met Africa: The Genesis of Hellenic Philosophy. In his 1994 work Evangeliou, a scholar of Greek descent, made the brilliant observation "if it appears that the picture, which the Greeks had of themselves and the people around them, especially the Egyptians, does not cohere with the picture which is presented by Northern Europeans" (Evangeliou, 1994, p. 4). One could say that the ancient Africans probably had a different view of themselves than that promoted by books such as Africa and Africans in Antiquity.

It should be noted that several chapters are particularly outstanding in providing the reader with strong overviews of some lesser known discussions in African history. Reuben G.Bullard's "The Berbers of the Maghreb and Ancient Carthage" is one of the best portraits of the general field of Imazighen studies. Bullard covers most of the theories of origin and development of the people of the Maghreb. In addition, Kathryn A. Bard and Rodolfo Fattovich's "Some Remarks on the Processes of State Formation in Egypt and Ethiopia" is a good comparative analysis of state formation in two ancient African societies. Taken together, however, this book is handicapped by the editor's own lack of vision as stated in the introduction when he writes that the "Afrocentric scholars, in seeking to reclaim the achievements of the continent for African Americans have gone to the other extreme in claiming that they are the rightful heirs to the glories of Egypt, as though the Egyptians were black Africans. This is rather ironic in that the Egyptians were among the most ethnocentric of all peoples and generally regarded black Africans of Nubia, as well as all other non-Egyptians, with contempt" (Yamauchi, 2001, p. 1). In the end this is not just Yamauchi's opening line, it is his closing point as well; perhaps this is the point of the book. Unfortunately, Yamauchi repeats the propagandistic mantra of reactionary scholars against Afrocentricty by stating a falsehood as if it is truth. Vehemence is never a replacement for reason in discourse. Afrocentrists argue that Egypt is an African civilization. African people are largely black but some are brown; the ancient Egyptians, from all ancient sources, were "black skinned with wooly hair" (Herodotus, Histories, Bk. II). This is the issue that is apparently at the core of this book. It creates, inter alia, many distortions and mistakes. For example, Yamauchi arguing that the Egyptians were not black claims that the Egyptians regarded so-called "black Africans of Nubia" with contempt. This is a spurious argument. The Germans regarded the Russians with contempt during World War II and they remained Europeans with similar appearances. The Hutu regarded the Tutsi with contempt and they were all Africans. During the last great Asian war, the Japanese regarded the Chinese and Koreans with contempt and they were all Asians. One cannot argue that because the Egyptian nation hated the Nubian nation that it was an indication that the Egyptians were not black. Such circuitous logic is what complicates the reading of what would have been an otherwise valuable contribution to the discourse on ancient Africa, but as it stands the work is fraught with political and cultural bias.

Probably the central issue to the enterprise represented by the works in Africa and Africans in Antiquity is the impact of Africa on Europe, that is, Egypt on Greece. An underlying concern in the writing of this volume is that the Afrocentrists have positioned African culture at the fountainhead, not only to Africa but to many of the ideas found in Greece. This is unacceptable to the votarists of a pure white theology of rationalism. How could this be when Africans were enslaved by Europeans? But clearly the classical Greeks believed that a lot of their civilization was derived from African sources. Those who have argued the notion of a Greek autochthonous culture have muddied the waters in order to obscure the ancient truth. In the Odyssey it is reported that Helen learned medical arts in Egypt. There are numerous such examples in the mythological and historical texts, in the pre-philosophical and philosophical literatures of Greece. The fact is a book like Africa and Africans in Antiquity could have been a singular contribution to the advancement of truth and science had so many of the authors not written from a Eurocentric perspective with an eye toward intellectual hegemony. Nevertheless, I applaud any effort that seeks to engage the very complex issue of African, hence, human antiquity.

African symbol