This talk looks at the understanding of ancient Egyptian culture in the works of three prominent black writers of the early 20th century. W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey both incorporated a vision of ancient Egyptian culture into their writings. Attacking a common theory of their day, they used ancient Egyptian culture to argue for the humanity of black people, and they marshalled the evidence of Egypt’s glorious past to inspire black people in the Americas with feelings of hope and self-worth. They also engaged with the contemporary work of prominent archaeologists, a fact that has been lost in most histories of Egyptology.
Pauline Hopkins’ novel Of One Blood places the reality of the racial discrimination and the racial “passing” of her day against the backdrop of ancient Egypt. The drama that plays out in the lives of her contemporary American characters is set against the backdrop of an ancient city which the characters encounter still thriving on the site of Meroë in what is today the Sudan. Hopkins uses her fictional world to address contemporary social realities. Like Du Bois, she advocates for the education of black Americans, and like Garvey, she constructs an African safe haven for her novel’s protagonist.
Understanding these three writers’ treatments of ancient Egypt gives us a richer perspective on the history of the discipline of Egyptology.
Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic (for lay reader):
Challis, Debbie. The Archaeology of Race: The eugenic ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Gillman, Susan. Blood Talk: American race melodrama and the culture of the occult. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Keita, Maghan. Race and the Writing of History: Riddling the sphinx. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Knight, Alisha. Pauline Hopkins and the American Dream: An African American writer’s (re)visionary gospel of success. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012.
Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. Afrotopia: The roots of African American popular history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
O’Connor, David and Andrew Reid (eds). Ancient Egypt in Africa. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2003.
Trafton, Scott. Egypt Land: Race and nineteenth-century American egyptomania. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.