Adele James and the cast of Queen Cleopatra (Photo credit: Netflix)
Is Blackwashing a thing? Queen Cleopatra star Adele James doesn’t think so.
The actress, who portrays Cleopatra in the Netflix docuseries (part of the African Queens anthology executive produced by Jada Pinkett Smith), spoke with The Wayne Ayers Podcast this week about the controversy surrounding her portrayal.
“Blackwashing isn’t a thing, is it?” said James on the podcast, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “I find it sad that people are either so self-loathing or so threatened by Blackness that they feel the need to do that, to separate Egypt from the rest of the continent.”
In Queen Cleopatra, Cleopatra is portrayed as looking more “Black African” than Egyptian. Some Egyptian viewers have taken issue with the series because of this, with Newsweek reporting that Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary suing Netflix and series director Tina Ghavari over the alleged blackwashing.
It is true that people can feel threatened by the idea of powerful Black historical figures. In America and in Britain (where James is from), Black figures have been hidden from the annals of history in favor of promoting a white supremacist view. As African Queens executive producer Jada Pinkett-Smith said to TUDUM, “We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter, and just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them,” Pinkett Smith tells Tudum. The sad part is that we don’t have ready access to these historical women who were so powerful and were the backbones of African nations.”
But it’s the very decision to use the word “Black” with Cleopatra that has some in Egypt figuratively up in arms. While el-Semary’s lawsuit probably won’t hold up in a court of law, the attention it’s brought to the story once again puts questions about Cleopatra’s ethnicity into focus.
Ancient Egyptian life has been a fantasy for many Black Americans growing up for generations. From just my tacit knowledge, African Americans have grown up with the idea that because Egypt is located in Africa, Egyptians are connected to sub-Saharan Africa like us, therefore we can claim them as our powerful legacy. However, Africa has many different ethnicities and nationalities within its borders. It’s a more diverse continent than we give it credit for. Therefore it’s important to recognize that Egypt has its own history, culture, and yes, it’s own definition of its ethnicity.
Dr. Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities for Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, wrote in a statement to NBC News that Netflix’s portrayal of Cleopatra is a “falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant history fallacy.” He also said that his feelings about the show is “far from any ethic racism, stressing full respect for African civilizations and for our brothers in the African continent that brings us all together.”
The ministry also stated that the series “requires those in charge of its production to investigate accuracy and rely on historical and scientific facts.”
In fairness to the series, James was cast because of her mixed heritage, according to TUDUM. The specificity in James’ ethnicity “is a nod to the centuries-long conversation about the ruler’s race,” according to the article, which references how Egypt was “multicultural and multiracial.”
“Cleopatra’s races was unlikely to be documented, and the identities of her mother and paternal grandparents weren’t known,” the article continued. “Some speculate she was a native Egyptian woman, while others say she was Greek.”
The producers of the series also told TUDUM about the research done on the series to reflect Cleopatra’s life.
“The aim of African Queens has always been to uncover the hidden histories of powerful women from the past and what made them leaders that we still talk about today,” the said. “Working with leading historians and experts including Shelley Haley (Professor of Classics and African Studies, Hamilton College) and Dr. Sally-Ann Ashton (Cleopatra scholar), we explore Cleopatra’s story as a queen, strategist, ruler of formidable intellect as well as a woman whose heritage is the subject of great debate. Her ethnicity is not the focus of Queen Cleopatra, but we did intentionally decide to depict her of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra’s possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of ancient Egypt.”
Cleopatra’s ancestry, much like many ancient Egyptian figures, has been the center of extreme, ongoing debate over the decades. While white people (including some within the Egyptology world throughout history) have co-opted ancient Egypt as another signifier of white exceptionalism, the pro-Black movements of the 1960s and 1970s co-opted the region and its history as a sign for Black people to have pride in themselves and their collective Black history. However, both thought processes have flattened Egypt’s true multicultural and multiracial identity.
What is closer to the truth regarding Cleopatra’s ancestry is that she is at least biracial, if not multiracial. NBC News states that Cleopatra had Macedonian Greek ancestry. Other outlets have also claimed that while Cleopatra kept in line with many Egyptian practices that came in the hundreds of years before her, she was more ethnically Greek than she was Egyptian.
However, Macedonian Greek ancestry, as well as any other blood or cultural ties Cleopatra might have to Egypt proper, means that she was still a woman with a lot of different ethnic influences making up her DNA.
Encyclopedia Britannica states that prehistoric Macedonia has ties to Anatolia (also called Asia Minor and constitutes the region now known as Turkey) and Greece, but the origin of prehistoric Macedonians is still up for debate.
“The origin and identity of this people are much debated and are at the centre of a heated modern dispute between those who argue that this people should be considered ethnically Greek and those who argue that they were not Greek or that their orgin and identity cannot be determined,” according to the resource, adding that the debate stems from whether Macedonians spoke a form of Greek before the 5th century BCE. “[I]t is known, however, that by the 5th century BCE the Macedonian elite has adpoted a form of ancient Greek and had also forged a unified kingdom.”
Along with that, Middle East Eye reports that Egypt’s multicultural heritage is a result of the region’s various rulers.
“Egypt was at various points in its history part of the Greek and Roman empires and was later ruled by the Islamic caliphates,” it wrote. “The country is an ethnically and religiously diverse nation of more than 100 million people. Egyptians even claim ancestry from Circassians and Turks going back to the Ottoman Empire. There are also Egyptians of Black Nubian descent.” (Nubia is the archaic word for the area that is now northern Sudan and southern Egypt; in its ancient history, Nubia’s Kingdom of Kush allied with, traded with, and at times conquered ancient Egypt during its heyday.)
Middle East Eye adds that “[s]ome schools of thought claim that Coptic Christians, who number between 10 and 15 percent of Egypt’s population, are the most direct descendants of ancient Egyptians.”
As a point of note, Wikipedia lists Copts as “a Christian ethnoreligious group indigenous to North Africa who have primarily inhabited the area of modern Egypt and Sudan since antiquity.” They also reside in Libya and as a group, Copts speak Coptic, “a direct descendant of the Demotic Egyptian that was spoken in late antiquity.”
In 2017, I wrote a post regarding ancient Egyptians’ ancestry after a study revealed that ancient Egyptians are closer genetically to people from Anatolia than sub-Saharan Africa.
As I wrote, CNN reported in 2017 that the University of Tuebingen in Germany and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena studied the DNA of 151 mummies from Abusir el-Meleq in Middle Egypt. With the samples spanning 1,300 years between the New Kingdom to the Roman Period, scientists found that ancient Egyptians “Neolithic Anatolian and European populations.” Ironically, modern Egyptians have more in contact genetically with sub-Saharan Africans, which could be seen as putting a wrinkle in modern Egyptians’ arguments.
Overall, I think the most logical conclusion we can come to is that Cleopatra was a multiracial woman and the production had its heart in the right place when casting James, a mixed-race woman herself, as the ancient queen. But where Egyptian viewers might be getting upset, aside from any anti-Black bias some might have, is the fact that James and others in production keep referencing Cleopatra as part of “Black” history, aka “African American history.” Technically, as part of the African continent, Cleopatra is a part of African American history since Egypt is in Africa and African Americans are descendants of Africans. Cleopatra represents a continent those of us in the diaspora want to be a part of. But I think we can also acknowledge the duality of a person being part of a pan-African history while recognizing that person’s multiracial and multicultural ethnicity.
Multiple things can be true at the same time: Cleopatra is an African queen and should be respected as such, and Cleopatra was ethnically multiracial while culturally Egyptian. Cleopatra wasn’t sub-Saharan African, like many of us African descendants in America are, but her multicultural heritage, as well as the fact that part of her heritage is unknown to us, can also invite us in to find kinship with her. In other words, no one can fully claim her, but because of this, we all can see ourselves in her.
For African Americans trying to learn about their place in society, Cleopatra and ancient Egypt as a whole has served as a way to establish pride for being descended from the African continent. While it would behoove us to learn more about other African historical figures, such as the Kandakes (queens) of Sudan, Queen Nzinga of modern-day Angola (who was featured in the first season of African Queens), Mansa Musa and others, ancient Egypt serves as a common ground for starting to learn more about Africa. It’s a gateway many African Americans start at to regain information about our collective forgotten past. And it’s a place in which we can feel kinship with, not only because it’s African, but because it’s one of the most recognizable historical mascots of sorts for the continent.
We all grow up learning about ancient Egypt in school, and to know it’s African (i.e. of the African continent) gives Black kids a sense of pride and happiness. As a group of people robbed of our ties to our actual countries of origin, we can easily graft a (probably parasocial) tie to ancient Egypt and its splendor. We might not know how to reform a relationship to the countries in our personal Ancestry or 23 And Me reports simply because learning about Africa in general didn’t happen in school. Much of America still sees Africa as a war-torn, poor continent, which is far from the reality. However, the one part of Africa all Americans learned about was ancient Egypt because of how treasured it was by the Greeks, Romans, and eventually, British colonialists.
Even though it wasn’t taught as “African History,” Black kids grew up knowing could rely on the touchstone of ancient Egypt, probably the most-studied part of Africa in American classrooms, as a benchmark for our unique identity as a people without a home. Maybe the fact that ancient Egypt itself seems so removed from time and space that African Americans are attracted to it–we ourselves have no home and seemingly belong to no one. Why wouldn’t we be attracted to a place that can exist in our fantasies as somewhere we can belong and thrive?
Overall, I feel like everyone has a point when it comes to Cleopatra. We will probably never know the true identity of her heritage because several family members’ identities weren’t documented. But we can reasonably surmise that she is multiracial. African Americans have a unique relationship with Egypt and its history informs our present by how it gives us pride. And yet, that notion of Afrocentrism can be seen as negating ancient Egypt’s own multicultural heritage. There could be a touch of anti-Blackness running through some of the sentiments expressed by some Egyptians, but there is also a matter of portraying the truth. I think at this point in Cleopatra’s post-life existence, it might be more fitting to think of her as a symbol that can connect modern Egypt and the pan-African diaspora to the African continent as a whole. If we all show our love for her, then she can bring us all together, hopefully with harmony and peace.
Read more about African history and how it relates to the African-American experience in my book, The Book of Awesome Black Americans, available now!