The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, September 24, 2007

Nicki and King Tut

Took Nicki to UC Irvine yesterday, with mixed feelings.
Her mom Toni was
at the Monterey Jazz Festival (at our insistence), and
Tananarive was in
St. Louis speaking/performing at the Scott Joplin house.
She actually
played Ragtime at the Scott Joplin house! How’s THAT
for heuvos? So
it was me and Nicki, her boyfriend Mike, and Jason. I
was in an off
mood—some combination of stress and sadness, I guess.
I’m sure she’ll
be fine, but I’m gonna miss my little girl.
Meditations a little muddy, but that’s not surprising.
I’m working on
a whole different level of crap right now. In every way:
career, family,
fitness—I’m starting to bore into new goals. The whole
BKF thing is
interesting. Man, that school caused me very real
emotional pain back
in the day. I just couldn’t handle it. Right now,
I feel just fine.
But I’m sure that the old emotions are lurking around,
even if they’re
residual memories. Have to be careful, not get too
Here’s an essay that appeared in the Philadelphia
Inquirer yesterday.
There has been a controversy there about the racial
identity of…(no,
not Barack Obama) but King Tut. (By the way--yesterday
I heard Guliani
opine that Obama will be Hillary's running mate. Not
necessarily a
good idea--a little too much strangeness for
rigid voters...)
I was asked to weigh in…

The King Tut exhibit at the Franklin Institute will
close its
doors Sept. 30. Throughout its four-city American
tour, the show has
attracted protesters who claimed it was downplaying
the fact that Egypt
was in Africa, downplaying Tut's African racial
roots. Protests in
Philadelphia spurred the museum to host a conference
in July on the
subject. The King Tut Action Committee of Philadelphia
declared that the
Franklin Institute had "knowingly misrepresented the
young African king
and African history, culture, and heritage to over a
million visitors."

The only opinion I will offer concerning Tut's
ethnicity is
that, to judge from their official art, the Egyptians
seemed to consider
themselves a golden mixture, separate from either
Europeans or
sub-Saharan Africans. (That hasn't stopped Europeans
from portraying the
Egyptians _ and, indeed, Moses, Christ, and many
other non-Europeans _
as positively Western-looking. See below.)

If you disagree that Tut was black, fine. But
don't make the
mistake of thinking that black intellectuals who
claim he as are doing
anything other than what other groups have done since
the beginning of
time. The hunger of blacks to see themselves in history
is a core human
need, shared by all.

There is a cartoon by political satirist Jules
Feiffer in which
two intellectuals, one white, one black, sit across
the table from each
other. The black man says: "You have your history.
White history.
Written by white men, to promote white power. We want
our history. Black
history. Written by black men, to promote black power.
Our demand is
separate but equal lies."

I've never forgotten that cartoon. It contains a
basic truth:
Everyone wants to think the world revolves around
them. Many indigenous
peoples have a name for themselves that means, simply,
"the people," and
the mythology of many groups in the world suggests
that God created them
first, loves them best, and created everyone else
later ... and less.

This basic perceptual lens, powered by the
emotional need to
feel primary in the universal order, colors a gigantic
proportion of our
political, moral, and even artistic debate.
Perhaps the only racial/ethnic group in the world
denied such a
foundation of mythic history are black Americans.
Torn from their
linguistic and cultural roots, sociologically
brainwashed through 300
years of slavery and another century of Jim Crow
and de facto
segregation, we are like PCs programmed to believe
Macs are the ultimate

In 12 years of public school, I don't believe
I got the
equivalent of a single day's education on the
contributions to America
or the world from people of African descent. Every
day, almost every
hour, it was all about the greatness and primacy
of white culture,
genetics, philosophy and science. I doubt most
white people can begin to
conceive of how damaging this is _ and how hungry
the human mind and
heart are to believe "we" (whoever "we" are) are
capable of, and have
produced, greatness.

Europeans, faced with the fact that all sorts
of races (not just
their own) have produced greatness, had a nifty
solution _ simply
portray them all as "us." Europeans have produced
countless books and
films depicting Egyptians with European characteristics.
And for the
most part, archaeologists who might have known
different didn't seem to
make much of a fuss.

The image of the historical Jesus Christ is lost
in time, but
rather than depict him as he probably was _ a
dark-skinned, curly-haired
Galilean Semite _ American and European paintings
and film portrayals
are rife with blue-eyed blond-haired Messiahs.
Hey, it happens everywhere. Siddhartha Gautama,
the Buddha, is
depicted as Indian in India, and Chinese in China.

EVERYONE wants to
co-opt the powerful image, to say, in essence:
"We were here. We are
here. We make a difference."
Of course, asking, "Was Tut black?" raises
the uneasy issue of
what "black" is, of how much racial heritage
constitutes "blackness."
The Egyptians built their four millenniums of
culture in northern Africa
and down the Nile, so the idea that they were
a blend of genetics from
(what we now call) Europe, the Near East, and
sub-Saharan Africa is
hardly absurd.

And in America, thanks to the defining prejudice
of 18th-century
whites, "one drop" makes you black. Anyone out there
think Tut didn't
have "one drop"? I thought not. Is this an absurd
definition from a
genetic point of view? Probably. From an
anthropological point of view?
Probably. From a sociological point of view?
Certainly. Absurd or not,
it once was the law of this land, and it affected
countless lives, tore
families apart, determined lifestyles and careers
and education
potentials. It said who could marry whom, and who
could live where.

This is the reality blacks lived with for 400
years. To tell
them now that claiming Tut as "black" on the
basis of a partial African
heritage may well be on technically "incorrect"
is all well and good--but don't you
dare think that white, or Latino, or Asian, or any
other culture in the
world acts or reacts primarily according to what
is logical, scientific,
or "correct." Human beings aren't wired up that

Take whatever intellectual position you wish
in the discussion
of Tut and his racial composition ... but then
watch the debate with
compassion. We're all in this together. We all
have been the victims,
and beneficiaries, of separate and unequal lies.

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