An anthropologist looks at a U.S. subculture inspired by ancient Egypt and its effort to foster a particular Black identity.
By Miranda Lovett, 21 Jul 2020
A meme circulating on social media shows “the history of a Black male” through five men: It starts with an Egyptian pharaoh, moves on to a slave, an American worker, someone with a lynching rope around his neck, and finally, an orange-suited prison inmate. The message is that Black men have fallen from grace: now imprisoned, when they once ruled.
The image falls neatly into the category of Hotep subculture: a relatively new movement in the U.S. that uses Egyptian history as a parcel to wrap up messages of Black pride. People characterized as Hoteps tend to wear traditional African styles, create content about the history of Black people from before the transatlantic slave trade, and spread ideology about the place of Black men and women within Black communities.
In the current U.S. political climate, and globally, Black pride and social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter are critical to the resolve held by those who fight against systemic racism. Not all of the ideals expressed within the Hotep movement, however, are celebratory or progressive. Hotep memes often denounce homosexuality and interracial marriage, and spread conspiracy theories or inaccurate ideas about history. They also place women as secondary to men; Hotep memes often preach that Black men should strive to fight the oppression that has disenfranchised them, but they tend to be silent about the oppression of Black women.
As a Black woman and an anthropologist interested in how cultural heritage is created, I find this subculture a fascinating case study in ideologies of Afrocentrism—where those ideas originated and how they have been adapted. It is also a lesson in what kinds of cultural pride may do more harm than good.
The term “Hotep” comes from the ancient Egyptian word for “to be at peace” and is sometimes used in contemporary Black culture as a greeting. Despite the positive connotations of the word, the term has come to be used not so lovingly; the label was put upon this microculture by outsiders to “other” those seen to have problematic beliefs and opinions. The term belongs in the same category as other microculture labels, like “hipster” for someone who is pretentiously trendy or “WASP” for someone white, privileged, Protestant, and elitist.
Pinpointing when and where this definition of “Hotep” arose is difficult. Its popularity is growing on Twitter and Instagram, as Hotep content—iconic photos, cartoons, memes—spreads these ideas.
Within Hotep memes, Black women are often presented as “Nubian queens” or “mothers of civilization” through images celebrating their beauty and power. Claims are made that they have superhuman taste and superior breast milk. They are expected to serve primarily as support to their Black husbands.
Hotep art also often conflates African imagery (picking and choosing from Africa’s 54 modern countries and countless cultures) with stereotypes of African culture, such as animal skins, “tribal” garb, and ancient Egyptian royalty. Other Hotep memes juxtapose incongruous elements of African culture and contemporary life. One, for example, shows a Black man dressed in an African kufi hat, with an eye patch featuring an Egyptian design. His other eye glows with light, and he points to his temple, as if he is enlightened to some sort of truth. It reads: “Y’all working for Quicken Loans, but not QUICK to LOAN a brother a hand in the fight against oppression.”
The line between genuine Hotep posts and posts intended to poke fun at the Hotep subculture has become blurred. For example, one shows a Black man dressed as an Egyptian pharaoh with the caption: “After you’ve defeated all the Hoteps, this is the final boss. Becarful (sic), he will connect 9/11 to the Atlantic slave trade in one sentence.” This meme is clearly a satire of the conspiracy theories sometimes attributed to Hoteps, such as that the lab mice used in medical research are “albino” and therefore not suited to developing medicine for people of color.
An obsession with Egypt is not new; extensive cultural fascination with Egypt goes back to the late 1700s, when Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign to North Africa inspired interest in Egyptian art and archaeological remains. Museum exhibitions starring King Tutankhamun in the 1970s kicked off a new spate of “Egyptomania” in the Western world: The 1972 show of Treasures of Tutankhamun at the British Museum was the first ever blockbuster exhibition, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors. Ancient Egyptian art has become both familiar and exotic in mainstream culture.
For a young Black person struggling to connect to their ancestral cultural heritage, ancient Egypt is a familiar, attractive place to start. Egypt is the most well-known and powerful cultural influence from Africa today, making it easy for many African Americans to adopt Egyptian culture and to use its legacy of royalty, artistic sophistication, and technological advancement to create a message of Black superiority.
For a young Black person struggling to connect to their ancestral cultural heritage, Egypt is a familiar, attractive place to start.
The trauma and loss of African heritage through the transatlantic slave trade arguably created a gulf that was filled by a kind of “therapeutic mythology”—a constructed heritage built around memories of the homeland. From Egypt to nations across the continent, the historic and renewed connection to Africa created the unique identity of “African American.” This identity encompasses a culture where African traditions (the ones that survived a long history of colonialism) have been altered to fit new, American environments.
In the early 20th century, at a time when Blacks were very much politically, economically, and socially disenfranchised in the United States, Afrocentrists like Molefi Kete Asante and Black scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois highlighted a relationship between ancient Egypt and modern Black Americans in order to instill a sense of pride for Black achievement. However, these links contain the implicit, inaccurate assumptions that all ancient Egyptians would have physically resembled those who self-identify as Black today, and that all modern Black people can trace their lineage to ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, these ideas have trickled down into the mainstream: Many of my Black family members and friends have Egyptian-esque decorations in their homes to celebrate Black culture and pride.
Ironically, perhaps, recent research has shown that early Egyptians were mostly lighter-skinned: Genetically, Egyptians did not mix with darker-skinned sub-Saharan peoples until the last 1,500 years, well after the end of native Egyptian dynasties. I have seen the ancient word for the Nile Valley, Kmt—which translates as “black land”—used as evidence that Black people lived in Egypt; actually, it refers to the black, fertile soil of that region.
Miranda Lovett is a graduate student interested in Greek and Minoan art, heritage studies, museum studies, and how modern societies have received and integrated Egyptian culture. She will complete her M.A. in classical archaeology from the University of Arizona this year and will be an intern at the Getty Villa, a museum in California, in 2021.
Were the Egyptians black?
Afrocentrists leeching on Egypt’s history like actual Egyptians don't exist in order to feel good and boost their inferiority complex!
Have some shame and stop claiming others’ cultures. Get over your skin color and build something meaningful for a change.
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Afrocentrism, also called Africentrism, cultural and political movement whose mainly African American adherents regard themselves and all other Blacks as syncretic Africans and believe that their worldview should positively reflect traditional African values. The terms Afrocentrism, Afrocology, and Afrocentricity were coined in the 1980s by the African American scholar and activist Molefi Asante.
Afrocentrism argues that for centuries Africans and other nonwhites have been dominated, through slavery and colonization, by Europeans, and that European culture is at best irrelevant—and at worst diametrically opposed—to efforts by non-Europeans to achieve self-determination. For this reason, according to Afrocentrism, people of African descent need to develop an appreciation of the achievements of traditional African civilizations; indeed, they need to articulate their own history and their own system of values.
According to Afrocentrism, African history and culture began in ancient Egypt, which was the birthplace of world civilization. Egypt presided over a unified Black Africa until its ideas and technologies were stolen and its record of accomplishments obscured by Europeans. Afrocentrists assert that traditional African culture contrasts with European culture in being more informed by its history (“circular” rather than “linear” more cooperative; more intuitive; and more closely integrated with the spiritual world of gods and ghosts. Renewed attention to this culture, they argue, can benefit African Americans psychologically by reminding them that their own culture, which was long devalued by Americans of European descent, has a rich and ancient heritage. In addition to emphasizing the past, Afrocentrism encourages the preservation and elevation of contemporary African American culture as manifested in language, cuisine, music, dance, and clothing.
Afrocentrism was influenced by several earlier Black nationalist movements, including Ethiopianism and Pan-Africanism. The latter became a major presence in the United States and elsewhere with the emergence of the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, who promoted the idea of an African diaspora and called for a separate African state for Black Americans. Garvey’s bitter enemy, W.E.B. Du Bois, who helped to found the integration-minded National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in 1909, was also interested in Pan-Africanism and organized world conferences on the subject from 1919 to 1927. Other antecedents included the Negritude literary movement, launched in France in the 1930s by Francophone African intellectuals such as Léopold Senghor, and the Nation of Islam, whose leaders—including Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X—preached not only the need for a Black homeland but also the cultural and genetic superiority of Blacks.
Equally important to Afrocentrism were figures such as the African American scholar Maulana Karenga, whose work resulted in the creation of the Afrocentric holiday of Kwanzaa in 1966; the Senegalese scientist Cheikh Anta Diop, who wrote about the cultural unity of Africa, the African nature of Egyptian civilization, and the “theft” of African civilization by Europeans; and the African American historian Carter G. Woodson, who emphasized the teaching of African history as a way of counteracting feelings of inferiority inculcated in Black Americans through centuries of subordination by whites.
Afrocentrism gained significant legitimacy in the United States from the 1960s as a result of the civil rights movement, the multicultural movement, and the immigration of large numbers of nonwhites. Its following increased dramatically during the 1980s, when many African Americans felt alienated from the “conservative revolution” of President Ronald Reagan but were simultaneously attracted by the conservatives’ call for a return to traditional values. The Afrocentrists’ complicated reaction to the conservative revival both reflected and reinforced conservative elements in Afrocentric thinking.
Criticism of Afrocentrism
The central claims of Afrocentrism were prominently set forth in a controversial book, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, 2 vol. (1987–91), by white historian Martin Bernal. Since that time, Afrocentrism has encountered significant opposition from mainstream scholars who charge it with historical inaccuracy, scholarly ineptitude, and racism. In her book Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (1996), the American classicist Mary Lefkowitz attempted to refute most of the assertions made by Bernal, Diop, and others.
Public disputes between Lefkowitz and Afrocentrist Tony Martin created strife between Black and Jewish intellectuals and made Afrocentrism vulnerable to charges of anti-Semitism. Critics further have argued that Afrocentrism’s search for exclusively African values sometimes comes perilously close to reproducing racial stereotypes. The movement’s followers maintain that Afrocentrism remains a valuable worldview and a spur to cultural and political activism by African Americans.
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