Tag Archives: Roman Egypt

Saying Farewell to the Angry Black Man part 1 (Tristan)

Angry Black Male Studying Black Antiquity

abm antiq

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Tristan Samuels is a MA student in Egyptology via the Near East Studies progam at the University of Toronto. His major research centers on race in antiquity and the relationship between Kemet (ancient Egypt) & Nubi‎a.

I’m a Black male university student born and residing in Toronto: a city that thinks multiculturalism is anti-racism (oh the fallaciousness). I’ve have a Classics BA and I’m currently studying Egyptology in an MA program. As the subtitle indicates, I study Blacks in the ancient record through these fields. In Classics, I was able to write a BA thesis on Greek and Roman perceptions of Black people and I saw much enthusiasm for my work at conferences. In Egyptology, I have a professor who has no problem acknowledging that the ancient Egyptians were Black/African. In addition, I have a professor that shows interest in my application of critical race theory.

However, I have been characterized as an angry black person. The most direct was in an introductory course for Near Eastern archaeology which was really the first time that I got a true understanding of what I was up against. The professor was a Syro-Mesopotamian specialist. I argued, in my essay proposal, that the ancient Egyptians were African/Black and, in turn, the Nubian rulers of Egypt (ca. 800 BC) should not be called ‘the Black Pharaohs’. The portrayal of the Nubians as the bonafide Black people of antiquity means an imposition, deliberately or subconsciously, of ‎whiteness onto the ancient egyptians. Ex: calling those Nubian rulers “black pharaohs” sneakingly implies that the indigenous Egyptian rulers were “white”‎. A good example of this is the New national Geographic rise of the black pharaohs documentary on the Kushite/Nubian dynasty. My professor, framing himself in a ‘progressive’ sort of way, accused me of “racism in reverse” because I brought up race. However, I never made the claim that Ancient Egypt was superior because it was a Black civilization. I simply said that the ancient Egyptians’ identity is misinterpreted because of Eurocentric racialism and that Black identity is more complex than treated in Egyptological literature. So, I sent him a response e-mail clarifying my intentions – I got no response. So, I let my writing do the talking. I made sure to include a comprehensive section on
white privilege and white normativity. I got 92%, but that does not eclipse the bigger problem: A Black Male challenging epistemology is treated as a threat.

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My issue in Classics has come through publishing issues. I had submitted a work on the Herodotus, a famous Greek historian, perception of Black bodies to a joint British-US journal. The first readers, there were two anonymous readers, said that I needed to revise which I certainly agreed. However, some comments troubled me. Reader A felt I just needed slight additions but suggested my tone was inappropriate because of this comment: “McCoskey’s approach is sound for the most part, but she underestimates…”. Reader A felt that I was treating McCoskey as a grad student. I just specified a particular problem in her work – why the tone policing? They shouldn’t *know* that I’m black per se, being that I don’t have to disclose my identity, but I believe it was assumed because of my essay’s subject matter. I take it as ‘okay, but remember your place Negro’. Reader B argued that I was being anachronistic in calling Herodotus racist. More specific, this reader thought that Herodotus accusing Black men of hypersexuality and describing them as having black semen “unlike other men” did not constitute racism. Apparently, I was being too simplistic. It is quite disturbing that this explicit sexualizing of Black men is not understood as such. I seriously wonder if the reader believed one or two of those stereotypes. While I got a 2nd attempt, these response are very problematic.

The 2nd reading was done by one referee and yielded interesting results. Itwas 3 or 4 days after I resubmitted – that is fast. The reader, which was clearly a different person, strongly disagreed. My critique of classical scholarship’s handling of Herodotus & Blackness was dismissed as “mud-slinging” – I’m just a real angry black person I guess. I was also told that I didn’t “get” D.E. McCoskey’s book, Race: Antiquity and its Legacy (I.B. Tauris, 2012), even though I wrote a published review on that very piece. In fact, I cited that review in my essay, so that the reader could go to it for further discussion of her mishandling of Blackness. I guess to him I don’t have the intellectual capacity to critique her. This reader also accused me of playing the race card. So, this reader definitely assumed that I was Black. I never once accused any scholar of racism and, in fact, two of the classicists that I critiqued are Black. It was very clear to me that the reader was polemical and saw my work as a threat to his white supremacist fantasy.

I responded to the editor to notify him that I appreciated the second opportunity, though I found the review perplexing. He, definitely a white male, responded telling me that he is a professor and that I needed to “learn some manners”. I could hear a ‘boy’ at the end of that sentence. I responded stating that he was in no place to make such character judgments about me and emphasized that I simply disagreed with the reader. His only response “I’m not a doctor” – I had referred to him as “Dr.” Again there is this sense that Black bodies are animalistic/savage in need of taming.

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While I’ve grown up race-conscious, I’m starting to really understand the depth of anti-Blackness in a way I never understood before – something only experience can teach you. No matter how logical the arguments you put forth, your resistance is a threat. The Blackness of ancient Egypt is a means of dismantling ‘civilization’ – a concept so dear to the White gaze. It cannot fathom a role where it is not in power. When we refuse to fit or compromise ourselves for whiteness we are uncontrollable (e.g. militant, angry). Whiteness can only see its de-centering as an act of reverse racism because they cannot fathom a world where they do not control us. You see, the only ‘peace’ and ‘balance’ for the White supremacist is one where people of color know their place, or else they are nothing but angry savages in the chaotic realms of otherness.

Clement Of Alexandria on Women: A few more thoughts

Sunday, Michael Bird posted on Clement of Alexandria’s views on women and concluded that Clement “does have a view of “equality” in the spiritual sphere and especially in martyrdom that stands out against Graeco-Roman views of women as ontologically inferior” although saying he would or does support women’s ordination would be a stretch.

Personally, given that I have studied Clement for about a year now, Bird is essentially right. However, I do notthink  that the ordination of women was a pressing issue in second century Roman Egypt.  In fact, since liberation looks differently in each era (it is contextual), it would be suffice to say that given Clement’s historical context, Clement was for women’s liberty in Christ.  A concrete example was the fact that Roman Egyptians did not practice or conceive of marital relationships the same way that a person living in the twenty-first century would.  Marriages sometimes occurred between brothers and sisters.[1] Scholars often struggle with reading letters between brother-sister married couples because of the generally held belief that incest is taboo.  It was fiscally responsible for parents to marry off their progeny so that they would not have to pay for dowries and so that they could guarantee that the families’ property could stay in the family.[2]

Clement of Alexandria’s disruptive Christian theology of sexuality provided a critical analysis of marital practices in Roman Egypt.  Clement condemns endogamy as wrong because Abraham was found in error when he claimed that Sarah was his sister.[3] It was not right for marriage to take place between a man and a woman in every circumstance.[4] The couple has to be compatible and the woman must not be forced to go into the marriage against her free will.  Marriage, for Clement, like most second-century Egyptians, was for pro-creation alone.  Sexual intercourse has the sole purpose for the begetting of children.  A husband must control his desire by viewing the purpose of sex as having children.  However, Clement’s rationale is different from his contemporaries; if the husband is to only see the having of children as the reason for sexual coitus, it helps the husband to practice self-control.  Another point in contrast to Roman Egyptian sexual ethics and Clement was that the Roman Egyptians, like modern day American Protestants, believed that marriage was the only way for women (i.e., no other ethical possibilities).

Celibacy was offered as an equally valid divine service in Stromata. The gift to control oneself was freely given by God’s grace.  There was a group of people, according to Clement, the followers of Basilides, who argued that we can naturally practice self-control without any help from God.  Another group of Christians, the disciples of Carpocrates and Epiphanes contended that God’s rightness was social equity, and that equality meant the sharing of all property, including wives.[5] Clement refutes these claims made by his opponents, and thus defending the rights of women especially in the instance of Carpocrates and Epiphanes.  Sexual intercourse between a man and a women was an act of violence if the sex act was primarily out of desire which was uncontrollable in Clement’s view.  Prostitution, rather than being an acceptable profession, was a rather violent art form that Clement grew intolerant of. Unlike American protestantism, celibacy and singleness was considered as a valuable option in Clement’s thinking.

Clement’s concern for violence against women can also be seen in his Middle Platonist interpretation of Scripture.  In The Educator, Clement reasons that the purpose behind Moses’s prohibition to the Israelites against eating hares was that hares are “forever mounting females.”[6] The “mysterious prohibition [of Moses] is but counsel to restrain violent sexual impulses, and intercourse in too frequent succession, relations with a pregnant woman, pederasty, adultery, and lewdness.”[7] Only one educated in Middle Platonism would be likely to associate animals with specific behaviors; to someone else, it may sound absurd.  Clement of Alexandria’s three-pronged assault on second-century Greco-Roman Egypt meant a scathing critique of Egyptian marital practices as well as a reconstruction of the human relationship to the divine.

Lastly, I think that Clement is somewhat egalitarian in that women could actually partake in the divine life (theosis).

The title Clement used to refer to Christians who were being perfected was “Gnostic.”  A Gnostic’s “distance from the Lord was never spatial; already here in this earthen body, one can become near to Him ‘by word, by deed, and by one’s very spirit.’”[8] On the question of who can achieve perfection in Christ, Clement provides an answer in his The Educator: “Let us recognize, too, that both men and women practice the same sort of virtue.  Surely, if there is but one God for both, then there is but one Educator for both.”[9] Women could achieve perfection through justice and self-control, as could men; these were worked out differently because of the distinctions between the genders.  Clement recommended that rather than wearing expensive jewelry and clothes, women should wear the holy ornament of generous giving of their possessions, for whoever gives to the beggars gives to God according to Proverbs.[10] Earrings are unnecessary for they block the Word of God from being heard, for only the Word can reveal true beauty. (Hopefully Clement would apply the same standard to the postmodern male who wears earrings today.)

I think in conclusion, it is very difficult to discern where Clement would stand on today’s issues if we were to judge him by our context and our cultural standards.  I think one leaves oneself vulnerable to speculative Jedi mind-trick or an silly academic X-Men like telepathy to try to guess what Clement would respond to in our time, for we can only judge him in his time and context.  Hesitantly, I would say, given Clement’s body of work, judged against his historical background, he would start with a position of being against gender violence, and then work himself theologically somehow. That is my best guess.

Some Suggested Sources for further reading:

Clemént of Alexandria with an English Translation by G. W. Butterworth: The Exhortation to the Greeks, The Rich Man’s Salvation and the Fragment of an Address Entitled To the Newly Baptized. 1919.

and John Ferguson. Stromateis. Books One to Three. The Fathers of the church, v. 85. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1991.

And Roy Joseph Deferrari, Thomas P. Halton, Ludwig Schopp, and Simon P. Wood. Christ the Educator. The fathers of the church : a new translation / ed. board: Ludwig Schopp, Vol. 23. Washington, DC: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1954.

Bagnall, Roger S., and Dominic Rathbone. Egypt from Alexander to the Early Christians: An Archaeological and Historical Guide. Los Angeles, Calif: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004.

Berchman, Robert M. From Philo to Origen: Middle Platonism in Transition. Brown Judaic studies, no. 69. Chico, Calif: Scholars Press, 1984.

Carter, Warren. John and Empire: Initial Explorations. New York: T & T Clark, 2008.

Choufrine, Arkadi. Gnosis, Theophany, Theosis: Studies in Clement of Alexandria’s Appropriation of His Background. New York: P. Lang, 2002.

Frankfurter, David. Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Hopkins, Dwight N. and Anthony Pinn.  Loving the Body: Black Religious Studies and the Erotic. New  York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Luther, Martin, Alexander Chalmers, and William Hazlitt. Table-Talk. London: George Bell & sons, 1900.

McHardy, Fiona, and Eireann Marshall. Women’s Influence on Classical Civilization. London: Routledge, 2004.

Montserrat, Dominic. Sex and Society in Græco-Roman Egypt. London: Kegan Paul International, 1996.


[1] Dominic Montserrat. Sex and Society in Graeco-Roman Egypt.( London: Kegan Paul International, 1996), 88-90.

[2] Ibid, 89-90.

[3] Stromateis, 250.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 263.

[6] The Educator, 168.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 185.

[9] The Educator, 11.

[10] Ibid, 198.