In July of 1831, around seventy African Americans celebrated the anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery in the State of New York in Cincinnati. In his oration for the occasion, Reverend Owen Nickens urged the “sons of Ethiopia” to remember that they have a glorious heritage—one that is older than Greece and Rome, the civilizations that featured so prominently in late eighteenth and early nineteenthcentury political rhetoric. “The land of your fathers is the birth-place and cradle of the arts and sciences,” Nickens asserted, “in that dark continent was the light kindled that so conspicuously blazed in Greece and in Rome. From our royal fathers in the land of Egypt, the nations of the earth have learned the policy and rules of political government that In render life useful and people happy. The names of Hamilcar, Hannibal, and Cleopatra the Egyptian queen, will ever stand conspicuous on the pages of history.” (“Celebration in Cincinnati,” Liberator, 30 July 1831).
In Black Athena: The Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization (1987), Martin Bernal famously argued that the origins of Greek culture were found in Africa and that Greece was civilized by Egypt. This thesis would not have aroused controversy amongst educated whites and African Americans in the early American Republic. Such ideas were proclaimed in the standard histories of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. What was new and controversial in Nickens’ proclamation was the assertion of a racial connection between ancient Egyptians and African Americans. In this paper, I pose and answer two interrelated questions: what role did knowledge of classical antiquity play in the construction of an Egyptian ancestry for African Americans? How did African Americans and abolitionists mobilize their knowledge of classical texts and antiquity in their fight for liberty and equality in the American republic?
Educated free African Americans in the antebellum era faced two daunting tasks: to refute charges that they were racially inferior and to insert themselves into the historical record (Hall, 2009; Ernest, 2004). Over the course of the 1820s, African Americans began to write the history of their race in newspapers, pamphlets, and books. My reading of these texts reveals that abolitionists used classical authors—including Homer, Plato, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, and above all, Herodotus (Wiesen, 1980)—to bolster their claims for racial equality and to construct their own history. I show how Lydia Maria Child, Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, and David Walker fought white Americans’ assertions of African American racial and cultural inferiority by using classical authors to argue that African Americans were the descendants of the ancient Egyptians whose civilization was the source of Greek and Roman civilization. Many further argued that Hannibal and the Carthaginians and the Fathers of the early African church—Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, and Augustine—were descendants of the ancient Egyptians. These illustrious historical genealogies proved that African Americans were not an inferior or degraded race and that they were capable of becoming civilized and productive Christian members of society. Such arguments not only incorporated African Americans into Western civilization but also went so far as to put them at civilization’s actual source.
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