Sunday, August 28, 2005

Black Athena

In 1987, Martin Bernal's Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985, Volume 1) began a controversy which continues today. His Afrocentric view stresses that much of the Greek thought(perhaps all Eurocentric thought) stems from ancient racism which still is present today.

Learn more about the "Black Athena" debate.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Unmasking Cleopatra

Cleopatra has many faces, as diversified as all the artists who have represented her.

Over the last twenty years as Afrocentrism has attempted to establish a justified "black pride" in African linage, one of the predominent arguements is that "Egypt (or Kemet) is in Africa. Therefore, these African kings and queens have to have been black." Perhaps studies like the Genographic Project will do a better, more impartial answering of the question testing living and ancient DNA.

At present, however, are some interesting arguments regarding the question. Egyptologist Frank Yurco addressed the issue in a series of articles in the Biblical Archaeology Review (Sept-Oct 1989), starting with a lead article, "Were the Ancient Egyptians Black or White?" The focus of his article was around the bust of Nefertiti currently in Berlin. Yurco says in his article:

Was Nefertiti "black" or "white"?

The ancient Egyptians did not think in those terms.

The whole matter of black or white Egyptians is a chimera, cultural baggage from our own society that can only be imposed artificially on ancient Egyptian society. The ancient Egyptians, like their modern descendants, were of varying complexions of color, from the light Mediterranean type (like Nefertiti), to the light brown of Middle Egypt, to the darker brown of Upper Egypt, to the darkest shade around Aswan and the First Cataract region, where even today, the population shifts to Nubian. ...(24)

... From all the evidence extant, the Egyptians were not race conscious. Even enemies who fought them were conscripted into the army and thereby integrated into Egyptian society, regardless of their ethnic background. In utilizing Egyptian reliefs and painting to assess ethnicity and racial characteristics, a cautionary note is in order. In the Old Kingdom period (c. 2755-2230 B.C.E.), artistic canons governed the color for people shown in statuary, relief work and painting. Reddish brown was used for men, yellowish white for women.

... By the Middle Kingdom, and certainly in the New Kingdom, the color strictures of this artistic canon partly gave way. Often in these periods, people were depicted with their actual skin color, men and women (29) alike, and with distinctive facial features. (58) In their ability to ignore race and absorb foreigners, ancient Egyptians outshine our own achievements and should serve as our model. They also surpassed us in providing legal and social equality for women, guaranteed by "the Law of Pharaoh." How then can we be so presumptuous as to assign our primitive racial labels onto so wonderful a culture. (58)

Richard Poe in "Should Conservatives Believe in Black Egyptians?" cites a personal experience of Yurco and his Grenadian wife, who was accepted as full African by her looks, in spite of her actual African, Scottish, and English ancestry.

Yurco, in a response to a reader's statements in BAR (Mar/Apr 1990), finally says:

Let me close with a remark shared with me by scholarly associates about the ancient Egyptians' ethnicity. If someone like Amenhotep III or Tutankhamun or Senwosret II had entered an American café in the South in the 1940's-'50s, they
would have been refused service on racial grounds. Thus the social problem belongs with American, and not with the Egyptians. As I have stated in my initial article and in all subsequent comments, the pharonic Egyptians were Africans. And now, one may add the growing evidence of blood group studies that have been done on the modern Egyptian populations and are being done on mummies.

But where does that leave us with Cleopatra? Cecil Adams gives a pretty good explanation of the argument in his The Straight Dope: Was Cleopatra Black? (10 Nov 1999):

[Mary] Lefkowitz [author of Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (1996)] begins by noting that, until recently, it never even occurred to anybody to ask this question. The information we have identifies her as a Macedonian Greek. Her ancestors were Ptolemies, descended from one of Alexander's generals. Cleopatra was a name traditionally given to women in the royal family, so, as you indicated, there
were in fact previous Cleopatras. The one in question here was Cleopatra VII, daughter of Ptolemy XII and his sister (ewww). Sticking with the tradition of keeping it in the family, she married two of her own brothers in succession (the first "died in suspicious circumstances, [and] she had the second murdered," which is definitely taking sibling rivalry to extremes). . . .

Lefkowitz does note that there is a slight possibility that Cleopatra might not have been a full-blooded Macedonian Greek, because we don't know the precise identity of her father's mother. Apparently, grandma was not the wife of gramps, but his mistress (maybe he wanted to taste the forbidden fruit of somebody outside his immediate family, like a cousin). The assumption has always been that grandma was another Macedonian Greek, because the Ptolemies were a bit xenophobic, and somebody would likely have written about a foreigner being that close to gramps (examples of such writings exist when it happened with others).

Lefkowitz notes that most writers who have raised the question at hand here haven't been ancient historians. She says the first American writer to suggest that Cleopatra had a black ancestor was J.A. Rogers, in World's Great Men of Color. Unfortunately, Rogers somewhat muddled Cleopatra's family history, claiming her father was Ptolemy XIII (nope, Ptolemy XII) and her grandfather was Ptolemy XI (nope, Ptolemy IX). Then he claimed that Ptolemy XIII (who was actually Cleopatra's brother and husband and cousin and, oh, you get the idea) showed pronounced Negro traits--although this claim doesn't seem to have any actual support.

Some of the evidence used to support the claim of Cleopatra's alleged African roots come from, of all places, Shakespeare. In Anthony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare called her "tawny." Rogers and other supporters claim this was a 17th-century way to
describe mulattoes, and since Shakespeare obviously thought of her that way, she must have been.

The evidence of busts and reliefs from the Cleopatra's time period, don't seem to support the "black" image.

So is it this?

Or is it this?

Perhaps the final answer to the above depends upon the race of the viewer, each side claiming the other is either "Afrocentric" or "Eurocentric."

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Seeing the World in Color

In a strip of Calvin and Hobbes from the 1980s, Calvin asks his father, “Dad, how come old photographs are always black and white? Didn’t they have color film back then?” His father replies, “Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs ARE in color. It’s just the WORLD was black and white back then. … The world didn’t turn color until sometime in the 1920s, and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too.” Calvin responds, “That’s really weird.”

For many of us, history is seen in terms of black and white-- and if it’s not in color, it might as well be ancient. In my Mass Media class, the moans would start as soon my students realized a film might not be in color—even if it were a recent production. Black and white is the world their great-grandparents live in.

It’s always a surprise to find that color, whether by tinting or the use of actual color film, has recorded more of the last two centuries than we think. Would you believe that the picture at left shows French troops in World War I? It does... and it's a real photograph.

But there are earlier examples. Note the pre-Civil War portrait of a boy and his sister, where she wears a beautifully tinted pink dress. Young America. The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes talks about the hand-tinting coloring of these early monochromatic images. An 1855 house with white picket fence and trees shows an early landscape. A pensive 1850s girl leans against a chair with a blue blanket.

Watching The War in Color on PBS the other afternoon, I realized that I don’t remember seeing a lot of color footage of World War II, even though it was available. And I’ve seen even less of World War I. I was delighted to find two great websites that dealt with full color images from those periods.

The Heritage of the Great War: Over 250 hand-tinted post cards or actual color photographs presented on this copyright free site.

World War 2 Pictures in Color: An extensive collection of images from U.S., German, Russian, Japanese, British and Italian sources.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Understanding Egyptian Frontal Based Art

An artwork is a dialogue between an artist and the viewer.

Sometimes that dialogue needs explanation. Have you ever looked at an Egyptian painting and tried to figure out what is gong on? Perhaps you’ve asked yourself why the figures look so different than our way of drawing?

Part of the reason the people look so different is that they are rendered in what is known as frontal based art, also called frontalism. Rather than attempting to create realistic looking items, the frontal based artist is working more with symbols, showing the most recognizable feature of an item.

A glass, for example, has a round top, two straight sides, and a straight base. It can be rendered in what appears a style Picasso might have used, showing all three qualities at once.

When we look at a figure, we can see the head in side-view; but notice that the eye is rendered as if it were a straight-on view. Here we are dealing with symbols similar to hieroglyphics not realistic body parts. The shoulders are rendered in front view while the torso is actually a 3-quarter side view—the front is a silhouette of a front side view and the back is a back view. The wrist and the bottom curve of the buttocks are 9 squares from the baseline if the arms are at the side. Legs are rendered with the “downstage” leg—the one closest to you—in front. Legs far apart often suggest action. The arms and hands are done in side view—the same direction.

Problems of interpreting clothing can often be blamed on the frontal view. A dress with two straps covering the breasts can actually be rendered with both straps coming toward the center of the torso area, but with what appears to be a bare breast on the front side. [See illustrations below.] A necklace which hangs at center actually appears worn to the side because it is drawn directing in the center of the torso, even though the torso is 3-quarter side view.

My drawing, showing how the torso and necklace are done, is based on a fragment relief of Maya, shown in Geoffrey T. Martin's The Hidden Tombs of Memphis [158].

The Egyptian artist used a grid to create his figures. All items have a baseline which they rest on. The Egyptian canon of art dictated that the body was 18 squares from feet to the hairline and a remaining square for the top of the head. John Legon, in The Egyptian Canon in Art, gives a very complete description of the process.

Sethos I offering Isis a treat. The small birds float in the air above the tray. Because Sethos is pharaoh, he is eye level to the goddess. My drawing is based on a painted relief from A. Rosalie David's The Egyptian Kingdoms: The Making of the Past, [88].

Except for the Amarna art experiment of the XVIII Dynasty, women’s skin was rendered with yellow ochre and men’s with red orchre.

Things resting on top of objects—such as a senet piece on top of a board--are often shown floating above the object. And in this case, the board would be tilted facing the viewer.

Students in my History and Thought of Western Man classes, do a frontal based project where they have to use the principles we’ve discussed and combine them with a modern movie or historical event. Below is one for The Wizard of Oz.

Help for Beginning Web Designers

I teach html to one of my classes. The following webpages are a great helps to anyone trying to design webpages:

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Wading into Einstein's River

I have spent my summer reading. One of the books I just finished was Jack Finney's Time and Again [1970]. In it Si Morley, the artist protagonist, is able to travel back in time. The premise is based on a discussion of Albert Einstein's view of time being a river. The argument goes that although we may only be able to see one section of the river at any given time, the river has not disappeared--nor has our past or future. Finney's idea is that the reason we are locked into knowing that today is today is because we are surrounded by things our senses remind us are today: newspapers, clocks, television, our furnishings, our clothing, laundry detergents, candy bars. What would happen, suggests Finney, if we surrounded ourselves with things from a previous time? Could we then step into that world, back upstream so to speak? While Si is able to do it, the author also plays with the idea of what happens when the time traveler interacts and even changes the past?

Finney's book, from 1970, has some of the same feel as Ursula LeGuinn's The Lathe of Heaven [1971]. In LeGuinn's book the protagonist George Orr is able to have effective dreams. Whatever he dreams changes everything that came before it, so no one is ever aware that things have changed--except the dreamer. Orr keeps peopling his dreams with the same people, but his relationships change without his control and each waking brings a different reality. His girlfriend Heather can be someone he's just met, his wife, or someone who's never met him.

Certainly Kurt Vonnegut played with the same kind of "time continuum" contemplation in his classic Slaughterhouse Five [1969], where Billy Pilgrim gets jumps from past to present to future. Knowledge of his situation allowed Billy to accept the alien's "So it goes" philosophy, knowing that one never dies since time is always there in a line.

Are there other novels that take on Einstein's river? Certainly it has elements of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha [1922] where he contemplates the river and sees all of humanity.

Maybe all of us would like that chance to change the past, shape today into what we would like, mold tomorrow into a future we could understand.