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Insisting Cleopatra was black accomplishes nothing against ongoing misogynoir

Insisting Cleopatra was black accomplishes nothing against ongoing misogynoir

Insisting Cleopatra was black accomplishes nothing against ongoing misogynoir
May 05
13:00 2023

A Netflix documentary’s choice to inaccurately depict Cleopatra as Black doesn’t empower Black women, despite the media giant’s suggestion otherwise.

Over 2000 years after Cleopatra’s death, the controversy surrounding her identity resurfaced yet again after “African Queens” executive producer Jada Pinkett-Smith depicted Cleopatra as a Black woman. Interpretations of the ancient queen’s identity oscillate between Black subsaharan African, native Egyptian and Macedonian.

Even now, history aficionados revere Cleopatra’s Ptolemaic Kingdom as the pinnacle of ancient kingdoms, recognized for their wealth, discoveries, military strength and rich culture. Considering the centuries of oppression and mistreatment that Black women have suffered globally, knowing that there were powerful women with the same characteristics is understandably empowering. In Cleopatra’s case, however, that sentiment has turned into a desperation to rewrite history to favor an agenda. 

In Pinkett-Smith’s Netflix docudrama trailer, a scholar recalls her grandmother telling her “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black.” That’s an incredibly damaging thing to say in a documentary, especially with such little evidence. 

The Supreme Council of Antiquities, an Egyptian government agency charged with protecting the country’s cultural heritage, criticized the Netflix docudrama for its “falsification of Egyptian history,” according to Deadline. Cleopatra was of certain Macedonian descent from her father’s side, as explained by Oxford University Press. Though on paper, Queen Cleopatra’s mother was also Macedonian, royal maternal lines at the time were often uncertain. There’s a small chance Cleopatra was mixed with another ethnicity aside from Macedonian, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate she was Black. 

Coin carvings of Cleopatra at the time all showed a woman of Greek descent. Race is a construct that didn’t exist at the time, which is partially why inquiries about her racial identity are not only murky but downright irrelevant. Cleopatra could have been part indigenous Egyptian if she wasn’t completely Macedonian. Even if she was, it still has no indication of her race because of how racially diverse the region’s indigenous population is. 

The show’s director Tina Gharavi explained in an essay published by Variety that her decision to cast Black actress Adele James as Cleopatra was a politically motivated decision meant to counter previous interpretations of the Egyptian queen as a pale white woman. American adaptations of Cleopatra’s story typically cast white American actresses like Elizabeth Taylor. Gharavi admits she isn’t certain that Cleopatra was Black, but her decision to cast Adele James was a response to her belief that “her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians it seems to really matter.” 

Gharavi is right. Cleopatra’s identity does matter to some Egyptians — it’s their history. Revisionism is one thing, but attempting to pass it off as fact in a documentary is incredibly unethical. When the indigenous people of a country tell you to stop revising their history, it’s unfair and irrational to turn around and accuse them of fixating on a historical figure’s proximity to whiteness. 

The African Queens series is already monumental because it gives Black women another reason to be proud of their identity. Before the series’ Cleopatra season, the show focused on Queen Njinga of Angola, an undeniably Black woman. The show highlights the queen’s strength and military prowess through her battle against Portuguese colonizers attempting to enslave Angolans for their colony in Brazil.

 African history prior to colonialism is rarely explored. Despite the major successes of films like ‘The Woman King” and “Black Panther,” Africa is still incredibly misunderstood and underrepresented. Shows like African Queens aim to counter the misogynoir ingrained in so many societies worldwide. 

Still, revising another culture’s historical figure is counterintuitive to uplifting Black women. There are a wide variety of old African Kingdoms with powerful queens and female historical figures who were unquestionably Black. Why is it so important for Cleopatra to be Black, if not as a response to her proximity to whiteness? 

Cleopatra is an already respected figure, so at first it may seem empowering to see her as a Black woman, but if that can only be accomplished through altering history, it does nothing for Black women in the long run. Self-inserting ourselves in history that doesn’t belong to us is foolish when we can delve into our own unexplored history.

Africans have our own fair share of notable queens. They might not be as well-known as Cleopatra, but that’s all the more reason to talk about them.

Featured Illustration by Felicia Tshimanga

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Hana Musa

Hana Musa

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