Teaching Ancient Egyptian Philosophy (Ethics) and History: Fulfilling a Quest for a Decolonised and Afrocentric Education

By Sesanti, Simphiwe | Educational Research for Social Change, June 2018 | Go to article overview

Teaching Ancient Egyptian Philosophy (Ethics) and History: Fulfilling a Quest for a Decolonised and Afrocentric Education


Sesanti, Simphiwe, Educational Research for Social Change


Background and Introduction

In 1974, Cheikh Anta Diop, published his book, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, in which he argued that "ancient Egypt was a Negro civilization" and that the "ancient Egyptians were Negroes" (1974, p. xiv). His insistence on ancient Egypt's blackness or Africanness was informed by persistent and consistent attempts by Eurocentric historians to project ancient Egyptians as white (Diop, 1974, p. 27). In 1987, 13 years after the appearance of Diop's work, Martin Bernal, a white British scholar published his work, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, in which he pointed out that ancient "Egyptian civilization was fundamentally African" (p. 1991, p. 242) and that "many of the most powerful Egyptian dynasties which were based in Upper Egypt-the 1st, 11th, 12th and 18th-were made up of pharaohs whom one can usefully call black" (1991, p. 242).

The objective of this article is to trace ancient Egypt's origin of ethics, and to argue that African institutions of higher learning must reclaim and centre this African heritage in the curricula. Reclamation in this case means the restoration of African heritage on Africans' own terms. It implies, in other words, re-Africanising the African heritage which was de-Africanised and Europeanised by Eurocentric scholarship. This refers to, specifically, to Eurocentric scholarship's attempt, as pointed out by Diop (1974), to whiten ancient Egypt. The concept re-Africanisation is preferred over the traditionally used concept Africanisation because the former dispels the unintended dissemination of the notion that Africans are taking what is foreign and putting it in an African garb (Sesanti, 2016).

Diop (1974, p. xiv) pointed out that "the African historian who evades the problem of Egypt is neither modest nor objective . . . he is ignorant, cowardly and neurotic." Ignoring ancient Egypt is tantamount to-which is unimaginable-a Western historian writing European history without referring to Greco-Latin antiquity (Diop, 1974). Teaching ancient Egyptian history and philosophy would dispel Palmer's (2014, p. x) claim that "China is the oldest continuous culture in the world," on the basis that while Egyptian and Babylonian records might go back for four or five thousand years "nobody today actually still venerates the ancient figures of Pharaonic Egypt" (p. x). The study of ancient Egypt would bring to the African student's consciousness that the "Black world is the very initiator of the 'western' civilization flaunted before our eyes today" (Diop, 1974, p. xiv). Studying ancient Egypt would enable African students, to their "great surprise and satisfaction, . . . discover that most of the ideas used to domesticate, atrophy, dissolve, or steal [their souls] were conceived by [their] own ancestors" (Diop, 1974, p. xv).

The study of African history must begin in ancient Egypt because, as Williams (1987, p. 44) pointed out, "most of their indestructible monuments are there." For it is a matter of historical record that it was the ancient Egyptians who invented "the world's oldest known calendar" used to this day even by the Western world (Fletcher, 2016, pp. 13-14). The ancient Egyptians invented this calendar in 4241 BC (Breasted, 1908, pp. 15, 35). Historical records indicate that the "concept of a nation-state-a political territory whose population shares a common identity-was the invention of the ancient Egyptians" or more explicitly and specifically, the "unification of Egypt . . . created the world's first nation-state" (Wilkinson, 2011, p. 38). Underlining the significance of this revolutionary move, Wilkinson (2011) noted that while the nation-state may presently seem ordinary and normal, before the Egyptian invention of the nation-state, identity and loyalty were based on family, community, or region. While Breasted (1908, p. 16) placed the unification at 3400 BC, in a later work, he (Breasted, 1933, p. …

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