A trailer for the Netflix docuseries, “Queen Cleopatra,” debuted worldwide. In it, Cleopatra is regal and beautiful. Yet, not in the way you might expect.
Her hair is Afro curly. Her skin is caramel and sun-kissed—like the shores of the Nile.
To me, the actress playing Cleopatra looks like a daughter of Ethiopia, where the Nile River originates. Or, a daughter of the ancient San tribe in southern Africa. Or, a multi-ethnic daughter of Africa and Europe.
To Arab Egyptians, however, the actress is afforded no such ambiguity. To them, she is simply, “Black.” The very thing they insist the real Queen Cleopatra was not.
“Cleopatra most definitely was not black" she was “clearly…white,” Zahi Hawass, PhD—Egypt's most famous archeologist—declared in an op-ed, days after the trailer’s debut.
"Queen Cleopatra...had Hellenistic (Greek) features... light skin, a drawn-out nose, and thin lips," the Egyptian government proclaimed on Twitter.
This 21st century uproar over Cleopatra’s "race" is nothing new, however.
In the 19th century, shortly after the U.S. Civil War, an anonymous, American, white supremacist author wrote there was no way, "the refined, delicate, beautiful and fascinating" Queen Cleopatra was "a black negress."
Two different centuries. The same emphatic assertion.
Yet, if you time traveled to ancient Egypt and asked the real Cleopatra whether she was Black, white or multi-racial, she would look at you askance. Because the concept of "race" did not exist in antiquity.
Eurocentric men invented "race" around the 16th century C.E., as a global form of social hierarchy: with "white" on top; and "black" on the bottom. So they could justify the inhumane enslavement, colonization, and genocide of non-Europeans worldwide.
Consequently, the more white supremacist they became, the more they insisted Queen Cleopatra was not "black."
Yet, there is no way these Arab and Eurocentric men could know, with absolute certainty, the skin color of a woman who has been dead for 2,000 years. To claim otherwise is a massive and suspicious red flag. One that begs the question:
Was Queen Cleopatra really as Greek and lily white as they so desperately want us to believe?
When Shelley Haley is in junior high, her Grandma Ethel tells her, “I don't care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra [had African ancestors]."
Years later, as a doctoral student, Haley shows her grandmother textbook evidence that Cleopatra was Macedonian Greek, not African. For she was the last ruler of the Greek, Ptolemaic dynasty that colonized Egypt for 275 years. And her family had an incestual habit of marrying one another.
So? Grandma Ethel, replies. That does not mean she wasn't African as well.
Shelley shakes her head in exasperation.
Fast forward to the early 1980s. Now Dr. Haley is a newbie, classics professor at Howard University. One day, her lecture on Cleopatra gets derailed when a student asks: How do we know for certain Cleopatra was 100-percent Greek?
Surprised that, like Grandma Ethel, half of her students are skeptical of the purported homogeny of Cleopatra's Greek-ness, Haley walks the class through Cambridge University's genealogy of Cleopatra's family tree.
This is when she notices, for the first time, the words "by a concubine" printed where Cleopatra's grandmother should be.
"I was shaken," Haley later recounted.
Those three words were a turning point for her, because it is common knowledge that Ptolemaic concubines were largely comprised of Egyptian, Nubian, and Ethiopian women.
The daughters of Africa.
"There were so many question marks about various mothers of the Ptolemaic [rulers]," Haley said. "Very few classicists dared speak the unspeakable."
Egyptologist, Sally-Ann Ashton, PhD, concurs: "Cleopatra's father [Ptolemy XII] was referred to as nothos (illegitimate)."
What about Cleopatra's mother? Turns out, her identity is unclear. Most likely, she was a concubine as well.
"Cleopatra ruled in Egypt long before the Arab settlement in North Africa," Ashton explains. "If the maternal side of her family were indigenous women, they were African."
Haley contends that Eurocentric scholars have "kept Cleopatra’s Africanity and Blackness a secret" to perpetuate "ideas of racial purity and hegemony." They were "eager to erase the [African] ancestor and claim the beautiful Cleopatra for Europe."
"I think it is safe to say, Cleopatra had [African] ancestors," she adds.
Turns out, Grandma Ethel was right all along.
Last month, Dr. Hawass declared in his op-ed that Queen Cleopatra was "clearly...white."
He also writes: “The [Netflix] series… has already attracted much controversy for the decision to cast the black British actress, Adele James, in the title role.”
Notice how Hawass describes both women as one-dimensional, racial absolutes. The real Cleopatra: "white." Adele the actress: "black."
Adele, however, is multi-ethnic, with African ancestry and a "white" mother. Despite the modern evidence at his disposal, Hawass fails to either research or acknowledge Adele's multi-faceted ethnicity and family tree.
Similarly, he fails to acknowledge the question marks on Queen Cleopatra's ancient family tree. In his op-ed, he never mentions her mother or her grandmother. A glaring omission.
For two millennia, almost everything we think we know about Cleopatra has been written, painted, or filmed by Roman, Arab, and Eurocentric men who have molded and twisted world history to suit their narrative. Ignoring, hiding, or destroying anything that does not edify their worldview.
To them, a multi-ethnic Queen Cleopatra would be a dangerous revelation. Because, if Cleopatra's mother and grandmother were Egyptian, Nubian, or Ethiopian daughters of Africa…
That means a woman of African descent not only ruled over a powerful Greek dynasty for two decades. She also commanded the power, respect, and offspring of not one, but two of the great generals of ancient Rome: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.
"She didn't wait around for men to tell her what to do. She did it herself. Who else does that sound like, but a Black woman?"
Though controversial, Netflix's “Queen Cleopatra” is a breath of fresh air.
It showcases the research and commentary of female scholars, including Haley and Ashton. It is written, produced, directed, and narrated by a multi-ethnic team of women, including actress and "Red Table Talk" host, Jada Pinkett-Smith.
Moreover, the Cleopatra controversy has shone a light on the urgent need for more female archeologists and Egyptologists of African descent.
We need more scholars who possess the cultural wisdom, sensitivity, and academic rigor to question, examine, and rewrite every falsehood Arab and Eurocentric men have led us—and desperately want us—to believe.
All of Africa is our history. From the Nile to the Cape of Good Hope.
It is nigh time we reclaim it.