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When American comedian Kevin Hart announced a Cairo stop on his “Reality Check” tour in February 2023, the news ignited an uproar on Egyptian social media, for unexpected reasons.
Several media outlets in the region reported that, in a past interview, as Hart discussed the education of Black people in the United States, he allegedly stated: “We must teach our children the true history of Black Africans when they were kings in Egypt and not just the era of slavery that is cemented by education in America. Do you remember the time when we were kings?”
Egyptians have not taken kindly to Hart’s comments about ancient Egypt, and a viral campaign was launched, calling for the cancellation of the show of the superstar they accused of “blackwashing” and “stealing their history.” The controversy sparked conversations about history, politics and cultural identity. Whose heritage was ancient Egypt? Who ruled over the Nile civilization? What skin color did the divine kings of the pharaohs have?
The outrage marks the second such incident around the subject since February 2022, when the inaugural “One Africa: Returning to the Source” conference was set to take place in Aswan. In honor of Black History Month, the event — organized by the New York–based Akhet Tours and HAPI, an organization with a vision centered on Black people’s empowerment — proclaimed it would “unpack the historical connectivity and confluence of African people as they migrated throughout the continent.”
The announcement aggravated Egyptians, who perceived it as a blatant affront at their doorstep. In response, Egyptian nationalists launched the viral #StopAfroCentricConference campaign, which resulted in the event’s cancellation. But circulation of the term “Afrocentrism” did not cease, and Egyptians became aware of what they perceived as a resurfacing threat to their cultural identity.
The Afrocentrism movement began around the 19th and early 20th centuries, as the colonial era ebbed and slavery ended. As a response to Eurocentrism and the perpetuation of racist ideas and philosophical foundations in Western academia, African intellectuals both on the continent and in the diaspora fixed their gaze on the past, reanalyzing the heritage of their people and recentering the role of African culture throughout history. The movement became known as Afrocentricity, and later as (with a more ideological connotation) Afrocentrism. One of its major points of focus was ancient Egyptian civilization.
The virtual war between African Americans and Egyptians took an ugly turn, moving from a history-based dispute into a racism-tainted clash between the two groups. Black people accused modern Egyptians of being descendants of thieves who stole the land Blacks had ruled, while Egyptians deployed ethno-nationalist statements to eradicate any connections between the “true” ancient Egyptian blood and blackness.
“Both extreme Egyptian nationalists and Afrocentrists adopt discourses based on racist ideas of color and ethnicity that are utterly detached from scientific, historical and cultural facts,” Monica Hanna, an international figure in the world of Egyptology and Dean of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport in Egypt, told New Lines. “Their fights resemble those of violent rival football fans.”
Afrocentric scholars claimed that the legacy of the pharaohs belonged to their people and that the ancient Egyptians themselves were black. They proposed that a series of invasions diluted the African-ness — which they equated with blackness — of Egyptians, producing the diverse, modern Egypt we have today.
In 1987, the Portland public school district in Oregon developed the African American Baseline Essays, the most prevalent Afrocentric teaching material on African and African American contributions to arts, history and science. The history teacher Erich Martel describes the Essays as follows in a Washington Post article: “They might as well be called ‘Egypt-centric,’ however, since much of their content revolves around ancient Egypt.”
Many Egyptologists and scholars strongly object to Afrocentric Egyptology. One of the most prominent voices is the world-famous Egyptian archaeologist, Egyptologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, Zahi Hawwas, who describes Afrocentrism as a mythical fantasy that aims to usurp Egyptian heritage, yet lacks sufficient evidence to back up its claims.
“The Afrocentric discourse marks a radical reaction to the Eurocentric one, aiming to reclaim a heritage stolen by the Western colonization,” said Hanna. “In ancient Egypt, there was no distinction based on race and color: you were either culturally Egyptian or you were not. Egypt has always been a melting pot where various peoples and cultures reacted with one another to produce the distinctive heritage we call Egyptian.”
But the Egyptian anger stems not only from falsified facts and tampered history. Other factors also come into play. The Kevin Hart incident, the Aswan conference and the ruckus they both sparked raise many questions about Egyptian identity and cultural belonging.
The history of ancient Egypt makes up a significant chunk of the history syllabi in Egyptian schools, the 7,000-year civilization being the epitome of Egyptian pride and pinnacle of achievement.
Living under an oppressive government, stagnant economy and an increase in human rights violations, many Egyptians cling to their majestic heritage: Ancient Egyptian history has long provided a solid wall of pride for Egyptians to lean on when all else fails. In that vein, we witnessed the rise of a wave of chauvinist nationalism in Egypt during recent years that garnered immense popularity in a brief span of time. Wai Misr, one of the leading groups of that trend, describes its vision as a movement that aims to raise awareness about the origins of Egyptian heritage and civilization, and to counter Afrocentrism with science and historical evidence.
This rising nationalist sentiment has gained momentum at a time of crushing political oppression and economic collapse in Egypt: tens of thousands languishing behind bars for political opinions; a crushed low-income class; a middle class that hovers just above the poverty line after a series of currency devaluations that have pummeled the purchasing power of the Egyptian pound; small- and medium-sized businesses that have collapsed as their owners yearn for the security of an ever-rarer full-time job or wait out the storm with no end in sight; and rigorous banking restrictions and credit card limits locally and abroad, caging the dollars inside Egyptian banks, and leaving their owners cashless.
The Egyptian government tends to exploit nationalist sentiments when it feels beset by challenges. In 2021, the Egyptian state transported 22 mummies to the Egyptian Museum, three miles away from their original place, in a multimillion-dollar procession dubbed the Golden Parade. The extravagant spectacle fueled a collective national sense of euphoria on Egyptian social media.
In this environment that nurtures nationalist sentiment, Afrocentrism is seen as a threat by a significant sector of modern Egyptians. While Hart’s comments may have been made in passing, the feelings they elicited are deeply rooted.
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