Tuning Up - Winter 2024

Black Cleopatra

How a recent Netflix series infuriated Egypt—and raised questions about color stratification and the social construct of race

By Sharon Sochil Washington | January 25, 2024
Adele James in Netflix's Queen Cleopatra, 2023 (Everett Collection)
Adele James in Netflix's Queen Cleopatra, 2023 (Everett Collection)

When Netflix released the docudrama miniseries Queen Cleopatra in May 2023, controversy quickly arose around the casting of Adele James—a mixed-race English actor with Jamaican ancestry—as Cleopatra. Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities issued a long public statement in rebuke of the eight-episode series. Cleopatra, the ministry argued, was in fact a Macedonian Greek woman, “light-skinned” and possessing “Hellenic features.” Zahi Hawass, one of the country’s most famous archaeologists and twice its antiquities minister, adamantly maintained that Cleopatra was not Black. And Mustafa Waziri, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Archaeology, argued that the portrayal of the queen by a Black actor was nothing less than a “falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical fallacy.”

Many Egyptians view their history as distinct from that of sub-Saharan Africa, so the ministry’s response was perhaps not surprising—even though today, a couple of decades into the 21st century, one would be hard pressed to find any reputable social scientist who would argue that race is a biological construct. The producers of the series, meanwhile, in acknowledging the long and unresolved debate about Cleopatra’s race, responded that although “ethnicity [was] not the focus” of the show, they did intentionally “depict her of mixed ethnicity to reflect theories about Cleopatra’s possible Egyptian ancestry and the multicultural nature of ancient Egypt.” For some critics, such as Leila Latif in The Guardian, the insistence on Cleopatra’s whiteness seemed curious for the very reason that the queen’s race is unknown.

Cleopatra, who reigned from 51 to 30 BCE, was one of the most powerful and influential figures in human history, and the statement made by the producers of Queen Cleopatra in casting James is clear: Africa’s history is Black history, and there is greatness in that history. The problem lies in the flimsy execution. The experts who provide the commentary between the dramatizations of Cleopatra’s life come off more like fans than objective historians and social scientists. The series begins with Shelley P. Haley, a professor of classics and Africana studies at Hamilton College, who recalls something her grandmother said: “Shelley, I don’t care what they tell you in school. Cleopatra was Black.” A defiant statement this might be, but it is also the kind of speculative assertion that viewers encounter in lieu of historical findings and logical argument.

As an anthropologist, I am well aware, of course, that all history is crafted by the storyteller. For example, the reason our society is more familiar with the name Plato than the name Rūmī is because much of our history has been written by Western scholars. Nevertheless, Haley’s recollection opens the series and locates it within a contemporary racial framework. All the more ironic, given what she said to The Washington Post: that those who criticize the series are “applying [contemporary] racial constructs to the ancient world, and that is anachronistic.”

Race feels like a biological construct because its characteristics—skin color, hair texture, nose shape, eye color—are located in the body. But there is nothing in the nature of these things that defines them as racial categories. Humans made the decision to use race as a social construct, to sort and rank groups of people into hierarchical categories of privilege. Not until I became an anthropologist did I understand that race is not real—it is not naturally occurring, like the wind or the sun or even the human brain. Therefore, it can and does change, which is why the notion of applying contemporary ideas to the first century BCE is ridiculous.

Race may not be real, but it does have real and long-lasting consequences, which my own family has acutely felt across the generations. When I moved to New York City for university, my Black and Latino peers began calling me “Light Skin.” Before that time, I was not fully aware of just how light my skin tone was—partly because I grew up under the hot Texas sun, where we were all darker than we would have been had we grown up in the North. And sure enough, one winter in New York changed my skin tone drastically. But there was another factor at play. My four siblings and I run the gamut of skin tones from very light to very dark. I had always felt the burden of responsibility to be overly inclusive of the members of my family with darker skin tones. And during my teenage years, I had suppressed the possibility that my light skin made me more accepted in society than my darker-skin sisters were.

After hearing my new nickname a few times, I asked one of my sisters where our light skin had come from.

“Our father,” she responded.

“But he was dark,” I protested. Our father had died when I was quite young, and it had always seemed to me that his skin tone was the same dark brown as our mother’s.

“Only his face,” my sister said. “He was a cook, and the smoke from cooking darkened his face.”

My father’s skin tone was in fact a light reddish-brown, his hair silky and curly, unlike my mother’s woolly hair.

Several years ago, my two older sisters and I wanted to delve more deeply into our family’s history. We had gathered together to go through a large assemblage of census data, and as we sifted through it all, my oldest sister whispered, “You know, the family consciously worked to lighten the skin color of the next generation.” It was a simple statement, but one of immense power and consequence. It reflected the practice of marrying Black people with very light skin tones in an effort to lighten the skin tone of successive generations.

As a Black woman, I was never quite sure how to feel when someone “complimented” me about my light brown skin tone or the texture of my hair: Should I have felt proud, grateful for the particular kind of privilege I was allowed? Or should I have felt guilty, even ashamed? When my sister mentioned our family’s history of skin whitening, did she whisper her words because she was overcome by their power, or because she felt guilty about her own very light brown skin?

Through our research, we began to learn a great deal about my father’s family in East Texas. Our paternal great-grandfather was born an enslaved individual and died a freed person, owning 100 acres of land that he purchased from the family that had owned him. How he made that purchase was unclear. But his skin tone, hair texture, and facial features suggested that he was most likely related to his owner-family. Clearly, the lightening of skin tone was a way to achieve a status closer to that of white people. The story that we exhumed tells of an entire East Texas town created by members of my family, who used their light-skin status to build a community that included a post office, a school, and an orphanage.

The practice of color stratification among Black Americans is known as colorism and dates to the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century. In the 19th century, stratification resulted in the formation of unofficial blue vein societies for upwardly mobile Black Americans—to be a member, your skin had to be so light that your blue veins could be seen. A 2015 study on skin complexion in 21st-century America found that little to no change has occurred regarding the stratification of skin color since the practice’s early days, when darker skin tones (which characterized the majority of enslaved peoples from West Africa as well as indigenous peoples on both American continents) correlated to the bottom of the hierarchy of human categorization. The propagation of the notion that a darker skin tone indicated a deficiency in intelligence and a lack of morality and attractiveness made it easier for global economic powers to justify the subjugation of peoples for free labor.

Therefore, when Zahi Hawass insists that Cleopatra was not Black, we must ask why. Why do Egypt’s ministers talk of Cleopatra’s race as if it were a fixed identity when race is quite malleable? The word race did not even exist in Cleopatra’s time; how can our contemporary understanding of the concept be applicable? Egypt’s reaction suggests that even as concepts related to race evolve, racial boundaries continue to sit squarely in a Black-white binary—in the construction of whiteness. James Baldwin discussed this phenomenon in his article “On Being ‘White’ … and Other Lies.” “No one was white before he/she came to America,” Baldwin wrote. (That is, immigrants came to America as Italians, Germans, Irish, and Poles.) “It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country. … America became white—the people who, as they claim, ‘settled’ the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the Black presence and justifying the Black subjugation.”

I might have found Queen Cleopatra disappointing from the perspective of a social scientist, but as a Black woman, I saw its appeal. I recognized its attempt to assert the greatness of Black history in the face of centuries of subjugation of Black peoples all over the world: the massacres and other atrocities committed by colonial powers and the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources; the destruction of cultural and historical artifacts; the long-standing assertion that Africa had no literary tradition; the enslavement and removal of African peoples from their homelands; the declaration in the U.S. Constitution that the enslaved were not even human but were chattel to be owned, sold, and bred; the repression of language, culture, and religion … And I thought: Who in their right mind would want to be Black. Since race is not biological, who would choose such degradation if given the choice.

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