Education + Institutional Memory
"This writing was copied out anew by his majesty in the House of his father Ptah-South-of-his-Wall, for his majesty found it to be a work of the ancestors which was worm-eaten, so that it could not be understood from beginning to end. His majesty copied it anew so that it might become better than it had been before, in order that his name might endure and his monument last in the House of his father Ptah-South-of-his-Wall throughout eternity, as a work done by the son of Re, Shabaka, for his father Ptah-Tatenen, so that he might live forever."
--Preface to The Memphite Theology on the order of Shabaka, Per Uah of the 25th Kemetic Dynasty, 710 b.c.e.
"Cherish study, avoid the dance, so you'll become an excellent official. Do not yearn after outdoor pleasures, hunting and fishing; shun boomerang throwing and the chase. Write diligently by day; recite at night. Let your friends be the papyrus roll and the scribal palette; such work is sweeter than wine. Indeed writing, for one who knows it, is far better than all other professions, pleasanter than bread and beer, more delightful than clothes and perfumed ointments, more precious than a legacy in Kemet, than a tomb in the West."
--Neb-Maa-Re Nakht, Royal Scribe (Sesh Nesw), 20th Kemetic Dynasty, c. 1500 b.c.e.
The legendary W.E.B. DuBois was known for his passionate moderation. In bed daily by eleven p.m. A remarkably disciplined reader and writer who planned research agendas with daily tasks over years and kept to them with low tolerance for interruption. A literal human metronome of consistency and intellectual productivity.
In writing about the Reconstruction period in U.S. history, Dr. DuBois captured a strikingly similar combination of intellectual passion, consistency and productivity as he marked the determination of "an entire race" to go to school in the wake of the end of the U.S. Civil War. As Mary Bethune would remark before Congress in 1939, within several generations, a people who had been pressed into functional illiteracy in the reading and writing of the English language had produced generations of students who had mastered the language and set out to dismantle the system that had required their miseducation. Ms. Bethune and Dr. DuBois (pictured here in the famous 1936 photograph taken on the steps of Frederick Douglass Hall with Adelaide Cromwell, Monroe Work, Charles Wesley, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Arturo Schomburg and Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, among others as they worked on the landmark Encyclopedia of the Negro) were only two among the ranks of pioneering scholar-educators who traced the institutional memory of the African quest for education in the United States. As we engaged in line for line readings and translations of two of the most famous texts in Kemetic literature, the consideration of the origins of reality in the so-called Memphite Theology and a mediation on the field and functionof intellectual life as distinct from all other field of labor entitled The Instructions of Dua-Khety (more commonly known as The Satire of the Trades), our students opened a deep and energized consideration of the fact that the African-American quest for education has its roots in the dawn of the human experience.
At the center of Africana intellectual work is respect for the process of reading and writing and the determination to provide methods for collective learning. The notion of the group "learning community" has its origins in Kemet. From the Kemetic sites of scholarly instruction (known as the "Per Ankh" or "House of Life") to evidence of scholarly achievement ranging from the step pyramid (shown here behind Jazelle Hunt) and the stone structures of Imhotep that enclose it through the great convenings of scholars trained in Arabic, Songhai and other scripts at the great centers of learning at Timbuktu and Jenne in the 16th and 17th centuries; straight through the rites of intergenerational learning in Western and Eastern Africa that inspired Lord Baden-Powell to return to England and found The Explorers (the model for the subsequent Boy and Girl Scouts); to the collective struggle of Africans to retain the high skills and crafts of their home societies and to learn enough of each other's languages and skills to survive and resist enslavement while ship-bound; through the genius of their descendants to inherit those cultural markers and to pour them into educational institutions called Abakua, Poro and Maroon or Mason, Order of Eastern Star and Mutual Aid and Relief Society.
The Historically Black College and University has inherited these Maroon sensibilities and the traditions of communal, collective learning that they represent. In the U.S., schools began to convene in hush harbors and one room cabins, far different than the imposing stone structures we have borne witness to so far in Kemet. Yet some things have remained the same: the determination to right that which is wrong; to rebuild anew, better than before. To shape the future in ways that respect the contributions of the past in ways that do not deify the ancestors while listening to the wisdom that their experiences provide.
Today, we set forth for the temples preserved on the Island of Philae. When next we blog, I hope to continue this discussion of how the texts we have begun to consider in great detail capture the tone and tenor of Africana approaches to intellectual work. (source)
Need not question if we ruled the world
If I ruled the world
I’d free all my sons
Black diamonds and pearls
If I ruled the world
And then we’ll walk right up to the sun
Hand in hand
We’ll walk right up to the sun
We won’t land
We’ll walk right
up to the sun
Hand in hand
We’ll walk right up to the sun
We Won't Land
~Nas (Featuring Lauryn Hill), If I Ruled the World
As our bus hurtled back toward Elephantine Island and the hotel Saturday afternoon, we still had miles (kilometers here) to go before we slept, though we had met a 2:30 a.m. wake up call and departed by ferry for the bus caravan to Abu Simbel at 3:30 a.m. Since the beginning of our journey, and without sacrificing punctuality, we have emancipated time from the tyranny of the clock, and are the better for it intellectually and emotionally. Who has classes, after all, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights after a dozen hours spent traveling to, climbing into, through, over and around ancient temples and tombs in African summer weather? We do, it seems.
Abu Simbel. Barely twenty miles from the border between Egypt and the Sudan. Ramses IIs’s single most impressive monument: two temples, one to the primary Netcher of his era, Amun Ra, and the other built on behalf of his wife, Nefertari, to the glory of Het-Heru. A love story set in stone, and at once a commentary on how to unify a state around a single shared idea: the Great House. In the wake of the 40 year old Black Power/Black Studies movement and the study tours of Egypt by African-Americans that it sparked, the country should have by now rendered the sight of two dozen Black folk with cameras, pens, pads and studious expressions commonplace. Still, we arrest the attention of tourists and temple guards alike.
Ramses has emerged, with The Memphite Theology, as a particularly helpful subject informing our consideration of “The Politics of Translation” and “The Challenge of Intellectual Integrity.” Friday night we spent a spirited class session examining the parallels between the account of Ramses’s struggle with the Hittites and their allies during the epic Battle of Kadesh and Christian allegory in the Bible. The uber-Pharaoh is frequently saddled with the speculative label of being “The Pharaoh of the Exodus.” If there was an Exodus and if it happened under Ramses, all the more evidence that the Abrahammic religions are extended riffs on a Kemetic melody. As we read passages from Ramses’s plea to his father Amun to assist him and examined his dogged reproaches for seemingly being abandoned, the light in several students’ eyes shone: it was, after all, the Gethsemane and Golgotha pleas of Christ, two thousand years before, not to mention David and Goliath, Joshua at Jericho and Gideon, just for starters.
The next day, we stood in the innermost chamber of the temple, (called the “holy of holies”). This chamber is the inspiration for the pulpits that mark the sacred center of churches around the world. There are no guides allowed in the temple: in peak season (October through February), the thousands of people visiting daily would make the presence of guides in each temple proffering detailed explanations literally impossible. Still, we manage to discuss the most important scenes on the walls, columns and ceilings while absorbing the impatient urging-ons of the patrolling police and temple guards.
Having finished examining Ramses’s temple, we moved quickly to the temple for Het-Heru (the Greek Hathor) built for Nefertari (Ramses's temple is on the right, Nefertari's on the left). We entered, examining an exquisite relief of Ramses in battle, with Heru arming him with a mace of strength and, behind him, Nefertari, arms raised in protection, giving him something to return home to after fighting. The unifying concept of the Per-Uah restoring Ma’at has emerged as a constant theme as well, appearing in the well-documented efforts of Piankhy, Shabaka and Taharqua mounted at the Nubian Museum of Aswan, which actually allows visitors to get "up close and personal" with the classical artifacts. (Angie and Brittany are pictured whispering in the ears of Taharqua and Shabaka, respectively, as Robert lets us compare his face the latter Per Uah’s).
There are two reliefs in the back chamber of Nefertari’s temple, opposite the walls that framed her holy of holies. To the left, Ramses II worships his wife, with lotus flowers and Het-Heru behind him, sistrum in hand, coaching and urging him on. On the right, one of my favorite scenes, Het-Heru and Auset flanking Nefertari, breathing life into her. The royal epithet at the top of the first column of Mdw Ntr above Nefertari’s head, “Hemetch Nsw,” [King’s Wife]. The determinative for wife is a well full of water, the single most important element of creation and the thing that a human being—and a man needing a wife—cannot live without.
Friday morning, we had stood astride the Nile’s life-giving water on the bridge overlooking the Aswan High Dam. Looking downriver toward Abydos, Memphis, Saqqara and the Giza Plateau, we were reminded of the majesty and beauty of the land that thirty centuries of Black women and men had come together to create and share with the world. We surveyed the dry granite outcroppings that form the Nile’s final and northernmost of its six cataracts. Seized by the need for a mnemonic unguent, I scrolled through my Ipod’s playlist for a sufficiently powerful performance to lash the moment fast against the hard backbone of my mind’s long-term memory.
My eyes widened as the thumbwheel alit upon an Ancestral choice. I imagined Amenemhat, Ahmose, Hatchepsut, Piankhy and Ramses standing astride, along and upon the Nile, looking down the expanses of time and space and envisioning their successful efforts to realize Sma Tawi, Nsw Bity and Neb Tawi, the United Two Lands. As the dulcet harmonies of Lauryn Hill eased through my ears, the sudden turntable scratch emptied into the existential question that our children raise in the wake of perpetual challenges to their potential and doubts about their abilities, a question that evaporates when raised against the memory and vision of Kemetic serenity, permanence and relentless, unceasing movement: “Life…I wonder…Will it take me under?”
For fully three minutes, an eternity in hip hop timespace, I stood, motionless, before the Nile and the memory of the great African past, allowing Nasir Jones to resolve the seeming hopelessness of a puny and contemporary racescape against a hungry if as-yet underfed vision of what will and must be as he opined what he would do “If I Ruled the World.” His words and Lauryn’s melody catalyzed a comingling and bonding with my own mind’s eye as it played images of Pharaonic command and mass public effort, teeming all along the river’s four-thousand mile expanse over the three millennia of Kemet’s unbroken command.
“If I ruled the word/I’d free all my sons/Black diamonds and pearls/If I ruled the world…”
Our band seeps with contemplative deliberateness out of the busses and takes in each new site’s wonder: the steppes that frame the Tombs of the Nobles on Awsan’s west bank, including the tomb of Hardjuf, known as “the world’s first explorer” for his survey of inner Africa; the mirth of children in an Elephantine Island village that has been adopted by wave after wave of African-American visitors.
“Open they eyes to the lies/history’s told foul/but I’m as wise as the old owl/plus the gold child/seein things like I was controllin’/clique rollin’/truggers six digits on kicks and still holdin’/trips to Paris/I civilized every savage/give me one shot/I’ll turn trife life to lavish/political prisoners set free/stress free/no work release/purple jet skis/and M 3s…”
Saturday morning, as our little boat neared the island where the Philae Temple of Auset (Isis) has been preserved, we scanned the cliffs and foliage for the white birds whose craning necks indicated that we were looking at the descendants of Djehuty. The egret, of the ibis family were further proof that the people of Kemet were Africans. The symbols for intellectual work: the noble and silent baboon and the elegant, aloof ibis—were animals found only inside Africa, deeply beyond the reach or influence of Europe. The temple, built during the Late Period of Greek and Roman authority by Kemetic architects and designers, became the last temple where Kemetic spiritual systems were openly observed, by the Nubians. It was closed by the Roman Emperor Justinian, but not before Auset had transformed into Mary and written the “Cult of the Black Virgin” on the religious DNA of Christianity, from the re-inscribed portraits of Madonna and Child to the re-inscription of the largest single shrine to Isis in Western Europe to the Cathedral of Notre Dame (Our Lady) in Paris.
In the U.S., we have battled against the dim and vacant gaze of absence in the eyes and souls of children who have been pulled away from the excellent practice of study by distractions real and imagined. As my mind’s eye framed image after image of our students drinking in inextricable sets of life-altering images, Nas and Lauryn’s declaration evoked the answer to the seemingly intractable question, “why?” They do not do better because they do not know. They have not seen. And, after all, we need not question what we would do if we ruled the world. In fact, the lessons of Kemet remind us that we rule the worlds our imagination and deliberate, excellent effort allow us to create.
Methodology, translation + the eloquence of the scribes
“For us, the retrieval of the Egyptian heritage in all our disciplines is a first, necessary step on the way to Africa’s civilizations' rendevous with history. It is a condition we must fulfill before we can design an up-to-date corpus of disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences, the foundation for the renovation of African culture. Far from being a self-indulgent fixation on the past, the examination of ancient Egypt is our wisest option if we intend to plan and create our cultural future. The heritage of Greek and Roman antiquity has had a decisive impact on Western culture. Just as profoundly, the heritage of ancient Egypt will help shape the African culture we aspire to rethink and remake.”
--Cheikh Anta Diop, Civilization or Barbarism
Yesterday afternoon, we arrived in Aswan, the southernmost border of Kemet during its early period and the gateway through which the genius of inner Africa entered the Nile Valley. The word "Aswan" is likely taken from the Kemetic Sewenet, or "trading post." Five thousand years after the unification of the various societies scattered throughout the valley by Menes, our little band of travelers found ourselves at a trading station of sorts, buying potato chips and drinks from the descendants of the original Nubian inhabitants of this region, flooded out of their villages after the construction of the High Dam in the 1960s and relocated to the city. Before evening's end, we managed to collapse time and space and convene a conversation on the power of translating ideas and information from one time to another and, in so doing, mediating a conversation between Africa past, present and future.
We'd spent the morning in Saqqara, the largest national cemetery of Kemet, a place bristling with the undisturbed graves of some of the society’s most notable figures. Kemet referred to cemeteries as the "land of the Westerners," attended by Wosir (Osiris), the governor of the West. As we entered the looming festival and pyramid complex of the 3rd Dynasty's Per Uah Djoser (2650 b.c.e.) through the hall of the world’s first stone building built by his counselor and architect Imhotep, I found myself tracing the polished limestone with my fingers, pondering the magnitude of the moment. Imhotep was revered in Kemetic memory and the Greeks identified him with as Aesculapius, the patron of physicians. The Hippocratic oath taken by doctors contains his name among the litany of figures in whose name they promise to wield their ability and judgement.
Earlier, we had spent productive time in the tombs of Ptah Hotep, [Literally "God's Peace"] and Kagemmi, two administrators of the early period, and in the burial chamber of the pyramid of Per Uah [Literally "Great House"] Pepi, of the 6th dynasty. As has been mentioned in multiple posts, Ptah Hotep's "instructions" are recognized as the first collection of wisdom teachings in world historical memory. They have been an anchoring force in my own intellectual work since I was introduced to them twenty years ago by the brilliant scholar Jacob Hudson Carruthers, Jr. (Djedi Shemsu Djehuty, or "The One Who Speaks is a Follower of Djehuty"). Dr. Carruthers, the first African American to master the ability to read and translate Medew Netcher and in many ways the father of contemporary Kemetic language studies among African-Americans, was a son of the southern Black Methodist tradition who received his college education at the hand of, among others, James Farmer, Sr. (the towering figure portrayed by Forrest Whittaker in the film account of the Wiley College debate team, The Great Debaters).
I remember standing next to Baba Djedi as we stood in the hot sand of the mammoth festival enclosure, facing Imhotep's step pyramid, in 1996. I was one of his young apprentices at the time, and had returned with my own apprentices, determined to help them enter the intellectual work I had been recruited to what seems like so long ago. As I stood there watching them take pictures, I was reminded of the importance of our work to establish a place from which to view and interpret the world and reality. The imperative of this work informed the essence of August Wilson’s famous 1996 address The Ground on Which I Stand, delivered before the national convention of the Theatre Communications Group in Princeton, New Jersey. Long tired of fighting to establish spaces where the voices and visions of African people could be presented without interpreters or mediators in the theater arts, Wilson declared the imperative of generating clear space to occupy and speak to the world from the convened authority of the Black experience.
Even in a moment when Wilson—widely lauded as the pre-eminent voice among African dramatists in the United States—declared that “we will not be denied our history, “ he evoked the Greeks as his point of remembering departure. A testimony about the nature of the “ground on which I stand and all the many grounds on which I and my ancestors have toiled” nevertheless began with Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles, continued through Shakespeare, Shaw and Ibsen and emptied into O’Neill, Miller and Williams. Africa only entered Wilson’s forceful testament with the Maroons, from Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey to Delany, Garvey and The Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
The irony dripping from Wilson’s observation that “we cannot share a single value system if that value system consists of the values of white Americans based on their European ancestors” and continues with the contention that “we need a value system that includes our contributions as Africans in America” had, as with very nearly every other declaration of Africana intellectual autonomy celebrated beyond the smaller circles of long-view rememberers, constructed and embraced an Africa balanced on a temporal fulcrum constructed entirely out of the signal but amputating moment of enslavement. Try as he might, and succeed as he had, Wilson could no more transcend the limiting confines of such a framework than Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Sterling Brown, Alvin Ailey or Maya Angelou.
In short, the grounds on which these brilliant conjurers of Africana stood were only gingerly traipsed, an unordered, wide-ranging but ultimately irreconcilable collage of sounds, images, ideas and experiences, convened to give succor and hope, comfort and voice but not context, fortifying self-consciousness and, ultimately, full-bred humanity. The struggle to voice the complex rhythms of African deep thought and long-view historical memory continues to face the challenge of methodology. How do we approach the study of Africana? A central element of this challenge is the practice of translation, or the work of discovering, recovering and extending the intellectual work of previous centuries and millennia of thinkers.
“The history of Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians connect it with the history of Egypt.”
--Cheikh Anta Diop, Black Nations and Culture
We ended our first class session in Cairo Monday night with this discussion of methodology. The conversation was framed by the opening quote in this post, drawn from the work of the Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop. Diop, born in Djourbel Senegal in 1923, is widely recognized as the major intellectual force advancing the work of the study of classical Africa in the second half of the twentieth century. The thrust of Diop's work can be captured in two lines of thought. First, Diop examined the origins of human society, advancing the study of the original contributions of Kemet in the sciences and humanities, among other areas. Second, he traced the cultural, linguistic and intellectual interconnectedness of inner Africa, describing the relationship between groups ranging from the Akan, Dogon and Yoruba of West Africa to the Ki-Kongo and Lingala of Central Africa and the Shillik, Nuer and Dinka of East Africa and Kemetic archetypes and structures.
Diop's work reminds us that the Africans who find themselves in the western hemisphere continue to convene meaning around the grammars and vocabularies of Africana meaning-making, that set of normative assumptions about the world that also informed the lives and work of classical Africa. It is only through beginning to grasp the long-view contribution of Africa to world history that we can hope to find our own voices and define the grounds of which we stand. Such an effort will reveal the necessity to re-think the concept of academic disciplines, going beyond even conversations of inter or multidisciplinarity to reach more essential questions of the purpose, form and function of knowledge. Over the next stages of our journey, our students will continue to explore the imperative, techniques and possibilities of engaging the long-view African intellectual tradition in deep study, sense for sense and semantic translation, discovery and recovery, and the production of a flowering range of methods for making sense of memory in the context of our contemporary moment.
The pyramids at Giza + the Egyptian museum
"I felt that I had a peculiar heritage in the Great Pyramid built...by the enterprising sons of Ham, from which I descended. The blood seemed to flow faster through my veins. I seemed to hear the echo of those illustrious Africans. I seemed to feel the impulse from those stirring characters who sent civilization to Greece...I felt lifted out of the commonplace grandeur of modern times; and, could my voice have reached every African in the world, I would have earnestly addressed him in the language of Hilary Teage--'Retake Your Fame!"
--Edward Wilmot Blyden, In the Great Pyramid of Khufu, July 11, 1866.
Tuesday morning as we entered the Great Pyramid of Khufu, we didn't engrave the word "LIBERIA" at the entrance like the scholar and Pan Africanist Edward Wilmot Blyden did on the occasion of his visit in July 1866. We didn't sing "O Isis and Osiris" from Mozart's The Magic Flute like Paul Robeson did when he stood in Khufu's burial chamber in 1938. We did, however, sing the Alma Mater as we climbed through the narrow passageways and, once inside the chamber, struck a resounding, pitch perfect chorus of Lift Every Voice and Sing, ringing the granite sarcophagus and walls with the words and chords of the Johnson Brothers, James and Rosemond. Howard University has returned to the Nile Valley one year after our historic 2008 study abroad, and we had done so in force.
As we descended into the Pyramid, the rousing conversation that had carried well into the night the previous evening still echoed in my ears. Having survived the long plane ride and emptied ourselves into the awaiting tour bus at the Cairo airport, our work had begun on Monday with a tour of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha at the Citadel, completed in 1848, a marker for the birth of the modern Egyptian state and a symbol of national pride. The irony was palpable: Here we were, entering our examination of the Nile Valley by touching base with the contemporary reality that modern Egypt is very different than ancient Egypt and at once still fortified and connected to the ancient ones in many lived, imagined and constructed ways.
Driving through the neighborhood of Heliopolis, we took note of the fact that this area had once been called On, and represented the home of the Kemetic symbol of intelligence, writing and memory, Djehuty (called Thoth by the Greeks and the symbol later borrowed and transmuted into Hermes and, later,Mercury). We will become well familiar with Djehuty and his female counterpart Seshat, the patron symbols of all thinkers and writers, over the course of our journey.
Finally, we arrived at the hotel, Le Meridien Pyramids, in the shadow of the largest pyramids in the country--and the world--those of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, as well as the Hor-em-Akhet (Heru of the Horizon), commonly known as the Great Sphinx of Giza. We checked in, showered, ate dinner, and convened our first class session. Our band of 21 was tired but hardy, and we launched into a study abroad mbongi (a ki-kongo word for "room without walls," or "think tank"). Our initial theme--"The Politics of Translation"--proved ideally suited to the task of having us think about why we were in Kemet, where we found ourselves, and why it was so important for us to enter our study with questions of method and process attending our every step.
We began class by reintroducing ourselves to each other: in our intrepid band are Howard students in fields ranging from History and Psychology to Communications, Africana Studies and Theater. We have been accompanied by an administrator from Fisk University and her mother, as well as a scholar from Drexel University engaging in a study of African-American participation in study abroad initiatives. The Fiskite and her mother also happen to be my sister and mother (haha). The Drexel scholar also has deep Howard ties of blood and common purpose. For her eightieth birthday, my family chipped in and subsidized my mother's first trip to Africa. An Alabama Baptist, she had stood in the grand mosque and fell silent before the living witness of the common humanity of the heady mix of languages and cultures that surrounded us. Now she proclaimed herself the official tour "Grandmother," to the laughter of all.
With introductions and reasons for emptying blood and treasure into the cost of the trip re-stated and absorbed, we launched into our work. We immediately began to tease out the challenge of reading classical African history and culture through contemporary lenses, the challenge of translation. The work of discovery and recovery of ideas and experiences from the past is given astonishing force by the monumental work of the people of Kemet. The ancient Egyptians wrote on everything, it seems. Their language, Medew Netcher (literally "Divine Speech" or "Divine Words") was the foundation for the scripts we use today, though these have been reduced exclusively to markers for sound.
As our conversation entered its second hour, we were interrupted by the arrival of a small group of study tour participants from the U.S. led by my friend Manu Ampim, a scholar based in the Bay Area who has travelled to Kemet over twenty times. Later, we saw another colleague, Zizwe Poe, an Associate Professor of History at Lincoln University who is leading a study tour of the Nile Valley as well. I was reminded of the stories I heard from Asa Hilliard and Jacob Carruthers of running into colleagues and friends from the U.S. while examining the history and culture of Kemet. We were connected in so many ways, and Zizwe reminded me that Nnamdi Azikiwe, the First Prime Minister of independent Nigeria and a Lincoln University graduate, had actually started his undergraduate work at Howard under William Leo Hansberry. Azikiwe took the lessons on African history he learned from Hansberry to Lincoln, becoming the first person to offer a course on African history there.
We retired for the night after beginning to exchange the photographs and videos that will become part of this blog, allowing those following us at Howard and around the world to glimpse some of our real time reactions to what we are experiencing.
The next morning, we arose with the sun, grabbed a quick breakfast in the hotel dining room, and embarked for the Great Pyramid plateau of Giza, a bedrock site that looks down on modern Cairo and faces the south, Upper Kemet and Inner Africa. On a clear day--which, because of the pollution generated by twenty million city residents and workers occurs far too infrequently--a visitor to the Great Pyramid can look out over the expanse of desert and glimpse the first "true" pyramidal structures in the world, those constructed by Pharaoh Senefru and the workers of the fourth Kemetic dynasty (circa 2600 b.c.e.) at Meidum and Dashur. This was, needless to say, not a clear day. So we turned inward and journeyed to the burial chamber of the Great Pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu. Khufu, his grandson Khafre (whose pyramid we entered a bit later) and his great grandson Menkaure had their pyramids constructed in an alignment that mirrors the stars in Orion's belt. There are many theories about the plausibility of Kemetic attempts to literally mark the stars by placing pyramids and temples at strategic places up and down the Nile Valley, but there is no denying that these Africans had indeed charted the stars and aligned all of their major building projects with the rhythms of celestial and terrestrial phenomena.
After we left the pyramid of Khafre, we scrutinized a funerary boat belonging to Khufu that has been perfectly preserved in a mini museum just outside the Great Pyramid. This boat, which dates at least to 2550 b.c.e., was recovered from the smallest of seven pits discovered so far by archeological teams. It is very small compared, for example, to the boat sent to Punt (modern day Somalia) by the Pharaoh Hatshepsut in 1480 b.c.e. In a few short days, we will visit Hatshepsut's temple, cut into the cliffs at Deir el-Bahri and site of the stirring photograph of the women members of the group that pioneered the Howard Summer Study Abroad in Kemet experience last year.
After leaving the Giza plateau, we stopped for lunch and to visit a shop for examining and purchasing shenew, the necklace form of the ovals representing the universe that the Kemetians used to represent the names of the Pharaohs. These ovals were called "cartouches" by the French, and are a popular form of contemporary jewelry for visitors to the Nile Valley. Then it was off to the next major site: The Egyptian Museum.
The Egyptian Museum began its life as an idea initiated by the aforementioned Muhammad Ali in 1853. Ali realized that so many treasures from classical Africa were being looted by England, France, Germany, Italy and other European countries that an institution was necessary to restrict this cultural appropriation and keep Kemetic artifacts in the country. Five years later, a Bureau of Antiquities was established and in 1902, the building housing the current Egyptian Museum was completed. It is the largest collection of artifacts from a single country in the world.
We had prepped for our visit to the Egyptian Museum the night before in our initial meeting. We knew what we wanted and needed to see in order to ensure maximum benefit for the four hours we would be spending among the thousands of artifacts; highlights would include the Narmer Palate (the stone document chronicling the unification of Upper and Lower Kemet in 3100 b.c.e.), key statuary of Djoser, Khufu, Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and Nefertiti (and family), Amenhotep III and Tiye and, of course, the treasures of Tutankhamun. The central experience I could not wait to introduce our students to was a trip to the rooms that house several sakhu (mummies), including those of Seti I, Ramses II and Djehutymes III. These bodies have been preserved in such a striking fashion that those looking upon the visages of these long-deceased Pharaohs fall silent in wonder.
Before we entered the museum, we poured a libation outside the museum in respect for the ancestors. We'd performed a similar ritual at the same place the year before. Then, we entered the museum...WHOA! Look at the time! It's 5:45 a.m. here, and my luggage has to be outside my door at 6 a.m. in order to be loaded for the trip to Aswan! Okay, this post has to end. This is only a teaser: When we arrive, we'll pick up from here and continue to chronicle our first several days in Kemet. Today, we're going to visit Saqqara, the site of the first free standing stone building in world history, designed by Imhotep. We're also going to the tombs of Ptah Hotep and Kagemmi (brilliant authors of wisdom texts in the Old Kingdom) and Hwt-Ka-Ptah (house of the soul of Ptah), called "Memphis" by the Greeks and the place that provided the name "Egypt" from the Greek pronunciation "aigyptos." More later...gotta go put that bag outside my door! Stay tuned!
Kom Ombo + Edfu: Healing Body + Mind
Day 8 on the ground dawned with us in motion. We left Aswan and travelled by bus to Kom Ombo and Edfu today, two temples from the late period of Kemetic history and, in the case of Edfu, the largest and best preserved temple in the Nile Valley. We have learned so much over the course of the past week: at Kom Ombo, everyone quickly identified major symbols and figures and easily identified the image of Seshat, the female creator of numbers and measurement, as she supervised the "stretching of the cord," laying the foundation for the temple structure.
I often think of Seshat, the partner of Djehuty and also the keeper of all records in Kemet, as the figure whose energy animated the work of the phalanx of woman librarians of African descent who collected and preserved our history in the twentieth century, from Howard's Dorothy Porter Wesley and Wilberforce's Hallie Quinn Brown to the Schomburg's Jean Blackwell Huston and Tennessee State's Lois Brown Daniel, among so many others.
Kom Ombo, situated near an important trade town that dealt in gold from Nubia in ancient times, was a center for healers known for its double holy of holies, dedicated to the veneration of Sobek and Heru. On the wall beyond the holy of holies is a remarkable series of panels depicting medical advances in Kemet, from the birthing chair to suction devices, scalpels, flasks, knives, tongs, sponges and saw blades, among other tools. We looked at the eye of Heru, inscribed next to the surgical instruments, and Clarice noted that the "Rx" of the apothecary takes its shape and direct inspiration from this earliest of symbols for healing.
We re-boarded the bus and decamped an hour later at Edfu, the imposing temple dedicated to Heru which contains the remarkable narrative rehearsal of the epic Battle of Heru and Setekh (Horus and Set). The temple of Edfu took 180 years to finish and was finally completed under Ptolemy XII, father of Cleopatra VII (the minor figure who seems to attract all the attention in discussions of the "race of the ancient Egyptians" even though she was of no consequence to the long-view stretch of Kemet and was clearly Greek). By now, the heat of the day was upon us: we were set upon by the vendors at Edfu, a particularly aggressive lot who were all the more intent on selling us something given the relative lack of visitors at the time of day we had arrived.
Still, we managed to complete our work, including a reflection on the principal character lesson taught by the struggle between Heru and his uncle: Setekh, who often represents the lesser angels of human nature, cannot be killed. He/it can, however, be controlled by strength of character and purity of purpose. The Yoruba have a phrase, "Iwa Rere" (gentle/good character) and contend that the purpose of being on earth is to work on one's character. In another demonstration of the conceptual cultural unity of Africa, the classical people of Kemet used the narrative of Horus and Set to reinforce this basic message: one should never relent to the temptations brought about by urgings to revenge and to reactionary impulsiveness.
Before I sign off for the night, I want to send love to the high school students in Philadelphia who are completing the tenth "Philadelphia Freedom Summer" as a part of Philadelphia Freedom Schools. These young people hold their end-of-summer research symposium today, and I am saddened at the thought of missing them for the first time in a decade. Their symbols are Djehuty and Ma'at, and they have been models of intellectual excellence and passionate commitment. Like the healers of Kom Ombo and the character-building lessons taught at the Temple of Heru at Edfu, they aim to restore our people to wholeness and health.
Tomorrow we spend the day engaging the largest outdoor museum in the world and the single most imposing collection of artifacts in the valley: Wa'set (The Scepter), known as Thebes to the Greeks. We will start at Ipet Isut, "The most select of places" (Karnak) and end the day at Southern Ipet (Luxor), beginning the day by pouring libation at the White Chapel of Senusret (pictured below), one of the most powerful single structures in the sprawling Ipet Isut complex. We'll have so much to report tomorrow night. Hotep.
Reaching the Higher Ground
“I’m so glad that he let me try it again/Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin/I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then/Gonna keep on trying/Till I reach the Highest Ground”
---Stevie Wonder, "Higher Ground" (1973)
Dr. Williams and I are sitting in the Sekhmet conference room at the Sonestra St. George Hotel in Luxor, listening to the easy laughter and light conversation of the students as we ease into our final class work day in Kemet. Over the last two days, these young people have written and recorded a mini-documentary of their journey, adding another layer to the long-standing engagement of Howard students with the study of classical Africa. We are both tired but energized by the enthusiasm and unflagging effort of each member of this remarkable band. They have kept on pushing, each question and comment linking them more definitely to the numerous bands of scholars who preceded them. We’ve a story to tell that the blog only scratches the surface of.
This afternoon, we will visit the Luxor Museum, opened in the 1980s and recently refurbished and infused with additional treasures from the endless Kemetic cache. It is an under-visited crown jewel, and we will use the experience to sum up much of what we have seen and discussed to date. The core of the Luxor Museum collection consists of pieces buried for centuries by the priests of Ipet-Isut (“The Most Select of Places,” known to the Greeks as Karnak) to hide them from robbers whose contemporary counterparts have heisted booty that now adorns collections in Berlin, London, Paris, New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. As Dr. Williams wrote earlier, Ipet Isut was the spiritual center for Kemetic life for at least two millennia. When they were discovered in the 1960s, the statuary, stelae and assorted artifacts buried at Ipet Isut were in such pristine states of preservation that, when treated and prepared for display, they seemed to reconstruct Kemet as a living civilization.
At the Luxor Museum, we will be greeted by a massive head of Amenhotep III, Husband of Tiye, Father of Akhenaten and legendary New Kingdom link between the Hatsheptsut-Djehutymes III era and the Akhenaten-Horemheb-Seti-Rameses eras. The first thing you notice about all the Amenhotep III statuary in the Luxor Museum—and there is a lot of it—is the lips. This man was unmistakably African. Four days ago, we visited the “house the Amenhotep III built,” the companion temple complex to Ipet Isut known as Southern Opet (The Place of Seclusion), or Luxor. We lingered at the massive twin statues that front what remains of his morturary temple, two pieces known as “The Colossi of Memnon” in a gesture toward the Greek king made famous in the Iliad, five centuries later.
We will wind around the various pieces of limestone, pink and black granite, and malachite, the pristine glyphs, astonishing detail and serene visages pulling us into deeper and deeper reflection on the many places we have visited in the last two weeks. These students have drilled into a deep well of Classical Africana, nestled along the Nile, and mined gems that they have prepared over the last several days to present on this website in the next days and weeks.
As with the story of Hatshepsut, we have aspired to strengthen that which has been strong and to do right by the great legacy we have inherited. Though she was schemed against by the forces of her day, this great Per Uah managed to extend the authority of Kemet as a diplomat and visionary, in the tradition of her predecessors and as the custodian of the legacy of her ancestors. As we stood at her morturary temple, we reflected on what she wrote on her Tekken (Obelisk) at Ipet Isut:
All foreign lands are my subjects, He placed my border at the limits of heaven. What Aten encircles labors for me. He gave it to him who came from him. Knowing I would rule it for him. I am his daughter in very truth, Who serves him who knows what he ordains. My reward from my father is life-stability-rule. On the Horus throne of all the living, eternally like Re.
When we enter the sakhu (mummy) room at the Luxor Museum, we will see Ahmose, laying there, with the golden fly-shaped amulets signifying the battle citations awarded his Mother, the Theban Queen Tetisheri: HIS MOTHER!!—for her helping to lead Kemet’s armies against invaders. These amulets lie under glass a few feet from Ahmose and next to his own battle dagger. Ahmose, a petit man who had commanded the respect and admiration of first his troops, then a nation. Ahmose, whose Black skin and African features are indistinguishable from those we viewed when looking down on Seti I and the Djehutymeses in the Cairo Museum.
We will see statues of Horemheb, the once-general under Tutankhamun who was considered the first legitimate Per Uah since Amenhotep III and who rose to lead Kemet into the transition between the 18th and 19th Dynasties and the era of Ramseses. Three days ago, we visited Horemheb’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, as well as that of Tawosret, mother of Seti I and the Ramses line, a Per Uah in her own right before being succeeded by Setnakht. As we scrutinized these tombs in the Valley, the guides allowed us the freedom to comment on the various texts inscribed therein: The Book of Days and The Book of Nights; The Book of the Earth, The Litanies of Re and The book of Amduat. They re-christened us “Egyptian Negroes,” to hearty laughter all around that rang the limestone shafts cut deep in the earth. Like the nondescript piano movers, train station wayfarers and pedestrians described by Ralph Ellison in his essay The Little Man at Cheraw Station, these guards know more about the contents of the tombs than many who profess to be experts. As African-Americans, we have learned to meet people in our common humanity and take them at their lived experience rather than at the social rank or status that is often used to separate person from person. Because of this, we have been afforded particular warmth everywhere we have sojourned so far.
At the Luxor Museum we will see statues of Seti I, master builder and the moving force behind the temple he built at Abydos, described according to David O’Connor as being set “in the province which he loved, his heart’s desire ever since he had been on earth, the sacred soil of Wennefer (Osiris)” At Abydos two days ago, we examined the site with the richest untapped potential to yield traces that connect all periods of the Kemetic state. The area served as the burial site for the first rulers of Kemet (including Narmer the Unifier) and was venerated since at least 2,000 b.c.e. as the burial place of Wosir (Osiris). It is almost entirely un-excavated, and most of its temples and tombs were razed millennia ago so their materials could be re-used for other structures. Visitors to Abydos come to walk, meditate and absorb the unparalleled carvings in the astonishing temple of Seti I, completed by his son, Ramses II during the 19th Dynasty. The official name of the temple is The Noble Mansion of Millions of Years of the King Men-Ma’at-Ra who Rests in Abydos.
As significant as Abydos is, however, many tourists do not visit. According to the tour guides, Abydos is not on the standard tour package: It lies three hours from Luxor by bus. In visiting there, as well as Memphis and the Tombs of the Nobles in both Aswan and Deir el Medina, we have followed a generation of African-American tours of Kemet that were built by women and men who knew their importance to the intellectual genealogy of the Nile Valley, of African people, and of humanity.
Due to the focused and informed nature of our discussions as we visit the sites, other tour groups have been pausing to take note of how much our group knows about each place; the temple and tomb guards have been referring to us as “professors”; African-American tourists in the hotels have come up to us to ask how we have acquired so much information, and a couple from Eritrea brought her teenaged sons to class yesterday to exchange experiences. When we visited Dendera after leaving Abydos, we were able to discuss the particulars of Kemetic notions of time and space. The classical Africans gave the world the calendar it still uses; the concept of the 365 day year, the 24 hour day and the progression of the constellations in the star-strewn sky, inscribed in the famous "Dendera Zodiac." Our tour guide has been duly impressed with the level of hard work and preparation we have undertaken. She can, of course,only glimpse the passion that lies behind that type of effort.
Ours is a passion born of a sense of urgency. The world changes, but that which can be recovered of human memory that can save us from making the same mistakes of the past must be retrieved. Stevie Wonder had a premonition of his demise near his 23rd birthday and awoke from the vision to write and record"Higher Ground" in three hours in May, 1973. Three months later, he was in a coma because of an automobile accident. His road manager and friend, Ira Tucker, Jr., sat by his bedside as his vital signs ebbed. Finally, Tucker "got right down in his ear and sang 'Higher Ground." As he sang, Wonder's fingers, resting on Tucker's arm, started moving in time with the song. Tucker remembers saying "Yeah! This dude's gonna make it!"
I think of the fact that the lyrics of "Higher Ground" speak to the fact that our lives do not begin with our physical births, but rather have access to all the memories that previous lives provide to be retrieved. As we restore our memories, we give ourselves the means for our salvation, no matter what immediate tragedies or crises we encounter. Moment by moment, we have watched Ernest, Angi, Brittani, Sawdayah, Miriah, Jazelle, Shacrai, Clarice, Marcy, Nijeul, Dana, Havian, Robert and Jalena move as individuals and in concert to reach the highest ground. As Dana, Toria, Shelley, Gussie, Maria, Brittany my mother and I have worked alongside them, learning every moment of the way. I'm so glad that we have been able to do this again. Our last time here we did it well. Next time, should we be allowed, we will do it differently and differently better. For now, as we begin to reflect on our journey, we stand firmly on the highest ground.
Returning "home" from Kemet: A Blue(s) mood
We are back in Heliopolis, site of the ancient city of On, ten minutes from Cairo International Airport. Tomorrow morning, we return to New York and to our lives and studies with renewed spirits, reshaped visions and the foresight born from measured contemplation of where we have been. Still, the moment is not without its bittersweet undertones, its mood indigo. Last night in Luxor, we convened around the dinner table to reflect on our two weeks together.
A breeze blew in from the Nile, drying the tears that flowed, mingling with voices offering gratitude and determination. Many evoked the names of family and friends who raised money to subsidize their voyage, vowing to repay the investment with detailed descriptions and the lessons learned from the places they’d studied. Ernest, with his trademark coolness, thanked us all for stretching him. Angi observed that she sat in a place that her father has dreamt of visiting his entire life. Brittani evoked the Biblical passage that the race (in this case to recover our past and use it to rebuild our present and future) is not to the swift or strong, but to they that endureth to the end.
When we left the U.S. two weeks ago, the country was just entering the latest denoument of fatigue that accompanies supercharged stories of racial strife. The dying embers of the the latest contretemps, this one involving the “intellectual entrepreneur” Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., offers a useful example of what we must confront and what must not distract us as scholars of African descent. As Glenn Loury noted in the New York Times, Gates could have used his arrest and the media spotlight it afforded him to focus the country on the many instances when men and women of African descent have found themselves without the ability to defend themselves from legalized injustice, as well as on the many who languish behind bars wrongly or with sentences far more severe than their alleged offenses. Instead, Gates chose to highlight himself and move quickly to the rhetoric of forgiveness and reconciliation. In other words, he made another futile attempt to entertain the question that W.E.B. DuBois offered “nary a word” in response to a century ago, “How does it feel to be a problem?”
Race is a social reality in today’s global society. It is also a recent world historical phenomenon, and one that must ultimately be discarded if humanity is to develop beyond our fears and live our dreams as more than a handful of select individuals scattered in webs of privilege and sheltered isolation. The reality of Kemet and classical Africa removes the consideration of race as the lens through which those who study it view the world and approach social problems. Examining the ways that these Africans thought about themselves and their reality has the potential to re-attach us, first as Africans and ultimately as human beings, to the rich trove of ideas about self and society, world and cosmos that began with the dawn of organized thought and continues, unbroken, in the traces of the intellectual genealogy of Africana.
Last week, by examining in line by line fashion The Memphite Theology, our study tour group regained a point of view from the Kemetic wisdom literature on the relationship between matter and sentience, and considered the world’s most influential culture’s explanation of how to know the world we live in while contemplating that world’s essence. By tracing out the expression of this understanding at every stop we have made, culminating in this return to the ancient city of On, we have begun to understand the usefulness of discarding smallish, unhelpful frameworks for thinking about what is and what can be. Race becomes a puny thing, an ugly glitch in the long line of the best of what human beings have imagined.
Jacob Carruthers summarizes the idea of God in the Memphite Theology and the Kemetic worldview, noting that, for the Egyptians, God was the interaction of the fundamental essence of the eternal elements of all that is, described in their texts as four principles: Solvency [Nenew/Nenewt], “the primeval condition and substance of creation which has neither form nor stability”; Infinity in time and space [Hehew/Hehewt]; Darkness [Kekew/Kekewt], or the unicity of leveling perception; and endless, directionless Movement, hidden but constantly present[Tenemw/Tenemwt or, in many texts, Imun/Imunet].
As these eternal elements interacted, they expressed themselves in an act of ordered improvisation, a Sep Tepy (“first occasion”) moment of creation signified by the Netcher (expression of the Divine) Ptah. The Kemetians described this moment as “Medu,” or “speech,” the first word. Subsequently, Carruthers goes on to note, reality becomes an unending progression of the word, a genealogy of speeches that stretches from timeless infinity through now and the future, and includes the moment of thought that forms each moment in the human being. It attended the articulation of the elements out of which humans were said to have formed: Earth (Geb), Sky (Nut), Air (Shu) and Moisture (Tefnut). It then brought about the comingling of these elements as the expression of the four pairs of ancestors to human beings: Wosir (Osiris), Auset (Isis), Setekh (Set) and Nebhet (Nepthys). These were simply names for forces that have always existed but which always reveal themselves to the Egyptians’ limited perception in ways that were best managed by imagining and giving name to that which they could not see.
The Egyptians did not attempt to imagine that the interaction of these principles was not, in fact, the order of things in reality. In naming order Ma’at, in fact, they expressed a sentiment born from scientific observation that everything that is, always has been, and resolves itself ultimately in harmony, from the order of the stars to the rising and setting of the sun and the inundation of the Nile and the beating of the heart. For the Kemetic thinker, only our memory of witnessing and experiencing this ever-resolving harmony (provided by devices of writing and measuring gifted to humanity through the ideas of Djehuty and Seshat) is limited, and then only by the space we are willing to give our recorded memory and our creative intelligence, themselves issue of the self-same eternal principles.
Is this intellectual approach really different than the science that physicists evoke to discuss “string theory?” Does it differ qualitatively from the children that the Memphite Theology gave birth to, from the Abrahammic faith traditions to the various improvisational expressions of Africana deep thought, from Vodun, Cadomble or Santeria to the Africanized Protestantisms of Shango (Shouter) Baptists, Pentacostals or good old “shoutin’ Baptists?”. Of course not. The Kemetians did not distinguish between science, technology and spirituality, between sacred and secular, in any sense we would recognize today. Their faith was born from steady, patient observation: They believed, in the words of the 16th century African scholar from the great mosque of Timbuktu, Ahmed Baba, “in God and Science.”
But now, faced with a world that struggles to free itself from the maddening recent habit of reducing people to “races,” how do we capture in language this sense of the interconnectedness of all things? Western scholars have often evoked the alphabet as a progression in the human capacity to articulate ideas, noting that using symbols exclusively for sound (as distinct from using them for both sounds and ideas) frees the mind to recombine thoughts in endless variation. The fact that the modern alphabet is derived largely from Kemetic Medew Netcher notwithstanding, the Egyptians created their inscription system in an attempt to produce a method for capturing ideas, sights, sounds—even smells and tastes—in a coding process that hovered somewhere between the abstract and the concrete.
In an unbroken genealogy, African people have maintained these improvisational approaches to speech, apprehending the unknowable nature of the Sep Tepy but generating technique after technique for capturing more of it than mere words can achieve: In other words, Africana inscription systems consistently free “speech” from the straightjacket of word/script exclusivity. From the parent Medew Netcher of classical Africa, we see the danced reinscription of the orbit patterns of the stars Sirius and Sirius-B of the Dogon, who claim to have migrated with this knowledge to West Africa from the East; we observe the varying conceptual inscriptions of the Akan, collapsed into Adinkra symbols of cloth and metal and ink and bourne according to their collective memory along a similar migration arc; we note the ground markings of the Ki-Kongo Cosmograph, forming the perpetual cycle and spiral of reality whose movement traces the “four moments of the sun” in identical fashion to the Kemetic concepts of Kheper, Ra and Atum.
And, our memory re-attached by the memory of Djehuty and the measurements and records of Seshat, we trace anew the unbroken genealogy of these Africana improvisational speeches, Medew forced into ships and emptied living and whole into the Western hemisphere, reconvening itself and blending and reblending its systems of word, sound, sign, smell and taste, speaking yet again in the Sep Tepy that links classical Africa to the contemporary African world.
We may usefully refer to an essential element of these speeches as the “Blue Note,” that conduit of apprehension and expression that, like its ancestor Medew Netcher, enters the senses as a concrete expression and frees the mind and spirit to join as one, offering the ability to Sedjem, or “hear,” the highest form of intelligence for the Egyptians, so important that they inscribed the admonition to hear on the wall enclosing the double holy of holies at the late period Kemetic center for healers, Kom Ombo.
What is the best-known conduit of the Blue Note, the Blues, except a perpetually resolving expression of Ma’at? How different is the speech of the word-less Blue Note that Louis Armstrong sends forth for the three and a half minutes of West End Blues from the speeches of Khun Inpu in the Kemetic narrative of The Nine Petitions of the Farmer Whose Speech Is Good? Is the in-between the pentatonic scale wail of the Ki-Kongo/Bambara descended New Orleanian not improvising the original speech of Ptah within the perpetually resolving harmony of Ma’at, and in so doing allowing us to release our frustrations, hopes and determination into the expectation that, like Inpu before the magistrates and Per Uah, we shall find that which is true? When Inpu threatens to evoke the Netcher Inpu (Annubis) as the final arbiter of right and wrong, thereby bringing the corrupt officials to account before the scales of Ma’at, we can see Louis Armstrong sweating and smiling, handkerchief in hand, slicing through the subterfuge of minstrelsy with a trumpet sound that could, in the words of Ossie Davis, “kill a man.”
When Martin King, the night before his death, envisions the promised land, is this not an expression of the apprehension of Ma’at? “I Have a Dream,” far from an exercise in hopeful expectation of a failing system of Western “democracy,” becomes an improvisational re-inscription of Africana expectations of the resolution of dissonances into harmony when viewed through the lens of the judgment scenes we have traced in the tombs of Horemheb and Ramses IX, and read in the texts that adorn the walls of Abydos.
The western framework cannot hold such concepts. It is too ill-constructed, too immature. Ralph Ellison’s genius descriptions of the Blues overflow the modest and ill-equipped vessel of American exceptionalism into which he pours them, and the lineage of Homer, Hesiod, Dante, Shakespeare, Hawthorne and Thoreau which feed that vessel. But the Blues are at home with Ma’at, in vertical conversations with the classical genealogy and in horizontal conversations with its varied and various relatives across the African world. Like the main character in the Kemetic story of the “shipwrecked sailor,” the Blue Note points the way home, and home, Thomas Hardy’s admonition from the sidelines notwithstanding, is a place to which you can always return. Just as the Per Uah told the wayward Sinhue to “return to the Black Land (Kemet): It’s the place where you came into existence,” so the Blues reminds us of a place that exists beyond physical time and space and yet suffuses the time and space of any place that we find ourselves. It is speech writ large, like Medu Netcher.
One can imagine the Blues playing as one enters the sacred chambers at the temple of Seti I at Abydos. The Blue Note could reconcile the tender scenes of Seti adjusting the rainments of the Netchers, from the crown of Wosir to the garments of Auset. As Earth, Wind and Fire sang to us to “tell the story/morning glory/all about the Serpentine Fire,” it seems as if the Kemetic people took the idea of inscribing spiritual transcendence to heart.
As challenged by long-term memory loss as its author may be, nevertheless the Blues-tinged lines and sounds of 50 Cent’s “Many Men" is still much better equipped than Thucydides or Patton to help us understand the mood and mind of Ramses II, depicted in the temple at Abu Simbel astride his steed and preparing to plunge his Set battle division into the heart of the Hittite army.
"Many men/wish death upon me/Blood in my eye dawg and I can't see/I'm trying to be what I'm destined to be/And [Hittites] trying to take my life away/I put a hole in a [Hittite] for messing with me/My back on the wall/now you goin' to see/Better watch how you talk/when you talk about me/Cause I'll come and take your life away."
It is a Blues moment, infused with part Stagolee, part Muddy Waters channeling Jesus Christ in the temple. In the temple built next door for his wife, Nefertari, a simple glance at the adoring Ramses offering lotus flowers and incense to his wife is not enough: This is not Romeo and Juliet, or Brad and Angelina. Looking above Nefertari's head, one translates the glyph “Hemetch,” not semantically as “wife” in English, German, Spanish or French, but literally as “well of water.” If there is confusion to what water means to a people surrounded by desert, or to a Black Man, one simply has to reference the great speech of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the nearly eight minute “I Miss You.” Clearly, these are African people, these Egyptians.
Ausar battles his brother Setekh. Ausar is murdered, his body cut into pieces in some versions of the story and strewn in the Nile. Auset is alerted to the deed and, with her sister NebHet, retrieves all the pieces of her husband's body except the phallus, which is ultimately replaced with a proxy that allows her to impregnate herself with Ausar's seed and give birth to Heru. How many Egyptologists have linked this narrative to writers from Sophocles to Freud?
Perhaps the virtuoso performance of Son House’s Death Letter by the Blues emperess Cassandra Wilson before a live audience in New York City for the Great Night in Harlem album would, in linking indelibly to the unbroken genealogy of Africana medew, remove these ill-considered gestures. Riding the groove convened with congas, electric bass and guitar, she pulls tight the threads of lyric and tone she has woven through the ears and souls of the listening participants, enveloping the audience and every subsequent listener in a grand and irresistible call and response. It is medew, reaching a level of Ancestral communion that flows through her smoky contralto and helps us understand what Auset must have felt when she heard the news, and what she did in its wake:
"I got a letter this morning/how do you reckon it read/it said “hurry hurry, on account of the man you love is dead/got a letter this morning/how do you reckon it read?/It said “hurry hurry, the man you love is dead”…
"I packed up my suitcase/took off down the road/when I got there/he was lying on the coolin' board/Packed up my suitcase/took off down the road.../when I got there/he was lying on the coolin' board."
“Looked like it was 10,000 people/standing round the burial ground/I didn’t know I loved him/Till they layed him down/Look like it was 10,000 people/standing round the burial ground/Lord, I didn’t know that I loved him/until they layed my daddy down…
“You know I got up this morning/right about the break of day/I was hugging the pillow/Where he used to lay/I got up two in the morning/well, right at the break of day/I was hugging the pillow/where he used to lay…”
“Everybody hush!/Thought I heard him call my name/Wasn’t loud/it was so sweet and plain…/so sweet…./hush…/everybody hush…/I heard him call out my name…”
And what of the child born of that Blues moment of pain, triumph and the restoration of Ma'at? The story of Heru is not, as gestured toward by the German Egyptologist Jan Assman, a narrative that might be compared as a revenge fantasy in some fashion to Hamlet. Not if you refocus the speech as an antecedent to the sentiment expressed by Clarence Carter in “Patches.” One can hear Auset telling her son that she is counting on him “to pull this family through/my son, it’s all up to you.” Like the Blues, the narratives of Kemet are expressions of an understanding that transcends the limiting narratives of tragedy, comedy or the genre divisions of internal and external conflict. They are reminders that every challenge comes with the tools through which to meet and transcend it. And, we must remember, beyond the challenges lies the reassuring presence of Ma’at.
(sources: one | two | three | four | five | six)
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