Dwelling in Truth

This essay is part of a year long series following one fed-up reader’s white literature “detox.” Read more here, and follow her book list here.

The hood has a parking lot economy. If you drive down certain streets in predominately black neighborhoods, you’ll see tables and tents or sometimes just a pickup with its truck bed door open. Some of the products on offer are regional: fruit and vegetables if you live close to where there are farms, bean pies if your area has a Nation of Islam presence. Most of the products are the same no matter where you are: knockoff designer purses and logo T-shirts, self-published novels, bootleg CDs and DVDs, and every now and again some art. As a kid, whenever my mom would take us to the beauty supply store, we’d almost always see this dude selling Afrocentric wooden statuary and paintings of dark skinned people dressed like Zulu warriors and Ancient Egyptian queens. As an adult I wonder how he possibly made enough money to make it worth his while to be such a constant presence, but at the time I just thought those paintings were cool.

Covers of Akhenaten by Naguib Mahfouz and Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Truth be told, I hadn’t thought about that dude and his paintings for years, until I finally got around to reading Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth. I’ve tried starting this book several times in the last few years, until I inevitably got distracted. It’s not a casual read, and until recently I’ve been unable to read much of anything challenging. One negative side effect of the difficult experience that was my brush with an M.F.A. was that after dropping out of my program, after feeling nothing but negativity and exhaustion at the thought of picking up a book, any book, was that reading became nearly unbearable. Don’t get me wrong; I missed it immensely. But the thought of choosing a book, especially fiction (which was what I was writing at the time) felt impossible, in the way that taking a shower or cooking a meal can feel impossible in the depths of a major depressive episode.

I never knew anything about that guy and his art, remembering him got me thinking about the ways in which many modern black people in the U.S. often latch on to specific historical African identities that cannot necessarily belong to us. Akhenaten and his much more famous wife Nefertiti seem to be a particular magnets for these so-called “conscious” brothers (anecdata: it’s usually men) who exorcise their American racial anxieties through pseudohistorical, Neo-Egyptian superiority complexes. Rather than reckon with their own blackness—unwieldy and amorphous as it may be—they seek to claim another’s identity as an easy way out.  In the vacuum of identity that comes from being the descendants of people who, de rigueur, had their cultures and traditions violently stripped from them, the impulse is understandable. I get it; I grew up in the ’90s, my parents put me in kente cloth belts and pan-African-colored T-shirts and in 2nd grade I wore my first and only dashiki so often that it fell apart. That impulse is part of the reason Kwanzaa exists, why you see so many people with ankh tattoos*, and why so many black children are told by well-meaning uncles that we are descended from queens and kings. What worries me about the desire to “reclaim” this idea of we have of the Africa of our ancestors is that we really, really suck at it.

This is how we know we really are Americans after all: so often those who latch on to afrocentrism do so haphazardly, without a rhyme, reason, or consistency for choosing the cultural signifiers that they adopt. Countries where most Africans kidnapped during the Transatlantic Slave Trade likely hailed from are ignored in favor of the easily identified Ancient Egyptians, Ethiopians, and pre-colonial Zulu Nation. We are doing the entire “motherland” a disservice when we choose our historical heroes at random. Why is Shaka Zulu is not differentiated from Nefertiti, and why are either more important to black Americans than Mansa Musa? Why did Swahili become the language of choice for Kwanzaa but not Wolof or Fula or even Arabic (which were much more likely to have been spoken by our enslaved ancestors)? We are not a people without a history, it’s just that the more recent chapters of that history are horrific and depressing and horrifically depressing. But we must accept our history and status for what it actually is than what we would prefer that it be before we can hope to change anything or improve our lot.

Because there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, I’m going take a moment to borrow heavily from the introduction to James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.” In some circles, the six-page introduction to this collection is more famous than any other part of the book, and with good reason. Baldwin talks about this very thing, the alienation from American culture, calling himself  “a kind of bastard of the West.” He then goes on:

 …when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use–I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine–I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme–otherwise I would have no place in any scheme. What was the most difficult was the fact that I was forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself, which the American Negro has had to hide from himself as the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt. In effect, I hated and feared the world. And this meant, not only that I thus gave the world an altogether murderous power over me, but also that in such a self-destroying limbo I could never hope to write.

In a way, the psuedoscientific and psuedohistorical way that some of the “Hoteppers” cling to Egypt feels like more of the same. You could sub in Nefertiti and Ramesses for Bach and Rembrandt, the pyramids at Saqqara for the Empire State Building, and it would seem just as incongruous. More so, because at least with his allusions to Europe, many of we the descendants of American slaves can (and unfortunately must) at least lay claim to varying degrees of European ancestry. We must “appropriate these white centuries” because even though they seem to belong to our oppressors they are just as much ours; they are our pride and shame and cultural inheritance in equal measure. The same cannot be said for Egypt at all.

This book, while providing no solid answers, is important reading for anyone who would pick it up, but especially for those to believe they have found some pseudohistorical “truth” about the “superiority” of their own people. Especially when we’re talking about people who weren’t even your people. More than anything else, it is an allegory in the tradition of Ancient Egyptian philosophical discussions told through story. It provides no solid answers about the “truth” of Akhenaten nor about our ability to ever determine what the truth is, but it does explore one man’s attempts to understand his specific truth and the broader nature of “truth” in general. I don’t know enough about modern Egypt to place this in Mahfouz’s own time, but I read often enough about Ancient Egypt to say that what he has accomplished with this novella puts him on firm ground with regard to thinking about his nation’s both ancient and recent pasts (though I’m not exactly sure a Nobel Prize winner needs my approval). Just the fact that he had that amount of substantiated history to work with makes me jealous, and while I can claim his stories as my own on some general human level, it would be a disservice to both Egypt and Africa as a whole for me or any other child of West African diaspora and American colonialism to attempt to take it any further.

*Full disclosure: I do have an Egyptian-themed tattoo but it is definitely NOT an ankh.

By Ashley

Ashley is a North Carolina based aspiring librarian and amateur historian (if by "historian" you mean "one who loses many hours to dynastic Wikipedia spirals"). She does not hate the South.

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