“Do not be arrogant because of your knowledge, but confer with the ignorant man as with the learned for the limit of skill (art) has not been attained, and there is no craftsman who has fully acquired his mastery.” – The Maxims of PtahHotep
Sooner or later, we all have to come face to face with the spiritually arrogant. It may very well be, that we ourselves have bouts of spiritual arrogance of our own to contend with. It can be as simple as looking down our noses as to why we are right in our beliefs and the other party or parties are wrong. The whole phrase, “Religious tolerance”, is not the same as religious acceptance. Tolerance infers that we are putting up with something, and yet all the time view our way as being superior. Acceptance means that we can accept the differences in how others do things and how their approach practice without being judgemental about it.
Being Kemetic, I find that this often raises its head. The leadership or membership of one Kemetic group disagrees with and/or dislikes another group because of doctrine or practice, or there is just plain jealousy. Accusations of one sect or another being a ‘cult’, or ‘mindlessly dogmatic’ are hurled and understanding is nowhere to be found.
One of the best cures that I have personally found for such an affliction is interfaith work. It is the choice to leave our own neighborhoods where the spiritual ghettos seem to get constructed without our even realizing it that seems to help the most. For me, it began doing interfaith work with Kashi Ashram in Sebastian, Florida. The experience of having attended Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati’s birthday celebration and fire puja where several dedicants were committed to priesthood at their Senyasi was a profound one. Ma taught that her way was not so much a religion but a way of being in the world and to practice kindness wherever possible. That meeting and that event, however, led me to doing more research into Hinduism and interfaith work with the local Hindu community. I am of course, no expert, but I do feel that the experience made me, I believe, a better Kemetic.
Even with all of this, after a time, I realized that I was feeling particularly smug and condescending toward other Kemetics and Neo-Pagans in general. I wanted to get back to my own Zep Tepi – the foundation of spiritual belief and doing ritual work and heka that would make me a better Priestess of Sekhmet.
In recent years, there has been a new resurgence of groups in the sphere of religion that focus on race and skin color. I have even been in the vicinity of one that insisted all of its members get DNA tests to ensure that they are of the right blood group in order to prove their lineage to certain bloodlines that mark them as “superior” to their human counterparts, claiming to hail back to either the bloodlines of the Tuatha de Dannan or to the Annunaki. They fervently believe that rulership, nobility and everything that sets them apart entitles them to be a part of a higher caste and class that the rest of humanity and everyone else are more or less shuffling herd animals incapable of real thought or magical/spiritual ability.
Unfortunately, this sort of ridiculously bigoted nonsense has migrated its way into the realms of Kemetic groups. Afrocentrist philosophies are not new. I am actually in agreement with many of the assertions that yes, the world’s greatest civilizations began in Africa. Homo sapiens (humans) began in Africa, so we all ultimately have a tie there, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.
In the early days of the internet, the militancy of some afrocentrist groups were reaching a fevered pitch. Some would troll the newsgroups on Usenet such as alt.archaeology, sci.archaeology or alt.culture.egyptian, screaming about blackness and racial issues that really had less to do with ancient Egypt at all and more about some sort of bragging rights or never-ending angst over an inaccurate, rendition of history that had Napoleon or his troops testing their cannon out on the nose of the Great Sphinx because the obviously African features of the ancient monument offended their eurocentric sensibilities.
For the record, that particular rendition of what happened to the nose of the Great Sphinx is patently FALSE. Napoleon was very much into Egypt at the time that he was in the country. He enlisted an entire corps of artists and engineers and as a result produced one of the greatest inventories of the ancient monuments, le Description de Egypte. That inventory compiled by Napoleon is still the most accurate one that we have to date. He would have likely put to death anyone who would do something that horrible -though some of his men left initials behind on some of the monuments. At any rate, the heinous Sphinx defacement was in fact done by a Muslim cleric in the 13th Century AD. That is just a little bit too early for even Emperor Napoleon, I’m afraid. Apparently, this particular Muslim cleric was quite upset that tourists went to the desert to see or ‘pay homage to’ a graven image, and he considered such reverence to be very ‘Un-Islamic’. He was going to put a stop to it….not unlike what some within more radical factions of Islam are proposing now by covering the ancient monuments in wax or destroying them in the same fashion that the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan. The marks from the pry-bars are still there on the Sphinx itself as evidence. You can see them if you can get close enough while they are trying to preserve the ancient beast. So much for the usual claim of Europeans trying to obliterate the monument because of alleged ‘racist motivations’.
Now there are even more scores of books and web pages just about everywhere you look that posit the notion that melanin = spiritual enlightenment and the inherent birthright to the kingdom of the Pharaohs. According to them, people who don’t have sufficient levels of melanin have pineal glands that are pretty much non-functioning. Proponents of this line of thinking propose the idea that if you don’t have enough melanin in your skin, you are told that you may admire ancient Kemet, its culture, people, history, etc. from afar but that you have absolutely no business worshiping the ancient Kemetic Netjeru at all. I have experienced this myself. When I was in my late teens, a woman noticed the pendant depicting a winged Aset (Isis) and proceeded on a tirade. How dare I worship African gods? I should find my own heritage and get my own gods!
The experience was devastating. I was quite honestly shocked and hurt at being the recipient of vitriol that came out of nowhere. From what I have been told, this experience is unfortunately not at all unusual and many others, who have lighter skin and are not distinctly African looking have suffered similar incidents. I know that I didn’t choose the Netjeru. I believed at that time, and I still firmly believe that They had chosen me. I was always happiest when I could look to the sky, catch the sight of a hawk or a falcon overhead. It served as a personalized reminder that Aset and Heru (Horus) were watching me from overhead and that things were going to change and inevitably everything would be alright. Now, some woman whom I didn’t even know, inexplicably walks up and tries to tell me that my connection is not mine at all and to wear Egyptian themed jewelry just smacked of wishful whitebread, honky, wannabi fantasies and that I should move along and get me back to a church pew at the nearest Christian house of worship? It was beyond belief.
Racism or bigotry of any sort, between one culture or sect of humans against another, is a horrible stain upon humanity. It is becoming sadly, more and more prevalent in the past decade and more specifically since nationalist sentiments have insinuated themselves in governments throughout the world. Political correctness discarded for the moment, I will say that, ‘Yes, we do need to discuss the past.’ The slavery that happened in the Americas from its inception till after the Civil War and beyond as well as the many, many horrific injustices that happened to African Americans from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights era right up to the present day should never be forgotten. I would never expect anyone who is of African American heritage to ever “get over it” any more than they should expect me and mine to ever “get over” the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee I and II, and the enforced sterilization of American Indian Women. That and scores of other dirty little secrets that were a part of BIA policy up to as late as 1976. My Aunt Lucille was one the ones who got sterilized because of it. The wounds are fresh for many of us, and we are not likely to forget them soon. Sometimes even forgiving seems like an impossibility.
Yes, we need to acknowledge the pain and the sacrifice of the ancestors on whatever side of whatever equation actually went through. We carry those memories in our DNA. We carry all of the prayers, the horrors, the sacrifice and the tremendous accomplishments deep within ourselves. The prejudice, the discrimination, the snide arrogance of stereotyping people into groups – it still goes on.
Racism and bigotry, especially within spheres such as religion and culture really are about ignorance. Culture is not something that boils down to skin colour or even regionality. I know what is like to have a bigotted person tell me I shouldn’t worship Egyptian deities because my skin isn’t the right colour. I also know what it is like to have been raised Indigenous and know that when you are “claimed” by a People as one of their own and adopt that culture as your own in terms of how you identify, NO ONE (!!!) can gainsay that.
One of my favourite examples of this is in the person of Mr. JDK Chipps, of the Lakota Chipps family. JDK was born into a white family. That family is not particularly notable excpt that he is in no part Native by blood. However, because of his devotion to the Lakota People and to the preservation of lands and especially the buffalo, he was adopted by the Lakota Nation as one of their own. He is a Lakota now. Period. Those who have dared to tell JDK or any of the People of his Nation and especially his family that he is not Lakota because his skin is the wrong color finds out otherwise very, VERY quickly just how wrong they are in the assumption. What’s important is that the Lakota Nation and his community knows who JDK is and vice versa. In the end, that is all that is necessary. Those are the kinds of things that simply don’t fit into neat little boxes of blood quantum and DNA. Racism and bigotry are both complex issues. However, knowing who you are, who your People are, and devotion to that – without trying to hold yourself above others, that’s the point.
Even with all of this acknowledgement, however, it doesn’t take much to realize that we do not solve the issues by screaming at people who are appreciating something beautiful and wonderful throughout the countless civilizations throughout the world, and all of the vastly diverse peoples who created them. It does not help anyone to act belligerently toward sincere people who love the gods and love ancient Egypt or any other culture for itself. Telling them to go away, and judging them as some other, or “Them” inevitably ends up being a kind of racism or bigotry itself. What happens, then, when children come from a mixed racial background want to find out who they are? What is considered “African enough”? What is Indian enough or Asian enough or European enough or whatever? What parent, ancestor or heritage should someone eschew in order to fit into these newly constructed ideas of race = culture are? These days, DNA testing can narrow down where certain groups of people were and how they migrated. Humanity has been meeting, mingling throughout history. PBS has had some wonderful specials on just that. It is amazing and awe-inspiring just how far science has come in that it has determined that we truly do carry our akhu (ancestors) within us, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the issues surrounding race or culture.
So what happens, if after the DNA test results come out, and a person is actually presented with the scientific evidence and knowledge that none of their blood ancestors cannot be traced to a specific tribe, area, country or culture? What if certain people of colour have no connection to the spiritual things that resonate most to them? How far does it go when someone finds out that their own bloodline has been “polluted” somewhere along the way, and they are not purely one thing or another? When does it stop and where does it end?
Certainly, our akhu of ancient Kemet would not do that. They had no problem with people worshiping their gods – or allowing them to bring their own into the country just as long as the ideal of Ma’at was adhered to. If faced with such a reality, does that mean that those with no DNA connection would also have to stop paying attention to the Netjeru and go only with what their true ancestors did and how they believed? What about those who are called – though we may not ourselves understand what a specific Name of Netjer may have in mind for that person – and they are still called? Is it ‘cultural appropriation’, then, to love something and want to appreciate it and give thanks for it by murmuring a prayer to Sekhmet or to HetHert or Ptah somehow wrong? Is holding one’s hands up in the gesture of henu or praise at seeing the sunrise and giving thanks to Ra somehow taking away from another culture and ‘stealing’ from it?
I don’t believe that it is.
There is also another disturbing trend within the ranks of Afrocentrists and Afrocentrism and that is the use of materials that are 1) completely out of date, eg. the public domain works of Sir. E.A. Wallis Budge. I have written about this before. Yes they are cheap, sometimes they are even free – but during the time that they were created, the author was clearly a citizen within a large empire, populated by people who did not appreciate the Egyptians for who they were but rather wanted to do as much as they possibly could to make them like themselves. During the Victorian era, expeditions, particularly to Egypt and the ancient world, were more easily funded if it promised to underscore the thoughtform and religious beliefs of the status quo based on some ancient model that it was allegedly derived from. These same people were the very definition of eurocentrism – far more than current Egyptologists who offer more current up to date and affirming works. Many if not nearly all of those early authors were racists. They believed in things such as the heiress theory and the idea that a certain caste and class of people oversaw the darker skinned commoners and did everything that they could to keep those bloodlines pure. One of these authors went as far as to say, “Egypt must never be allowed to partake of Africa’s spirit.”
Budge and his contemporaries were cut very much from the cloth of eurocentricity during that time. Of course, the times have changed and we now have in the ranks of egyptology, those who are not just native born Egyptians – but also Americans, Europeans, Asians, and Africans from all over the continent. In the days that Sir E. A. Wallis Budge was penning his works, there was an underlying idea of an apartheid system with a ruling class made up of a white minority who oversaw all aspects of power. They set themselves up so that they might oversee the majority of darker skinned non-European people. Budge ‘s works does no one any favors – except he had some good typesetting, but his translations were completely off in many ways. To the point, we need to not only take the contents of books into account but also the the eras in which those writings were produced and how the cultural mindset of the authors whose views very probably bled over into the thesis and conclusions that were made.
How is this sort of prejudice and racism any different from what the slave masters of the south believed? How is it different from the views that were put forth in Nazi propaganda by Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich? How tolerable would it be for those who are not of African American decent to make the same sort of bigoted claims that many within afrocentrism seem to make today?
My guess is that the public outcry and the flurry of social media backlash would be astounding if not downright deafening. What makes us different in terms of religious beliefs, culture, and out outward appearance is, I believe, what makes us beautiful. There is a line in that wretched film, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” when a little English girl comparing her skin colour to that of the Moor, Hakim (played by Morgan Freeman), “Why did God paint you?” And Hakim smiled at her and gave her the most simple, yet breathtakingly beautiful answer: “Because He loves infinite variety.”
Infinite variety should not instill arrogance in any of us. If anything, it should instill an almost overwhelming feeling of awe.
Furr, Grover. “Fallacies of Afrocentrism.” Fallacies of Afrocentrism. Monclair State University, English Department, n.d. Web. 18 June 2014.
Jaroff, Leon. “Teaching Reverse Racism.” Time. Time Inc., 24 June 2001. Web. 23 June 2014.
Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard, “Melanin, Afrocentricity, and Pseudoscience”, Academia.edu