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Social Studies

The Color of Cleo

By Vincent Williams | Posted 6/23/2010

My inbox has been ablaze over the past few weeks because of the casting of Angelina Jolie in the role of Cleopatra in an upcoming biopic. The beef is, of course, over the fact that many people don't believe Cleopatra was what we would call white. The funny thing is that I'm already in movie protest mode, showing my black/brown/yellow solidarity and boycotting the casting of white actors in Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender. I have to admit that my protest of those two movies is a lot less personal than my feelings about Cleopatra, though. In many ways, the phrase, "Well, I know Cleopatra didn't look like no damn Liz Taylor" encapsulates a very specific type of black outrage.

I spent a lot of time with righteous dudes as a younger man. I had friends in the Nation of Islam and the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths, I knew Rastafarians, Nubian Islamic Hebrews, and a bunch of folks who just read a bunch of books. And we would all have epic arguments about the World Bank and COINTELPRO and the prison industrial complex, and someone would put X-Clan, Brand Nubian, and the Poor Righteous Teachers CDs on repeat, and, boy oh boy, now you got yourself a Thursday night! It was one part educational and one part shit-talking, and, in retrospect, one part pretty strange, but those were the times.

As much as all involved fashioned themselves intelligent, when it came to sheer rhetoric, everyone had to defer to the Afrocentric Egyptology dudes. Those guys. Oh, they read Anthony Browder's From the Browder Files and George G.M. James' Stolen Legacy, and it changed their life! Religious garb is one thing, but these guys represented that weird point where black nationalism and cosplay intersect. My boy Shawn . . . one day he just started dressing like Afrika Bambaataa. No warning, no nothing; one day, he's a dude from the suburbs of New Jersey talking about De La Soul and reading The Destruction of Black Civilization, the next, he steps out the dorm and he's got a staff, a big weird hat, some kind of tunic, some necklaces, he's changed his name to something that can't be pronounced but is spelled squiggle-Eye of Ra-bird head man-pyramid, and I'm wondering when Jazzy Jay and Pow Wow are going to show up. But, regardless of how, well, ridiculous they looked to the blind, deaf, and dumb in the 85 percent, again, those guys trump everyone. Ancient Kemet and our glorious hidden history as kings and queens was always more important than the paltry details of whatever was happening in the hells of North America.

At the center of those discussions of the hidden history of black people was always the depiction of Egyptians, specifically Cleopatra. Now, through the power of having had this conversation hundreds of times, I can feel people running to their computers to write in and say that Cleopatra wasn't black, she was adopted, and then someone's going to start talking about Ptolemy and dynasties and Nubia and pictures of the sphinx's nose and how this has been disproved, and then someone's going to say that has been disproved, and race is an American construct, and, oh my God, someone has pulled out a map and . . . please. Don't. The shit was tedious even 20 years ago when I was listening to it with a soothing 7-Eleven special in my hand (1] Get a Big Gulp of your favorite beverage--I enjoyed fruit punch. 2] Drink half. 3] Fill open space with grain alcohol. 4] Enjoy.) Dead sober, there's no way I'm wading into that conversation. Put the pointer and the genealogy chart down and let's all just agree, as we did those many years ago, that she "didn't look like no damn Liz Taylor."

I joke, but I get it. Traditionally, black people have had to fight against the power of the victor's writing of history. This is the point where I usually share some horrific story of my father's schooling in '50s Alabama, but, hell, my wife talks about having a teacher in Harford County who told her mostly white class that Georgetown was the only good part of Washington, D.C. because "the rest was just poor and black"--and that was in the '80s. It's the old joke. Black history has traditionally been taught in three parts: slavery, Martin Luther King, and it's all good. We all need our history. And, for too long, that simple right was denied to African-Americans. So I understand the urgency and fervor around many people's beliefs and how sensitive we get about the past.

Still, in 2010, I don't know. It feels counterintuitive to say Cleopatra isn't really that important in establishing self-worth but, just last week, we were watching the episode of Martha Speaks where a stand-in for Barack Obama appears, and my daughter thought it was just another president. Not only did I have to explain to her that Obama is the only black person that's been president but, as she continued to look puzzled, I had to gently inform her that, sometimes, white people get to be president, too. The kids have a different perspective on this stuff than we do.

And, frankly, I've never been that comfortable with the fetishization of African kings and queens. Despite what dozens of black scholars, Queen Latifah, and those Budweiser Black History Month calendars said, I never really liked it. Maybe it's the Americanism in me, but I don't care what a king looks like, he's still a king. And, as Juba so pointedly observes in Wynton Marsalis' Blood on the Field, if there's a king then someone has to be a slave. Everybody wasn't a king and queen in our glorious past. Naw, I'd rather celebrate Mae Jemison or Sharon Vaughn or Janelle MonA¡e or Shirley Chisholm. But I'll go along, and I'll protest this newest Cleopatra as well. Because she probably didn't look like no damn Angelina Jolie either.

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