Opinion | Fear of a Black Cleopatra
The new Netflix docudrama “Queen Cleopatra,” produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith, has already elicited a passionate response, though perhaps not the kind that publicists hoped for. Since news broke that the series would star the British actress Adele James, fans, Egyptologists, scholars of Greco-Roman antiquity and Arab and Greek news outlets have been debating whether the series willfully distorts history. The reason? “Queen Cleopatra” depicts the legendary monarch as Black.
Cleopatra, who died in 30 B.C., remains a source of pride for disparate communities. Many contemporary Egyptians view her as a key figure in the preservation of their history and even as a role model for contemporary Egyptian women. Greeks have also claimed her, noting that she was of Macedonian and Greek descent.
Depictions of Cleopatra with darkly pigmented skin date back at least hundreds of years. A 14th-century chronicle depicts her in a kind of charcoal gray. Scholars have long debated whether certain references in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” suggest that the playwright believed she had dark skin. In contemporary American pop culture, the assertion is often stated as fact, with her characterized as a beautiful and powerful Black African queen, her name commonly referred to as such in hip-hop.
“Queen Cleopatra,” however, has touched an international nerve. The debate around the docudrama escalated when an Egyptian lawyer called for Egyptian authorities to censure Netflix, accusing it of misrepresenting “Egyptian identity.” Zahi Hawass, a former minister of antiquities for Egypt, also entered the fray, claiming that a “falsehood” stands “at the heart of this series.” Cleopatra’s “first language was Greek,” he wrote in an essay for Arab News, “and in contemporary busts and portraits she is depicted clearly as being white.”
What debates like this miss is that current notions of race are relatively recent inventions and do not necessarily speak to how people of Cleopatra’s day saw the world or themselves. Classicists tell us that although the Greeks and Romans did notice skin color, they did not regard it as the primary marker of racial difference. Other concepts — environment, geography, ancestral origin, language, religion, custom and culture — played bigger roles in delineating groups and identities. So regardless of the material a sculptor may have chosen with which to summon Cleopatra’s powerful visage, there is no meaningful sense in which she — or anyone else of her era — would have identified as white.
The question that follows is: How, then, can anyone, including a Netflix dramatization, claim that Cleopatra was Black?
Netflix’s casting was informed by the views of Shelley Haley, a renowned classicist and Cleopatra expert, who claims that, although evidence of her ancestry and physical attributes are inconclusive, Cleopatra was culturally Black.
Dr. Haley has said that she was struck by the experience, early in her life and career, of encountering Black American communities that seemed to view Cleopatra as one of their own. Building on that experience, Dr. Haley’s academic work on Cleopatra adopts a more complex criterion for racial identification than skin color alone. “When we say, in general, that the ancient Egyptians were Black and, more specifically, that Cleopatra was Black,” Dr. Haley wrote, “we claim them as part of a culture and history that has known oppression and triumph, exploitation and survival.”
Her point is that we are not limited to considering only representations of what Cleopatra looked like or descriptions of her ancestry. We can also use what we know of her life, reign and resistance to understand her race as a shared cultural identity.
So what exactly do we know?
Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, was a member of the family that conquered Egypt over 200 years earlier. He was routinely referred to as an illegitimate child. His mother is unknown, as is the identity of Cleopatra’s mother, though several clues suggest she may have been Egyptian, including Plutarch’s claim that Cleopatra was likely the first Ptolemaic ruler to speak that language.
When the Roman poet Propertius famously called Cleopatra a whore queen (meretrix regina), he laced his misogynist tirade with allusions to Egypt, such as the poisonous city of Alexandria and the “yapping” Egyptian god Anubis. The intersection of Cleopatra’s race and gender resulted in a form of oppression that cast her heritage and sexuality as particularly dangerous. Regardless of her lineage or appearance, it’s clear that Cleopatra’s actions were not perceived as the typical behavior of a Greek or Roman woman.
Throughout her reign, Cleopatra was also careful not to depict herself as a wife or consort but rather as Isis, the great Egyptian goddess who raised her son alone, without her slain husband, Osiris. Cleopatra was a pragmatist, doing what it took to survive, aligning herself first with Caesar, then with Mark Antony, before fleeing Actium when the tides turned. Finally, when it became clear to her that Octavian would let her live only in order to march her through Rome as a war captive, she took her own life by poison.
Dr. Haley argues that Cleopatra’s experience was part of a history of oppression of Black women. Reclaiming Cleopatra as Black and choosing to portray her now as a Black woman highlights this history — and is consistent with contemporary Egyptians or Greeks identifying with Cleopatra on the grounds of their own shared culture. Unlike racial assignments based on physical characteristics, which seek to distill people into rigid and recognizable categories, shared cultural claims can easily coexist.
To recognize Cleopatra as culturally Black is not to pretend that skin color is meaningless now — in the manner of recent figures like Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug, who claimed a cultural identity that was not theirs. In our society, race and racism are deeply entwined with skin color and other inherited physical traits. We cannot understand modern forms of oppression without understanding how phenotypical difference contributes to them, and we cannot legitimately claim a racial history without having lived it.
Cleopatra lived it. And it’s that experience, not her physical attributes, that should determine how we imagine her life.
Gwen Nally is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. Mary Hamil Gilbert is an assistant professor of classics at Mississippi State University.
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