“A lonely truth can be brought down by a pack of lies”: PBS’s Black Pharaohs, concessions, and the on-going Battle for Kemet


The Black Pharaohs is merely the latest reflection of the on-going intellectual assault being waged against African culture, African history, and African people. We are besieged on all sides, surrounded by an implacable foe bent on our annihilation.

For some the connection between this seemingly informative film and the Intellectual War that Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers wrote of may not be obvious. Some may see this film as a valuable acknowledgement of the role of Africans in the ancient Nile Valley. Others may see it as setting the record straight as it relates to the history of Kush (Nubia). Yet, this film represents the traditional forms of duplicity characteristic of European’s historiography of African people. This perpetration of falsehood is not simply about sowing seeds of confusion, rather it is about posing our ancestors as the villains in a complex political drama, continuing on the narrative of African mental enfeeblement, and perpetuating the myth that Europeans are central or even relevant to the reconstruction of Africa’s ancient past.

Years ago during a presentation on Kush, Dr. Anderson Thompson stated that while the white intellectual world was unwilling to loose their hold on Kemet and its history and embrace the obvious notion that it was an African (Black) civilization, that they were willing to acknowledge the obvious blackness of Kush—offering a concession of sorts to African-Centered scholars. In this paper I examine The Rise of the Black Pharaohs as a multi-layered message. I argue that this film simultaneously concedes to African-Centered scholars a share of Kemet’s legacy, while also derisively characterizing that legacy.

Representation as reality reconstruction

Cultural Studies scholar Stuart Hall discusses the role representation. Representation has a dualistic nature. It is the re-presentation of reality. It is also the process of constructing a form that stands in for reality. Herein representation is afforded immense power in the constitution of reality. Thus media representations of us and our ancestors are not a casual affair, but are a means to construct reality in a manner often detrimental to our interest.

Truth and falsehood

There’s an African proverb from present-day Mali that states “A lonely truth can be brought down by a pack of lies.” This proverb offers the image of truth as a lone traveler on the road who finds themselves unwittingly surrounded by a gang of fiendish bandits appearing out of nowhere. Truth fights courageously, but in the end is subdued by the thieves. This proverb suggests that truth, though righteous and just, can be overwhelmed by falsehood. This relationship is at the core of The Black Pharaohs. The lonely truth of the African presence in the Nile Valley is enveloped within a web falsehoods that ultimately contribute to its undoing.

The film offers an overview of the relationship between Kemet and Kush. It discusses the Kemetic occupation and annexation of Kushite land at various junctures. It also discusses the eventual ascendance of Kush and its conquest of Kemet with the establishment of the 25th Dynasty. Finally, it discusses the eventual fall of the 25th Dynasty, the decline of Kush, and the efforts of modern archaeologists to reconstruct this history. However throughout the film were a number of dubious claims. I will discuss each of these in turn.

The first problematic claim was the idea of enmity was the normalized state of foreign relations between these two societies. The featured experts on Kush assure us that Kush was a site of continuous subjugation by Kemet, that the Kushites were so loathed that the Kemites practiced form of “…racial profiling”, as they, among other things, portrayed the Kushites as “…more tribal, more savage…”. Thus it is Kemet, not modern Europeans, who are the architects of race and racism. It is the Kemites who constructed the iconography of tribalism and savagery, not 19th and 20th Century Europeans. And it is Kemet that is credited with initiating the campaign against African culture and humanity, and not modern Europe.

Elsewhere I have written that “…the enterprise of history itself is not simply a matter of methods of inquiry, or the application of tools of investigation, but rather it is a process that is directed or informed by the ideational imperatives of the period of its conceptualization” (Rashid 2014, 32). Thus history, as with all human enterprise, is a function of culture. It is not simply a matter of the technical application of methods, but reflects the ideational imperatives of the society, most notably its worldview constructs.

The argument that antagonism was the driving force in Kemet-Kush relations is in part based on the European worldview, wherein the political relations of Kemet and Kush can only be viewed in militaristic terms, terms of dominion and subordination (Carruthers 1997). What is most notable here is that this oppositional dichotomy does not consider the possibility of ancestral, cultural or political affinity between these two societies. The very designation of Kush as the source of the Black pharaohs, suggest that Kemet is the source of pharaohs that are non-black. Thus while the blackness of Kush serves to moor it to the African world, one can only presume that Kemet’s mooring is to western Asia by implication. Therefore at the center of the presumption of natural and deep hostility between Kemet and Kush is the implied racial difference, and with it the racialization of the Kushites as inferiors. This assertion seeks to drive a wedge between the affinity of these societies, and link Kemet to the historical arc of the modern European world and its loathing of Africans.

This argument most aptly captures the degree to which a cultural worldview effectively shapes what is known. I call this phenomenon the epistemic horizon and describe it as a dynamic perimeter of knowledge or awareness. It proscribes the bounds of what is known and knowable. If culture, or more specifically worldview is a mediator of what is known and knowable then the capacity of European scholars, socialized within an ontological tradition of whiteness and the political-economy of white supremacy must, by necessity, enter into the study of African history and culture fettered by these conceptual frames. This poses a number of quandaries with respect to modern Europeans and their ability to forthrightly deal with Africans and their history.

The second problematic claim was that Kush lacked a cultural center, instead adopting the culture of their Kemetic conquerors. Thus Kemet is now also guilty of cultural imperialism, and the Kushites the victims of cultural suppression.

There are a number of puzzling things about this claim. One is that it ignores archaeological evidence from early Kush (such as the incense burner from Qustul) that displays iconography associated with Kemet. The anteriority of these images predates any Kemetic military incursion into Kush, thus refuting the thesis that military conquest was the principal means of any Kemet-Kush knowledge transfer. Another plausible, but absent idea from the film was that Kemet and Kush shared a common culture, one that although variegated, shared a common basis and origin.

The cultural imperialism argument fails to capture the synergistic relations of the various societies that emerged along the Hapi Iteru (Nile River). Furthermore, What this argument does succeed at reinforcing are white supremacist claims of African intellectual inferiority. Thus while the film’s commentators critiqued the archaeologists of the colonial period (most notably George Reisner) for their anti-Black racism, they reify these claims in their wholesale dismissal of Kushite cultural agency.

The third false claim is that the geographical orientation of Kemet was towards Western Eurasia, not Africa south of the first cataract. This is evident when the film’s narrator states that the Kemites, during one of their many campaigns against Kush, sees Jebel Barkal for the first time. The obvious implication here is that Kemet’s origins lie, not to the South, deeper in Africa’s interior, but to the North in Eurasia. Thus Kemet’s ancestral and cultural moorings in Africa have been severed, and it has instead been made a child of Eurasia, and Africa south of the first cataract is presented as a land of mystery (or plunder) for the ancient Kemites.

This film and its numerous deficits are not aberrations. These are not careless mistakes, or hapless errors. This is an assault on African history. Worse still, it is an attempt to undermine the efforts of Africans working towards historical reclamation by disparaging the achievements of our ancestors, and by extension, seeking to diminish the importance of our work as scholars to explicate their history. This assault however is not isolated. It is merely a repetition of earlier strikes against, and rather than incapacitating us, it reminds us to rally our forces, maintain vigilance, and to strike back knowing that this is intellectual warfare.

ASCAC and the defense of truth

The work of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilization provides an essential vehicle to facilitate both the reconstruction and dissemination of African history. It provides a mechanism via which we can augment our capacity to defend the historical legacy of African civilization, in addition to sustaining our efforts to reconstruct and restore it. Central to this work is the importance of ASCAC and affiliated groups expanding our outreach capacity so as to maximize our capacity to shape the consciousness of our people. This work should utilize every available means: study groups, publications, conferences, streaming media, and so forth.

Undefended, truth will fall prey to marauders. The defense of truth is our collective charge. We must stand vigilant.


Carruthers, Jacob H. 1997. “A Memorandum on an African World History Project.” In The Preliminary Challenge, edited by Jacob H. Carruthers and Leon C. Harris, 356-361. Los Angeles: Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations.

Rashid, Kamau. 2014. “Thoughts on Returning Home and Healing the Casualties of Intellectual War.” Kemetic Voice no. 1 (1):31-35.