Distinguished historian, anthropologist, and Pan-Afrikanist Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop blazed a trail of leadership that continues to make a major impact on those who study his accomplishments. Racial harmony and unity among Afrikans on the continent and in the Diaspora was at the forefront of his mind and he tirelessly worked to achieve that goal. His scientific studies and discoveries are legendary. As the author of ten books, he laid the groundwork for what would become his life's work in establishing and confirming the origin of humanity, substantiating the links between Nubia, Ethiopia, and ancient Kemet in pre-colonial history, and promoting the cultural, historical, geographical, and political unification of Black Afrikans.
Dr. Diop was born on December 29, 1923 in Thieytou, Diourbel Region to a prestigious Muslim Wolof family in Senegal where he attended a traditional school for Islamic children. His family was affiliated with the Mouride Brotherhood, a large Islamic Sufi order prominent in Senegal and Gambia. According to Dr. Diop, the Mouride Brotherhood is the only independent Muslim group in Afrika. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Senegal and left for Paris to begin his post-graduate degrees in mathematics, philosophy, and chemistry.
Education and Early Critical Acclaim
The education he received in Paris included a wide range of subjects. According to Dr. Diop he studied Sociology, Egyptology, Linguistics, Economics, Anthropology, and Physics. This last area of study became his specialization in 1957 after meeting Madame Curie’s son-in-law, Frederic Joliot-Curie, who ran a laboratory in Paris. During this time Dr. Diop also translated Einstein’s Theory of Relativity into his native Wolof language. His ability to gain proficiency in various areas of study such as rationalism, dialectics, modern scientific techniques, and prehistoric archaeology, just to name a few, gave him the necessary expertise to apply this vast array of knowledge to his research on Afrikan history. His students affectionately nicknamed him "Pharaoh of the Upper Nile" because of his skill in mastering and teaching so many disciplines.
Between 1949 and 1957 he submitted four doctoral theses with a focus on ancient Afrikan and predynastic Egyptian history. He argued, many claimed successfully, in his 1954 thesis, “Who Were the Pre-Dynastic Egyptians”, that Afrikan people populated ancient Egypt. Although this thesis was rejected, he used the information as the basis for his first published book Negro Nations and Cultures, achieving critical acclaim from it. The book was published during the early stages of the American Civil Rights Movement and made him one of the most controverisal authors of that time. After a stint as an assistant teacher and a change of universities, he submitted his final thesis. This time he changed the exclusive focus of the era in question and finally received his doctorate in 1960.
Flexing His Cultural and Political Muscles
Dr. Diop was an unapologetic Pan-Afrikanist, an ideology that was substantiated during his graduate studies in Paris. He gained notoriety in his strong leadership role and participation in a national Afrikan organization. The essential mission of this organization was based on restoring the awareness of Afrikans as a whole from a concrete, scientific, socio-historical outlook severely distorted by the kidnapping of Afrikans, the forced captivity and enslavement of Afrikans, and by colonialism.
He was conscious of how difficult this mission would become. His goal was to deliver information based on truth and refused to indulge the temptation to delude and thoroughly confuse those he attempted to educate about their true origins. He understood that " taking liberties with scientific truth by unveiling a mythical, imbellished past" would discredit the mission. The success of political Afrikan independence, he believed, was dependent upon the acknowledgement of the Afrikan's civilized humanity, starting as far back as ancient Egypt.
Dr. Diop returned to Senegal in 1960 to continue his research and what would become a lifetime of political activism. He founded and directed his revolutionary radiocarbon laboratory. With this facility, he was able to determine, concretely, the complexion and the ethnic origins of ancient Egyptians using microscopic analysis from melatonin dosages. He did this by creating a technique he developed and used on Egyptian mummies for testing their melanin content. This technique was later adopted by forensic scientists as a way to identify severly burned accident victims.
In the video below Dr. Diop describes through his French speaking interpreter how, "In practice it is possible to determine directly the skin color and, hence, the ethnic affiliations of the ancient Egyptians by microscopic analysis in the laboratory; I doubt if the sagacity of the researchers who have studied the question have overlooked the possibility."
Groundbreaking Work and Criticism
This groundbreaking work was met with criticism from his colleagues. They argued the test was inaccurate due to the chemicals used to preserve the bodies and the physical breakdown of the bodies over time. To counter his critics, he went to work forming a conference in Egypt, wrote a paper about the origins of Egyptians, and victoriously presented his set of principles to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1974 to a group of scientists specializing in Egyptology.
That same year, he published his first book translated into the English language The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality? He successfully proved that evidence from archaeology and anthropology upheld his viewpoint that the Pharaohs were of Negroid or Congoid origin. It's no wonder that many of his colleagues in the West continue to discredit his work. It exposed the intrinsic bias in the fields of science and research based on the exclusion of the Black Afrikan's origin and subsequent contribution to world history. In fact, findings at the site of Dukki Gel, Egypt by a Swiss archaeologist confirmed Dr. Diop’s scientific research that Nubia and ancient Egypt had close cultural links, they were closely related ethnically, they shared the same predynastic civilizations, and they shared the same governmental constructs.
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Afrikan Federated State
To the outsider, his views of an Afrikan federated state appeared radical but they were really quite rational. Dr. Diop saw it as the only way his beloved continent would overcome underdevelopment, reach it's former status and glory, and take it's rightful place in the world as a civilized powerhouse run by a conscious Black Afrikan power structure.
He expressed the need for the creation of a continental army whose purpose was to protect Afrika and the Afrikan people from any and all threats. His plan also included developing a raw materials industry and the potential for energy production and industrialization. Under these banners, a new organization was formed in 1963 through which Dr. Diop proceeded in his strident political activities. During this time, he resisted tremendous pressure from his rival, President Senghor, to accept positions in government for himself and his members as a way to squash their mutual opposition toward each other.
He and his membership would only accept these positions under two conditions: First, he demanded the release of every political prisoner. Second, he insisted government ideas and programs become the focus of discussion, not the allocation of sweetheart deals in the form of administrative posts. The President refused. This began Dr. Diop's ban on political participation for the next nine years, starting in 1966. However, he refused to remain idle and focused his energies on scientific research.
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Views and Critiques
Dr. Diop’s views on the significance of ancient cultures, the critiques of his previous scholarly works on Afrika, and the physical variability of the Afrikan people cannot be understated. He supported his beliefs by referencing ancient historians such as Herodotus, Strabo, the African Archaeological Review, the American Anthropologist, the Journal of Black Studies, and numerous scientists in the field of human gene mapping using contemporary DNA analysis.
He believed, due to scientific racism (particularly in the 19th Century and approximately 60 years into the 20th Century) by people like Carleton S. Coon, Carl Meinhof, Charles Gabriel Seligman and others, Afrikans were being pigeonholed into narrow racial categories and were being denied the Afrikan origin of homo sapiens. He denounced the theory of racial clustering, an unfounded theory these men promoted as a way to explain their view of racial differences. In the quarterly magaizine, Presence Africaine, his article Evolution of the Negro World refutes the arguments of these European scholars.
Ironically, his critics considered him a racist because of his consistent views that ancient Egyptians were Afrikan, inferring he had an imbalanced viewpoint. In fact, Dr. Diop contended Afrikan history must be viewed from a more balanced perspective than what some European scholars have consistently and wrongly offered for centuries. He countered that his colleagues are the ones who shouldn't continue their obsession with racial superiority under the guise of scientific research.
Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop substantiated the diversity of Afrika in the areas of genetics, physical differences, language, culture, religion, etc., with books like Towards the African Renaissance: Essays in Culture and Development, 1946-1960, Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology, and The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: The Domains of Patriarchy and Matriarchy in Classical Antiquity. His approach was one of searching for truth and he went about proving it using scientific research that rendered verifiable data. The pronounced body of work produced during his lifetime is a significant indication of his balanced approach to the scholarship of these subjects.
Although Dr. Diop passed away on February 7, 1986, his legacy is a lasting testament that lives on to this day. He established the Fondemental de L’Afrique Noir in Senegal which was later renamed Cheikh Anta Diop University after his death. His work continues to be researched, debated, and substantiated by scholars and those he influenced with his Pan-Afrikanist views. He has influenced people from various walks of life and will most likely do so for generations to come.