We are back in Heliopolis, site of the ancient city of On, ten minutes from Cairo International Airport. Tomorrow morning, we return to New York and to our lives and studies with renewed spirits, reshaped visions and the foresight born from measured contemplation of where we have been. Still, the moment is not without its bittersweet undertones, its mood indigo. Last night in Luxor, we convened around the dinner table to reflect on our two weeks together. A breeze blew in from the Nile, drying the tears that flowed, mingling with voices offering gratitude and determination. Many evoked the names of family and friends who raised money to subsidize their voyage, vowing to repay the investment with detailed descriptions and the lessons learned from the places they’d studied. Ernest, with his trademark coolness, thanked us all for stretching him. Angi observed that she sat in a place that her father has dreamt of visiting his entire life. Brittani evoked the Biblical passage that the race (in this case to recover our past and use it to rebuild our present and future) is not to the swift or strong, but to they that endureth to the end.
When we left the U.S. two weeks ago, the country was just entering the latest denoument of fatigue that accompanies supercharged stories of racial strife. The dying embers of the the latest contretemps, this one involving the “intellectual entrepreneur” Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., offers a useful example of what we must confront and what must not distract us as scholars of African descent. As Glenn Loury noted in the New York Times, Gates could have used his arrest and the media spotlight it afforded him to focus the country on the many instances when men and women of African descent have found themselves without the ability to defend themselves from legalized injustice, as well as on the many who languish behind bars wrongly or with sentences far more severe than their alleged offenses. Instead, Gates chose to highlight himself and move quickly to the rhetoric of forgiveness and reconciliation. In other words, he made another futile attempt to entertain the question that W.E.B. DuBois offered “nary a word” in response to a century ago, “How does it feel to be a problem?”
Race is a social reality in today’s global society. It is also a recent world historical phenomenon, and one that must ultimately be discarded if humanity is to develop beyond our fears and live our dreams as more than a handful of select individuals scattered in webs of privilege and sheltered isolation. The reality of Kemet and classical Africa removes the consideration of race as the lens through which those who study it view the world and approach social problems. Examining the ways that these Africans thought about themselves and their reality has the potential to re-attach us, first as Africans and ultimately as human beings, to the rich trove of ideas about self and society, world and cosmos that began with the dawn of organized thought and continues, unbroken, in the traces of the intellectual genealogy of Africana.
Last week, by examining in line by line fashion The Memphite Theology, our study tour group regained a point of view from the Kemetic wisdom literature on the relationship between matter and sentience, and considered the world’s most influential culture’s explanation of how to know the world we live in while contemplating that world’s essence. By tracing out the expression of this understanding at every stop we have made, culminating in this return to the ancient city of On, we have begun to understand the usefulness of discarding smallish, unhelpful frameworks for thinking about what is and what can be. Race becomes a puny thing, an ugly glitch in the long line of the best of what human beings have imagined.
Jacob Carruthers summarizes the idea of God in the Memphite Theology and the Kemetic worldview, noting that, for the Egyptians, God was the interaction of the fundamental essence of the eternal elements of all that is, described in their texts as four principles: Solvency [Nenew/Nenewt], “the primeval condition and substance of creation which has neither form nor stability”; Infinity in time and space [Hehew/Hehewt]; Darkness [Kekew/Kekewt], or the unicity of leveling perception; and endless, directionless Movement, hidden but constantly present[Tenemw/Tenemwt or, in many texts, Imun/Imunet].
As these eternal elements interacted, they expressed themselves in an act of ordered improvisation, a Sep Tepy (“first occasion”) moment of creation signified by the Netcher (expression of the Divine) Ptah. The Kemetians described this moment as “Medu,” or “speech,” the first word. Subsequently, Carruthers goes on to note, reality becomes an unending progression of the word, a genealogy of speeches that stretches from timeless infinity through now and the future, and includes the moment of thought that forms each moment in the human being. It attended the articulation of the elements out of which humans were said to have formed: Earth (Geb), Sky (Nut), Air (Shu) and Moisture (Tefnut). It then brought about the comingling of these elements as the expression of the four pairs of ancestors to human beings: Wosir (Osiris), Auset (Isis), Setekh (Set) and Nebhet (Nepthys). These were simply names for forces that have always existed but which always reveal themselves to the Egyptians’ limited perception in ways that were best managed by imagining and giving name to that which they could not see.
The Egyptians did not attempt to imagine that the interaction of these principles was not, in fact, the order of things in reality. In naming order Ma’at, in fact, they expressed a sentiment born from scientific observation that everything that is, always has been, and resolves itself ultimately in harmony, from the order of the stars to the rising and setting of the sun and the inundation of the Nile and the beating of the heart. For the Kemetic thinker, only our memory of witnessing and experiencing this ever-resolving harmony (provided by devices of writing and measuring gifted to humanity through the ideas of Djehuty and Seshat) is limited, and then only by the space we are willing to give our recorded memory and our creative intelligence, themselves issue of the self-same eternal principles.
Is this intellectual approach really different than the science that physicists evoke to discuss “string theory?” Does it differ qualitatively from the children that the Memphite Theology gave birth to, from the Abrahammic faith traditions to the various improvisational expressions of Africana deep thought, from Vodun, Cadomble or Santeria to the Africanized Protestantisms of Shango (Shouter) Baptists, Pentacostals or good old “shoutin’ Baptists?”. Of course not. The Kemetians did not distinguish between science, technology and spirituality, between sacred and secular, in any sense we would recognize today. Their faith was born from steady, patient observation: They believed, in the words of the 16th century African scholar from the great mosque of Timbuktu, Ahmed Baba, “in God and Science.”
But now, faced with a world that struggles to free itself from the maddening recent habit of reducing people to “races,” how do we capture in language this sense of the interconnectedness of all things? Western scholars have often evoked the alphabet as a progression in the human capacity to articulate ideas, noting that using symbols exclusively for sound (as distinct from using them for both sounds and ideas) frees the mind to recombine thoughts in endless variation. The fact that the modern alphabet is derived largely from Kemetic Medew Netcher notwithstanding, the Egyptians created their inscription system in an attempt to produce a method for capturing ideas, sights, sounds—even smells and tastes—in a coding process that hovered somewhere between the abstract and the concrete.
In an unbroken genealogy, African people have maintained these improvisational approaches to speech, apprehending the unknowable nature of the Sep Tepy but generating technique after technique for capturing more of it than mere words can achieve: In other words, Africana inscription systems consistently free “speech” from the straightjacket of word/script exclusivity. From the parent Medew Netcher of classical Africa, we see the danced reinscription of the orbit patterns of the stars Sirius and Sirius-B of the Dogon, who claim to have migrated with this knowledge to West Africa from the East; we observe the varying conceptual inscriptions of the Akan, collapsed into Adinkra symbols of cloth and metal and ink and bourne according to their collective memory along a similar migration arc; we note the ground markings of the Ki-Kongo Cosmograph, forming the perpetual cycle and spiral of reality whose movement traces the “four moments of the sun” in identical fashion to the Kemetic concepts of Kheper, Ra and Atum.
And, our memory re-attached by the memory of Djehuty and the measurements and records of Seshat, we trace anew the unbroken genealogy of these Africana improvisational speeches, Medew forced into ships and emptied living and whole into the Western hemisphere, reconvening itself and blending and reblending its systems of word, sound, sign, smell and taste, speaking yet again in the Sep Tepy that links classical Africa to the contemporary African world.
We may usefully refer to an essential element of these speeches as the “Blue Note,” that conduit of apprehension and expression that, like its ancestor Medew Netcher, enters the senses as a concrete expression and frees the mind and spirit to join as one, offering the ability to Sedjem, or “hear,” the highest form of intelligence for the Egyptians, so important that they inscribed the admonition to hear on the wall enclosing the double holy of holies at the late period Kemetic center for healers, Kom Ombo.
What is the best-known conduit of the Blue Note, the Blues, except a perpetually resolving expression of Ma’at? How different is the speech of the word-less Blue Note that Louis Armstrong sends forth for the three and a half minutes of West End Blues from the speeches of Khun Inpu in the Kemetic narrative of The Nine Petitions of the Farmer Whose Speech Is Good? Is the in-between the pentatonic scale wail of the Ki-Kongo/Bambara descended New Orleanian not improvising the original speech of Ptah within the perpetually resolving harmony of Ma’at, and in so doing allowing us to release our frustrations, hopes and determination into the expectation that, like Inpu before the magistrates and Per Uah, we shall find that which is true? When Inpu threatens to evoke the Netcher Inpu (Annubis) as the final arbiter of right and wrong, thereby bringing the corrupt officials to account before the scales of Ma’at, we can see Louis Armstrong sweating and smiling, handkerchief in hand, slicing through the subterfuge of minstrelsy with a trumpet sound that could, in the words of Ossie Davis, “kill a man.”
When Martin King, the night before his death, envisions the promised land, is this not an expression of the apprehension of Ma’at? “I Have a Dream,” far from an exercise in hopeful expectation of a failing system of Western “democracy,” becomes an improvisational re-inscription of Africana expectations of the resolution of dissonances into harmony when viewed through the lens of the judgment scenes we have traced in the tombs of Horemheb and Ramses IX, and read in the texts that adorn the walls of Abydos.
The western framework cannot hold such concepts. It is too ill-constructed, too immature. Ralph Ellison’s genius descriptions of the Blues overflow the modest and ill-equipped vessel of American exceptionalism into which he pours them, and the lineage of Homer, Hesiod, Dante, Shakespeare, Hawthorne and Thoreau which feed that vessel. But the Blues are at home with Ma’at, in vertical conversations with the classical genealogy and in horizontal conversations with its varied and various relatives across the African world. Like the main character in the Kemetic story of the “shipwrecked sailor,” the Blue Note points the way home, and home, Thomas Hardy’s admonition from the sidelines notwithstanding, is a place to which you can always return. Just as the Per Uah told the wayward Sinhue to “return to the Black Land (Kemet): It’s the place where you came into existence,” so the Blues reminds us of a place that exists beyond physical time and space and yet suffuses the time and space of any place that we find ourselves. It is speech writ large, like Medu Netcher.
One can imagine the Blues playing as one enters the sacred chambers at the temple of Seti I at Abydos. The Blue Note could reconcile the tender scenes of Seti adjusting the rainments of the Netchers, from the crown of Wosir to the garments of Auset. As Earth, Wind and Fire sang to us to “tell the story/morning glory/all about the Serpentine Fire,” it seems as if the Kemetic people took the idea of inscribing spiritual transcendence to heart.
As challenged by long-term memory loss as its author may be, nevertheless the Blues-tinged lines and sounds of 50 Cent’s “Many Men" is still much better equipped than Thucydides or Patton to help us understand the mood and mind of Ramses II, depicted in the temple at Abu Simbel astride his steed and preparing to plunge his Set battle division into the heart of the Hittite army.
"Many men/wish death upon me/Blood in my eye dawg and I can't see/I'm trying to be what I'm destined to be/And [Hittites] trying to take my life away/I put a hole in a [Hittite] for messing with me/My back on the wall/now you goin' to see/Better watch how you talk/when you talk about me/Cause I'll come and take your life away."
It is a Blues moment, infused with part Stagolee, part Muddy Waters channeling Jesus Christ in the temple. In the temple built next door for his wife, Nefertari, a simple glance at the adoring Ramses offering lotus flowers and incense to his wife is not enough: This is not Romeo and Juliet, or Brad and Angelina. Looking above Nefertari's head, one translates the glyph “Hemetch,” not semantically as “wife” in English, German, Spanish or French, but literally as “well of water.” If there is confusion to what water means to a people surrounded by desert, or to a Black Man, one simply has to reference the great speech of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the nearly eight minute “I Miss You.” Clearly, these are African people, these Egyptians.
Ausar battles his brother Setekh. Ausar is murdered, his body cut into pieces in some versions of the story and strewn in the Nile. Auset is alerted to the deed and, with her sister NebHet, retrieves all the pieces of her husband's body except the phallus, which is ultimately replaced with a proxy that allows her to impregnate herself with Ausar's seed and give birth to Heru. How many Egyptologists have linked this narrative to writers from Sophocles to Freud?
Perhaps the virtuoso performance of Son House’s Death Letter by the Blues emperess Cassandra Wilson before a live audience in New York City for the Great Night in Harlem album would, in linking indelibly to the unbroken genealogy of Africana medew, remove these ill-considered gestures. Riding the groove convened with congas, electric bass and guitar, she pulls tight the threads of lyric and tone she has woven through the ears and souls of the listening participants, enveloping the audience and every subsequent listener in a grand and irresistible call and response. It is medew, reaching a level of Ancestral communion that flows through her smoky contralto and helps us understand what Auset must have felt when she heard the news, and what she did in its wake:
"I got a letter this morning/how do you reckon it read/it said “hurry hurry, on account of the man you love is dead/got a letter this morning/how do you reckon it read?/It said “hurry hurry, the man you love is dead”…
"I packed up my suitcase/took off down the road/when I got there/he was lying on the coolin' board/Packed up my suitcase/took off down the road.../when I got there/he was lying on the coolin' board."
“Looked like it was 10,000 people/standing round the burial ground/I didn’t know I loved him/Till they layed him down/Look like it was 10,000 people/standing round the burial ground/Lord, I didn’t know that I loved him/until they layed my daddy down…
“You know I got up this morning/right about the break of day/I was hugging the pillow/Where he used to lay/I got up two in the morning/well, right at the break of day/I was hugging the pillow/where he used to lay…”
“Everybody hush!/Thought I heard him call my name/Wasn’t loud/it was so sweet and plain…/so sweet…./hush…/everybody hush…/I heard him call out my name…”
And what of the child born of that Blues moment of pain, triumph and the restoration of Ma'at? The story of Heru is not, as gestured toward by the German Egyptologist Jan Assman, a narrative that might be compared as a revenge fantasy in some fashion to Hamlet. Not if you refocus the speech as an antecedent to the sentiment expressed by Clarence Carter in “Patches.” One can hear Auset telling her son that she is counting on him “to pull this family through/my son, it’s all up to you.” Like the Blues, the narratives of Kemet are expressions of an understanding that transcends the limiting narratives of tragedy, comedy or the genre divisions of internal and external conflict. They are reminders that every challenge comes with the tools through which to meet and transcend it. And, we must remember, beyond the challenges lies the reassuring presence of Ma’at.