Women of African descent--whether called Creole, Afro-American, black or even "colored"--are typically depicted as women without a history. Clearly, nods have been made in the direction of women like Harriet Tubman and Phyllis Wheatley, but in the historical context, they are "modern" women.
Noted anthropologist Richard Leakey sets humankind's origins on African soil, and with the dawn of civilization along the Nile, the black woman was already showing leadership qualities. Euro-centric historians have dealt with Egypt primarily as an Arab state--which it did not become until well after the major dynasties. Most historians then jump to Greek history, including Aesop but failing to note his Ethiopian roots. From that point on, the Latin tradition takes hold and only lets go briefly to note the European colonization of Africa and subsequent slavery in the Americas.
Unfortunately, works on the development and influence of African civilizations usually have been overlooked and relegated to near obscurity in the stacks, the achievements of ancient black women along with them. Based on research by such scholars as Cheikh Anta Diop, Chancellor Williams, J. A. Rogers and Frank M. Snowden Jr., here are sketches of three long-ago heroines:
Hatshepsut--female pharaoh of Egypt, c. 1500 B.C.
Predating Tutankhamen by 150 years, Hatshepsut played palace politics to ascend to the Egyptian throne as intended by her father, Thotmes I. As his key assistant, according to Rogers, Hatshepsut earned her father's dying command: "This daughter Khumit Amen Hatshepsitou, the Loving One, I put in my place . . . henceforth she shall guide you."
Later, rivalry with her half-brothers ended with marriage to one, Thotmes III, and Hatshepsut's reign as co-ruler. To emphasize her Theban ancestry and claim to the throne, she ordered monumental public works, obelisks, temples and pyramids encrusted in an amalgam of silver and gold.
To even more firmly establish her hegemony, Hatshepsut changed the feminine ending of her name, sitou, to sut, the masculine ending. Claiming divine origin as the daughter of the great God Amen Ra, she said she would rule like the stars, forever.
Hatshepsut, thus firmly established as pharaoh, led a historic sailing expedition to the land of "Punt" (probably Somalia). She reigned 30 years, and her tomb, discovered in 1906, revealed her Ethiopian and Egyptian ancestors as well as her strong, yet feminine, legacy.
Because trapping of royalty included a stylized beard, Hatshepsut had herself depicted with one as a symbol of power. Also, to be taken more seriously, she frequently used the masculine pronoun in reference to herself.
Hatshepsut's charmingly androgynous--and hardly modest--view of herself is evident in this self-characterization quoted by Rogers: "His Majesty, herself, put with her own hands oil of ani on all her limbs. Her fragrance was like a divine breath, her scent reached as far as the land of Punt . . . She has no equal among the gods . . ."
Candace--empress of Ethiopia, 330 B.C.
Although specific details about Candace as a personality are not available, this queen's reputation as a military tactician and commander allegedly discouraged Alexander the Great from risking assault on the Ethiopian capital at Meroe.
"The loss of an eye only redoubled her courage," writes Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop. "Her fearlessness and scorn of death even forced the admiration of a chauvinist like Strabo: 'This queen had courage above her sex.' "
It appears that there was a dynasty of "Candaces"; accounts also note the stand "Queen Candace" took against the Roman armies of Augustus Caesar.
Cleopatra--queen of Egypt, 69-30 B.C.
The clever Cleopatra still stirs controversy--Rogers and Williams consider her Afro-Asian; Snowden views her as Ptolemaic. Yet Shakespeare opens "Antony and Cleopatra" with Philo deriding his general's "goodly eyes" turned "upon a tawny front." Tawny often has been used, throughout history, for mulatto or mixed blood personages (and still may represent women of color: black, brown or beige). The discussion of Cleopatra's origins continues.
Future revisionist research may unearth more evidence about the ancient queens of Egypt and Ethiopia and open new chapters in the history of Zimbabwe and Nigeria, both key seats of African culture. Already the queen of Sheba is often referred to as founder of the Ethiopian dynasty of Menelik, and black Queen Tiy of Nubia noted as the mother of King Tut.
Meanwhile, parents can encourage their children's exposure to ancient Africa by learning their sources and passing them on to classrooms; by getting prints such as Anheuser-Busch's "Great Kings of Africa" series, and by taking their children to museums and seeking out representations of blacks in period paintings and sculpture. You'll be pleasantly surprised with what you'll find. graphics/ Pharaoh Hatshepsut: Because trapping of royalty included a stylized beard, she had herself depicted with one as a symbol of power.