Cheikh Anta Diop
On the 7th of February, 1986, Africa lost one of her illustrious sons, Cheikh Anta Diop. On the occasion of the 33rd anniversary of his death, we celebrate this great man’s scholarship, ideas and legacy to Africa and humanity. He was affectionately known as the Pharaoh of knowledge, and the Université Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) of Dakar was re-named after him.
Cheikh Anta Diop, born on 29December 1922, was a Senegalese historian, a thinker, anthropologist, physicist and scholar who studied the human race’s origins and pre-colonial African culture. Though Diop is sometimes referred to as an Afrocentrist, he predates the concept and thus was not himself an Afrocentric scholar.
He is most renowned for scientifically proving that ancient Egyptians were Black, at a time when this was not accepted by mainstream academia, as well as his original research on pre-colonial Africa. He was a tireless militant of Africa’s integration and renaissance.
He’s considered one of the greatest scientists, having demonstrated that Africa was the cradle of humanity; that everything started in Africa, and that Egypt and modern day Africans descended from the same ancestors, in other words, were the same people. Before Cheikh Anta Diop, the world, and Africans in particular, had been taught that Africa was nothing, and that Egypt and Egyptians were not Africans… that the great Egyptian civilization which gave so much to the world, could not have come from the dark brown Africans.
Europeans refused to admit that although in Africa, Egyptians could be Africans i.e. Black. They rather believed that Blacks were so backwards that their ancestors could not have possibly made the great pyramids of Giza or the great sphinx.
In 1946, at the age of 23, Diop went to Paris to study. He initially enrolled to study higher mathematics, but then enrolled to study philosophy in the Faculty of Arts of the Sorbonne. He gained his first degree (licence) in philosophy in 1948, then enrolled in the Faculty of Sciences, receiving two diplomas in chemistry in 1950.
In 1949, Diop registered a proposed title for a Doctor of Letters thesis, “The Cultural Future of African thought,” under the direction of Professor Gaston Bachelard. In 1951 he registered a second thesis title “Who were the pre-dynastic Egyptians” under Professor Marcel Griaule. He completed his thesis on pre-dynastic Egypt in 1954 but could not find a jury of examiners for it: he later published many of his ideas as the book Nations nègres et culture. In 1956 he re-registered a new proposed thesis for Doctor of Letters with the title “The areas of matriarchy and patriarchy in ancient times.”
From 1956, he taught physics and chemistry in two Paris lycees as an assistant master, before moving to the College de France. In 1957 he registered his new thesis title “Comparative study of political and social systems of Europe and Africa, from Antiquity to the formation of modern states.” The new topics did not relate to ancient Egypt but were concerned with the forms of organisation of African and European societies and how they evolved. He obtained his doctorate in 1960.
According to Diop’s own account, his education in Paris included History, Egyptology, Physics, Linguistics, Anthropology, Economics, and Sociology. In Paris, Diop studied under André Aymard, professor of History and later Dean of the Faculty of Letters at the University of Paris and he said that he had “gained an understanding of the Greco-Latin world as a student of Gaston Bachelard, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, André Leroi-Gourhan, and others”. Frédéric Joliot-Curie is the 1935 physics nobel laureate, and Marie Curie‘s son-in-law (first woman to receive a Nobel in Physics, and first to have two nobel prizes). So Diop’s pedigree, in physics terms, was quite impressive! Moreover, he had earned two PhDs: one in history and the other in nuclear physics. Diop said that he “acquired proficiency in such diverse disciplines as rationalism, dialectics, modern scientific techniques, prehistoric archeology and so on.” Diop also claimed to be “the only Black African of his generation to have received training as an Egyptologist” and “more importantly” he “applied this encyclopedic knowledge to his researches on African history.”
It took him almost a decade to have his doctorate degree granted: he submitted a thesis in 1951 which was based on the premise that the Egypt of the great pharaohs and pyramids was an African civilization– it was rejected.
He then published many of his ideas in 1955, as Nations Nègres et Culture (Negro/ Black Nations and Culture), and received world-wide acclaim but became one of the most controversial historians of his time. Two additional attempts at submitting it were rejected, until 1960 when he finally managed to convince a room full of physicists, sociologists, anthropologists, egyptologists, and historians.
Among his published work are “Nations nègres et culture“, 1954 (Black Nations and Culture) and “L’Afrique noire précoloniale“, 1960 (Precolonial Black Africa), both published at the edition Présence africaine. He later published “L’unité culturelle de l’Afrique noire” (The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: The Domains of Patriarchy and of Matriarchy in Classical Antiquity), then “Les fondements culturels, techniques et industriels d’un futur Etat fédéral d’Afrique noire” (ca: The Economic and Cultural Basis for a Federated State).
In 1974, Diop managed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Egyptians were Black people. He obtained pigment from Egyptian mummies and tested for their melanin content. He was able to determine their melanin content accurately, and later published his technique and methodology for the melanin dosage test in scholarly journals. This technique is used today by Forensic investigators around the world, to determine the “racial identity” of badly burnt accident victims.