A Brief Look at People of Color before the 20th Century: Part 1

I was very excited at the news that Moffat & Gatiss were doing a modern take on Dracula, but then became disappointed when the cast was revealed and it had no people of color in any of the lead roles. Now, the people cast are good at what they do, but I was hoping at least one lead would be someone who isn’t White. For someone like me, who’s only seen 2 major stars like her in films (Merle Oberon and Sir Ben Kingsley), it’s sometimes hard to believe that with all of the resources out there, all of the talent, casting people of color as leads is still an issue in Western Film and TV. Please don’t get me wrong, I LOVED Sherlock and enjoyed Moffat’s turn writing Dr. Who. I also follow Gatiss on Instagram & Twitter and think him an excellent writer and actor. I believe some of these issues is the lack of knowledge of history. Neither man is at fault here for not knowing much about the history of colored people in Europe. It’s not taught in schools in America and probably isn’t really taught in schools in Europe either.

Nefertem - Goddess of Perfume Also known as she Who is Beautiful and Water Lily of the Sun, was goddess of both healing and beautification

Nefertem, Goddess of Perfume, Healing, and Beautification. Also known as She Who is Beautiful, associated with Water, and is referred to as Lily of the Sun.

I thought I’d start with Ancient Civilizations because there is a bad habit in Hollywood to cast White people in ethnic roles (cough cough Ridley Scott). Now, Egypt is a country on the continent of Africa (yes, I explain this because I know adults who think Egypt is in the Middle East and Africa is a country). Egypt is close to the Middle East, so there are many cross cultural shifts that have been going on for centuries. However, it may come as a shock that Egyptians, both ancient and modern are not 100% African decent, but are a mixture of all the people that have conquered it over the centuries. Cleopatra, perhaps the most infamous female rules (next to Nefertiti), was a Ptolemaic and of Greek decent. Now, she may have had some native Egyptian DNA and ancestry, but her father was Greek. So while people get upset over someone like Elizabeth Taylor being this Queen, in terms of skin tone, it’s probably close to reality than we’d care to admit.

King Tut and his sister-wife

But also keep in mind that some rulers were of African decent. Like King Tut, his father and mother and the man who ended up as Pharaoh and erased Tut and his father from history. While the Greeks came later, the original rules of Egypt were of African decent. There may have been trading and marriage with the Middle East as well during these centuries, which would lead to a diverse population. The Greeks coming would produce even more diversity. Then, of course, the Romans also brought a different culture into this region. Now, if they did a new Cleopatra film and cast someone who looked more Arab or more of a modern Egyptian, I wouldn’t mind. There are many different thoughts on who her mother was, one being an Egyptian concubine, so there is a possibility of Cleopatra being a person of color. I do have an issue with films like ‘Gods of Egypt” which show a primarily white Egypt in terms of the Gods and the populace. It was a slap in the face to Egypt and it’s rich history.

Fayum mummy portrait of a woman,Roman Egypt

Portrait of a Mummy, Roman Egypt., Notice how she resembles women of Middle Eastern in our modern era.

This brings us to Rome. There is a cult of Whiteness when it comes to Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome by Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, and Proud Boys. They base this beleif that the ancient world was ruled by white people by the statues. Except the statues were originally painted to represent different parts of the population. What we have, because paint chips off, is the raw material (aka, the stone) left to us from those times. Anyone who paints understands the need for a neutral background and all white marble is fairly neutral.

The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture | The New Yorker

Reproduction of what a classical statue would have looked like. Courtesy of the New Yorker.

Head of a Roman Boy, Roman, 150 – 200 CE Marble

Head of a Roman Child (they believe it is  boy) from 100-200CE. Look at how finely detailed this is with the curly hair and roundness of face. Most researchers do think this statue is portraying a person of color.

This doesn’t mean that all the white statues were colored. Some may have been left white and allowed remain in that neutral state. However, research is showing that a majority of them were painted, proving that Ancient Rome wasn’t this bastion of whiteness, but a rich, culturally diverse population that spread across from Turkey, Egypt, to France and England. That’s a lot of people and from all kinds of varying backgrounds and races. So, while I enjoyed The Gladiator, I cringed at how a majority of the Roman Populace was white because they wouldn’t be. Rome would have people from all the areas that they conquered represented in that city. Either by having these people in the army or to be representatives of their area for the government.

"If people say, 'What kitsch,' it annoys me but I'm not surprised," says Brinkmann, who, with his wife, archaeologist Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, colored this reconstruction of the c. 550 BCE "Lion from Loutraki." Its stunning blue mane is not unique on ancient monuments. Lions often sat atop tombs in ancient Greece, where ornamental details such as the animals tufts of hair and facial markings were painted in bright colors that accented their fur.

Lion reproduction based on a statue dating from 550BCE. Courtesy of the Smithsonian.

So, what does this mean? Well, for one, history isn’t just white people and it isn’t just people of colour. History is PEOPLE. There are fake history websites trying to erase people who weren’t of colour from history. This is just as dangerous as White Supremacists believing that the ancient world was just populated by white people. Again, as I have blogged about previously, revisionist history is a dangerous, slippery slope towards a skewed outlook on life. Of course, I am all for a re-telling of Cleopatra with an all Egyptian (and Middle Eastern) cast. But it also should include people who were of Greek or Roman ancestry as well as Nubian ancestry. Ancient Egypt was a cosmopolitan place. But this means I also want Ancient Brits to be depicted with a range of skin tones as well.

A forensic reconstruction of Cheddar Man’s head, based on the new DNA evidence and his fossilised skeleton.

A reconstruction of Cheddar Man, courtesy of the Guardian UK.

When the reconstruction of Cheddar Man was revealed over a year ago, many racists lost it. And I mean they LOST IT. Some white supremacy websites today claim this to be a fake image. I’ve even come across a few on Pinterest that link this image with the “deep state”. Cheddar Man was unearthed over a century ago in Somerset. Obviously the nickname “Cheddar Man” is just that, a nickname. This gent hails from about 10,000 years ago (roughly the last major ice age) and when people first starting immigrating from the Continent to England. Earlier depictions had him looking like a figure from Norse mythology with flowing blond locks and piercing blue eyes. Thankfully due to scientific advancement, they tested his genome (his DNA) and it revealed he had dark skin, dark curly hair, blue eyes and still shared similar DNA to people living in Britain today. Now, this may be interesting to some of you, but I think it’s vitally important to realize this. Now, this doesn’t mean every person he traveled with looked just like him. We all contain the genetic code for a variety of looks. But it does make any Clan of the Cave Bear type film woefully and pitifully inaccurate with everyone pale, white, and having no variety in skin pigmentation.

Image courtesy of Panorama NYC

Basically, I am trying to get across to anyone who’s listening (or reading in this case) that we can no longer just blindly accept adaptations or stagings of any novel, biography, etc to just contain only white people. It’s a fallacy to think that there are no people of colour in existence in any and all historical re-tellings. I still come across articles written today about all non-white castings of Shakespeare plays and how “edgy” that is. Or a critic complaining that not having any white people is “pandering” to the non existent God of Political Correctness. Gatiss, while I still admire him, famously didn’t think there should be a non-white Victorian soldier on the moon for an episode of Dr Who because he didn’t believe there were non-whites living in Britain at that time. Remember, Dr. Who is a Science-Fictional 50+ years show and he objected to one minority solider on the MOON. Please Mark Gatiss, I implore you to do some reading into history and the existence of non-whites. Don’t get me wrong, I will probably watch the Dracula adaptation and will enjoy it. I will also silently weep and cringe that if there are any minorities on screen, they’ve been regulated to background characters because no one bothered to hire a historical consultant before writing and casting the show.

Pity.