Cheikh Anta Diop was a champion of African history, devoting his life and brilliant intellect to proving the critical role Black Egyptian people played in the development of arts and sciences, dispelling long-held ideas that Africans contributed nothing of importance to humanity. Diop held five doctorates: in physics, African history, Egyptology, linguistics and anthropology, and with this, he set the record straight on who the original people of Egypt actually were and their brilliant accomplishments.
Diop was born Dec. 29, 1923, in Thieytou in the Diourbel region of Senegal to an aristocratic Muslim family. His early education was at a traditional Islamic school.
In 1946, at age 23, Diop left for Paris, where he would study physics at the famed Sorbonne. In 1953, he met Frederic Joliot-Curie, the son-in-law of famed scientist Marie Curie, who ran the Laboratory of Nuclear Chemistry of the College de France, where Diop had been studying nuclear physics. Diop translated Einstein’s theory of relativity into the Senegalese Wolof language. It was here and through his study that Diop would become a Pan-Africanist, immersing himself in the studies of sociology, anthropology, philosophy and Pan-Africanist thought.
Through his studies, he determined that ancient Egypt was founded and ruled by Black Africans, that the Egyptian language and culture still exist in modern Africa and that Black Egypt was responsible for the rise of civilization throughout Africa and the Mediterranean, including Rome and Greece. Diop published his findings in his first book, “Negro Nations and Culture,” which immediately made him one of the most controversial historians of his time.
Diop was active in the African nationalist organization called the Rassemblement Democratique Africaine (RDA) and served as general secretary from 1950 to 1953. Its slogan was “National independence from the Sahara to the Cape and from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.” The movement was dedicated to purging the African consciousness of slavery and colonial thinking and acknowledging the African role in civilization. He organized and hosted the first Pan-African student conference and revealed his plan to restore Black consciousness through focusing on ancient Egypt. He returned to Senegal in 1960 to begin what would be a lifelong pursuit of historic truth and political struggle.
In 1962, Diop produced his second major work, “Black Africa: The Economic and Cultural Basis for a Federated State,” in which he wrote “the formation of a federated and unified Africa, culturally and otherwise, is the only way for Africa to become the power in the world that she should rightfully be.” The work would serve as a manifesto for his political party, “Le Bloc des Masses Senegalaises,” (BMS). The party, with its call for consciousness, was seen as a threat to President Leopold Senghor, who was Senegal’s first president and the first African elected to the Academie Francaise.
Diop was arrested and tortured. The BMS was banned in Senegal for working against Senghor. Diop’s work was nearly lost. But the BMS and its supporters launched an anti-Senghor campaign. Senghor relented and released Diop, offering him a position in a new government. Diop refused the offer when Senghor refused to release all other political prisoners.
In 1963, Diop and former member of the BMS formed a new party, the Front National Senegalais (FNS). This party, though not as strong as the BMS, continued under the same political lines of protest. Diop held fast to his position against negotiating with Senghor unless all political prisoners were released and that there would be open discussions on real government ideas, not just a distribution of government jobs. When Senghor again refused to release political prisoners, Diop dropped from political life until 1975.
Diop’s book “The African Origins of Civilization” was translated into English and, with that, the English-speaking world was introduced to his work. The book openly challenged European scholars and archeologists who continued to devalue and understate the evidence of Black civilizations and their influence and contributions to the Western world.
Diop concentrated on his research. He established and was the director of the radiocarbon laboratory at the Institute Fondamental de L’Afrique Noir (FAN). It was here that he became the pioneering developer of the scientific method of radiocarbon dating. His technique provided the science to identify the racial identity of Egyptian mummies, proving their race as well as dating the remains and other artifacts.
Among Diop’s most important findings was evidence that there were five species of man, originating in Africa, on the latitude of Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania and going on a north-south axis to South Africa. Any humanity that had its birth in that region (sub-equatorial, i.e., below the equator) could not have survived without pigmentation (color of the skin). For that reason, the first man had to be a Black man. It is only after that race left Africa to people other parts of the world that different climate phenomenon caused man to take on a different look. Nature created six specimens of man before we got to man as we know him today.
Based on his findings, Diop determined that the first three had not developed the sufficient potential to leave their own area. The other three, however, did leave Africa. The fourth and fifth of the species disappeared–and what remains is man as we know him today.
Check Anta Diop died on Feb. 7. The FAN was renamed Cheikh Anta Diop University in his honor. The university bears the motto “Lux Mea lix,” which is Latin for “Light is my law.” Today, the university remains a premier institution and among the most successful on the African continent.
- Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the life and work of Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop.
- Talk About It: Why is Diop’s work so critical and important then and now? How do his finding contradict many myths and stereotypes?
- Check it Out: See an interview with Diop on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl7FKb4NPiI.
- Read It: Check out Diop’s work “The African Origins of Civilization.”
- Write It Down: What questions would you ask Diop? What are some key things you’ve learned in your brief study of Diop’s life and work?
This Week in Black History
- Feb. 18, 1867: The Augusta Theological Institute was established in the basement of the Springfield Baptist Church. It would later become Atlanta’s Morehouse College, one of the nation’s most prestigious Black colleges.
- Feb. 19, 2002: Vonetta Flowers becomes the first Black gold medalist in the history of the Winter Olympics when she and partner Jill Brakken win the two-person bobsled event.
- Feb. 21, 1965: El-Hajj Malik E-Shabazz was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
- Feb. 24, 1864: Rebecca Lee Crumpler becomes the first Black woman to receive a medical degree. She graduated from the New England Female Medical College.