Cheikh Anta Diop was one of the most iconic historians, scholars and political leaders of the 20th Century. Many credit him with laying the foundation for Afrocentricism through his extensive work around human origins, language and ancient African culture and civilizations.
Diop argued that “Ancient Egypt was Negro-African” partly because of the close links between West African languages, like his native tongue of Wolof, to ancient Egyptian tongues. “Egypt is to the rest of Black Africa what Greece and Rome are to the western world,” Diop said.
Born in 1923 in Diourbel, Senegal, Diop moved to Paris, France, after receiving his bachelor’s degree to further his studies. According to a biography about Diop on Black Past, he became heavily involved in the anti-colonial movement during this time.
He studied a wide range of subjects, including the hard sciences, philosophy, history and languages and obtained degrees in nuclear physics and chemistry.
Unlike many prominent historians of his day, Diop said African culture influenced European civilizations, not the other way around. He was met with fierce criticism and skepticism for his stance.
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In 1951, Diop’s dissertation was rejected by Sorbonne University for its focus on African civilizations as the inspiration of the rest in the world.
That didn’t stop Diop from spreading his message. In 1954, he published “Negro Nations and Culture,” a controversial work that sent shockwaves through the global academic community.
However, Diop didn’t waver in his commitment to supporting his thesis. He authored many other books and scholarly works backed by extensive research from multiple disciplines to prove Black people were the original Egyptians. One of his most famous books is “The African Origin of Civilization.”
“The history of Black Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until historians dare to connect it with the history of Egypt,” Diop said. “The birth of Egyptology was thus marked by the need to destroy the memory of a Negro Egypt at any cost and in all minds.”
In 1960, Sorbonne awarded Diop the degree he’d earned after his work became too impactful to ignore. In addition to language examination, Diop found bone structure, blood type, skin pigmentation and more showed links between Black West Africans and Ancient Egyptians.
In 1966, Diop founded the first radiocarbon dating laboratory at Dakar University. Later, he was appointed professor of ancient history. The university is now named after him.
In addition to academia, Diop became very active in politics in Senegal. He founded opposition parties in the 1960s to rail against the pro-French policies of President Leopold Senghor’s government.
Scholars have been split on the accuracy of Diop’s work. John Henrik Clarke authored a scholarly work titled “The Historical Legacy of Cheikh Anta Diop: His Contributions To A New Concept of African History.” In it, he called Diop “one of the greatest historians to emerge in the African world in the twentieth century.”
However, historian Clarence E. Walker said Diop was wrong about Ramses II being Black. In his book, “We Can’t Go Home Again: An Argument About Afrocentrism,” Walker calls Diop’s research on the subject “probably the single most unsuccessful effort on the part of a scholar to determine the racial origins of an Egyptian notable.”
Diop’s admirers and critics mostly fall along racial lines. Aside from Walker, many who tried to discredit Diop’s work are white, while many of his endorsers are Black.
One thing no one denies is the indelible impact Cheikh Anta Diop’s life and work made across the globe.