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  • Writer's pictureMoussa Hissein Moussa

Cheikh Anta Diop: A Life Between Egyptology and Pan Africanism


Born on December 29, 1923, in Thieytou (Senegal), Cheikh Anta Diop is one of the most influential African thinkers and scientists of the 20th century. He has pursued a broad career spanning from engineering and applied sciences to politics, philosophy, and history. Scientist and politician Prof. Cheikh Anta Diop's professional journey revolves around two main elements. The first is the thesis defending the black identity of ancient Egypt, which was published as a book in 1954 under the title "Nations nègres et Culture" (Black Nation and Culture). However, this thesis, which argues that the civilization established by the West at a time when imperialism was at its peak, owed to Ancient (black) Egypt was not welcomed. Anta's hard work quickly aroused the hostility of the Western scientific community, especially the French. The second point is the vision of a united and independent Africa since 1945. Anta advocates the idea of ​​a united Africa in the form of federalism in parallel with his Egyptology work and has maintained political opposition to the regime of Léopold Sédar Senghor, who came to power during Senegal's independence. Anta, who passed away on 7 February 1986 in Dakar, remains today (26 years later) a scientific icon not only for Senegal but for the whole of Africa and its diaspora.

Cheikh Anta Diop: A New Scientific Reading of African History

Cheikh Anta Diop began his research at a time when, for Western intellectuals, black Africa did not constitute an intelligible historical space or was not worth considering (in the 1940s). At that time, it was not strange to hear comments such as: “But Africa has no history!”, “But the black man has no past!” in the corridors of one of the most prestigious and oldest universities in Europe, such as the Sorbonne. These discourses are mostly ahistorical statements based on the claims and assumptions of Friedrich Hegel (Reason in History: An Introduction to the Philosophy of History) and Arthur Gobineau (Essay on Racial Inequality). Cheikh Anta Diop has dedicated his life to research to put an end to this scam.

In 1951, Diop prepared a doctoral thesis at the University of Paris under the supervision of Marcel Griaule. This thesis argues that the civilization of Ancient Egypt belonged to blacks and that the same culture and language later spread to sub-Saharan Africa, especially West Africa. To confirm his claim that the ancient Egyptians had the same physical features (hair, nose, lips, and skin color) as modern-day black Africans, he cited ancient writers such as Herodotus and Strabo who studied Ancient Egypt. His interpretation of anthropological (such as the role of matriarchy) and archaeological data led him to conclude that Egyptian culture was a black culture. At the linguistic level, he found that the Wolof language spoken today in West Africa is phonetically related to the ancient Egyptian language. The academics at the university, who did not want to face up to or break the truths - deceptive and humiliating - that the West had established for centuries, initially refused to form a jury. Diop turned this thesis he prepared into a book under the title of "Black nation and culture" in 1954 and was met with great reaction. Later, in 1960, as many African countries gained independence, Anta finally convened a jury to defend her thesis. Simultaneously with the history of Ancient Egypt, he received his graduate degrees in nuclear chemistry and physics. This multidisciplinary training will help Anta succeed in an area that is difficult and open to criticism. Having received 3 diplomas, Anta leaves Paris for Dakar. However, Senegal, which he returned to, was under the rule of Leopold Sédar Senghor, who had different and even opposing views. Therefore, this return was the beginning of a long and difficult process.

Cheikh Anta Diop's work, which he continued with "Black Nation and Culture" of 1954, and then with "Cultural Union of Black Africa" and "Pre-Colonial Black Africa", constituted a breaking point not only in history but also in humanity. What is at issue here is a break with the ahistorical and ethnographic view of Hegel and Gobineau, inherited from the nineteenth century, which is merely conjectures and also defines African realities. This redefinition is not only limited to the cultural field but also covers scientific and technological fields. In this context, Prof. Anta advocated direct knowledge and the arming of Africans through science, said:

“True victory is achieved with equal education. Educate yourself, arm yourself with science from head to toe (…), and protect your cultural heritage. If you find that my arguments are inconsistent when you get this straightforward information, drag me into the mud. But that's just how it works, there's no other way to do it."

This is a new “methodology for African history” that Anta advocates and applies in her work and is embraced by the Pan-African family – made up of all Africans on and off the African continent. Anta's works, which serve as an ideological, philosophical, and historical guide for African youth, are translated into English and read by black American students.

In 1970, Diop agreed to take part in UNESCO's scientific committee tasked with writing the General History of Africa. However, on one condition: the symposium is to be held condition that all eciptologists in the world participate - with three years' notice - and compare their studies on the subject of Ancient Egypt, and that as a result, the most accepted thesis will be accepted by everyone. This is an opportunity for Cheikh Anta to come face to face with those who deny that European civilization, which he has proven in his studies, owes to Africa. With this in mind, he attended the International Symposium in Cairo in 1974 and compared his work with the world's leading Egyptologists. Following this international symposium, Cheikh Anta was commissioned to write the chapter devoted to the history of Ancient Egypt in the General History of Africa. The final report of the symposium was accepted by all experts – except for one participant – on the elements brought by Cheikh Anta Diop and Théophile Obenga on the kinship between ancient Egyptian culture and African cultures.

Cheikh Anta Diop: Defender of African Independence and Federal Union

At the age of 25, Cheikh Anta Diop has the ability to break down veiled mental walls. “When can we talk about an African renaissance?” he published in 1948 as a student in the middle of Paris. He set out to describe the content and conditions of the African renaissance in an article entitled. Cheikh Anta, who early joined the Association of African Students (later to become Secretary General), the first African magazine and publishing house “Presence Africaine” and the “Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA)” movement, African independence and continued an active struggle for African unity. However, later the leaders of the RDA left the movement, criticizing it, as they were increasingly Francophile rather than Pan-African, in contrast to the movement's fundamental principles of direct independence and unity of the continent. For Anta Diop, the African renaissance can only be achieved by reuniting African lands shared in colonies among Westerners under an independent union. In this perspective, the federal state becomes a continental emergency because such a geopolitical presence can secure, structure, and optimize the development of the African continent. In the preface to Mahtar Diouf's book Economic Integration, African Perspectives, published in 1984, Cheikh Anta Diop says:

“We must certainly bring Black Africa to the brink of its federal destiny [...] Only the continental federal state provides a sufficiently stable political and economic space for the application of a rational formula for the economic development of our countries with different potentials in security.”

Politically advocating the independence of African countries and the establishment of a federal state at the continental level, Prof. Diop contributed to the politicization of many African intellectuals in France. Continuing the struggle on a more cultural level, she attended various conventions of black artists and writers. In 1960, he published the book “Les fondements économiques et culturels d'un État fédéral en Afrique noire (The economic and cultural foundations of a federal state in Black Africa)”. In this study, Cheikh Anta Diop mentions fourteen proposals for concrete actions ranging from the field of education to the field of economy and politics to the field of industry. These fourteen suggestions can be grouped around two main points. The first point is the need to define an efficient scientific research policy. Thereupon, Anta Diop thinks that Africa should follow a policy of scientific and intellectual development and pay the price; Its extreme fragility over the last five centuries is the result of a technical deficiency. Also, intellectual growth is the surest way to end blackmail, bullying, and humiliation. It is clear to him that Africa can become the center of scientific initiatives and decisions again, rather than believing that it is destined to remain last as the area of ​​economic expansion of developed countries. The second and final point is the need to define an African energy doctrine and true industrialization. To this end, Anta proposes a continental energy development plan that takes into account both renewable and non-renewable energy sources, ecology, and the technical progress in the coming decades. According to him, Black Africa will have to find a formula for energy pluralism that harmoniously combines all energy sources.

Politically active at the national level, Diop has been one of the main actors in the democratization of political debate in Senegal, where he opposed Léopold Sédar Senghor's regime by founding political parties, newspapers, and trade unions. In Senegal, he shared with Senghor a significant disagreement not only on politics but also on Blackism (Africanism) and contemporary African history. That last disagreement is the most important issue between the two intellectuals.


Famous poet and novelist Aimé Césaire uses the following phrase to introduce Anta Diop: “He contributed to restoring Africa's past; and while giving Africa its past, it may have given humanity its past back”. Multilingual and multidisciplinary Prof. Cheikh Anta Diop remains one of the most influential scientists in African history. Seeded more than half a century ago, Anta's ideas and visions mature over the years in the minds of younger generations of Africans. This generation is more aware of its duties, less alienated, and more psychologically and politically prepared. This generation can finally realize Anta Diop's visions and put Africa back on the universal scientific course.

References ;

Amzat-Boukari Yabara. Afrika Unite: une histoire du panafricanisme

Zerbo, Y. (2003). La problématique de l'unité africaine: (1958-1963). Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains, 212, 113-127.

Aperçu général sur la vie, la pensée et l'œuvre de Cheikh Anta Diop



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