Are Black People the True Hebrew Israelites?
In my last piece I wrote about the controversy which emerged from recent remarks made by DeSean Jackson and Nick Cannon, both of whom have been accused of anti-Semitism. Both remarks seemed based on the notion that African Americans are really the true Hebrews. Jackson posted a quote which was wrongfully attributed to Hitler. The quote stated that “their [Jews] plan for world domination won’t work if the Negroes know who they are.” This fake quote seems to be implying that African Americans are the true chosen people of God, but are not aware of it. Cannon said outright that Black people are the true Hebrews.
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The notion that Africans in the Diaspora are the true Hebrew people has been around for some time now. Even some on the African continent have bought into this idea, such as “King Ayi” of Togo. This self-appointed “king” declared that the people of Togo are really Hebrews and demanded that Togo be recognized as a Lost Tribe of Israel by the state of Israel.
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We must understand that this emotional attachment to the Hebrew people began on the slave plantations. African people developed a connection to the story of the Hebrews who were also a people who were enslaved in a foreign land until God sent Moses to rescue the Hebrews from slavery. We see this connection in the spiritual “Go Down Moses.” As far as I can tell, this was merely an emotional connection based on the shared experience of being oppressed and enslaved. Most enslaved Africans at the time did not think of themselves as being the true Hebrew people. In his Appeal, David Walker wrote that “the Egyptians, were Africans or colored people, such as we are”. He also wrote that the Hebrew slavery in Egypt was nowhere near as cruel as what Africans in the United States have endured, so Walker did not seem to believe that Africans who were enslaved in America were truly Hebrews. Harriet Tubman, who was given the nicknamed Moses, also belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Tubman clearly identified with being an African.
A lot of the arguments put forward to prove this connection between the African diaspora and Hebrews have been very nonsensical. Take for example these images below which purport to show the twelve lost tribes of Israel
I assume that “Negroes” is a reference to African Americans, but this is just an assumption on my part because Negro was a commonly used phrase for any person of African descent. That phrase was commonly used in the Caribbean as well, yet for some reason the charts above separate “Negroes” from “West Indians.” Furthermore, West Indians are separated from Cubans, Haitians, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans as if Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico are not also located in the West Indies. This is the type of confusion that one often runs into regarding claims that Africans are not in fact Africans, but are actually the true Hebrew Israelites.
In the first place we must understand that most of what the Bible says about the Hebrew people is fable and mythology, not actual history. This is why, for example, many of the pharaohs in Genesis and Exodus are nameless. The pharaoh of the Exodus is unnamed and no records in Egyptian history indicate that an Exodus ever took place. In later stories of the Bible, pharaohs are mentioned by name and there are certain events in the Old Testament which we do know happened historically. For example, there was a historic Kingdom of Israel led by David and the Egyptian ruler Taharqa is mentioned in the Bible by name. There are certain elements in the Bible which are historically true, but it’s difficult to separate what is historical from what is fable. We simply do not know very much about the historical Hebrew people for this reason.
There is evidence to suggest that the Hebrew religious tradition was influenced by Africa. This is a point I made in my prior piece when I mentioned Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud. Freud argues that the Hebrews adopted monotheism and circumcision from the Egyptians. Some of us are claiming to be the true Hebrews without realizing that the Hebrew people adopted many of their religious traditions from Africans. Even the Bible explains that Moses was educated by the Egyptians.
The Hebrew Israelite narrative seems to rely on the notion that African Americans and West Indians were so completely stripped of their that none of it can be traced back to Africa. To fill this cultural void, the Hebrew Israelites seek to draw a connection between the Diaspora and the mythical Hebrew people.
There is no shortage of proof of this cultural connection to Africa. Evidence of African cultural survivals are very common place in African American culture. This includes folk stories such as Aunt Nancy which comes from the West African Anansi stories or Br’er Rabbit which comes from Central Africa. Anansi and Br’er Rabbit (called Konpe Lapen in the French speaking Caribbean) stories are found in the Caribbean as well. If African Americans and West Indians are truly Hebrews then where did we get these African folk stories from? Where did we get African loan words such as “konkonsa”, “nyam”, “kaiso”, and “basabasa”? Where did we get names such as Cuffy and Cudjoe from? There is actually a location in Florida named Cudjoe Key, which some believe may have been named after fugitive slave. Cudjoe was not an uncommon name among the Black Seminoles. For example, in Rebel and Runaways, Larry Eugene Rivers references a man named Cudjoe who was one of the leaders in the Second Seminole War. There are also some descendants of the Black Seminoles who have Cudjoe as a surname.
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We in the diaspora are obviously an African people with very clear aspects of our culture still in tact, but where is the evidence of this Hebrew culture and religion? Omar ibn Said was an African who was enslaved in America. He was a Muslim who knew to read and write in Arabic. If African Americans were really Hebrews then where are the examples of anyone who came to America being able to read and write the Hebrew language? Why are there no Hebrew loan words in any of the Creole languages which are spoken throughout the Diaspora?
Contrary to what Cannon and a few other misguided individuals seem to think, we are not the true Hebrews. We are merely an African people. Now, some of us may decide to adopt and practice the Hebrew religion, but doing so does not change the fact that we are African.
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.