It is becoming a familiar conundrum: whether to employ actors who match the ethnicity of the person they are portraying. Helen Mirren made the mistake of playing Golda Meir in a truly dreadful new film. The real mistake there was not the use of a non-Jewish actress, as some have complained, but the appalling quality of the script and production. Cleopatra was recently played by a black woman in a recent Netflix production, although the evidence strongly suggest she was fair-skinned. There is a suggestion she had some darker skinned ancestors, but the current convention seems to be that even a drop of blood is sufficient to confer blackness or its local equivalent.
The unhealthy obsession with skin color, privileging black over white, is distorting the way history is told
Now it is the turn of Hannibal, who is to be played by Denzel Washington in a new film. I am sure he will fill the role well, and I simply don’t think his skin color matters. My worry is more about those who appear to have thought that it was right and proper for an African prince to have black skin, even though he came from what is now Tunisia. My worry also extends to those in Tunisia, including Tunisian academics, who have vocally objected to the idea of a black Hannibal, once again making a great issue out of skin color. Historically they are right that he must have been white or olive-skinned. Hannibal came from a very eminent Carthaginian family, and the Carthaginians were of Phoenician descent, hailing from Tyre and other cities along the coast of what in now Lebanon. They spoke a Semitic language very close to Hebrew and they often called themselves bene Tzur, which means “children of the rock,” the rock being Tyre. Over the six or so centuries between the foundation of Carthage and the time of Hannibal they did intermarry with local north Africans, but these were what we would now call Berbers, a predominantly white population. There were probably quite a few black slaves brought from much further south, but an elite family like that of Hannibal would not have included them.
Claiming the Carthaginians as “Tunisians” is a somewhat absurd exercise in popular nationalism. You might not want to do so anyway, given the Carthaginians’ propensity for child sacrifice, which one of the ancient cemeteries in Carthage bears disturbing witness to.
North Africa has seen waves of conquerors and settlers, most obviously the Arabs, who first arrived in the seventh century and then came in further waves, merging with the Berber population. Some Tunisians, though, may be partly descended from the Vandals, invaders of Scandinavian descent who helped to revive Carthage in the fifth century.
Nonsense about the skin color of north Africans goes back much further. The great theologian St. Augustine of Hippo has often been claimed as black, though it seems his mother Monica was a Berber. In 2016 the British Library speculated on its website about St. Hadrian, who died at the start of the eighth century and was an abbot in Canterbury:
To commemorate Black History Month in the United Kingdom, today we remember one of the Africans to live in Anglo-Saxon England. The man in question was Hadrian (d. 709), the abbot of St Peter’s and St Paul’s at Canterbury, who played a pivotal role in the development of church structures in what is now England.
There was excitement because Hadrian was described in one of the sources as an “African.” This displays woeful ignorance on the part of the Library staff. To the Romans, and to their medieval successors in both Europe and the Islamic world, “Africa” or “Ifriqiya” meant what is now Tunisia and some areas just beyond. The term had nothing to do with skin color, and nothing to do with an entire continent. Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily, conquered several cities in Tunisia in the twelfth century and called himself “King of Africa,” which certainly did not mean a still largely unknown continent, for all Roger’s boastfulness. The continent was referred to variously as Libya, Ethiopia and even as India.
The unhealthy obsession with skin color, privileging black over white, is distorting the way history is told. But this is part of a much greater distortion of the way social relations are described, in which it is apparently acceptable, especially among successful upper middle-class whites, to cast aspersions against fellow whites, especially if they are male and thought to be “privileged.” The reality is that we should not judge anyone by the color of his or her skin. To do so is, quite simply, racist.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.