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Karenga Recognized For Scholarship, Relevance To Egyptology, Africana Studies

Published: January 14, 2011

Maulana Karenga, professor and former chair of Africana Studies at CSULB, was invited in October to present the prestigious annual Stephen Glanville Lecture for Egyptology of the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “It was an important honor,” said Karenga, creator of the African American and pan-African holiday Kwanzaa, which placed him on a list of previous invitees whom the museum website describe as “among the most distinguished Egyptologists of the world,” including Cyril Aldred, W.K. Simpson, Wolfgang Helck, Geoffrey Martin, John Baines, Stephen Quirke and Erik Hornung. Therefore, Karenga feels such an invitation is in recognition of his scholarship and its relevance to Egyptology and Africana Studies and to an emerging interdisciplinary dialog between the two.

In 1976, the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum received a benefaction to provide for an annual lecture on Egyptology. Its purpose was to commemorate the work of a major Cambridge Egyptologist, Stephen Glanville, who died at age 56. Since 1976, a Glanville Lecture has been given each year, sometimes augmented by a day of seminars. It has continuously grown in popularity and it has been described variously as a “red-letter day in the Egyptological calendar” and a “major event for Egyptological scholarship.”

Karenga received his B.A. and M.A. in political science with a specialization in African Studies from UCLA and his first Ph.D. in political science from United States International University in 1976. He received his second Ph.D. in religion and social ethics from USC in 1994 for a dissertation on “Maat, the Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics.” UMI reported that this was the most requested dissertation out of 55,000 published worldwide for the year 1996. Later, it was published as a book by Routledge (2004) in hardback and by the University of Sankore in paperback (2006). The book later went on to receive the Cheikh Anta Diop Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Best Book of the Year 2004 at the Cheikh Anta Diop International Conference. Jan Assmann, one of the world’s leading Egyptologists and author of the foreword to Maat, praises Karenga’s work as an “innovative achievement” which “opens a new phase and a new dimension” of scholarship and discourse in ancient Egyptian studies. He sees it as a seminal work in its critical integration of current philosophical and ethical issues with a “philologically and historically critical treatment of first-hand Egyptian material” using “all the relevant sources in reliable transcriptions and translations.”

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Karenga suggested that one of the main reasons for his selection to present the Glanville lecture was the recognition of the new dialog he brings with ancient Egypt, using the same sources in the relevant languages and the same rigorous standards as other scholars in Egyptology. A second reason for his selection, he thinks, is the increasing interest in both Africana Studies and Egyptology in studying ancient Egypt in the context of Africa and African culture. This interest in engaging ancient Egypt in its African context is a special concern of the curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Sally-Ann Ashton.

Karenga added his focus on ethical philosophy also brings a distinct character to his work in ancient Egyptian studies and thus increased interest in it. He noted that “one of the most important ways to engage modern issues of our time is from an ethical standpoint. The fundamental issues facing human beings are ethical issues, i.e., environmental, biomedical, political, economic, relational, informational, intellectual integrity and other issues are essentially and ultimately ethical issues. My interest and intellectual project, as an activist-scholar, is to use African culture, especially ancient Egyptian ethical thought, as a foundation and framework to enter and contribute meaningfully to this discourse,” he said.

Karenga met students who used his book, Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt for doctoral work and study as well as a study group from London who used his book Introduction to Black Studies, now in its fourth edition. “The audience was multicultural and very engaged and the dialog was excellent and enjoyable,” he said. Stressing the importance of the values of reciprocity and shared good in a multicultural world, Karenga said he ended his lecture with a quote from the Husia, the sacred text of ancient Egypt, which is a 30-year project on which he has been working. It says, “Do good. Doing good is not difficult. Just speaking good is a monument for those who do it. Indeed, those who do good for others are also doing it for themselves.”

–Richard Manly