It is quite common to see women of African descent in the diaspora refer to themselves as Cleopatra, Nefertiti or the Queen of Sheba, among others. This movement towards the famous ancients is both philosophical and practical.
In Plato’s Republic, the philosopher theorizes that beauty and other states of affairs and objects we experience have their perfect forms in another world outside of our own.
These perfect forms, according to Plato, are the guarantors of the existence of their ethereal kinds. We come to experience beauty for instance, because of Beauty, the perfect form of the otherworld.
All beautiful people and things look like the perfect Beauty but beautiful people and things never quite measure up to perfection.
We may look at the relationship black women have created with ancient African queens in this light.
These queens are women who lived way before the science of photography. The paintings and other portrayals we have of them are artist impressions, liable to embellishments.
The busts, the statues, and the highly-rated European enlightenment era paintings are all productions of creative licenses meant to dazzle.
These women were queens. Do you think it would be a popular narrative for artists to say they were not beautiful?
In fairness, there are certain artistic representations of Cleopatra that does not communicate her legendary beauty. But we must also not forget that as a ruler, she was bound to be hated and art has forever been potent political propaganda.
In literature, however, we have a few old writings by people who most likely did not see Nefertiti or Cleopatra.
Take Cassius Dio, the 2nd-century AD Roman historian, who never saw Cleopatra but wrote: “For she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking.”
Or take the Biblical story of the Queen of Sheba paying a visit to King Solomon as captured in 1st Kings 10:1-13 and 2nd Chronicles 9:1-12.
Neither account mentions the beauty of the queen except to say among other things that King Solomon “gave the queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for”.
But in both cases of these queens, as well as with Nefertiti and others, there is near consensus that they were beautiful. This myth-making has taken hundreds of years of dedication and imagination.
Even if we accept that beauty is generationally defined (or that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder), the proof does not necessarily exist for us to make better judgments about the queens. So we make up our “truths”.
As Christobel Hastings wrote for Vice last year concerning the Queen of Sheba, “Even without historic proof, the tale of the powerful queen who ruled in her own right has been immortalized in the sacred literature of the Torah, the Koran and the Bible, and undergone colorful elaborations over the centuries as Jewish, Islamic, and Ethiopian cultures have claimed Sheba as their own.”
In familiar human naivete, since we know that they were powerful queens who had their way, we ask, “How could they not have been beautiful too?”
In fact, Cleopatra seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, two respected Roman generals. It is only fair to assume that her looks played a role in these two separate processes.
But to a black woman, substantial evidence of the alleged beauty of these queens are not necessary. What black women, and indeed some men too, seek to portray when they identify with Cleopatra, Nefertiti or Sheba is to perpetuate the legends.
Black women in particular, long for a connection to legends with heroes who look like them. When the Europeans speak of “beauty like Aphrodite or Helen”, what can the black woman say?
To emphasise the relationship that a 21st-century black woman has with Sheba, Nefertiti or Cleopatra is to create the consciousness that the modern-day woman is from a long line of something magical, gracious and even perfect.
The myth is what matters. Diasporic black women trace their footsteps back to the continent of their ancestry through the stories they tell themselves about what their powerful queens looked like.
Indeed, Africans actually need black women to identify with the legendary queens. The apotheosizing of the queens is a powerful reminder that the African woman can look anything between mortal and goddess.
That is how black women “tap” their beauty from Sheba and her colleagues, participating in the likeness of their perfection.
This is how the process is both philosophical and practical. While they find strong premises for their appearance, diasporic black women also connect with Africa through the queens.
In this vein, it is useless to ask if any of the queens were really beautiful. Because although some of them did exist in time (there is no concrete evidence of the existence of Sheba), in the eyes of Afrocentric black women, all the queens transcend the boundaries of our opinions.