When Cleopatra was alive, she was not classified by the color of her skin

In 1751, the great American polymath Benjamin Franklin was concerned about the small number of “purely white people in the world.” “All of Africa,” he wrote, “is black or fawn. Asia mostly tawny… And in Europe, the Spaniards, the Italians, the French, the Russians and the Swedes, are generally of what we call a dark complexion; as are the Germans too. Only “the Saxons… [and] the British constitute the main body of white people on the face of the earth.

The question “who is white?” it might seem evident to us today. Yet for the past three centuries it has been fiercely contested. Many groups we consider white today were certainly not seen as such for much of that period, from the Irish to the Slavs, from the Italians to the Jews. It took a long process of social negotiation and conflict before they were allowed into the white club.

Even today racial boundaries remain controversial. The last “who is white?” Controversy has emerged over Netflix’s decision to cast a black actor, Adele James, as Cleopatra in its new drama series, Queen Cleopatra.

As in many debates of this kind, the issues are shrouded in layers of myth and ideology. Much of the controversy stems from a desire to impose contemporary notions of race and identity, of black and white, on an ancient world that thought very differently on such matters. Even identities such as ‘Egyptian’, ‘Greek’, ‘Macedonian’ and ‘African’ have significantly different connotations today than they did two millennia ago.

Born in Alexandria in 69 BC, Cleopatra VII, the last queen of the Ptolemaic Hellenistic dynasty, was an Egyptian ruler of Macedonian heritage, and possibly also of Persian and Black African ancestry, although this is deeply disputed. The casting of James as Cleopatra has, however, as much to do with contemporary sensibilities as with historical facts. “It’s not often you see or hear stories about black queens,” noted Jada Pinkett Smith, the drama’s executive producer, “and that was really important to me, as well as my daughter, and just my community. able to know those stories.

This is history as allegory, the vision of the past as a resource to draw on to meet the needs of the present

The idea that Cleopatra was black has a long history in African-American thought, especially within the black nationalist and Afro-centrist movements. Many have argued that Egypt was a black nation and from which ancient Greece stole its culture and ideas. For a people enslaved and oppressed, and living in a racist world that loudly proclaimed that they came from a continent with no history, the call of Egypt and Cleopatra, for black was often irresistible.

The publication in 1987 of the first volume of Black Athena by Martin Bernal, a British scholar of Chinese political history, has brought this discussion into both academia and the wider public consciousness. Bernal argued that much of classical Greek culture was rooted in that of ancient Egypt, but this link had been erased by the rise of Eurocentric views in the 18th century. Many of his claims have been debunked but, on both sides, the fierce debate over the book has been driven as much by controversy as by facts.

More recently, classicist Shelley Haley has argued that while it is “anachronistic” to imagine that the ancients viewed race as we do, modern sensibilities can be helpful in framing how we perceive Cleopatra. “My grandmother was white,” Haley writes, “she had straight black hair and her own nose [Native American] Onondagan grandmother but was ‘coloured'” because of the “rule of the drop” – the insistence that “if we have a black ancestor, then we are black”. Similarly, Cleopatra was undoubtedly “the product of of races”; then “how is it that she’s not black?” Haley adds that “Cleopatra reacted to oppression and exploitation as a black woman would. So we embrace her as a sister”.

This is history as an allegory, the vision of the past above all as a resource to draw on to meet the social and psychological needs of the present. It also betrays the degree of contemporary confusion about race that the one-drop rule, enforced by racists to preserve white “purity,” should now be exercised by black scholars and activists as a tool to uplift African Americans.

If the projection of Cleopatra as black is rooted in myth and wish fulfillment, that of her as “white” draws equally on racial fables. Cleopatra was an Egyptian queen of Macedonian origin. But that doesn’t make it “white”. Cleopatra’s candor is the product of racial thinking rooted in modernity.

There is nothing wrong with considering Cleopatra black. The problem lies in the resonances that arise from it

The ancients certainly divided humanity into different groups and recognized differences in color. But they did not classify people in racial terms as we do, nor did they attach the same social meanings to human differences. Whether we’re talking about Cleopatra or Aristotle, to portray them as “white” is to project a contemporary racial sensibility into the past.

Even in the modern world, most Euro-American thinkers, such as Benjamin Franklin, would not, until the 20th century, have seen an Egyptian or a Macedonian or a Greek of their time as white. At the same time, Ancient Greece was embraced as the source of Western intellectual and artistic tradition, so while modern Greeks weren’t necessarily white, ancient Greeks were. The history of the breed is full of such absurd contradictions.

In Egypt itself, many were outraged by the characterization of Cleopatra as black, proclaiming her a “falsification of facts” and “erasure of Egyptian identity.” It’s a reaction that pulls on many strands, from a nationalist desire to project a unique Egyptian identity to an anti-Blackness strand and a desire to differentiate the Arab world from “sub-Saharan” Africa, itself a category that it only emerged in the 20th century. Not all Egyptians adopt such views, of course, but the Cleopatra controversy inevitably has special edge within the country.

There is nothing wrong with considering Cleopatra black. The problem lies in the resonances that arise from it. James is no more or less authentically a Cleopatra than Elizabeth Taylor was. The ancient commentary on Cleopatra reveals little interest in discussing her identity in the way the modern world obsessively does.

However Cleopatra is chosen, it is a decision shaped by modern political desires or fantasies. The same question “Was Cleopatra black or white?” -and the answers we give-tell us much more about ourselves, and our world, and the confusions that beset our understanding of race and identity, than they do about Cleopatra and her world.

• Kenan Malik is a columnist for the Observer

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