Diop, Cheikh Anta

1923–1986
African scholar and political leader

Cheikh Anta Diop was an accomplished historian, physicist, archaeologist, and linguist who championed the cause of African independence and explored the roots of African culture and civilization. Born to a Muslim family in SENEGAL and educated in both Africa and France, Diop had an unusual background from which to examine Africa’s colonial experience.

While doing graduate work in Paris, Diop became involved in the anticolonial movement and helped to organize the first Pan-African Student Conference in 1951. He also began to research the origins of civilization in Africa. He wrote a doctoral thesis that argued that ancient Egypt was a black African civilization. It took nine years for the Sorbonne—France’s most prestigious university—to assemble a panel of scholars to judge the thesis, which earned Diop a doctor of letters degree in 1960. Diop then returned to Senegal where he set up a laboratory for carbon-14 dating and founded several political parties.

Diop, Cheikh Anta

Diop devoted his academic and literary career to defining Africa’s identity, which had been shattered by years of European colonial rule. His books trace Africa’s contributions to classical Greek culture and examine the relationship between Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Egyptian religious thought. He argued that European colonial rulers had been racist and violent because they came from male-dominated societies. According to Diop, female-centered societies—which he claimed originated in Africa—were more humane. He believed that together Africans could repeat the great achievements of their distant past. Diop received many honors during his lifetime, and at the first World Festival of Negro Arts in 1966, he was named one of the two scholars “who exerted the greatest influence on Negro thought in the twentieth century.” (See also Africa, Study of; Egypt, Negritude.)