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Parfitt quotes “…the Grecian features and brilliant eyes…” of Ashanti women in Ghana, described by a scholarly 18th-century English traveler, Thomas Edward Bowdich, who likened them to the civilized Ethiopians cited by none other than the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.Actual connections between historic Jews and East Africa were more tenuous, but the process of discovering imagined Semites took firm hold nevertheless.But what of the numerous other African tribes whose myths connect them to the Bible, and who assert Jewish ancestry?In exploring this question, Parfitt calls on his experience as a historian, scholar, linguist and writer to offer a surprising hypothesis.
The processes that brought black converts to Islam are hardly different from those that made others Jews or Christians.
But it was their claim to have an “ark” that caught Parfitt’s attention and led him to wonder if they might actually be descendants of an early Jewish community—a belief later confirmed by DNA studies.
Whether Lemba customs (including wearing yarmulkes) were simply local developments—what anthropologists call “independent inventions”—or genuine connections to a biblical past, the genetic data were undeniable, concluded Parfitt, who is professor of modern Jewish studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Exploring race narratives over centuries in which not only were Jews cast as blacks but blacks as Jews, Parfitt details the complex, shifting relationships between religious and racial definitions and their actual impact on various groups.
The results may be surprising to those who perceive identity as something fixed and immutable, when, in reality, it is a social creation arising from contact with other cultures, casual and sometimes deliberate misunderstandings, political and economic needs and profoundly held beliefs.