The Kandakes of Kush – Black History Month

Black History Month

The culture, art and religion of ancient Egypt is recognised the world over. With dynasties stretching back thousands of years into pre-history and gigantic monuments left behind in the deserts, it is easy to understand why this civilisation has so captured our imaginations.

Africa_in_400_BCHowever, the Egyptians had close neighbours whose culture and people both mirrored and rivalled them – the Kushites.

The kingdom of Kush (also known as Nubia) covered parts of modern day Ethiopia and Sudan. It sprang from an Egyptian colony during the New Kingdom period (16st Century BCE), gaining independence in 1070 BCE.

The Kushites buried their dead in pyramids and shared many of the same gods as their northern neighbours, particularly Amun and Isis. Positioned on the intersection of the blue and white Nile, the kingdom grew wealthy and powerful, often clashing with Egypt and eventually – during the 8th Century BCE – conquering it.

Meroe pyramids in Sudan

Meroë pyramids in Sudan

The Nubian pharaohs (sometimes known as the black pharaohs) ruled Egypt and Kush for 200 years.

After being pushed out by the Neo-Assyrians, the Kushite dynasty returned to Sundan, using Meroë as the capital. There, this under-acknowledged society continued to flourish.

It was the largest producer of gold in the ancient world, making its’ rulers incredibly rich. When Egypt fell to Rome, Kush stood firm and remained independent.


Much like Egypt, it appears that the Kushite dynasties were matrilineal (power was transferred from the mother rather than the father). The women of Meroë had a number of rights and freedoms that Roman or Greek women could only dream of. As a result, there are several known women rulers of Kush.

Known as Kandakes (or Kentake or Candace) these women often ruled in their own right, built monuments, commanded armies and led their nation both politically and spiritually.


Bas-reliefs dated to about 170 BCE reveal Kandake Shanakdakhete dressed in armor and wielding a spear in battle. Shanakdakhete did not rule as queen regent or queen mother, but as a fully independent ruler. She did have a husband, who acted as her consort.


Amanirenas was ruling queen following the death of Egyptian ruler Cleopatra which had resulted in Roman occupation of Egypt.  Amanirenas, seeing her boarders threatened by the Romans launched an attack and defeated their forces in the Egyptian cities of Syene (now Aswan) and Philae. It was a profitable venture; Amanirenas’ army returned to Kush with prisoners and treasure, including several statues of the Emperor Augustus.

Rome later took Syene back, and at this point, Amanirenas chose diplomacy. She sent negotiators to visit Augustus in Samos and managed to strike a peace treaty with Rome.  This mutually beneficial arrangement continued for three hundred years, and relations between Meroe and Roman Egypt were generally peaceful during this time.


This Kandake was a prolific builder who had a very prosperous reign.

There is a portrait of Amanishakheto in the Amun Temple in Kawa and a palace in Wad ban Naqa, showing her taking enemy prisoners, however she is best known for the treasure found in her pyramid complex. Amanishakheto was buried with a vast amount of great jewelry, befitting a great queen.



Amanitore was a prolific builder, one of the last Kushite rulers to focus on construction. She restored the temples of Amun at Meroë and Napata following its destruction by the Romans and built two further temples at Naqa and Amara. As well as taking care of the spiritual health of her people, the queen also built reservoirs to retain water for her kingdom during drought.

Amanitore was buried in her own pyramid (rather than sharing with her husband or son) in Meroë.

Note: There were of course other notable Kandakes of Kush who will be included in this project. As I am creating embroideries chronologically, I simply haven’t reached them yet! At the time of writing (October 2015) I have reached 60 CE.


The Story of Africa: Nubia BBC

Meroitic Palaeography as a tool for Chronology: Prospects and LimitsDr Claude Rilly

The Black Pharaohs – Robert Draper for the National Geographic

The Image of the Ordered World in Ancient Nubian Art: The Construction of the Kushite Mind (800 BCE – 300 AD) – László Török

Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography: Aetheopia – William Smith

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology – William Smith, Ed.

Nubian Pharaohs and Meroitic Kings: The Kingdom of Kush – Necia Desiree Harkless

Roman Military Equipment: The Accoutrements of War: Proceedings of the Third Roman Military Equipment Research Seminar, British Archaeological Reports, 1987 Issues 336-338 – M. Dawson

Dictionary of African Biography, Volumes 1-6 – Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Professor Emmanuel Akyeampong, Mr. Steven J. Niven

On Wikipedia:


Africa in 400 BC” by Kubek15 – Own work.

Licensed under GFDL via Commons

Sudan Meroe Pyramids 30sep2005 2” by Fabrizio Demartis.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

NubianPharoahs” by Wufei07 – Own work.

Licensed under Public Domain via Commons


10 Biopics of Black Women – Black History Month

Black History Month, TV and Film

While of course the best way to understand the lives of women in history is to read/listen to factual accounts, fictional portrayals can bring personalities to life – one of the reasons everyone loves a good biopic.

In honour of Black History Month, here’s a breakdown of a few of the black women in history to receive the hollywood treatment.

1. Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

Lady_sings_the_blues (1)

Based on the life of: Billie Holiday

Directed by: Sidney J. Furie

Starring: Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, James T. Callahan, Scatman Crothers

A musical legend in her own right, Diana Ross here portrays the life of Jazz royalty Billie Holiday. The film follows Holiday’s troubled adolescence as a cleaner and prostitute in a Harlem brothel to her rise in popularity as a night club performer, as she is propelled towards stardom.

Based on Billie Holiday’s 1954 autobiography, the movie does not shy away from the performer’s battle with addiction.

Among the five Oscar nominations for Lady Sings the Blues, Ross was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

CW for Rape, drug addiction and racist language.

2. Belle (2014)

"Belle poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

“Belle poster” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Based on the life of: Dido Elizabeth Belle

Directed by: Amma Asante

Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Tom Felton, Miranda Richardson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson

This is a heavily fictionalised version of the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, whose father was a British peer and whose mother was a West Indian slave. She was raised as a free noblewoman at Kenwood house in England alongside her white cousin Elizabeth.

The film was partly inspired by the famous painting of Dido and her cousin, and focuses on the legal challenge to slavery which was taking place in the 1800s.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw won Best Actress in the African-American Film Critics Association Awards, the British Independant Film Awards and the Black Reel Awards.

3. Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)


Based on the life of: Dorothy Dandridge

Directed by: Martha Coolidge

Starring: Halle Berry, Brent Spiner

Halle Berry stars as the multi-talented Dorothy Dandridge, singer, dancer and actress who was the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award.

The film examines Dandridge’s difficult childhood, her love affairs, her rise to fame and the difficulties she faced as a successful black woman in a very racist society.

Berry won the Best Actress Black Reel Award, an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her performance.

4. Black Venus (2010)

"Black Venus" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

“Black Venus” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Based on the life of: Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman

Directed by: Abdellatif Kechiche

Starring: Yahima Torres, Olivier Gourmet

In this french and english language film about the unusual and often distressing life of Saartjie Baartman, Yahima Torres stars as the Khoikhoi woman sold to a showman to be exhibited in the 1800s.

She travelled from London to Paris, where crowds came to see what was billed as her ‘Hottentot’ figure in various sideshows.

5. Bessie (2015)

"Bessie Promotional Poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

“Bessie Promotional Poster” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Based on the life of: Bessie Smith

Directed by: Dee Rees

Starring: Queen Latifa, Michael Kenneth Williams, Mo’Nique

Queen Latifa portrays Bessie Smith, legendary blues performer, who rose to fame during the 1920s and ’30s. The film follows Smith from a sad abandoned childhood in Tennessee, to becoming known as ‘Empress of the Blues’.

Smith is depicted as a bold, vibrant, independent woman with a big voice and a penchant for moonshine. The film touches on the many challenges she faced, including an altercation with the KKK.

6. The Josephine Baker Story (1991)

800px-Baker_BananaBased on the life of: Josephine Baker

Directed by: Brian Gibson

Starring: Lynn Whitfield, Ruben Blades, David Dukes, Louis Gossett Jr., Craig T. Nelson

A biopic on the life of French-American Josephine Baker, the first black international star and the first black woman to star in a major motion picture.

Hugely talented Baker was a singer, dancer and actress, but also a fierce advocate of civil rights and recipient of the Croux de guerre for assisting the French Resistance during World War II.

Lynn Whitfield won an Emmy for her portrayal of this remarkable woman.

7. What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)

"Whats love got to do with it poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

“Whats love got to do with it poster” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Based on the life of: Tina Turner

Directed by: Brian Gibson

Starring: Angela Basset, Lawrence Fishburne

Angela Basset won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as rock star Tina Turner.

The film focuses on Turner’s infamous relationship with Ike Turner (cw for domestic abuse) and her battle to keep the rights to her stage name as she gains confidence as an independent performer.




8. Shirley (2011)

Based on the life of: Shirley Bassey

Shirley Bassey (left) and Ruth Negga (right)

Shirley Bassey (left) and Ruth Negga (right)

Directed by: Colin Teague

Starring: Ruth Negga, Lesley Sharp, Babou Ceesay

Ruth Negga stars as mixed race welsh singer Dame Shirley Bassey, best known for belting out some of the most classic James Bond themes including Diamonds are Forever and Goldfinger.

The biopic follows Bassey as she grows up in poverty as part of an eight child family, and is depended upon to make money by singing in local clubs. After her move to London the film charts her rise to one of the most popular British singers of the 1960s.

Negga won Best Actress at the Irish Film and Television Awards for her performance.

9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

"I Know Why." by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

“I Know Why.” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Based on the life of: Maya Angelou

Directed by: Fielder Cook

Starring: Constance Good, Esther Rolle

Based on her highly acclaimed autobiography of the same name, Maya Angelou wrote the screenplay for the movie re-telling of her childhood years.

The movie traces Maya’s life from she and her brother moving to live with their grandmother in Arkansas, to the trauma of being raped as a young girl by one of her mother’s boyfriends and the several years of silence that followed.



10. Betty and Coretta (2013)

Based on the life of: Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz

Directed by: Yves Simoneau

Starring: Angela Basset, Mary J. Blige

Following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, their widows carry on as single mothers and continue to fight for civil rights.