Race, History, and the Body
World Literature Today|Spring 2020
Humanity on Display
Matthew Shenoda

Standing before a museum exhibit of a mummified five-year-old “Purchased in Egypt in 1895,” a father holding the hand of his four-year-old considers ways to alter the narratives intended for museum visitors.

One Saturday afternoon in November I found myself near Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood with my wife and daughter and decided to take a walk around the University of Chicago’s campus. My daughter was then just a couple months shy of turning five, taken to proudly proclaim that she was four and a half! After running around the quad at the U of C making sculptures of sticks and fallen leaves, we stumbled on the Oriental Institute and a bit reluctantly decided to enter.

As we walked in, we discovered that, as is common with certain museums, the entrance had no formal fee but a posted rate for “suggested donations.” Knowing what we might expect in a museum like this, my wife and I looked at one another with a smirk and with a mutual understanding that our people had donated enough to such enterprises; we walked in, wallets intact.

As we entered the museum we walked through the writing tablets of ancient Mesopotamia, awed by the incredible evolution of script, the way that fables, etched into rock, were used as lessons for schoolchildren, lessons to help them locate themselves in the historical trajectory that led to the moment of their childhoods.

Before long we came upon the Egyptian exhibit. I began by looking at a set of scrolls examining the Demotic and the Coptic script with intimate familiarity, taking note of the odd description under one Coptic script that stated, “These are the names of the 12 apostles that could have been used for religious devotion, or perhaps for magic ritual.” Magic ritual, I thought? What an odd choice of language. Having spent my life steeped in the Coptic Church and her theology, I was quite sure that the use of this particular text had nothing to do with “magic ritual,” whatever that might have meant. But perhaps what we call prayer, our colonizers see as magic. Surely, my people would have wished for some magic in the moment that our culture was being robbed and stripped of all its artifacts and their proper meanings.

Surely, my people would have wished for some magic in the moment that our culture was being robbed and stripped of all its artifacts and their proper meanings.

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