Steven Barnes

is a screenwriter and lecturer based in Los Angeles.

The King Tut exhibit at the Franklin Institute will close its doors Sept. 30. Throughout its U.S. tour, the show has attracted protesters who claimed it was downplaying the fact that Egypt was in Africa, downplaying Tut's African racial roots. Protests in Philadelphia spurred the museum to host a conference on the subject in July. The King Tut Action Committee of Philadelphia declared that the Franklin Institute had "knowingly misrepresented the young African king and African history, culture and heritage to over a million visitors."

The only opinion I will offer concerning Tut's ethnicity is that, to judge from their official art, the Egyptians seemed to consider themselves a golden mixture, separate from either Europeans or sub-Saharan Africans. (That hasn't stopped Europeans from portraying the Egyptians - and, indeed, Moses, Jesus, and many other non-Europeans - as positively Western-looking. See below.)

If you don't think Tut was black, fine. But don't think black intellectuals who claim he was are doing anything other than what people have done since the beginning of time. The hunger of blacks to see themselves in history is not a radical revisionism but a core human need.

In a Jules Feiffer cartoon, two intellectuals, one white, one black, sit across the table from each other. The black man says: "You have your history. White history. Written by white men, to promote white power. We want our history. Black history. Written by black men, to promote black power. Our demand is separate but equal lies."

I've never forgotten that cartoon. It contains a basic truth: Everyone wants to think the world revolves around him. Many indigenous peoples have a name for themselves that means, simply, "the people," and the mythology of many groups in the world suggests that God created them first, loves them best, and created everyone else later . . . and less.

This basic perceptual lens, powered by the emotional need to feel primary in the universal order, colors a gigantic proportion of our political, moral, and even artistic, debate.

Perhaps the only racial/ethnic group in the world denied such a mythic foundation is black Americans. Torn from their linguistic and cultural roots, sociologically brainwashed through 300 years of slavery and another century of Jim Crow and de facto segregation, we are like PCs programmed to believe Macs are the ultimate computers.

In 12 years of public school, I don't believe I got the equivalent of a single day's education on the contributions to America or the world from people of African descent. Every day, almost every hour, it was all about the greatness and primacy of white culture, genetics, philosophy and science. I doubt most white people can begin to conceive of how damaging this is - and how hungry the human mind and heart are to believe "we" (whoever "we" are) are capable of, and have produced, greatness.

Europeans, faced with the fact that all sorts of races (not just their own) have produced greatness, had a nifty solution - simply portray them all as "us." Europeans have produced countless books and movies depicting Egyptians with European characteristics. And, for the most part, archaeologists who might have known different didn't seem to make much of a fuss.

The image of the historical Jesus is lost in time, but rather than depict him as he probably was - a dark-skinned, curly-haired Galilean Semite - American and European paintings and movie portrayals are rife with blue-eyed, blond-haired Messiahs.

Hey, it happens everywhere. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, is depicted as Indian in India and Chinese in China. Everyone wants to co-opt the powerful image, to say, in essence: "We were here. We are here. We make a difference."

Of course, asking, "Was Tut black?" raises the uneasy issue of what "black" is, of how much racial heritage constitutes "blackness." The Egyptians built their four millennia of culture in northern Africa and down the Nile, so the idea that they were a blend of genetics from (what we now call) Europe, the Near East, and sub-Saharan Africa is hardly absurd.

And in America, thanks to the defining prejudice of 18th-century whites, "one drop" makes you black. Anyone out there think Tut didn't have "one drop"? I thought not. Is this an absurd definition from a genetic point of view? Probably. From an anthropological point of view? Probably. From a sociological point of view? Certainly.

Absurd or not, it once was the law of this land, and it affected countless lives, tore families apart, determined lifestyles and careers and education potentials. It said who could marry whom, and who could live where.

This is the reality blacks lived with for 400 years. To criticize them now for claiming Tut as "black" on the basis of a partial African heritage may well stand on technically "correct" grounds - but don't you dare think that white, or Latino, or Asian, or any other culture in the world acts or reacts primarily according to what is logical, scientific, or "correct." Human beings aren't wired up that way.

Take whatever intellectual position you wish in the discussion of Tut and his racial composition - but then watch the debate with compassion. We're all in this together. We all have been the victims, and beneficiaries, of separate and unequal lies.