Despite modern fashionable protests to the contrary, almost everybody takes some sort of pride in their heritage. Whether it's religious, educational, ethnic, political, or nationalistic, people enjoy being part of a group and being able to take some sort of comfort in its collective achievements. On the face of it, there is nothing inherently wrong with this; while it's rather silly to take credit for someone else's deeds simply because of a close group affinity of some type, there's no reason not to celebrate them. After all, this is really the whole point of most holidays and cultural events. Where this becomes a problem is when people use this sort of pride to rationalize actions and ideas that are either disingenuous or dangerous, or very frequently both.
The excesses of various regimes and ideologies of the preceding few centuries demonstrate this problem perfectly: colonialism, artificial class warfare, and wars of religion are just a few examples. There must always be at least two parties to these crises - victim and victimizer, oppressed and oppresser, conquered and conqueror. These historical injustices inevitably lead to emnities between groups and individuals within those groups and there's really not much that can be said or done to make up for the past. What is always nice to see is the transcendence of these prejudices and the confidence of formerly marginalized groups to move forward and take pride in themselves and their forebearers.
I mention all of this because it's an important background to understanding the issues that led to Afrocentrism and its misuse of the ancient Egyptian civilization for its own ends. Afrocentrism is exactly what it sounds like: a system of belief held mainly by those of African descent in the primacy of African (more specifically black African) cultural influence on the world's civilizations. Afrocentrism was born largely out of the need by black African Americans still reeling from the effects of racial discrimination in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to have some positive, affirmative historical tradition prior to the innovation of black slavery in the United States of America. Ironically, Afrocentrism was a reaction to the same sorts of historical conditions I mentioned above and wound up becoming the very thing it sought to combat.
The big claim presented by most Afrocentrists is that the Ancient Egyptian society was one created, inhabited, and sustained by black Africans. There are other claims, such as the idea that Socrates was black, that the Greeks and Romans stole everything they knew about philosophy and science from black Egyptians, and that Napoleon's white soldiers shot the nose off the Great Sphinx because it looked "too negroidal," but these aren't really issues that concern me a whole lot since they are not particularly complex claims and they are all demonstrably false (Socrates was a prominent full citizen of Athens which required generations of unbroken residency by the male line of a given family, making it highly unlikely if not impossible that an Ethiopian -- the generic Greek term for a black person -- would ever acquire that status; the Greeks and Romans absorbed outside influences from every culture they encountered; sand and weather eroded the Sphinx's nose naturally over the course of a few thousand years and definitely before the arrival of French soldiers in Egypt). The larger, more over-arching claim about the ethnic extraction of the ancient Egyptians and the impact that this may or may not have had on the development their civilization is a bit more difficult to dismiss with a single fragmentary sentence.
We need to start by getting a few things out of the way. Egypt is the northeastern most country on the continent of Africa; of this there can be no dispute. By this strict definition, Egypt was definitely an African civilization. However, the term "African civilization" is a lot like "Asian civilization" or "Middle Eastern civilization" or "Christian civilization" or "female civilization" in that it is so broad that it fails on any meaningful level to be descriptive except in the most generic sense. Like every other continent, Africa is a large physical landmass filled with many different peoples and cultures, some of whom happen to be primarily or exclusively black. There are huge differences in these groups between North and South, East and West, and everywhere in between. Most of the modern inhabitants of north Africa (comprising Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt) are not black; largely, they are Arabs, Berbers, and other mixed populations with Semitic and European ancestry. If you ask any Native American, they can tell you that over time and with migration, the ethnic make up of a population can and will change. Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, Germans, and Arabs would all heavily settle all across this area between the years 1000 BC and 700 AD, inevitably intermingling their genes with those of the indigenous population(s). This only counts the areas of Africa adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea; imagine this sort of thing going on across an entire continent further south. To ascribe a monolithic identity to these peoples is a gross oversimplification and contradicts everything we know about the region.
Because of its long history, impressive monuments, and rich heritage, ancient Egypt is the crown jewel in the Afrocentric imagination. It's not hard to see why; Afrocentrism is about countering the civilizational achievements of the largely white Western world with comparable black ones. In ancient times, powerful black polities like Axum and Kush were major movers and shakers in their region. While perhaps not as large or as powerful as the Roman Empire, they were nevertheless important actors in ancient politics. Opone, located on the coast of modern Somalia, was at one time a major economic center that served as the nexus of trade between the Mediterranean world and the Far East. In the early middle ages, the Mali Empire encompassed a large portion of Western Africa and was the most powerful state in the region at the time; its syncretic blend of medieval Islamic and traditional West African cultures produced a vibrant civilization whose monuments and art can still be seen today. There are many other examples of important indigenous black African societies throughout history and to be fair, very little of this has been given a proper hearing in Western scholarship up until relatively recently.
That, really, is the reason behind Afrocentric claims about ancient Egypt. Everyone knows at least something about Egypt. Whether it's the pyramids, the Sphinx, King Tut, Cleopatra, or whatever else, it's an indelible part of the Western tradition and imagination. Even in the classical world, Egypt was already old and mysterious, having been around for a few thousand years before Caesar even thought about crossing the Rubicon. The Greeks thought that religion came from Egypt; some ancient scholars believed that the god Thoth was a real person who created (or perhaps discovered) the notion of religious practice, and he was venerated as Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes thrice empowered) in the Hellenistic world. The tradition of Hebrew servitude in Egypt is debatable from an historical standpoint, but its existence as a meme in Judeo-Christian thought has helped cement the place of Egypt in the Western imagination. We can talk all day about Azania, Nubia, and Ethiopia, but few non-academics will get the same visceral reaction to these important lands as they would to hearing about Egypt. Even I am not particularly interested in them to the same extent that I am in Rome or Greece.
In the high Bronze Age, Egypt was regarded as one of the world's three great Empires. Only the Pharaoh and the kings of Babylon and Assyria had the right to refer to themselves in international relations as "Great Kings." Because there was no formal conception of what we might refer to as the Westphalian state in the ancient world, politics in antiquity were more complex than they are today. Overlapping territories, vassal rulers, and ever-changing alliances made the world a confusing and dangerous place. There were two great simplifiers in ancient politics: gold and iron. In their part of the world, Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria were the richest of the rich and the strongest of the strong. They made use of extensive trade networks and their armies were the most feared in the Mediterranean/Fertile Crescent neighborhood. The Hittites in Anatolia would eventually be permitted to join the Great Empire club on the basis of their wealth and military might. Egyptian Pharaohs had many wives, including close family relatives, other Egyptian aristocrats, hostages from subject nations, and daughters of other Great Kings. Generally speaking, Egypt was considered the first among equals in this arrangement, best demonstrated by the fact that it did not send its royal women to be wives to the other Great Kings.
What should be clearly established, then, is that Egypt was a large, powerful empire with a correspondingly significant impact on international relations of the day. Egypt occupied and continues to occupy prime real estate as the elbow between Africa and Asia in addition to having access to the closest point between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, making it a chief beneficiary of the trade that took place along those coastal areas. At its greatest territorial extent, Egypt controlled most of the modern country of the same name, most of Sudan, about half of Libya, the entire Levant coastal area, and even parts of modern Turkey. It further exerted influence on vassals and proxies to the south and to the west. Like all great historical empires, Egypt ruled over numerous peoples.
Egypt's ancient name for itself was Khemet, meaning "the black land." Some Afrocentrists have used this to show that the Egyptians regarded themselves as black and that their name refers to their country as being populated by blacks. In actuality, the reference is to the black soil around the Nile, which always formed the core of the Egyptian nation. The Egyptians had an entirely different name for black people, and it was not one that they applied to themselves. In most instances, that word was Nehesu (that is, Nubian). One of the best resources we have for establishing the history of ancient Egypt is its monuments. The Pharaohs wanted very badly for all of posterity to know of their great deeds, so all Pharaonic monuments and temples are decorated with depictions of their glory, chiefly in the form of military victories. Naturally, defeats and other catastrophes are not recorded, so the impression that we get is rather lopsided in some regards, but that's neither here nor there at the moment. For the purposes of simplicity, Egyptian art is highly stereotypical. Pharaohs are depicted in an almost uniform fashion for nearly four thousand years, making it very difficult to know who is actually being depicted without reading the cartouche indicating the Pharaoh's name. The two most common motifs in these reliefs are Pharaohs fulfilling religious functions and winning great battles. The respective deities are depicted pretty similarly across all of these different carvings and paintings as are the enemies being defeated by the Pharaohs.
The Egyptians believed that the world was comprised basically of four types of peoples: themselves, Libyans (i.e. whites), Asians (i.e. Semites), and Nubians (i.e. blacks). Where color is available, Egyptians are depicted as red, Libyans as pale with light hair, Asians as slightly darker than Libyans but with black hair, and Nubians as pitch black with kinky or rowed hair. Where there is no coloration, secondary characteristics such as hairstyle and facial structure are used to illustrate the point. In all instances where blacks are depicted without the benefit of coloration, they are shown with full lips, flat noses, and wide eyes. Clearly, if the Egyptians were by and large black Africans and their art style relied so fully on stereotypes, they would depict themselves in a similar fashion. The fact that they do not should be a huge clue that they viewed themselves as being distinct from their darker skinned neighbors.
Now, having said all of that, saying "ancient Egyptians were not black" is like saying "modern Americans are not black." Despite widespread belief to the contrary, the modern world did not invent the notion of a multiethnic state. As a large empire that conquered large parts of foreign territory, Egypt was home to many different peoples. As a center of trade, Egypt, especially its chief port cities, attracted a sizable number of foreigners from all parts of the region. Some of these foreigners became very prominent in society. The Biblical Joseph is supposed to have been an advisor to an unnamed Pharaoh. A prominent Semitic official by the name of Yuya was the father-in-law of Amenhotep III, the father of Ay, the grandfather of Akhenaten and the great-grandfather of Tutankhamun. The Syrian parvenu Chancellor Bey exercised extensive control over the country's policies during a time of extreme turbulence. The Pharaoh Kamose recruited black Nubian mercenaries to campaign against the Kushites while he fought the Hyksos. The Twenty Fifth Dynasty, which ruled Egypt from 760 to 656 BC, was actually the ruling family of the aforementioned Kush (also definitely black). This came at the tail end of a decline in prominence for Egypt, however, so the monuments built by this group are not as grandiose as the pyramids, but then again, there are very few monuments anywhere that are.
Of course, the question as to why it even matters what race the Egyptians were is a good one to ask. The problem with Afrocentric claims is that they ascribe both collective credit and collective guilt for the past. Even if we agree that this is completely acceptable, Afrocentrist pseudo-historians are making claims that are simply not true. Assuming that the Greeks and Romans did steal every aspect of their civilization from the Egyptians, and that their culutral descendants should have to answer for it, the only group of people who could conceivably have a claim on them would be the Copts living in Egypt, since they represent the closest genetic link to the ancient population (which even then is tenuous at best). Even though we know there were blacks living in ancient Egypt and that one of the final dynasties before the Macedonian conquest of Egypt was black, this does not rationalize the statement that Egypt was a "black" civilization. That's like saying the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan was white because it included Russian subjects or that the English were responsible for India's cultural traditions because they ruled over that country for a certain period of time.
Given the sensitivity of the subject matter, it's hard to want to sound too condemnatory, but I'll leave you with a final thought. Afrocentric claims about Egypt have been receiving serious attention from the media and others for many years. Budweiser, of all companies, created an "educational" campaign called "Great Kings and Queens of Africa," in which many Egyptian figures are incorrectly depicted as black, including Thutmose III, Akhenaten, and Cleopatra, the latter with the bizarre claim that she is "often erroneously portrayed as Caucasian" -- this despite the fact that her decidedly white Greek/Macedonian family practiced incest for many generations to avoid succession disputes with outside parties. Even the great Carthaginian general Hannibal is also shown in this fashion and described as a "ruler of Carthage" who brought his country prosperity after the war with Rome; like almost all Carthaginians, Hannibal was a Semite of mixed Berber and Phoenician descent, and he actually was blamed for having brought the land to ruin and his actions as chief magistrate (which was not the executive office of Carthage) were opposed and resisted by the ruling class at every turn. At best, these claims are mistakes and at worst, they are intentional lies. Obviously, the people at Budweiser aren't professional academics and their interest here is solely in courting black American customers and their money; does that make it better or worse than Afrocentrists with a major racial axe to grind?