19 August 2007

Zenobia: What's in a Name? (Updated)

The composer Zenobia Perry (1908-2004) at
the piano while celebrating her 95th birthday.

Every once in a while, I get an email through my website from one or another young woman named Zenobia, saying something like, "I've got this weird name, Zenobia. Can you tell me about who she was?"

And I invariably reply, "Read my book" [Book I of the future trilogy, Chronicle of Zenobia: the rebel queen].
Last week, I received another such crisp missive:

My parents named me Zenobia, been doing research to find out what the name means. By any chance, can you provide this information to me. Thx
Unfortunately, this corespondent's email address keeps bouncing back, leaving "Read my book" fluttering helplessly in the ether. Maybe she'll reach my blog one day: it's a good question, with some interesting twists and turns to it.

First, what it means.

Zenobia's Semitic name is Bat-zabbai (BTZBY), simply, 'daughter of Zabbai'. This need not refer to her biological father but rather could signify that she was born into a family or clan bearing that name. Zabbai means "of god" or "gift of god" and the name (and variants such as Zabeida, Zabdila, and Zabda) are translated somewhat freely into Greek as Zenobios (Zen = Zeus + Bios, "life); whence the feminine Zenobia.

Her own father was very likely Julius Aurelius Zenobios, τὸν χαὶ Ζάβδιλαν , also called Zabdila', the prince of Palmyra who had welcomed Alexander Severus to the city in 231 AD. It's not just that he has this name and rank, and that the dates would fit, but also that his statue once stood in the Great Colonnade exactly opposite Zenobia's own statue -- which seems a deliberate statement by the queen: my father and I should be honoured together. Not quite QED but a pretty good case for this paternal line. There is no record at all of her mother's name or family, though it is likely that Zenobia's claimed descent from the ancient Seleucid rulers of Syria, Antiochus VII and Cleopatra Thea, is through the maternal line.
Female, inspired, and black

Why is anyone named Zenobia today?
Obviously, any baby girl whose mother has a keen sense of history could be called "Zenobia", but, at least in English-speaking countries, it's a name almost exclusively given to black babies -- as an inordinate amount of time spent Googling* will confirm. It's on the list of black girls' names. Why is that?

The Palmyran queen appears to have entered that fuzzy realm between history and mythomania and been given a black identity. On the time-line of black history for the year 267 AD, you read:

A black woman, Queen Zenobia, rules Palmyra, an ancient city in Syria, northeast of Damascus, until 272.
How does a Semitic queen, with a small amount of Macedonian blue blood in her veins, get to be seen as black? To paraphrase Mary Lefkowitz, author of Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (1996), the short answer is 'by mistake." Two mistakes, in fact.

The first mistake was to conflate Zenobia's Macedonian-Greek ancestress, Cleopatra Thea, with the Great Cleopatra, Cleopatra VII.
It has long been a tenet of the Afrocentric school that Cleopatra VII was black. Lefkowitz says the first American writer to suggest that she had a black ancestor was J.A. Rogers, in World's Great Men of Color, Volume I: Historical Figures Before Christ, Including Aesop, Hannibal, Cleopatra, Zenobia, Askia the Great ... and Many Others (1931).

Needless to say, this impeccably Ptolemaic princess was not black and Lefkowitz utterly demolishes the idea. Talking about Zenobia, Rogers indeed confuses Zenobia's ancestress with Cleopatra VII and, since he thought that this Cleopatra was black, assumes that her descendant, too, must have been at least partly black. Other authors have followed Rogers and made similar claims about both queens but with evidence that has been just as poor.
Rogers is also responsible for the second mistake, taking too literally the Historiae Augustae's description of the queen (anyway, a fantasy paean to female beauty)
her face was dark and of a swarthy hue
but this was written by a Roman describing how Syrians looked to him: darker than Romans, certainly, but not black like a Moor.

With all due respect to Mary Lefkowitz, I think she may not have gone back far enough in fingering Rogers as the source of error. Zenobia Perry (pictured at the top of this post) was born in 1908, which suggests that the name was already popular among blacks. I have nothing more to say on this subject, so I'll switch gear and tell you something about this remarkable woman, who was a composer, poet, pianist, and educator.

She was born in Boley, Oklahoma, once the largest all black town (pop. 4,000) in America.

It was founded in 1904, just four years before Zenobia's birth, by J. B. Boley, a white man, who contended that black people were perfectly able to govern themselves. Visiting it early in the century, Booker T. Washington declared that it was, “The most enterprising, and in many ways the most interesting of the Negro towns in the U. S.”

Southern migrants in search of better opportunities flocked there but, after Oklahoma became a state in 1907, most townspeople were disfranchised. Although the day to day effects of segregation were muted, and until the depression ruined its modest prosperity, Boley was an important location for blacks in the state as they fought for the right to vote again.

Zenobia Perry was originally trained in piano by a local teacher. She then went on to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where she assisted the famous black choir director and composer William L. Dawson. Afterwards, she headed a black teacher-training program, supervised in part by Eleanor Roosevelt, who became a friend, ally and mentor and sponsored her graduate studies in education in Colorado. Additional studies in composition were with French composer Darius Milhaud and Aspen Conference on Contemporary Music in the late 1940s and 1950s.

In short, Female, Black, and Inspired.

From 1955 until 1982, she taught and was composer—in-residence at Central State University in Ohio, ending as an Emerita. After her death at the age of 96, some of her friends set up a website in her honour. It has this sad little note:

I am still looking for a publisher for her biography so that all can read about her life and music. Two publishers have told me there is no market for a biography of a Black American woman composer!
I thought about this a long time. What part of that configuration killed the market? Would there have been a market for a book about a White American woman composer? A Black American male composer? A White American male composer?

You get the idea.

Updated 22 May 2012

Zenobia Perry talks about studying with Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943).  Perry studied with him in 1931 in Rochester, NY:

This brief excerpt is from a longer 2003 interview with Zenobia Powell Perry, done the year before she died.  It will be included in documentary film on her life and music, a project of Jaygayle Music Productions.


  1. Rev. George Brooks24/1/10 22:04

    Who on God's earth can be foolish enough to believe Mary Lefkowitz, who is Jewish, about Queen Zenobia not being black. For this queen was absolutely black, but Jews are one of the two groups on earth that are infamously known for lying. The other group is ANY Caucasian people. Both of these groups are the world's worst liars and thieves. In fact, Moses, Abraham, Isaiah and Jesus were also black, but Lefkowitz will never admit it, I am certain. --- Rev. George Brooks

  2. Dear Rev. Brooks,

    Sorry, but I think you have fallen into the Epimenides paradox.

    Epimenides said that "All Cretans are liars". But he was a Cretan. Therefore, when he said that, he was lying.

    Now, if Moses, Abraham, Isaiah and Jesus said, "All Jews are liars", since they are Jews, they must be lying. Ditto if they said, "We are blacks."

    Thank you, Epimenides. That's a heck of a paradox. You get the idea, I'm sure.


Blog Archive