Black Land. Imperial Ethiopianism and African America

280 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Christian Hogsbjerg, School of Humanities, University of Brighton

During the period described by Eric Hobsbawm as ‘the Age of Empire’ from 1875-1914, one rising imperial power – the East African state of Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia) – represented something of an anomaly. Amid the wider European ‘Scramble for Africa’, Ethiopia represented alongside Liberia the only African nation to remain independent thanks to its critical military victory over Italian imperialism at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Yet as well as therefore representing an inspiring symbol of resistance to empire-building for the wider African diaspora including African-Americans, Ethiopia was also an imperial power in its own right, albeit a ‘black Empire’, ruled by a slave-holding elite. Moreover, unlike other independent territories such as Haiti, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Ethiopia had not even gestured towards becoming any kind of democratic republic, but remained firmly an autocratic, feudal monarchy. It was this ‘black land’ in all its contradictions that captured the imaginations of hundreds of thousands of people across the African diaspora. As Nadia Nurhussein notes in her fine new study of representations of ‘imperial Ethiopianism’ in African-America, ‘The Ethiopian empire – sometimes geographically bound and sometimes infinitely expansive – threatens, with its amorphous and porous boundaries, to pull all of the black world into its orbit. It stands for a violent defiance that is both defensive and offensive, both imperialist and anti-imperialist. It, to paraphrase Whitman, contains multitudes’ (p. 213).

Walt Whitman’s poetry – in particular his 1867 poem ‘Ethiopia Saluting the Colors’ – is the first cultural text among many subjected to a close reading in Black Land. Nurhussein does not dwell on the question of how enslaved black Americans saw Ethiopia in the antebellum period, but rather how the process by which Ethiopia was asserting its position as an emerging modern nation state from the 1860s onwards impacted on black Americans after slavery – and indeed American foreign relations in general. A critical moment here was the Anglo-Abyssinian war of 1867-68 – a long forgotten British colonial war, which saw the defeat and suicide of Emperor Tewodros (known as Theodore) but brought Ethiopia briefly to the world’s attention. While Tewodros himself was subject to racist caricature in satirical British publications like Punch, Nurhussein explores how recognition of the emerging Ethiopian flag in the United States came to become a theme which shaped Whitman and was positively hailed by the black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar in his ‘Ode to Ethiopia’ (1893).

By the time of the 1896 victory at the battle of Adwa under Emperor Menelik, Ethiopianism represented a new form of identity counterposed to ‘Negro’, as well as an African Christian religion among black Americans around the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The new interest in this slightly mystical place was reflected in three different forms delineated by Nurhussein – ‘documentary Ethiopianism’, ‘spectacular Ethiopianism’ and ‘martial Ethiopianism’ (p. 6). The novel published by Pauline E Hopkins, editor of the Coloured American Magazine, entitled Of One Blood; or, The Hidden Self (1902-1903) is explored as an example of ‘documentary Ethiopianism’, using what might be considered today forms of plagiarism of other literary and historical accounts of Ethiopia to evoke a powerful sense of the ancient mystical civilisation.

In terms of ‘spectacular Ethiopianism’, Nurhussein builds of the work of scholars like Robert A. Hill to explore the phenomenon of ‘imposters’ who were black Afro-Caribbeans or African-Americans who dressed up as Abyssinians and claimed all kind of links to the royal ruling dynasty of Ethiopia. The Jamaican Isaac Brown for example famously passed himself of as Menelik’s nephew. Dressing up as foreign dignitaries with all the accompanying pomp and ceremony could – if one was successful in such ‘passing’ - confer all kinds of privileges such as easier travel across Jim Crow United States, but also allowed the more mercurial imposters such as William Henry Ellis to attempt to found a ‘Royal Bank of Abyssinia’ and even aspire to succeed to the Ethiopian throne. Another, Harry Foster Dean – author of the extraordinary autobiographical work The Pedro Gorino: The Adventures of a Negro Sea-Captain in Africa and on the Seven Seas in His Attempts to Found as Ethiopian Empire (1929) - also aspired to become a new African ‘King of Kings’.

It was to be Fascist Italy’s barbaric war on the people of Ethiopia in 1935 that inspired the greatest outpouring and displays of ‘martial Ethiopianism’ in solidarity across the African diaspora. Langston Hughes’s Ballad of Ethiopia (1935) is explored in relation to the boxing match between Joe Louis and the Italian Primo Carnera in 1935, which took on huge symbolic importance. J. Harvey L. Baxter’s Sonnets for the Ethiopians (1936) for example included the poem ‘Haile Selassie’ which compared the Ethiopian emperor to Oliver Cromwell, George Washington and Toussaint Louverture (p. 149), even if tragically in the event Selassie could only flee into exile rather than repeat Menelik’s victory at Adwa. Once again Nurhussein points to all the contradictions involved in Pan-Africanist black transnational anti-imperialist solidarity with Haile Selassie, the glorified emperor, and brings these out very well with analysis of George Schuyler’s Ethiopian Stories and Black Empire, published amid the Italian war and occupation. Marcus Garvey’s withering critique of aspects of martial Ethiopianism in this respect carry weight, with him telling one follower that ‘if you like the kind of slavery that the Abyssinians have been kept in by their Government, why don’t you go there and live under it’(p 183). Claude McKay’s recently discovered 1941 novel, Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem is also explored for the way it brings out both themes of martial and spectacular Ethiopianism, but also a subtle critique of the ‘aristocracy of birth’, counterposing instead an ‘aristocracy of service’ (p. 208). The appeal of Ethiopianism and rastafarianism in Jamaica is alluded to, but perhaps more could have been said about the place of the Caribbean – and Caribbean-born figures such as Brown, McKay and Garvey within the study, and the historical and sociological bases of Ethiopianism in African-America more generally.

In 1919, the black American Fenton Johnson in 1919 declared that ‘in every field of our American life we find the West Indian pushing ahead and doing all in his power to uphold the dignity of the Negro race. In every industry, in every profession, in every trade, we find this son of the islands holding aloft the banner of Ethiopia’.[1] Nurhussein’s sophisticated, compelling and beautifully produced work not only illuminates a wide range of fascinating cultural representations of imperial Ethiopianism but helps us understand more deeply what ‘holding aloft the banner of Ethiopia’ signified to people of African descent living in the Jim Crow United States in an age of empire-building.

[1] Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America, London 1998, p. 1.

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