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When Ethiopia Meant Africa

Located far from Africa’s Atlantic shore, where international slavery flourished, Ethiopia did not play a part in this sad saga. Nevertheless, it has acquired a symbolic, religious and racial symbolism and has featured prominently in the collective thoughts and social practices of black people in the Americas. The term Ethiopia first travelled to the Americas on slave ships, in the hands of missionaries and the Holy Bible in its first official English version, the King James Version, published in 1611. In the Bible, Ethiopia represents a territory (Genesis 2:13), a race (Jeremiah 13:23), and a people chosen by God (Amos 9:7). The verse most often used to illustrate the prophetic destiny of Ethiopia is “Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God” (Psalm 68:31).

All these representations of Ethiopia are called “Ethiopianism”, and much evidence of Ethiopianism can be found in the USA, in Southern Africa, and in the writing of early Caribbean intellectuals. For example E. W. Blyden, from the Virgin Islands, stated in 1880: “It is well established by now, however, that by Ethiopia is meant the continent of Africa and by Ethiopians the great race who inhabit that continent.” Numerous churches, associations, and educational programs among black communities were inspired by such representations of Ethiopia and were instrumental in building a tradition of black social organizations. As such, Ethiopianism represents an important foundation to the Pan African idea.

With the victory of Adwa in 1896 and the Italian armies beaten, Ethiopia surged on the world scene, adding to the symbolic conception of Ethiopia the name of a proud and sovereign African country successfully defending its independence. Emperor Menelik II became a well-known figure, respected in black circles, and black people from the Caribbean and the USA started coming to Ethiopia, desirous of demonstrating their solidarity with the East African country. Haitian Benito Sylvain, officer of the Marine and Doctor in Law, involved in the anti-racist struggle, travelled four times to Ethiopia between 1897 and 1904. In London, he got involved with Trinidadian barrister Henry Sylvester Williams in organizing the first Pan African Conference of 1900, where he represented both Ethiopia and Haiti.

Emperor Menelik II welcomed other black people and thus was launched Ethiopia’s involvement in Pan African policies. Those were pursued by Regent Tafari, who sent a delegation to the USA and invited Black Americans to come and settle in the country. Tafari sent, as well, a letter addressed to the members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Jamaican Marcus Garvey’s organization, which stated: “Assure them of the cordiality with which I invite them back to the homeland.” This message was received with enthusiasm by the members of the UNIA, the Black organization which had millions of members all over the world.

The musical director of the UNIA was a Barbadian, Arnold Josiah Ford, who composed the “Universal Ethiopian Anthem,” declared in 1920 by the UNIA the “anthem of the Negro race.” Arnold J. Ford left the USA in 1930 with a few members of his Black Jewish congregation for Addis Abeba, where about 100 Caribbeans and African Americans were living. Despite Ford’s untimely death in 1935, he witnessed two major events: the Coronation of Haile Selassie I in 1930, and the second Italian aggression in 1935.

The Italo-Ethiopian war had a global impact, black communities rose, newspapers were published, riots took place in New York’s streets, associations were founded and “Ethiopian volunteers,” scattered in the American world wanted to enroll in the defense of Ethiopia. Pilots like John Robinson were famed for taking part in the fighting in Ethiopia and thereafter training the first civil and military Ethiopian cadets. Ethiopian Melaku Beyen founded the Ethiopian World Federation in New York in 1937 on order of Haile Selassie I, its aim was to centralize the moral and financial support offered by black communities. After the war, as a token of appreciation for their support, land was granted to the members of the EWF on the outskirts of Shashemene, in Southern Ethiopia. A common gesture in liberated Ethiopia, it was for the black communities a Pan African gesture, the first African Head of State granting land to the “Ethiopians” of the world.

After 1941, a whole generation of black professionals was invited to contribute to the reconstruction of Ethiopia. Editors, technicians, pilots, and teachers were recruited by the Ethiopian government, including Helen and James Piper, from Montserrat in the Eastern Caribbean. Black Jews like Arnold J. Ford, members of the UNIA and of the Ethiopian World Federation, the Pipers were in the 1950s the first people to settle on the land granted in Shashemene. This Shashemene settlement is today known as the “Jamaica sefer” and hosts about 1000 men, women and children coming from the Caribbean and beyond who decided to tie their life to that of the Ethiopians and to “come home”. Giving a strong sense of continuity to the popular identification of black people with Ethiopia, they are Rastafarians. And they still sing proudly the “Universal Ethiopian Anthem” known since the 1920s by the scattered sons and daughters of Africa.

A powerful concept embedded in the Bible, with which people identified, as well as a sovereign and independent African nation, Ethiopia launched its Pan African policies in the late 19th century. Ethiopia is a major actor of early Pan Africanism and contributes to the historical depth of the Pan African idea. One of the fruits of Pan Africanism is the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 in Addis Abeba, whose 50th anniversary is duly celebrated in May 2013. And there is no better place than Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, to critically assess the significance of African unity and to remember the role of Ethiopia in its very foundation.

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