Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire
by Drusilla Dunjee Houston
Wonderful Ethiopians was clearly a black American response to white American racist attacks. A continuing theme of these attacks was the idea that black Americans had no history prior to slavery; that slavery was in their bloodline and that they did not and could not occupy the same level of humanity as whites. Wonderful Ethiopians and other pamphlets, tracts, sermons, essays, etc., from this tradition were written to reject such claims and to do so by presenting Africa's real history. It was believed that knowledge of ancient Africa could not only "vindicate" the record of Africa, it could reconnect black Americans with their past, instill race pride, and elevate them in the eyes of white Americans. Concomitant with this belief was that such information could resolve the race problem in America.
Houston was one of a handful of women espousing the themes of the early race writers using history as her medium. She was particularly unique in that it appears she was the only black American - male or female - who attempted a multi-volume history of ancient Africans grounded in the antiquity of the people of the Upper Nile Valley civilizations - namely the ancient Cushite/Ethiopians.
Why were the Cushites of interest to Houston? Houston was a Biblical scholar, taking after her father who was one of the most well-known Baptist ministers of his era. She first learned of these ancient Africans of the upper Nile from Chronicles, Kings, and Isaiah from the Old Testament. Drusilla believed that this important civilization lived up-river on the Nile from the Egyptians who preceded and contributed to their culture.
Importance of the Work
The publication of this important historical work introduced a society with strong racist and sexist views to the extensive research of a black female historian at a time when the discipline of history was dominated by white males. The primary literary genre for women was novels, poems, essays, and plays; never history. Houston's work was clearly bold and against the grain.
The central theme of Wonderful Ethiopians rested on major concepts drawn from the work of black American men of the old race writers or vindicationist tradition. These writings, beginning approximately in the early to mid 19th century were the earliest attempts by black Americans to erase the stain of slavery from the psyche of black Americans by connecting them to the ancient glory of Africa, particularly Ethiopia and its contribution to world culture and civilization.
Although additional volumes in Houston's Wonderful Ethiopians series were never published, this was the first multi-volume work on African people beginning with ancient civilizations of the upper Nile - the Cushites. Other volumes include Wonderful Ethiopians of the Americas and Wonderful Ethiopians of Western Europe.
Houston was undaunted by the unwillingness of major publishing houses to publish her book. The book was self-published in 1926. Almost single-handedly, Houston fought to introduce this book to local and national readership of The Black Dispatch, and the Associated Negro Press. A number of years later, it was accepted by the Oklahoma Board of Education. Thus, she appeared to be a one-woman publishing, marketing, promotion, and distribution operation.
While many before her in the race writing tradition emphasize the significance of the contribution of the Cushites, Houston's work advanced understanding of these people introducing the Cushite empire expansionist theory and demonstrating that this ancient African empire was extended in the form of colonies to Arabia, India, Greece, Palestine, Asia, Western Europe, and the Americas. She was the first black American to present such research.
Wonderful Ethiopians was written under very trying circumstances to say the least. Conducting the research for the book was severely hampered by her near isolation in Oklahoma away from the great libraries of the Eastern Seaboard and the Pacific Coast. At the time Houston was conducting her research, blacks were barred from public libraries in Oklahoma (e.g., Carnegie Library) and some of the universities as well. Houston had to travel to San Francisco to use the public library to supplement the information gathered from the 2-3,000 volumes in her fathers library.
Wonderful Ethiopians was enthusiastically received and favorably reviewed by most of the black newspapers and journals of the time. However, there is no evidence that the book was reviewed by any major white newspapers or academic presses, although some individual whites did review the work. For example, a reviewer for the Associated Press wrote, "There is no reason why this book should not go into the colored school room, as inspiration to Negro youth...this great book is selling now in Europe and the West Indies. The last copy went to the University at Edinburg, Scotland." Constrictive criticism also came from a small circle of Houston's colleagues. Most stressed the absence of a bibliography, index, and footnotes, all standard inclusions to any historical workhttp://wings.buffalo.edu/dunjeehouston/history/we.htm