Dread History:The African Diaspora, Ethiopianism, and Rastafari
Diasporas invariably leave a trail of collective memory about other times and places. But while most displaced peoples frame these attachments with the aid of living memory and the continuity of cultural traditions, the memories of those in the African diaspora have been refracted through the prism of history to create new maps of desire and attachment. Historically, black peoples in the New World have traced memories of an African homeland through the trauma of slavery and through ideologies of struggle and resistance.Ethiopianism and the Ideology of Nationhood
Arguably the most poignant of these discursive topographies is that of the Rastafari faith and culture. Like the Garvey Movement and other forms of pan-Africanism before it, the Rastafari fashion their vision of an ancestral homeland through a complex of ideas and symbols known as Ethiopianism, an ideology which has informed African-American concepts of nationhood, independence, and political uplift since the late 16th century. Derived from references in the Holy Bible to black people as 'Ethiopians', this discourse has been used to express the political, cultural, and spiritual aspirations of blacks in the Caribbean and North America for over three centuries. From the last quarter of the 18th century to the present, Ethiopianism has, at various times, provided the basis for a common sense of destiny and identification between African peoples in the North American colonies, the Caribbean, Europe, and the African continent.
While the present-day Rastafari Movement is undoubtedly the most conspicuous source of contemporary Ethiopianist identifications, the culture of Jah People obscures the wider historical range and scope of Ethiopianist ideas and identifications among African peoples in the Diaspora and on the continent. Names like Phyllis Wheatley, Bishop Richard Allen, Prince Hall, Denmark Vesey, Martin Delany, Casley Hayford, Frederick Douglass, Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, Albert Thorne, and Marcus Garvey all drew upon the powerful identification of this discourse to spread a message of secular and spiritual liberation of black peoples on the African continent and abroad. More so than any of his predecessors or contemporaries, however, it was Marcus Garvey--a Jamaican of proud Maroon heritage--who championed the cry of "Africa for the Africans, at home and abroad" and encouraged his followers in the biblical view that "every nation must come to rest beneath their own vine and fig tree."
From the period prior to the American Revolutionary War, slaves in North America equated Ethiopia with the ancient empires that flourished in the upper parts of the Nile Valley and--largely through biblical references and sermons--perceived this territory as central to the salvation of the black race. black converts to Christianity in colonial America cherished references to Ethiopia in the Bible for a number of reasons. These references depicted Blacks in a dignified and human light and held forth the promise of freedom. Such passages also suggested that African peoples had a proud and deep cultural heritage that pre-dated European civilization. The summation of these sentiments was most frequently identified with Psalm 68:31 where it is prophesied that "Princes shall come out of Egypt and Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God." During the late 18th century, black churchmen in the North American colonies made extensive use of Ethiopianist discourse in their sermons. Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, was among those who identified the cause of African freedom with this prophecy in Psalms. During the Revolutionary War, it is reputed that one black regiment proudly wore the appellation of "Allen's Ethiopians." Phyllis Wheatley, the black poet-laureate of colonial America, also made frequent use of this discourse as did Prince Hall, a black Revolutionary War veteran and founder of the African Masonic Lodge. Commenting upon the successful slave insurrection in Haiti (1792-1800), Hall observed: "Thus doth Ethiopia begin to stretch forth her hand, from the sink of slavery, to freedom and equality." There was, in nearly all expressions of Ethiopianism, a belief in the redemption of the race linked to the coming of a black messiah. Perhaps the first expressed articulation of this idea is seen in The Ethiopian Manifesto published by Robert Alexander Young, a slave preacher in North America in 1829.
In large part because of the movement of peoples spurred in its aftermath, the American Revolutionary War provided a major impetus for the spread of Ethiopianism from Britain's North American to its Caribbean colonies. As British loyalists departed from North America for places like Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados, the churched slaves and former slaves who traveled with them transplanted Ethiopianism to these plantation societies and inaugurated an independent black religious tradition. In Jamaica, George Liele, a former slave and churchman from Savannah, Georgia, founded the first Ethiopian Baptist church in 1783. Liele called his followers "Ethiopian Baptists." Thus began a deep rooted tradition of Ethiopian identification in Jamaica, the birthplace of both Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association (founded in 1914) and the Rastafari movement (born in 1930).
Ethiopianism and its associated ideology of racial uplift also spread to the African continent. By the 1880 and 1890s, "Ethiopianist" churches, an independent black church movement, spread throughout Southern and Central Africa. During the same period, African-American churchmen missionized actively on the continent and, through the efforts of figures like Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, Ethiopianism served as an ideology which linked African-American brethren with their African brothers and sisters. During this same period, largely due to the sovereignty of Ethiopia amidst European colonialism on the continent, African Americans fixed greater attention on the ancient Empire of Ethiopia itself, thinking of Ethiopia as a black Zion. In 1896, the defeat of invading Italian forces by Menelik II in the Battle of Adwa served to bolster the mythic status and redemptive symbolism of Ethiopia in the eyes of Africans at home and abroad.Ethiopia and Modern Pan-Africanism
By focusing attention on events on the continent, the Battle of Adwa served as a catalyst for a modern pan-African movement led by men like Casley Hayford of the Gold Coast, Albert Thorne of Barbados, and Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey. Garvey founded the largest mass black movement in history, starting in Jamaica and spreading his message to the rest of the Caribbean, Central and North America. Inspiring blacks through the African world with a vision of racial uplift, Garvey made conspicuous use of 18th century biblical Ethiopianism in his speeches and writings. For Garvey, it was "Every nation to their own vine and fig tree," a theme which continues to resonate in the contemporary Rastafari Movement. Garvey, like other pan-Africanists of his generation, saw the liberation of the African continent from colonialism as inseparable from the uplift of black peoples everywhere. In the 1920s, his movement reached from Harlem to New Orleans, from London to Cape Town, Lagos to Havana, and from Kingston to Panama. During this same decade, Garveyism and its associated rituals of black nationhood became a vibrant and essential element of the Harlem Renaissance.
Many scholars argue that Ethiopianism peaked during the early 1930s prior to and during the second Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Certainly the single event in this century which resonated with the multiple cultural, political, and religious dimensions of Ethiopianism was the coronation of Ras Tafari Makonnen, the then Prince Regent of Ethiopia. In November of 1930, the biblical enthronement of Ras Tafari as His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, became an internationally publicized event which was unique in the African world. The news of a black regent claiming descent through the biblical lineage of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, stirred the imaginations of an entire generation of African Americans and refocused attention upon ancient Ethiopia. The second Italian invasion of Ethiopia in October of 1935 produced an enormous wave of pro-Ethiopianist sentiments among blacks across the African continent as well as in the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States. Particularly to blacks in the diaspora the invasion was seen as an attack on the dominant symbol of African pride and cultural sovereignty. In Harlem, thousands of African Americans marched and signed petitions asking the U.S. government to allow them to fight on behalf of the Ethiopian cause. In Trinidad, this crisis in the black world coincided with the emergence of calypso and a fledgling Caribbean music industry. Calypsos which described the crisis from a black perspective were carried by West Indian seamen from port to port throughout the black world. Music--always an integral part of African and African American culture--served to crystallize shared sentiments of racial pride in support of the Ethiopian cause.
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