Ethiopianism myth and memory

Ethiopianism was a movement with many strands. It was rooted in the Bible; specifically in the passage in Psalm 68:31 that prophesied that 'Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.' The prophetic reading of this passage is traced to African Americans who in the golden age of black nationalism from 1850 to 1925 crafted an empowering exegesis around this passage. It has inspired generations who refashioned it freely. The Ethiopian tradition sprang from certain shared political and religious experiences and found expression in slave narratives, the exhortations of conspiratorial slave preachers, folklore and the songs of slaves. After 1872, it moved beyond the nostalgia of prideful heritage to communal assertion. The intellectual origin may include the impact of European ideals filtered through American revolutionary rhetoric to inspire African Americans who returned to the motherland. The Christianity of the returnees, argues Sanneh, was stamped with the values of antislavery and promoted as the cause of the oppressed and stigmatised.5 It called for freeing Africans from the religious and political tutelage of Europeans. The core concerns included a quest for a place of their own, for identity, self-respect and an opportunity to nurse Africa back to its old glory. That glory was imaged with the achievements of ancient Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia. There was a conflation of myth and history. Ethiopia was both a place and an ideological symbol and there is little doubt about the achievements of Egypt in science, architecture and government. The contributions of ancient Egypt were injected into western civilisation through the Greeks and mistaken for Greek ingenuity. The contributions of this part of Africa to the consolidation of the theology and identity of early Christianity are equally immense. Ethiopianism, therefore, has three broad strands: in African-American diasporic experience, West African manifestations and southern African genre. In all incarnations, it fuelled black nationalism.

The first task is to explore the search for heroic roots that often fails to underscore patches in the story. It is a puzzle why the Egyptians did not refer to themselves as Kushites but applied the term Kush to the region south of the first cataract of the Nile, and to the descendants of Ham, the son of Noah who witnessed his drunken father's nakedness. The notion of a curse was introduced into the story even though it was Canaan who was cursed. Did the ancient Egyptians perceive themselves as related to the Kush? Historically, the relationship between Egypt and the Kushite region was fraught with ambiguity. Egypt was attracted to the mineral wealth, and to commercial

5 Sanneh, Abolitionists abroad.

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