The rise and rise of black consciousness: Santorri Chamley traces the roots of black consciousness movements which are growing from strength to strength, spawning a multi-billion-dollar industry ranging from reggae music, Afrocentric book publishing to African heritage tourism, fashion and beauty products.
Pan-Africanism, Rastafarianism, La Negritude, Black Power, Black Arts Movement and Afrocentrism are just some of the revolutionary cultural, spiritual and political offshoots of Ethiopianist philosophy. These seminal movements which have spread worldwide have spawned a multi-billion-dollar industry, ranging from roots reggae music and Afrocentric book publishing to African heritage tourism, fashion and beauty products.
Ethiopianists proudly assert and celebrate classical Africa's advanced but largely unacknowledged civilisations, which they believe influenced other classical civilisations, including Greece. They insist that Africa will rise again with the help of its scattered diaspora like the Jews have done for Israel. It is no wonder, therefore, that early black church leaders like Bishop Richard Allen of Philadelphia looked to Ethiopia for salvation. Having mastered the art of reading and writing (which was forbidden to slaves), they would have cherished Biblical texts mentioning Ethiopia (the Biblical name for the continent of Africa).
Ethiopia is noted 51 times in the Old Testament alone. Texts like Psalms 68:31, which states "princes shall come out of Egypt [founded and ruled by black people at the time]" and "Ethiopia shall stretch out her hands unto God", have become the most quoted in the United States.
By promoting black pride from the pulpit, pioneering Ethiopianists were using the ideology as a psychological tool to help their exploited brethren survive the inhumanity of slavery. They were also boldly challenging the racist propaganda of the day which promoted Africans as inferior to whites to justify Europe's highly profitable slave trade and colonial expansion.
Richard Allen, who was born into slavery in 1760, co-founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He spread his Ethiopianist message to both blacks and whites across the east coast of America.
Like their modern-day counterparts, early Ethiopianists were celebrating Abyssinia's classical civilisations especially its long-lived Aksumite kingdom, a naval and trading power which ruled from around 400 BC to the 10th century AD.
Located in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Aksumite kingdom stretched to Nubia, Yemen, the Red Sea coast and Southern Arabia, and monopolised the spice, incense and ivory trade which it exported all over the ancient world. It was minting its own currency by the 3rd century BC. In the 4th century, its king, Ezana, converted the kingdom to Christianity.
Ethiopianists claimed its intriguing historical figures as their kindred own--such as the mysterious Queen of Sheba, a woman of power who has cast her spell far and wide from the Bible, the Koran and Turkish paintings to Hollywood films and Afrocentric enterprise, although her exact origins are often disputed.
But, according to the Kebra Nagast or The Book of the Glory of Kings--the Ethiopian literary national epic composed between the 6th and 12th centuries AD--the Queen of Sheba was a beautiful Aksumite queen called Makeda. She went to Jerusalem to visit the great Jewish king, Solomon, who made her pregnant.
She gave birth to a son, Menelik I, and therefore divinely established Ethiopia's Solomonic dynasty. Menelik is said to have brought back the Jewish sacred Ark of the Covenant which contained the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God after visiting his father in Jerusalem.
Its transfer, according to believers, means the glory of Zion passed from the children of Israel to the Ethiopians. The Ark is allegedly still in Aksum, in the church of St Mary of Zion. Ethiopia's last emperor, Haile Selassie, who is lionised by Rastafarians, claimed he was a direct descendant of King Solomon.
By the mid-19th century, Ethiopianism had firmly taken root in the United States. Notable African-American adherents of the philosophy during the era included the celebrated scholar, Frederick Douglass, the poet Phyllis Wheatley and the writer Martin Delany whose novel, Blake, was one of the periods most Ethiopianist works.
At the turn of the 20th century, the African-American intellectual grandees, W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were among blacks espousing the philosophy. But it was Marcus Garvey, a radical Jamaican civil rights worker who had moved to New York, who dramatically advanced the philosophy around the same time.
Garvey's rallying cry, "Africa for the Africans", inspired a worldwide mass movement which protested against Europe's colonisation of Africa. By then, only Ethiopia and Liberia remained unconquered by European powers. Garvey's separatist ideology was not only a demand for African independence from European colonialism but also a call for diasporic Africans to return to the "motherland" to help in its political and economic affairs.
Garvey set up various enterprises under the auspices of his two diasporic organisations, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the African Community's League (ACL) to help achieve his goal.
In Britain, the Black Power Movement filtered through several important black consciousness movements, including the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM), which aimed to aesthetically move away from European ideology and influence and create a new black audience in Britain. Its line-up of talented but largely neglected black artists included the modernist Jamaican wood sculptor, Ronald Moody, who had moved to Britain in 1923, and the prominent Guyanese abstract painter, Aubrey Williams. Across the channel in France, La Negritude, a literary and ideological movement, had plugged into Ethiopianism as far back as the 1930s and gained ground during the 1940s and 1950s. It began among the Paris-based French-speaking African and Caribbean writers and intellectuals as a protest against French colonial rule and assimilation policy.
La Negritude's founders included Leopold Sedar Senghor who later became president of Senegal, the Martinican poet Aime Cesaire and Guinean writer Leon Damas. Other key figures in the movement included the Senegalese writer Alione Diop and filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, the Guinean leader Ahmed Sekou Toure and the outspoken women writers Jane and Paulette Nardal and Suzanne Cesaire. Like other Ethiopianist movements, La Negritude had its critics. Franz Fanon, the acclaimed Martinican psychiatrist and revolutionary theoretician, described it as too simplistic, while the Nigerian poet and novelist, Wole Soyinka, maintained that by outspokenly taking pride in their blackness, people of African descent were putting themselves on the defensive.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, dreadlocks replaced Afros as Rastafari, the most Ethiopianist of all the black consciousness movements, became the latest popular symbol of black pride. The political and religious movement began in the slums of Jamaica following Emperor Haile Selassie's coronation on 2 November 1930. Its followers believed that Marcus Garvey's prophecy which said a black messiah would be crowned in Africa had been fulfilled. Haile Selassie was crowned with several names, including "Lord of Lords", "Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah", and "Emperor from the Dynasty of Solomon". Rastafarianism takes it name from Haile Selassie's pre-coronation name, Ras Tafari Makkonen. The Rastafarian religion is largely based on the Old Testament. Its followers believe that black people are the true descendants of the ancient tribe of Israel who have been enslaved and kept in exile by white oppressors or "Babylon".
They prefer to use the Holy Philby, or "black man's bible" which was compiled by an Anguillan, Robert Athlyi Rogers, between 1913 and 1917. They also give special significance to the Ethiopian holy book, the Kebra Negast.
Frequently misunderstood and maligned, strict Rastafarians are peace-loving vegetarians. Originally perceived as a "cult of outcasts", Rastafarians publicly condemned Jamaica's exploitative colonial society. They believed in repatriation to Ethiopia where in 1948, Emperor Haile Selassie had given them 500 hectares of land in Shashamane.
Leonard Howell, one of the religion's earliest leaders, was arrested and imprisoned several times for his revolutionary doctrine. Hundreds of other Rastafarians were arrested and humiliated by being forced to have their dreadlocks cut off by Jamaican police in the 1950s and 1960s in a bid to suppress their dissident message.
When Emperor Haile Selassie visited Jamaica in April 1966, thousands of Rastafarians turned up to welcome him. Ras Iqulah, a reggae musician who was a youth at the time, says he had a mystical experience when he saw the "Rasta God". "When his majesty arrived by train," Iqulah says, "the door was opened and a red carpet was laid on the floor. When I looked, I saw this noble character, his left foot came out and when he was walking his majesty was walking in midway. I was amazed. I jumped and ran to my mother. And she said to me, the prophecy says the whirlwind shall be at his feet. This man is the man."
Haile Selassie was once described by the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, as the "only enlightened Abyssinian prince". When he was smothered to death by army officers in 1975 (at the age of 83), many Rastafarians thought it was a media hoax. He had been deposed in a military coup in 1974 led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam whose "Dergue" regime erased all record of the emperor from public view. His bones were unearthed following Mengistus downfall in 1991 and later reburied in Addis Ababa.
A debate over how the emperor should be remembered in the pantheon of Ethiopia's political history continues between Rastafarians, Ethiopian royalists and the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
In 1982, Shemelis Desta, the emperors official court photographer in the 1960s (who is now 70 years old), fled Ethiopia leaving behind 7,000 negatives of his work which, fortunately, were smuggled out to him a few weeks later. His work is an important historical record not only for Ethiopians but all Africans. Some of his large collection of rarely-seen black and white and colour photographs were recently exhibited at the Photographer's Gallery in London.
Self-taught, he documented Ethiopia's political history from Haile Selassie's rule, including the establishment of the OAU and the troubled end of his reign. Nonetheless, the spiritual movement Haile Selassie inspired has grown phenomenally since his death, boosted by Rastafarian reggae icons like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Burning Spear.
Rastafari currently has millions of followers across the globe from the United States and South Africa to China, Japan and Brazil. Even armed rebels in the African bush are listening to Bob Marley's unforgettable roots reggae music, pulled by its refractory status, social and political consciousness and powerful Biblical message of brotherly respect.
As the once outcast Rastafari movement increasingly becomes mainstream, the rise of another radical, ultra-nationalist Ethiopianist movement is ruffling feathers in the rarefied world of Egyptology and Western academia.
Afrocentrism is an academic, philosophical and historical approach to the study of world history. It maintains that Eurocentrism has led to the neglect and denial of classical Africa's contribution to world history.
The growth of Afrocentric enterprise in the United States, Brazil, France and Africa reflects its growing popularity and importance among ordinary black people from Harlem and Brixton to Cape Town.
Afrocentric study largely focuses on Africa's ancient, north-eastern civilisations--Kemet (Egypt), Nubia, Aksum and Meroe.
But many leading white scholars and several African-American social critics say Afrocentric Egyptology is not real and want impressionable young black minds snatched from its clutches.
They say the credibility of many of the kente and mud cloth-clad authors whose work is being used in Afrocentric study is suspect. And they have penned several scholarly tomes to bring Afrocentrism to book. Among them is Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Has Become an Excuse to Teach Myth as History by the American academic, Mary Lefkowitz. She says any idea of an ancient "Egyptian mystery system" from which the Greeks stole their philosophy is blatantly untrue. Stephen Howe, a politics tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford (UK), also says in his book, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes, that Afrocentrism is a symptom rather than a cure for desperate political and economic problems. He claims that Afrocentrism mostly offers a fictional history of Africa and its diaspora centred on bizarre ideas about Ancient Egypt.
But those working on the frontline of Afrocentric study disagree. They assert that Africans need to see themselves through black eyes, as agents of history, not merely subjects of other people's investigation.
"As our history has basically been smashed and hidden, we need to analyse what our people did that was great spiritually and culturally and reclaim them, whether they are from ancient Kemet or Ghana," says Ammitai Lumumba who teaches ancient African history to black children in a Saturday school in London. "We want to integrate these positive elements and create a new spiritual order which will help Africans move forward," she says. "We want to take out European and Arabic infusions and other people's cultural practices and ideas that have come into our lives and replace them with African positives. We need to go back and help our people rebuild Mama Africa. The way to start this is by reclaiming our culture."
The part-time teacher, who lives in London but was born in Jamaica, Africanised her name to honour the assassinated Congolese leader, Patrice Lumumba. She has since bought a plot of land in Ghana and plans to relocate there to help with Africa's regeneration. Ammitai asserts that research by leading black scholars, including Cheikh Anta Diop, backs up the Afrocentric material she uses in her African history classes. Diop, who died in 1986, is widely acknowledged as the father of Afrocentric education.
His book, The African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality, published in 1974, asserts that archaeological and anthropological evidence prove that Ancient Egypt was a black African civilisation and culture.
In 2003, some of Diop's theories were supported by an exciting archaeological discovery when a team, led by a Swiss archaeologist, Prof Charles Bonnet, discovered seven massive, magnificently sculpted, black granite statues and monuments in a pit at a site in Kerma, near the Nile in northern Sudan.
The statues portray five black African pharaonic rulers, including Taharqa and Tanutamun, from modern-day Sudan. The discovery is recorded in The Nubian Pharaohs: Black Kings of the Nile by Prof Bonnet and Dominique Valbelle, published in early 2007.
The black pharaohs ruled over a mighty Nubian empire, referred to as Kush, which stretched along the Nile valley 2,500 years ago and was one of Africa's earliest civilisations.
Kush, whose first capital was Kerma, rivalled classical Egypt in wealth, power and cultural development. Later, the small mountain region, Jebel Barkal, and Napata, a town that grew up around it, served as ancient Nubias spiritual centre. The mountain was also considered a holy site by neighbouring Egypt, whose pharaohs plundered and tyrannised Nubia for 400 years. In the 8th century BC, Nubia turned the tables on its former colonisers when its armies marched 700 miles north from Jebel Barkal to Thebes, Egypt's spiritual capital. There, the Nubian king Piye became the first of a succession of five black pharaohs who ruled Egypt for six decades with the blessing of Egypt's priesthood. Some of the statues and monuments unearthed in the pit at Kerma had been savagely destroyed--they had smashed heads and broken feet.
As the Ethiopianist movements grow from strength to strength, they are striking an emotional chord with many black people who rightly want to see Africa's contributions to world history acknowledged.
They are tired of Africa being used as a blank screen for other people to project their prejudices. In a world where race, discrimination and exploitation remain an issue, modern-day Ethiopianists are reclaiming their ancestral history in a bid to shape their own identity and destiny.
Further archaeological digs will undoubtedly reveal more wonders and mysteries from Africa's ancient world which may support more Afrocentric theories.
Ongoing excavations by American archaeologists, Roderick and Susan McIntosh of Rice University, Texas, and their Malian colleagues at the Institut des Sciences et Humanites show that Jenne, a historically significant trading city in Mali, is almost 1,000 years older than previously thought by scholars.
Prior to the dig, it was generally accepted that the Malian metropolis had developed simultaneously with Timbuktu which was founded around the 13th century as a result of the trans-Saharan trade that is credited with bringing urbanisation to West Africa.
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|Date:||Feb 1, 2008|
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