- From Sheba They Come:Medieval Ethiopian Myth, US Newspapers, and a Modern American Narrative
A growing body of research documents the connections between West African and American literatures.1 Henry Louis Gates's The Signifying Monkey locates the genesis of African American theories of signifyin(g) in West African rhetorical traditions; Keith Cartwright's Reading Africa into American Literature traces the philosophy of Africa's Senegambian region in the work of such canonical American authors as Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Herman Melville, and William Faulkner; Sterling Stuckey's African Culture and Melville's Art examines how West African customs and rituals as practiced in the new world shaped Moby Dick; and Mechal Sobel's The World They Made Together suggests how West African ideas of time, spirit, and death influenced the American South (Gates 17; Gruesser; Stuckey; Sobel).
Little attention has been paid, however, to how African thought from outside of West or Central Africa, from African regions not connected to the Atlantic slave trade, shaped conceptions in the African diaspora. Rather, an ahistorical conception of circulation has dominated research on connections between Africa and the new world, with transatlantic studies accidentally serving to erase much of non-Atlantic Africa. Yet, ideas circulate not just through transported African bodies, but through African oral and written texts that circulated outside of Africa over the past millennia. As an effort to expand our understanding of the great variety of African thought that participated in shaping the Americas, I attend in this essay to the East African nation of Ethiopia as a minor but important informant of nineteenth- and twentieth-century creativity in the United States through the medieval Ethiopian text of the Kəbrä Nägäst.2 This essay is related to my larger project demonstrating the global influence of this Ethiopian myth, in particular on medieval European conceptions of the Queen of Sheba.
The structure of the paper is as follows: first, an outline of Ethiopian claims; second, the direct appearance of these claims in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century US newspapers; third, an analysis of the most frequently reprinted Queen of Sheba story in nineteenth- century US newspapers in light of these claims; fourth, an analysis of a nineteenth-century US novel in the same light; and fifth, a survey of the appearance of Ethiopian claims in twentieth-century US literature. [End Page 239]
The Queen of Sheba in the Ethiopian Tradition
In 1321, Ethiopian scribes redacted a prose narrative that articulated Ethiopian myths of origin by reimagining the brief biblical encounter between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.3 Written in the scholarly East African language Ge'ez, the 117-chapter Kəbrä Nägäst (The Glory of the Kings) envisions Solomon seducing an Ethiopian queen called Makədda who conceives a son who takes the ark of the covenant from the Israelites. This biracial son (called Bayna-Lehkem, Menelik, or Dawit) starts a new Zion in the Ethiopian highlands, which continues into the twentieth century through the unbroken descent of Ethiopian emperors from the Middle Eastern Solomon and this African Queen of the South. The text glorifies the Ethiopian monarchy as greater than any other earthly power and insists that the Ethiopians are the guardians of the true faith, as all others shall fall away from the path of righteousness. The Kəbrä Nägäst reinterprets the biblical story of Solomon's royal visitor, providing absent details and recasting the Ethiopians at its very center. In a direct strike at the heart of three world religions, the Ethiopians replace the Israelites as the chosen people of God. Thus, the Kəbrä Nägäst simultaneously establishes its legitimating connections to other cultures and declares its exceptionality among them.
As such, the text reflects and enables a resilient Ethiopian discursive system. The remarkable Ethiopian narrative about Solomon and Mak.dda "must be one of the most powerful and influential national sagas anywhere in the world," writes the historian Edward Ullendorff (64). The narrative has been retold continuously for at least a thousand years, is still believed by millions of modern Ethiopians and Eritreans, and was written into the Ethiopian constitution of...