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The Ethiopian Prophecy in Black American Letters

Roy Kay

Publication Year: 2011

For centuries, Psalm 68:31 "Princes shall come forth out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God," also known as the Ethiopian prophecy, has served as a pivotal and seminal text for those of African descent in the Americas.

Originally, it was taken to mean that the slavery of African Americans was akin to the slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt, and thus it became an articulation of the emancipation struggle. However, it has also been used as an impetus for missionary work in Africa, as an inspirational backbone for the civil rights movement, and as a call for a separate black identity during the twentieth century.

Utilizing examples from Richard Allen, Maria W. Stewart, Kate Drumgoold, Phillis Wheatley, Martin Delany, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, and Ralph Ellison, Kay reveals the wide variety of ways this verse has been interpreted and conceptualized in African American history and letters for more than two hundred years.

Published by: University Press of Florida

Title Page

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Front Matter


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pp. vii-xi

It was through my exposure to the scholarship of John Cartwright in 1983 and the work of John Wright in the late 1980s that I became familiar with the significance of Psalm 68:31 (“Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God”) in black letters. Cartwright applied an interdisciplinary approach employing history, sociology, and ...

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Introduction. The Inch and Ells of Psalm 68:31

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pp. 1-20

Frederick Douglass’s initiation into the world of reading is a well-known story in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), second only to his battle with Covey in dramatic significance. Douglass’s introduction, at the hand of his mistress, Mrs. Sophia Auld, to what he calls the “mystery of reading” is probably the most important personal event in his life as a slave: Douglass explicitly links the emergence of his intelligence to reading. ...

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1. Early Jewish and Christian Figures of Ethiopia

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pp. 21-34

Psalm 68:31 is one of nearly four dozen references to Ethiopia or Ethiopians in the Bible. To be precise, in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible)—where the vast majority of references to Ethiopia and Ethiopians are found—the place is called Kush and the people are referred to as Kushites. “Ethiopia” and “Ethiopians” are English words transliterated from Greek that signify, respectively, a place at the southernmost end of the known world ...

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2. Managing Blackness: Protestant Readings of Psalm 68:31 in Colonial America

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pp. 35-51

The conversion of Ethiopia is the realization of Christianity’s explicit universalism. In the Christian view of history, salvation is universal. Through his redemptive death and resurrection, Christ, as the New Adam, erases the sin of the original Adam, the father of all human beings. Hence, Christ is the new father for all people who are reborn in him. ...

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3. Uplifting Ethiopia in America: Conversion, Self-Consciousness, and the Figure of Ethiopia

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pp. 52-81

The notion of the Negro as a defective being was a given to many literate eighteenth-century Europeans and Americans. As a non-Christian, non- European, non-white living in the modern world, the disfigured Negro was described in many European and American religious and scientific writings as a being outside the flow of human history toward its telos. The Negro’s phenotype and articulations of consciousness (religion, culture, creativity, and reflectivity) were signs of defect. ...

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4. Missionary Emigrationism: Psalm 68:31 and Uplifting the Ethiopians in Africa

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pp. 82-110

While some black American readers read Psalm 68:31 as a prophecy to bring both spiritual and intellectual light to the Ethiopians in the United States, be they Native Americans or Negroes, another group of black Americans were reading the verse as a prophecy to bring the light of Christ, literacy, and Anglophone culture to Africa and Africans. As Basil Davidson demonstrates in Black Man’s Burden (1992), even though a parallel narrative and program of racial uplift via conversion and Anglomania ...

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5. Psalm 68:31 and the Fight for Freedom and Equality in Antebellum America

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pp. 111-136

One of the grand narratives of race in America painted a picture of white dominance and black capitulation from the eighteenth century to the latter decades of the twentieth century. The intertwined images of white supremacy and black vacuity attempted to present the discussion of race in America as a white monologue in which black people were defined legally, scientifically, politically, and culturally by the dominant population. ...

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6. Reading for Independence: The Figure of Ethiopia and the New Africa

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pp. 137-167

The passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, one-fifth of the 1850 Compromise, was seen as a serious setback for many abolitionists in America. Once again, American law had defined the Negro, in this cause the fugitive slave, as someone outside the protections and rights of the Constitution and modern law. The slave was merely chattel, and as such was the property of his master. ...

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7. Rewriting Psalm 68:31: Narrative Formations of Ethiopia

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pp. 168-200

Frances Harper’s ballad, “Ethiopia,” marked an unexpected refiguration of Ethiopia in black American letters. Prior to Harper’s poem, black writers employed Psalm 68:31 in nonpoetic forms such as letters, sermons, and addresses, and largely within the purview of American Protestantism. As we have seen, within the formal expectations of these nonpoetic genres, black hermeneuts made highly inventive interpretations of Psalm 68:31. ...

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8. Figural Exhaustion: Parodying the Figures of Ethiopia

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pp. 201-213

The Emancipation Proclamation, even with its exceptions, marked a watershed moment in American history. By an executive order, the slaves held in Confederate states were proclaimed free. Even though only three-fourths of the American slave population was covered under Lincoln’s proclamation (the other one-fourth of the slaves in areas and states still faithful to the Union fell outside ...

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Conclusion. Reading and Refiguring the Figures of Ethiopia

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pp. 215-222

A given of modernity is that subjects of knowledge precede objects of knowledge, that subjectivity is prior to reading. This not only puts the proverbial “cart before the horse,” but more importantly, it erases the eventfulness of reading and makes the subject an ahistorical or transcendental abstraction. The positing of an always already subject effaces the asymmetry of the subjectless, non-situated reader and the historical ...


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pp. 223-238


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pp. 239-246


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pp. 247-258

About the Author

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Series List

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813040516
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813037325
Print-ISBN-10: 0813037328

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2011