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97 C h a p t e r 5 Ethiopia Is Now J. A. Rogers and the Italian Invasion of Ethiopia When he responded to the Liberian labor crisis, George Schuyler expressed a black ethos that encompassed the African Diaspora and echoed with the voice of labor. His novel Slaves Today suggested that black workers around the globe shared a position within modernity: they were subject to the dehumanizing bureaucracies of the bourgeoisie and the imposition of racial thinking upon their daily lives, both of which created discrete, calcified cultural spaces. The main character of the novel exhibited an ability to navigate these artificially distinct contexts, and this “mobility” served as the ground for black American empathy with Africa. In this sense, the novel told of an African Diaspora empowered to resist colonial institutions and states of mind, whether those colonial institutions existed in Africa or the United States. The rhetoric of black American anticolonialism continued to develop throughoutthe1930s.Atthecloseofthedecade,peopleofAfricandescent turned to Ethiopia and their public argument interpreted the African Diaspora as a coherent political concept, one that admitted ontological difference but did not subordinate African culture to a Western ideal. Ethiopia has long figured in religious and nationalist discourse in the African Diaspora. What “Ethiopia” meant often reflected political developments there. For example, after the country repelled the Italian invasion at Adowa in 1896, black churches in both the United States and South Africa assumed names like Abyssinian, Ethiopian, or Kushite (a biblical 98 Ch apt er 5 tribe associated with modern-day Ethiopia).1 Through affiliation with Ethiopia, each congregation interpolated its parishioners into a fundamentally Christian agency that transcended state and geographic boundaries . At the turn of the century “Ethiopian” suggested a synecdochical relationship between a member of a displaced elect community and its spiritual and geographic center.2 Marcus Garvey’s quasi-ecclesiastical rhetoric suffused this tradition with the political activism of contemporaneous Pan-Africanisms. For Garvey, “Ethiopia” was the omphalos of a distinctly black symbolic universe , a spiritual center to orient black people in their contest with European nationalisms. As Garvey receded from prominence in the late 1920s, his interpretation of Ethiopia as both a spiritual and literal goal for black people in diaspora retained some currency. In 1927 Rabbi Arnold Ford explored the possibility of immigration to Ethiopia. Years later, he and his protégé, Rabbi Mathew, led a group of sixty-six from a Harlem synagogue to settlement in Ethiopia.3 This expedition was an early, large-scale attempt by people of African descent to make the ideal of Ethiopia a political reality. Even though the colony in 1934 failed to achieve a black American Jerusalem in Africa, the community’s founding spoke to Ethiopia ’s powerful symbolism in the black imaginary and to a particular confluence of spiritual ideas and political rhetoric that operated in the Great Depression’s matrix of race and economy. Rabbi Mathew’s expedition, not unlike Father Divine’s Peace Mission, confronted white supremacy and the insolvencies of the Depression with the liberatory potential of an alternate context. New spaces, in Ethiopia or in Divine’s “Heaven” communes, provided a transcendent environment in which black people could transform themselves. Indeed, within Divine’s communes, converts left their gender behind, practiced total celibacy, never uttered the word “race,” and took new names.4 Likewise, the dream of emigration to a holy “Ethiopia” encouraged black Americans to perceive themselves with fresh eyes, as pilgrims, as members of an elect community operating in a metaphysical terrain above the compromised space of political behavior. In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia, and people of African descent turned to public argument to interpret their relationship with the last free state in Africa and its symbolic configurations in their discursive past. In speeches, protests, pamphlets, and newspapers, activists argued for economic, political , and military action on behalf of Ethiopian sovereignty.5 This rhetoric did not cohere into a consensus about “black” foreign policy regarding the Ethiopia Is Now 99 invasion. Indeed, by and large, black Americans interpreted the invasion as more than a foreign policy issue. For many, the invasion of Ethiopia had decidedly local dimensions. It was immediate, an act in the international contest between black and white, colonizer and colonized, that raged simultaneously in Ethiopia and Harlem. As Roi Ottley recalled in his 1943 memoir of Harlem and black culture, New World a-Coming: Inside Black America, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia “permeated every phase of Negro life.”6 In the 1960s, looking...


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