Images of Ethiopians in history and religion: Ali Mazrui’s perspective



Thomas Jefferson should have known about Ethiopia.  That was what the late, great Pan-Africanist scholar Ali Mazrui suggested in his keynote address to a conference held at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 2007.  I assisted Mazrui with research for that address and was honoured to travel with him to Ithaca and listen to his presentation as he reflected on Ethiopia with characteristic imagination and historical sensitivity.  

The following is an excerpt from Mazrui’s speech.

Western images of Black people in earlier centuries portrayed Africans as a people without history, incapable of poetry, too intellectually retarded to philosophise, and too mentally slow to be scientific.

For a long time Ethiopia was in reality the one Black country, which could demonstrate to Europeans that it had a recorded history of many centuries, that it had a heritage of written as well as oral poetry, that it had centuries of recorded philosophy and theology, and that it had demonstrated feats of science and engineering in its monuments.  

Let us explore this remarkable story of cultural achievement in the context of the four intellectual charges, which Westerners had long levelled against the African people – lack of history, lack of poetry, lack of philosophy and lack of science and technology.

Between history and poetry

The charge that Africans were a people without history went back to W.G. Hegel and beyond. There was no room for the African continent in Hegel’s Philosophy of History(1821).

This belief that Black Africa was ahistorical continued well into the second half of the 20th century.  As late as 1968, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, Hugh Trevor-Roper, proclaimed his infamous dogma: “Maybe in the future there will be African history.  But at the moment there is none.  There is only the history of the European in Africa . . .The rest is darkness – and darkness is not a subject of history.”

Anybody with the remotest familiarity with Ethiopian history would surely not have made such a remark.  Even if Trevor-Roper knew nothing about Menelik I, or rejected the Solomonic credentials of the Royal Dynasty of Ethiopia, or accepted that the Queen of Sheba was part of Yemeni history rather than Ethiopian, Trevor-Roper should at least have known that the army of Menelik II defeated a European army from Italy at the Battle of Adawa in the year 1896.  If Ethiopians were a people without history, would they have been strong enough to defeat a European army early in the 20th century?

Indeed, as an expert on European Nazism and fascism, Trevor-Roper should surely have been more familiar with the rich history of Ethiopia long before Italy invaded and occupied it from 1935 to 1941.

With regard to the charge that Black people were incapable of great poetry, perhaps the most eloquent witness against the Black Muse was Thomas Jefferson, the author of the phrase “all men are created equal” in the American Declaration of Independence, who later became the third president of the United States.

In Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia(Paris, 1784), there occurs the following astonishing observation: “. . . never yet could I find that a black man had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration, never saw even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a catch.  Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive rhyme or melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.”

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