The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Black Land: Imperial Ethiopianism and African America

Black Land: Imperial Ethiopianism and African America. By Nadia Nurhussein. Princeton University Press, 2019. 280 pp. $35.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Elizabeth M. Sheehan, Oregon State University

With the outbreak of war in the Tigray region in November 2020, Ethiopia briefly became top international news. In Black Land: Imperial Ethiopianism and African America, Nadia Nurhussein describes such moments as part of “the narrative of the ‘character’ Ethiopia” that unfolds in newspapers in which African nations are constantly “passing in and out of sight as world events dictate” (15). Nurhussein’s Black Land focuses on a pivotal period in that narrative—the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—when, Nurhussein contends, there was a fresh awareness of Ethiopia “as an adversarial presence” and an imperial subject in the story of global affairs (15). Nurhussein—whose previous work includes Rhetorics of Literacy: The Cultivation of American Dialect Poetry (2013)—analyzes a rich array of literary, periodical, historical, dramatic, sartorial, and visual sources and, in doing so, brilliantly reorients and deepens the conversation about the role of empire in African American global and diasporic imaginaries.

A robust body of scholarship addresses how African American artists and activists understood their work in relation to Black anticolonial and anti-imperial struggles around the globe. An influential subset of this work examines the paradoxical embrace of empire in African diasporic expressive culture. Michelle Ann Stephens’s Black Empire, for example, traces a twentieth-century Black masculine Caribbean intellectual tradition that imagines a Black empire stretching across the Atlantic. Nurhussein reminds us that Black empire was not only a theoretical concept but also a historical condition in Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia) during this period. That mixture of myth and history, combined with Ethiopia’s contested status as a “strong territorial black empire,” she argues, made Ethiopia’s image and reality pivotal to African American literature and culture (7). A symbol for Africa and Blackness tout court as well as the only African nation besides Liberia to avoid European colonization, Ethiopia provided inexhaustible resources for imagining and pursuing freedom, power, and belonging. As the title’s use of the term “African America” intimates, Nurhussein’s study addresses the nexus of identity, community, and territory. By attending to those dynamics, Black Land reconsiders and recalibrates the relationships amongst European, U.S., and African forms of empire and nation, thereby remapping understandings of Black internationalism.

Nurhussein tracks shifts in Ethiopianism: a set of beliefs that, scholars have noted, develop from biblical references to the ascent of Ethiopia and hence of Black people and a Black land. She argues that the Anglo-Abyssinian war of 1867—in which British forces invaded Ethiopia after its emperor, Tewodros, imprisoned a British legation—fueled a transition from “inchoate ideologies of Ethiopianism that saw the empire as largely mythic and fantastic into ideologies increasingly grounded in knowledge both historical and contemporary, and more explicitly engaged with the politics of imperial Abyssinia in particular” (6). That change continued through subsequent conflicts between Ethiopia and Italy, particularly the defeat of Italian forces in the 1896 Battle of Adwa and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. These events inspired what Nurhussein argues are varieties of specifically imperial Ethiopianisms.

Across eight brisk chapters, Nurhussein provides fresh and compelling readings of work by Walt Whitman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Pauline Hopkins, Virginia Woolf, Langston Hughes, Melvin Tolson, Marcus Garvey, George Schuyler, and Claude McKay by situating them in an archive of references and representations of Ethiopia. That archive includes texts by relatively understudied figures—including Harry Foster Dean and William Henry Ellis, African American men who attempted to build empires in Ethiopia in the early twentieth century—as well as popular narratives about Ethiopian royalty, particularly Tewodros; his orphaned son, Alemayehu; Menelik II; and Haile Selassie. A number of the chapters consider how the emperors crystalized the nuances and contradictions of Ethiopianism. In her discussion of Haile Selassie as “an oppressed ruler who is potentially an oppressive colonizer and imperial force,” for example, Nurhussein asks pointedly: “What does it mean to sympathize with a monarch?” (183). That question makes clear that Black peoples’ affective reactions to representations of Ethiopian rulers positioned them vis-à-vis multiple and potentially incompatible visions of Black power. Nurhussein’s deft readings tease out the political implications of a dazzling range of aesthetic and affective phenomena. Even a seemingly idiosyncratic interwar expression of improbability and disbelief—“Well! If that’s so, then I’m Haile Selassie!”—gains its proper heft and weight in Nurhussein’s account (169).

As Black Land illuminates changes over time, Nurhussein also diagnoses and examines what she argues are key versions of imperial Ethiopianism, namely its “martial,” “documentary,” and “spectacular” varieties (6). Nurhussein deploys those categories nimbly, so that they provide incisive tools for thought and structure a nuanced account of the paradoxes of Ethiopianism. These include treatments of Ethiopia and Ethiopianness as absent and present, modern and ancient, imperial and democratic, oppressing and oppressed, unifying and differentiating, representative and exceptional, as well as effeminate and masculine. As Nurhussein shows, these paradoxes highlight the challenges, impasses, and contradictions that beset efforts to imagine and pursue Black liberation.

Among the many strengths of Black Land are its sharp accounts of how textiles and garments from flags to frocks generated and circulated varieties of Ethiopianism. In literary texts, newspapers, performances, and parades, clothing instantiated martial, documentary, and (especially) spectacular Ethiopianism. Nurhussein establishes the key roles that dress and costume played in understandings of Ethiopia. Garments were pivotal to performances of Ethiopian royalty on the stage and street and to narrative representations of Ethiopianness. In turn, Langston Hughes’s attitude toward the dress code for an event with Haile Selassie expressed his ambivalence about Ethiopia’s imperial traditions and aspirations. Black Land’s engagement with clothing exemplifies its canny analysis of ephemeral cultural objects.

This is a richly textured and deeply persuasive book. Black Land intervenes and contributes to understandings of Black internationalism and diaspora, empire, militarism, periodicals, and Orientalism, as well as fashion, gender, and race. I had the pleasure of reading Black Land when serving as a judge on the committee for the Modernist Studies Association Book Prize, which it won. This important book will shift scholars’ accounts of the cultural and political terrain of the interwar period.

This page has paths: