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A call for caution-Lest we rewrite history in the name of contextual interpretation

By Tsegaye R. Ararssa

There is a renewed frenzied interest among social media activists in the Ethiopian right, who vow that Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia never claimed to be a Caucasian. The activists dispute the accuracy of Menelik’s statement in which he said “I am not a Negro at all; I am a Caucasian.” In their most recent iteration, these activists claim that, among other things, the invocation of this statement is an attempt by “Some Oromo intellectuals” to trivialize the image of Menelik II and the famous battle of Adwa that Menelik II fought and won, supposedly, for the entire black race.[i]

They also claim, wrongly, that these ‘Oromo nationalists’ are doing so motivated by an ideological commitment to vindicate the Oromo right to self-determination and to destroy the Ethiopian state. They insist that there is a sinister motive behind this calculated move to trivialize the battle of Adwa because Adwa is not only the symbol of black independence, they argue, but also the foundational moment of the unity of the Ethiopian people (people in the singular). By undermining the significance of Adwa, their argument goes, ‘some Oromo intellectuals’ in general, and especially I, in particular, seek to undermine the basis of Ethiopian unity.

I should therefore start by saying up front that I am not interested in trivilaizing the emperor and/or his battles. But I take issues with the contemporary romanticization of the man (as the black Messiah out to save the black race) and the event (as a symbol of the struggle of the black race for independence from white colonialism).

In the latest diatribe from the Ethiopian extremist right, they tried to rewrite the emperor’s statement by insisting, first, that he didn’t say it, and second, if he did, his words should be interpreted in its “context,” which, in the end, didn’t help much to correct the Menelikan disavowal of his blackness and his claim to be white. Elsewhere, in my Facebook exchange with these folks as well as on a blog post,[ii] I have addressed the issue.

In this set of fragments, I select a few of the counter-arguments that my critics tried to present in order to reinterpret the (pragmatic) Menelikan heresy that he is Caucasian. The points in each paragraph are prepared in the form of response to these claims.

  1. Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia did deny his being black. He is repeatedly reported to have said, “I am not a Negro at all; I am a Caucasian.” No historian has ever controverted that. Not even Harold Marcus, Menelik’s own biographer.[iii] Not even the more contemporary writers such as Raymond Jonas[iv] denied the fact that the emperor said it explicitly. All the existing historical evidence substantiates that he said it, and said it clearly and loudly.
  2. Menelik did deny his being black and disavowed his honorary position offered to him by people from Haiti, the country of the first black, mainly anti-slavery, revolution (1791-1804). He said it at a historical juncture when black slaves were already legally freed in the US (1863). Haitian blacks were already freed for quite some time. Menelik said what he said exactly understanding what the term meant then. And it did not mean slaves. He knew the term wasn’t synonymous with slaves.
  3. He said what he said when, as a master of over 70, 000 (mainly Southern) Ethiopian slaves himself, he knew he is not one of the likes of his own slaves. His statement was not a reference to status. It was a reference to race. He knows the difference between the terms ‘slave’ and ‘negro’. To bring in the word ‘Baria’ and to try to say what is neither written in the text nor implied from the context, is not just reading too much into the text but to make a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the matter.
  4. Even the authoritative historians of the battle of Adwa confess that Menelik not only did say that but could say that. Because his tactical deployment of racial and civilizational identities had been seen as a laudable diplomatic virtue of the time, he had once said that he was black in order to form an alliance with the neighboring dervishes. And these historians – e.g., Raymond Jonas[v]– confess that Menelik could say he is anything (that he is black or white) as it suits him. That is clear evidence that he not only said it but it is in fact an absolute possibility he could say that because it is characteristic of him, as a consummate pragmatist, to say so.
  5. There’s ample evidence, ubiquitous really, even on these Facebook pages, that millions of Ethiopians, possibly the vast majority of them, including many apologists of the unnecessary – including the vast majority of the Oromos – who seriously think that they are not black.[vi] If they today plead guilty of being disavowers of their black identity, how come they insist that Menelik didn’t say it? Ideological pre-commitment to make Menelik a saint is the only explanation one can find for such attempts to whitewash the self-proclaimed Caucasian emperor. I wish these Ethiopianist extremists know that there are better ways of eulogizing the dead.
  6. The most outlandish claim they make is that he didn’t say he is Caucasian because “he probably doesn’t even know the word.” No, he did know the word. It was, at the time, the most common diplomatic-political vernacular used in order to speak of people as Caucasians or Negros. He knew what both words meant. At least, it is obvious that his translator knew what the words meant. Even if, for the sake of argument, one concedes that our emperor didn’t use the word Caucasian, then he must have used the more blunt word ‘White’, (Nech in Amharic). And he did say it. That is why scholars have since been writing not just about him but about Ethiopia as ‘Honorary White’. These critics claim that we are reading too much into the text. We read what is written. We don’t do divination about what is not written. Reading what is written is just that, reading what is written. Not reading into it. Trying to explain it by creating un-clarity where the statement is clear is reading into the text. And it’s a cardinal interpretive sin.
  7. At the risk of insulting our readers’ intelligence, I like to say a few words about interpretation and when it is needed. According to the elementary rules of text interpretation, where a text is clear, there is no need for interpretation. Interpretation is called for only when there is un-clarity. Texts are said to be unclear when there is ambiguity, inconsistency, silence, and absurdity.

Ambiguity is cleared by going to the sources, assessing the context-internal and external.

Talking about context in the absence of any ambiguity is not just interpretively erroneous; it’s a deliberate attempt at rewriting the text. It is the crudest form of hermeneutical sin. Our most learned miracle workers who were doing divination on Menelik’s words were just trying to rewrite it for him.

Textual silence on a matter is redeemed through, among other things, analogical reasoning/interpretation.

Inconsistency is overcome interpretively through considering the temporal, normative, and spatial hierarchy among claims of a text. Thus the late coming clause in a particular text prevails the earlier clause. The normatively superior clause prevails over the inferior one. The more specific clause prevails over the general one.

Absurdity in a text is interpretively overcome through resort to natural reason/justice, equity, and fairness. Positive interpretation, i.e., interpretation of texts in good faith with the intent to give effect to the best possible meaning (rather than in such a way that it leads to absurd conclusions) is a most important method of interpretation in all situations but especially for texts whose literal application may lead to absurdity.

These are the most basic principles and techniques of interpretation of texts. These are the most rudimentary rules for making sense of texts.

These interpretive techniques are applicable in the attempt to enunciate the meaning of a text, be they diplomatic, legislative/legal, literary, academic, or theological. Considering the fact that the better educated among my critics are theologians/philosophers and lawyers, I say they should have known better when they were wasting so much interpretive energy where it was not needed.

Where a text is clear, literalism prevails. If a lawyer fails to know this cardinal rule, he has effectively disqualified himself from the profession on two grounds: technical incompetence and professional-ethical failure. When you see a self-proclaimed philosopher does it, then you start to understand why mooshy platitude masquerading as scholarly work is overwhelming our part of the world. And why we are the most tragic of peoples and that our tragedy is truly profound.

Fortunately, Menelik’s exquisitely terse statement (“I am not a Negro at all; I am a Caucasian”) is vividly clear and, as such, invites NO interpretation whatsoever. By taking his words literally, I think I am becoming the more faithful subject-ironically as always-than our loyalist citizens who read too much into the text just so they can rewrite his statement to try and salvage his image.

The guy said he is not black. Even worse, he said he is white. By so doing, he has distanced himself from blacks. By so doing, he has made it clear that the battle of Adwa is anything but a war fought for independence of the black race. By refusing to accept the blackness of Ethiopia (both by Menelik and the racialized European colonial system), the Adwa moment marked the isolation of Ethiopia from black Africa, thereby inaugurating the Ethiopian exceptionalism in Africa.[vii] In the mind of Europeans and the colonial international community of the time, the victory of Adwa only enhanced the non-black status of Ethiopia qualifying the latter to join the community of sovereign nations (and later the League of Nations) as the exceptional black African nation that is admitted to it as an honorary white.[viii] That it was taken as a battle fought for the independence of the black race now (or even by the misled Haitian delegates then) is a different matter. Image created by fraud does not become a true image just because the fraudulent one got away with it.

  1. Colonial international law of the time was operating on the basis of racialized hierarchy. Menelik’s deals with the Europeans in the scramble for territory in the region was essentially a racist manoeuvre by an ‘honorary white man’ that joined the club of ‘legitimate’, i.e., white, colonizers. In effect, he was a black colonizer of all the non-Abyssinian peoples of Ethiopia. And the boundary treaties and the legacy of racialized hierarchy in Ethiopia today is still with us. Some of the pains we live with today, coming as they do, from Eritrea, Ogaden, Djibouti, Nile, etc, are the results of that colonial inauguration.
  2. Adwa is not a symbol of unity for Ethiopians. Nothing was more divisive than Adwa for the following reasons:

Adwa legitimized the Italian colonization of Eritrea. My critics today blame the TPLF led government in Ethiopia for ceding Eritrea too easily. Menelik did it first. The TPLF are very good students of empire. They followed in his footsteps. As devious as they are, and irrespective of the fact that they manipulated it to their advantage, the issue of Eritrea is not a problem they caused. Yes, they benefitted from the Eritrean complication but they only capitalized on the problem Menelik laid down for them. Eritrea is his problem child. Separation among the peoples of the northern core happened during his time.

The other peoples’ land and identity was alienated (from their own land and own subjectivity as collectivities) irredeemably after Adwa. Their occupation by conquest was internationally legitimized by, because of, and after Adwa. Adwa was indeed a very divisive moment.

Yes, it was also the first moment of division between citizen and subject. It was the moment that defined the outer bounds of citizenship in the Ethiopian polity. It was a moment that putatively defined the cleavage between the core and the periphery, the citizen and the subject, the rist land and the gebbar land, the north and the south, the Ethiopian and his (and much less her) others. It was the moment of inauguration of state violence, looting, plunder, pillage, genocide, alienation, dispossession, and displacement right before a watching colonial-imperial world. Almost all evils of the modern Ethiopian state are rooted in the Adwa moment. This constitutive evil was subsequently (in 1931) embraced in the first codified imperial constitutional law of the country. No, Adwa isn’t a symbol of unity. If it were, it must have symbolized the unity that never was, the content-less unity that their children fetishize today seeking to impose it on peoples regardless of their expressed consent (or its absence thereof).

Ethiopians were more divided knowingly/consciously (at times deliberately-politically) only after Adwa. This is seen, for instance, in the differentiated land tenure system. And in the southward flow of imperial desire and in the northward movement of resources, slaves (in the past) and working labor (in the present-albeit limited in scale owing to the unfair distribution of social opportunities and economic facilities that produce employable labor).

A question for my critics: If Ethiopians were so united at Adwa, why was it that they couldn’t stand together in Maychew? Why did our huge, albeit disorganized, army went in disarray just before the real fight started? Why was there an inward war (for example with the Rayya) just before confronting the Italians? Why did some of the members of the royal family of the northern core betray Ethiopia and join their next of kin in Eritrea (who, then, were under the Italian colony)? Why did we have a large number of people, from within the Abyssinian core, that became collaborators of the Italians as banda? You don’t need to read anything beyond the late Hadis Alemayehu’s magnificent war memoir, TIZITA, in order to see how violently divided we were after Adwa.[ix] If Ethiopia was so united at Adwa, why are we so forcing it today? Why are we fighting so hard to bring it into existence today? If we were so united, why are we even having this conversation?

  1. And yet, I for one never wanted to trivialize Adwa for these reasons. Now, I think it should be trivialized actually, if only to unsettle this closed, blind, and blinding Ethiopianist paradigm built totally on a pack of false claims. It is perfectly legitimate to do so. But I don’t trivialize it here regardless. No. I have too much at stake to do so. I have too much of a heritage to lose by trivializing it. I was arguing only for a more nuanced and thus a more accurate appraisal of Adwa. I was for a history that tells a people’s lived experience and memory of Adwa, rather than the state’s-court-centered–narration of it.[x]

Yes, I challenge the state-nationalist orthodoxy because it is entirely a pack of ideologically motivated, racist, bigoted, phobic lie. And I will do so, if I can, rather proudly. But no, what I want to see now is a more honest, a more accurate, a more comprehensive appraisal that would aid the project of redeeming that moment. I am for an alternative interpretation, yes. I am for many, varied, differentiated, plural interpretations. I am for the social-historical meaning of Adwa. If that makes me an Oromo secessionist, so be it, although it will be an insult to my secessionist compatriots.

 

ED’s Note: Tsegaye R Ararssa, Melbourne Law School. Email: tsegayer@gmail.com; or ararssat@unimelb.edu.au.

 


Footnote

[i]TedlaWoldeyohannes, ‘Ethiopia: Dr Tsegaye Ararssa’s Caucasian Menelik and the Trivialization of Adwa’ ECADF (26 May 2016), available at: http://ecadforum.com/2016/05/26/ethiopia-dr-tsegaye-ararssas-caucasian-menelik/. The points mentioned in these fragments seek to respond to the claims, mischaracterizations of my character and motives, and interpretive errors in this article. But it is also informed by another of Tedla’s article directed exclusively at launching an ad hominem attack on me: ‘Ethiopia: Making Sense of Dr Tsegaye Ararssa’s Self-contradictions,’ ECADF (18 May 2016), available at: http://ecadforum.com/2016/05/18/ethiopia-making-sense-of-dr-tsegaye-ararssas-self-contradictions/

[ii]Tsegaye Ararssa, ‘Menelik is the Least of my Worries: A Note to Apologists of Empire,’ (2016) available at: https://advocacy4oromia.org/?s=Menelik+is+the+least+of+my+worries .

[iii] Harold G Marcus, The Life and Times of Menelik II: Ethiopia, 1844-1913. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1995.

[iv] Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

[v]Raymond Jonas The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

[vi]More serious studies of contemporary Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants also show self-identification among these groups as non-black. See, for example, Shelly Habecker, ‘Not Black, Habesha: Ethiopian and Eritrean Immigrants in American Society,’ Ethnic and Social Studies (2012) 35(7), 1200-1219; Azeb Madebo, ‘Re-Imagining Ethnic Identities: Racial and Ethnic Identities within Seattle’s Habesha Community’ (Thesis, University of Washington, 2014), available at: https://www.google.com.au/?gfe_rd=cr&ei=FXlVV_K0A6TM8gftnqO4Ag&gws_rd=ssl#q=not+black%2C+but+habasha%2C+pdf. A more scholastic consideration of the matter is seen in Teshale Tibebu, ‘The “Anomaly” and “Paradox” of Africa’ Journal of Black Studies (1996), 26(4), 414-430; Asafa Jalata, ‘Being in and out of Africa: The Impact of Duality of Ethiopianism,’ Journal of Black Studies (2009), 40(2), 189-214.

[vii] This exceptionalism is most exquisitely captured by the words of C Jesman (later also echoed by Ali Mazrui) who said that in many ways Ethiopia is in rather than of Africa. See his, The Ethiopian Paradox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963. See also, Harold Marcus, ‘The Black men who Turned White,’ Archive Orientali (1971), 39, 155-166.

[viii]See Rose Parfitt, ‘Empire Des NegreBlancs: The Hybridity of International Personality and the International Crisis of 1935-36’ Leiden Journal of International Law (2011), 24 (4), 849-872.

[ix]Haddis Alemayehu, Tizita.[Amharic] Addis Ababa: Kuraz Publishing Agency, 1985 [EC]. See also John Spencer, Ethiopia at Bay: A Personal Account of the Haileselassie Years. LA, CA: Tsehay Publishers, 2006 [1984], for a detailed account of the state of affairs during and after the days of the Maychew face off during Ethiopia’s WWII, also giving us a vivid description of  the war effort, how divided our army was, the level of disaffection even among the upper echelons of power. He also gives an account of his own encounter with the Emperor (Haileselassie I) in the war front just before the Crown Council eventually decides that the emperor go on exile.

[x] For my views on Adwa and its significance, see Tsegaye Ararssa, ‘The Peoples’ Adwa: The Imperative of Embracing Plural Interpretation’ (2016), available at: https://advocacy4oromia.org/?s=The+Peoples%27+Adwa.

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