Monday, October 4, 2010

Ethiopia as Utopia

Edwardian Promenade posted this great biography of Meta Warrick Fuller, an important African American artist.
One of her most famous works is this beautiful Ethiopia Awakening.  It depicts an African woman pulling the bandages off of her mummy-self, revealing a beautiful Egyptian queen underneath.  Her bandages represent both the confines of history (and, conversely, an imagining of history that sees ancient Egypt as monolithic and white) and the bonds of slavery.  The woman underneath is not just beautiful, but regal, demanding respect. 
Ethiopia is often pictured as a utopia in African American writing.  There's a good reason for this: Ethiopia is the only country that resisted both slavery and colonization (political slavery to a dominant, white European/American power).  In the middle of all the rhetoric that African Americans couldn't possibly run their own society without white interference, Ethiopia was a clear example of how an African country could flourish without giving into the standards of the Western world.
One of the best poems on the subject is by Frances E.W. Harper, unsurprisingly titled "Ethiopia."  (Scroll down to the second poem, past her much more famous "Bury Me in a Free Land.") 
In Harper's poem, Ethiopia is not yet a utopia.  (This is similar to her poem, "Moses," where the poem leaves off before the Hebrew slaves manage to find their promised land, again, as a representation that African Americans have not yet completed their journey.)  Ethiopia will become a utopia, according to the poem, when God grants African Americans justice and they return home to Africa, free.  But like in Fuller's sculpture, there is the image of bondage, in this case "the yoke" and "his [the slavemaster's] fetters."  Harper imagines these things falling away, just like Fuller's sculpture pictures a woman with bondage around her legs.  She's hopefully in the process of losing them, but hasn't lost them yet. 

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