‘Moses and his Ethiopian Wife’, by Jacob Jordaens, c. 1650
Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God
Psalms 68:31 is part of the global story of colonialism, enslavement, the “civilizing mission” and self-liberation. It is a story that is central to the Twenty Years Crisis that constitutes the originating point of International Relations as a self-proclaimed discipline. But it is a story that is largely absent when this originating point is commemorated.
We can pick up the story of Psalms 68:31 with the King James version of the Bible, translated into the vernacular in 1611. At this time it is practice to denote things African through the name Aethiops. More than just a polity south of Egypt, Ethiopia also encompasses Black Africa as a whole. By 1773, catechisms are being developed around Psalm 68:31 that directly address African enslavement in the Americas and the prospects of abolition, emancipation and liberation.
There are two key interpretations. One, cultivated by white abolitionists and subsequently used by Europeans who embark upon an African “civilizing mission”, holds that it is they – white/Europeans – who are God’s children. Hence, it is white/Europeans to whom Ethiopia is stretching for her hands for deliverance from slavery and primitivism. The other, cultivated by the enslaved and their downpressed descendants, holds that the Bible is their story – the “half never told“. Africans will therefore righteously deliver their own selves from bondage.
The first catechism appears as early as 1773 in the letters of Anthony Benezet, a French-born Quaker living in North America. Scouring through the Bible to find divine authority for the abolitionist cause, Benezet notes: “beloved friend, the passage we are seeking for is Psalms 68, 31.”; and “the people called Ethiopians are definitely African negros due to Jeremiah 13,23 – “can the Ethiopian change his skin?”. Abolitionists – especially British ones – are most concerned that the enslavement practised by white and European “Christians” would denigrate their status as the most civilized amongst humanity. By Benezet’s time, it is already a belief amongst the intellectual caste of white/Europeans that they are the people chosen by God to express his Providence, through commerce and colonisation.
This is the second part in a series of five posts from Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University. The first part is here. The series will consider the character and dimensions of the tension between the African Union and ‘the West’ over interventions in Africa. Responsibility for visuals adheres solely to Pablo K.
As I indicated in my last post, the decision by the African Union (or AU) to not endorse the current military campaign in Libya has been mistaken by many observers and commentators alternatively as a sign of African leaders’ antipathy to political freedom and civil liberties; a reflexive hostility to former colonial powers, particularly France and Great Britain; a suspicion of the motives of the United States; and more. The related speculations have led to the equally mistaken conclusion that the African Union is out of step with the spirit of freedom sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa (or MENA). The absurdity of the claim is that the only entity that imposed any outline of solution agreeable to Gaddafi has been the African Union and this is that Gaddafi himself would not be part of any future leadership of the country. But the AU has insisted on an inclusive negotiated settlement. The purpose of this series of essays is not therefore to examine the meaning and implications of the absence of ‘Africa’ on the battlefield of Libya, but to point to the larger geopolitical implications of the intervention for international order, global democratic governance, and the promotion of democratic ideals and political pluralism in the region undergoing revolution and beyond.
To begin, it is not just ‘Africa’, ‘African indecision’, and ‘African non-Normativity’ that are at stake in the characterization of African actions or inactions. Much of what is construed as ‘lack’ or ‘absence’ in Africa is also intended to give sustenance to the idea of the indispensability of the West – composed on this occasion by France, Great Britain, the United States, and tangentially Canada – to the realization of the central ends of the MENA Spring. The myth of the centrality of the West to the imaginary of freedom everywhere is inscribed in the name given to the events under description. In the US at least, the Arab Spring evokes many other ‘Springs’ all located in the West (including the 1968 Prague Spring or the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states). Likewise, ‘Jasmine’, the emblem of the Tunisian revolt has been advanced as evocative of the Ukrainian ‘Orange’ and other colour-coded European events. These allusions have justifications but they are seldom evoked comparatively to elucidate the originality and specificity of the MENA revolutions. In this latter regard, even the suggestion of an Arab Spring assumes that the majorities in the countries involved are Arab. This is not always the case in North Africa but Orientalism obliges!
The fact is that the ongoing revolutions in MENA are at once specific and universal in their own ways. Continue reading