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.
We can pick up the story 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.
By the turn of the 20th century,
three European powers – Britain, France and Italy – encircle the last remaining independent African polity, Ethiopia. Partially in response, Crown Prince Ras Tafari engineers the admittance of Ethiopia to the League of Nations in 1923. Ras Tafari reasons that the League had been set up by European powers to promote their collective security and therefore Ethiopia is best positioned under this protective covering of so-called “civilized” nations. In October 1935, however, Italy invades Ethiopia, and the main powers of the League do little to stop it.
Around this point in time, the British based Missionary Service Bureau and Ethiopian Prayer League issue a pamphlet decrying the invasion. A forward, written by Brigadier-General F.D. Frost, entreats the reader: “Ethiopia … is stretching out her hands unto god. Will his people come to her aid headless of personal sacrifice or inconvenience…?” This principled support of Ethiopia should be acknowledged. However, the “God’s people” that the Brigadier-General entreats are not Ethiopians but white/Europeans. Therefore this catechism of Psalms 68:31 still promotes a “civilizing mission” to Africa. The Brigadier’s question is, how to accomplish this colonial mission if God’s “chosen people” are not acting civilized?
The second catechism emerges out of the “invisible institutions” of the enslaved, that is, the faith circles on North American plantations. Africans bring with them to the Americas their cosmologies, faiths, philosophies and practices. Key in the re-combination of these elements in American captivity is the crossroads, the site of intersection between the sublime and profane, the living and the spirits/ancestors, and the lands of the dead (Americas) and the lands of the living (Guinea) that are separated by a veil of water.
When Methodist and especially Baptist preachers reach the North American enslaved in the latter part of the 18th century, aspects of their Christian worship resonate with what the enslaved already know to be powerful from their own faith systems: e.g. a sanctified renewal through water, an active relationship between the spirits and the living (holy ghost), and the communication of sublime knowledge (Pentacostal). What is more, the Christian cross of suffering (so beloved by the slavemasters) can be used to smuggle the African crossroads of collective healing (so demonized by the slavemasters) out into the world to quicken the liberation of the enslaved. The Bible itself can be used to tell their story – the “half never told”. Psalms become African redemption songs.
By the early part of the 19th century various mystics, poets and preachers begin to proselytize this message in public. Prince Hall, a Barbadian freemason, resident in Boston, proclaims that the Haitian Revolution is prophecy revealed: “Thus doth Ethiopia begin to stretch forth her hand, from a sink of slavery to freedom and equality.” Around the same time as Hall, Robert Alexander Young issues an Ethiopian Manifesto, proclaiming that “surely hath the cries of the black, a most persecuted people, ascended to my throne and craved my mercy; now, behold! I will stretch forth mine hand and gather them to the palm, that they become unto me a people, and I unto them their God … Watch out slaveholder, your hour draweth nigh”! True, JAH does much stretching forth of hands in the Old Testament; however, Psalms 68:31 places the divine relationship firmly in the hands of Ethiopians. For Young, though, this Ethiopian supremacy is predicated upon the rectification of injustice. It is not, therefore, a prejudice to the sanctity of other peoples: “peace and liberty to the Ethiopian first, as also all other grades of men, is the invocation we offer to the throne of God”.
David Walker – Methodist and Freemason – publishes an Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World that circulates widely in the South and is at least partly responsible for a number of insurrections. The Appeal is a response to Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia that extol the goodness of its society at the same time as justifying slavery on the basis of natural inequalities. Here is Walker: “…though our cruel oppressors and murderers, may (if possible) treat us more cruel, as Pharaoh did the children of Israel, yet the God of the Ethiopians, has been pleased to hear our moans in consequence of oppression; and the day of our redemption from abject wretchedness draweth near, when we shall be enabled, in the most extended sense of the word, to stretch forth our hands to the LORD our GOD, but there must be a willingness on our part”
In 1890, WEB Dubois, famed African-American sociologist foretells in his commencement oration at Harvard University, of a better world emerging from the struggle between strong and submissive men. In this respect, he tells the (white) audience “you owe a debt to humanity for this Ethiopia of the Outstreched Arm”. Around the same time, Edward Blyden, Pan-Africanist and preacher from St Thomas and emigrant to Liberia, writes a book on Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. Like Dubois, Blyden points out the same debt with a chapter entitled: “Ethiopia Stretching Out Her Hands Unto God; or, Africa’s Service to the World”
Come the early 20th century, Psalms 68:31 is the most popular text for sermons preached at meetings of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Indeed, Psalms 68:31 has an official UNIA catechism: “that Negroes will set up their own government in Africa with rulers of their own race.” This is a meaning that is diametrically opposed to that provided by the white/European abolitionists catechism of Psalms 68:31 – that primitive Africans will be saved and sanctified by white/Europeans. By the time of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, one Mrs Satira Earle, a Jamaican active member of the UNIA writes: “the year 1935 was the commencing with Ethiopia stretching forth her hands unto god and not unto Europe as they think.” After 1936, due to various personal and political reasons Garvey begins to criticize Selassie I, and soon after the criticism turns vitriolic. Nevertheless, Garvey will still hold the line that: “probably it is through Italy in Abyssinia that Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto god and princes shall come out of Egypt”.
In 1935 Hon Leonard Howell publishes the Promised Key. The Jamaican, writing under his pseudoynm, Gong Guru Maragh, tells of the coronation of Selassie I in 1930. He imagines that the sceptre that had previously been stolen by the British but now returned at the coronation by the Duke of Gloucester, has inscribed on one side: Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God. From 1935 to 1937 almost the whole of the Anglo Caribbean erupts in strikes, riots, and uprisings. The causes are long simmering; however, the catalyst is the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Across the region people identify personally and/or politically with Ethiopia. And it is not just Howell that sights Selassie I as king – various people have a similar vision all over the region. In 1937 a Barbadian strike leader and UNIA affiliate Ulric Mcdonald Grant, is charged with sedition. A sergeant of police gives testimony concerning one speech made by Grant: “He next referred to Garvey, who he said, is a wonderful man. We have got to concentrate universally. Remember your mother country which is Africa. In conclusion he said that Ethiopia was stretching forth her hands and princes shall come out of Egypt”.
There is one more part to this story. It knits together the other two so that a third Pan-African space of human redemption comes into view: the “8th continent”, to quote my friend Mamma D.; the “continent of Black Consciousness”, to quote Erna Brodber. In 1937 Selassie I directs his personal physician, Dr. Malaku E. Bayen, to set up an Ethiopian World Federation that might unify the efforts of Africans in the Diaspora to defend Ethiopia. The slogan of The Voice of Ethiopia, the official EWF publication, is Ethiopia is Stretching Forth Her Hands Unto God. In occupied Ethiopia, and as part of the resistance, daily services of the Orthodox Church renounce the Italian invasion; the passages recited to this effect include Psalms 68:31. When Selassie I re-enters Addis Ababa on May 5th 1941 alongside Commonwealth troops he proclaims: “today is a day on which Ethiopia is stretching her hands to God in joy and thankfulness.” From 1948 Selassie I starts to gift 500 acres of Crown land at Shashamene, under the auspices of the EWF, to those in the Diaspora who might wish to return.
Princes and princesses shall come out of Egypt; Ithiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto JAH! The question is, what catechism do we wish to apply to Psalms 68:31 in the present day?