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Black Land: Imperial Ethiopianism and African America by Nadia Nurhussein

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

Nadia Nurhussein’s 2019 book, Black Land: Imperial Ethiopianism and African America, analyzes the literature and texts being produced in response to broader Western interest in Ethiopia and its leadership during an 80-year stretch of Black history from the 1860s to the 1940s. Drawing on a wide range of materials such as poetry, novels, newspaper articles, and theatrical or cinematic performances, Nurhussein demonstrates not only how entrenched these conversations were in African Americans’ lives but also the ways that this interest created a paradox: How does one advocate for Black freedom when the focal point of the Ethiopians’ fight is a monarchy that is bent on expanding its territory, little different from the Europeans that threaten it? As Nurhussein describes it, “this is the paradox of this particular brand of black transnationalism and diasporic nostalgia: it built itself around the example of Ethiopia while also holding democratic ideals” (14).

Some writers used exotic and highly Africanized depictions of Ethiopia and its conflicts to bolster African-American relationships with the country, such as news reporting from the 1867 Anglo-Abyssinian war and the poetry supporting Ethiopian war efforts against Mussolini’s Italy. Others used impressions or inaccurate representations to create an image of mystique or grandeur surrounding the country, whether for political purposes or simply performing a long con. Toward the end of the period Nurhussein covers, as the conflict against Italy became increasingly dire, writers such as Claude McKay and George Schuyler demonstrated an ambivalence toward the idea of an imperial Ethiopia, especially in regard to how different their concerns and ideologies were from those in African America. Overall, Nurhussein examines a forgotten part of African America’s international history. Through this story, she demonstrates how the ambiguity over the notions of Ethiopia as a Black empire  and Black solidarity based on democracy perpetuated in cultural texts and performances.