10 October 2014
Haile Selassie I: An African Griot Over thirty years ago, Ethiopia’s 225th and last emperor, Haile Selassie I, passed away under circumstances not satisfactorily explained to this day. During his impressive career, he guided the ancient, feudalistic Ethiopian empire into the modern era. Selassie’s contributions were monumental, yet his death was tragic and remains an embarrassment. Nonetheless, Haile Selassie is immortalized not only the last emperor of Ethiopia, but the spiritual father of independent Africa, and the deity of Rastafarianism. For Rastafarians, Selassie is the reincarnation of the Holy Savior, the King of Kings who arose in Africa and led his people to liberty (Getachew p. 14). Some say that Haile Selassie, born Lij Tarafi Makonnen, was born to rule. Selassie’s heritage is traced back to Menelik I, who was creditied with being the child of the biblical King Solomon and Queen of Sheba. Selassie’s father, Ras Makonnen, was the cousin of Emperor Menelik II, who did not have an heir to his throne. Therefore, after Menelik II’s death, his grandson, Yasu, took the throne, but his Islamic beliefs made him extremely unpopular with Ethiopia’s Christian majority. As a result, Selassie took power from Yasu and had him imprisoned for life in 1916. After this, Menelik II’s daughter Zauditu became empress, and named Selassie the Ras, or heir to the throne. After Zauditu’s death, Selassie became emperor (Haile). This is how Haile Selassie came into his position of power. Through the initiative and personal authority of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia became the political capital of the whole of Africa. He extended the networks for electrical lights, improved the conditions of streets and roads, imported cars, equipped the army, established a modern school system, and more (Lockot p. 99-100). His contributions were all three political, economic, and cultural in this respect. Haile Selassie moved to try to modernize his country. In the face of a wave of anti-colonialism sweeping across Africa, he granted a new constitution in 1955, one that outlined equal rights for his citizens under the law (Haile). Unlike most African nations, he wanted Ethiopia to be open to the world, not secluded. He gained international recognition for Ethiopia by turning his attention to foreign affairs, gaining Ethiopia’s admission to the League of Nations in 1923. The following year, he visited France, Italy, Sweden, Greece, and England, getting favorable recognition from the international press.
His trip coincided with the growing interest among North American blacks in rediscovering their cultural heritage. Seeing a noble, dignified African leader of an independent nation dealing as an equal with European rulers made quite an impression. Jamaicans, in particular, were in awe, identifying him as the future king of blacks everywhere in the world. These idolizers called themselves Rastafarians, stemming from the Emperors original name, Prince Tafari, or Ras Tafari, (in Ethiopia, a prince is called a ras) and started a new way of life in his honor that continues today (Podesta). Some common faces of Rastafarianism today are Bob Marley and Snoop Dogg, who renamed himself Snoop Lion after his conversion to Rastafarianism.
I believe Ras Tafari, better known as Haile Selassie, was a very important and successful leader in African history. However, Selassie is hardly recognized in our history books. Selassie is an important figure in Pan-Africanism, an ideology consisting of two key elements: the common heritage of people of African descent all over the world and the incumbency of African people to work for the interests and the well-being of one another everywhere (Khapoya, 2013). Disassociating Haile…