Dr. Theodore Vestal remembers Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia as a leader, innovator, and international celebrity.
With all the remembrance of Astronaut John Glenn’s rocketing around the world fifty years ago, I have a trivial pursuits question for you. What do John Glenn and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, “the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah,” have in common?
The answer is in my book, The Lion of Judah in the New World (Praeger, 2011). Glenn and Haile Selassie belong to the exclusive ten person cadre of individuals who have had two ticker-tape parades up New York City’s Broadway. Glenn is the only living member of the club that includes Oklahoman aviator Wiley Post and aviatress Amelia Earhart, explorer Admiral Richard Byrd (who actually had a third parade!), golfer Bobby Jones, Dwight Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle, and, of course, Emperor Haile Selassie. The other two honorees will test the memory of the most dedicated history buffs: ship Captain George Fried who led heroic sea rescues in the 1920s and Italian statesman Alcide De Gasperi who led Italy’s recovery after World War II and was a founder of the European Union. The list of recipients, most people would agree, is of very good men and one good woman. Some athletic teams, such as the New York Yankees, the Giants, and the Mets, also have had two or more parades, but that’s not the same thing as an individual being so honored.
What did the ruler of a poor African country in the Horn of Africa do to merit such accolades? He was an iconic figure of the 20th Century who came to embody the majesty of the African continent and its people in the mind of many Americans. Starting at least with his coronation as Ethiopia’s King of Kings in 1930 and continuing through the velvet revolution that overthrew him in 1974, the Emperor was a well-known celebrity in the United States. In the years following World War II, Haile Selassie cultivated his nation’s friendship with the United States, and, starting in 1954, he came to Washington on six state visits, the most of any reigning foreign head of state in the 20th Century, and also traveled to many other destinations in North America.
His fame as an international celebrity was well earned. He won it the old fashioned way: by significant accomplishments. Wartime always produces new heroes, and before and during World War II, Haile Selassie was elevated into high visibility by being among the first to stand up to the European dictators who were shortly to wreak such worldwide havoc and subsequently to champion an international order to prevent similar malevolence from threatening weaker nations again. At the League of Nations, the little king created, in image and in word, a composition of rich emotional eloquence. The Haile Selassie we see in the old newsreels is the one who registered on the national conscience and created a place for himself in the American heart that remained thereafter.
Haile Selassie was obsessed with collective security, thought the United Nations the best perpetuator of the idea, demanded an end to colonialism, especially in Africa, and promoted Pan-Africanism and African unity. The stone faced ruler sought to project his image as an elder statesman and leader of Africa whose moderating voice would be heard and respected throughout the continent. At the same time, during the height of the Cold War, he wanted to be an active player in the nonaligned movement, a bravura act of tightrope walking given U.S. bases in his country and treaties with the United States in his diplomatic portfolio.
Critics, looking back from the twenty-first century, aware of the construction and manipulation of images by a celebrity-bound society, might see the state visits of the Emperor as essentially the institutionalization of Haile Selassie’s publicity stunts. There might be an element of truth to that judgment, but that does not detract from the mysterious quality of the monarch that so beguiled Americans. For many, Haile Selassie became a metaphor for Africa—that is, the understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. His longevity and participation in world affairs maintained that metaphor far beyond his best years on the diplomatic circuit.
Over time, we put our own “gloss” on our metaphors, and the Emperor came to stand for what Americans wanted Africans to be: calm, regal, suave, strong, and silent—concepts important to Americans. The truth or falsity of such a metaphor is less significant than the perception and inferences that follow from it and the actions that are sanctioned by it. “We define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of metaphors” . America’s action was to store the memory of Haile Selassie, the traditions, his humanity and achievements, in the subconscious as a positive image of an African.
There was much to remember. Haile Selassie was the first African head of state to spend the night in the White House. He was the first African leader to be honored with a ticker tape parade in New York and the first to receive a tumultuous welcome in Harlem. He was the only head of state to address both the League of Nations and the United Nations. The list continues and is spelled out in detail in the Lion book.
At the present time, when the United States has elected its first president whose father was from Africa, and when the troubled lands of Africa may well receive special attention in U.S. foreign policy, it is important to understand the background, the positive subconscious images or metaphors, stored in American memory that were relevant in this precedent shattering election. Further studies by historians, psychologists, and sociologists, as well as the media, will doubtlessly call attention to the part that the images of Africa and Africans that the American people developed during Haile Selassie’s prominence played in the election of Barack Obama as President in 2008, and will be of significance in his campaign for reelection in 2012. My book attempts to fill in blank spaces in recording when, how, and why the Emperor made his mark on the American conscience. It’s a true account of the world as we experienced it, what E. E. Cummings called “a recent footprint in the sand of was,”  and of the legacy of that experience today. It’s an American’s view of an Ethiopian’s influence on Americans, and for that reason it was written primarily for an American audience.
♦◊♦ George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 5.  e. e. cummings, “XXXV,” in E.E. Cummings, Complete Poems 1904-1962, ed. George J. Firmage (New York: Liveright, 1991), 345.
To order The Lion of Judah in the New World:Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the Shaping of Americans’ Attitudes toward Africa or for more information please contact: Customer Service, 130 Cremona Drive, Santa Barbara, CA 93117; 805.968.1911; fax: 866.270.3856; [email protected] or http://www.abc-clio.com/product.aspx?isbn=9780313386206
* This essay originally appeared on The Good Men Project on 02/25/12