In light of the ongoing political crisis in Ethiopia and the Black Lives Matter protests in America, I am reminded of the famous poem “Ode to Ethiopia” by one of the greatest and most distinguished African American literary writers in American history – Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar achieved a national reputation as America’s foremost black poet before the end of the nineteenth century. His poem “Ode to Ethiopia” emphasizes a belief in a brighter future in the face of catastrophe. Published in the year of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1896, this poem represents ideas of Ethiopia as a mother to all black people.
For African Americans who have read about Ethiopia in the bible, there was great sympathy and overwhelming support for Ethiopia against Italy. At this time, having just come out of slavery, and living in the Jim Crow era things were not much better for African Americans. It is with this in mind that I see a parallel between then and now. As you read the poem you will notice it was written, like the bible, in the King’s English enhancing the poem’s prestige and heroic value. Hopefully, in these trying times in both Ethiopia and America, this poem should lift our spirits, renew our pride and steady our dreams and actions for justice, liberty and a common humanity.
(The text in boldface type was used as Prologue to Movement 4 of the Afro-American Symphony)
“ODE TO ETHIOPIA”
By Paul Laurence Dunbar
O Mother Race! to thee I bring
This pledge of faith unwavering,
This tribute to thy glory.
I know the pangs which thou didst feel,
When Slavery crushed thee with its heel,
With thy dear blood all gory.
Sad days were those—ah, sad indeed!
But through the land the fruitful seed
of better times was growing.
The plant of freedom upward sprung,
And spred its leaves so fresh and young—
Its blossoms now are blowing.
On every hand in this fair land,
Proud Ethiope’s swarthy children stand
Beside their fairer neighbour;
The forests flee before their stroke,
Their hammers ring their forges smoke,
They sit in honest labour.
They tread the fields where honour calls;
Their voices sound through senate halls
In majesty and power.
To right they cling; the hymns they sing
Up to the skies in beauty ring,
And bolder grow each hour.
Be proud, my race, in mind and soul;
Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll
In characters of fire.
High ‘mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky
Thy banner’s blazoned folds now fly,
And truth shall lift them higher.
Thou hast the right to noble pride,
Whose spotless robes were purified
By blood’s severe baptism.
Upon thy brow the cross was laid,
And labour’s painful sweat-beads made
A consecrating chrism.
No other race, or white or black,
When bound as thou wert, to the rack,
So seldom stooped to grieving;
No other race, when free again,
Forgot the past and proved them men
So noble in forgiving.
Go on and up! Our souls and eyes
Shall follow thy continuous rise;
Our ears shall list thy story
From bards who from thy root shall spring,
and proudly tune their lyres to sing
Of Ethiopia’s glory.
(Primary Source: Four poems from Lyrics of Lowly Life 1896. Published originally in Dunbar, Majors and Minors Hadley &Hadley, Toledo, Ohio 1895)