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Greater than Wakanda: Adwa, Haiti and Real Stories of Unity Overcoming Oppression

The history of Africa is greater than the fiction of Hollywood. I write this in light of the current festivities surrounding the movie Black Panther. Though there is a part of me that is elated that the narrative of Africa is being told for once through a positive prism instead of being cast as the backwater of the world, I would be remiss if I did not point out that I also felt a bit of agita watching the movie last week. The fact that the first Hollywood blockbuster to portray the continent that was once my womb in a good light—using black folks in leading roles instead of stage props—chose to do so using a comic strip character as the backstory was a source of consternation for me.

In all honesty, to list the names and places of note from Africa requires me to write a book because one article is not enough to detail the history of a continent that was once called Ethiopia. For the purposes of this article, I will use two examples of breathtaking feats of defiance that shook the world and showed that oppression has a shelf-life of zero when people seek unity as their hightower. These stories are not just “African” narratives, they are stories of human resilience that should inspire all irrespective of identity, ideology or geography.

I want to lead off with the story of the Battle of Adwa because that event took place in my birth land Ethiopia. However, there was a development that took place a hundred years prior to Adwa that was even more stunning when considering the sheer audacity of the achievement. I’m referring to the Haitian insurrection of 1791 where a rag tag militia of slaves rose up and defeated one of the most powerful armies to ever walk this earth. Stories like the liberation of Haiti and the triumph of Ethiopia at Adwa are rarely mentioned; the establishment would rather have us focused on being victims than realizing that we come from victors.

Haiti was a vital thoroughfare during the height of the slave triangle. Men and women, stolen from their homes to be sold as chattel in America and beyond, initially set their feet on Haiti before being shipped off to concentration camps otherwise known as plantations. The barbarity and cruelty unleashed by colonizers on people in order to maximize profits and enrich themselves is a testament to the corrosive nature of money and power. The full scope of the slave trade horrors is something we will never truly understand nor fully be accounted for. The Atlantic Ocean is a marker of a mass Holocaust that interred the lives and hopes of untold millions; a graveyard for those who perished in the seas and grave reminder for those who survived the journey only to be sold into bondage.

This most heinous machine of trading humans for profits seemed unmovable once—a fixture that seemed permanent. It was against this backdrop that Toussaint Louverture led an insurrection against Napoleon’s army. The Russian winter is given credit for defeating Bonaparte, but in a lot of ways, the humiliating loss of France at the hands of Haitians was the first blow that reduced a seemingly impervious military to mere mortals. This is what oppressors always fear; despots who rule through brute force know their days are numbered the minute oppressed people put aside their differences and unite as one.

It was Haitian unity that forged a fierce fighting force and sent a lightening bolt right into the heart of Paris. Louverture , a man born into slavery, rose up to become a legendary leader who inspired Haitians with hope that was more powerful than the fear Napoleon used to subjugate them. Louverture was as much a thinker as he was a warrior, he realized the central immorality of concentrated power and yearned for that power to be turned over to the people. Louverture noted:

“We are free today because we are the stronger; we will be slaves again when the government becomes the stronger.” ~ Toussaint Louverture

A century later, a people 12,000 miles away would pick up the mantle of netsanet (freedom) and defeated would be colonizers by punching bullies with bigger guns in the nose with a fist called unity. After European powers sat down at the Berlin Conference and divided the continent among themselves, the entirety of Africa save one speck of land was colonized by monstrous men who saw human life as assets on their balance sheets. The one speck of land that was not colonized was the Axum empire which we now call Ethiopia.

Where Ethiopians were living in freedom, Italy saw an opportunity. Desperate to join the colonial club and find validation by enslaving people, Italy invaded Ethiopia with the mendacity of Caesar in their heart. They came chanting “veni vidi vici” only to be met with the embi (no) of Ethiopian jegnoch (heroes). My forefathers did not negotiate with colonizers, they sent them packing back north. The Italians had more sophisticated guns and military tactics, but ten thousand dark souls fell at the right hand of Ethiopia the minute invaders encountered the heart of unbowed warriors.

The Battle of Adwa was a watershed event not only in the history of Africa but for the direction of Europe and America. Once again, unity became the catalyst for overcoming tyranny. On March 1st, 1896, an Ethiopian army comprised of countless tribes and multiple ethnicities consolidated as one force to shield their nation from the fires of Italian colonization. Life can be poetic; Adwa is the name of an inactive volcano in Northern Ethiopia. At the Battle of Adwa, a volcano erupted and consumed a would be occupation force with the might of King David. The lions of Judah kindly refused the Italian offer as Queen Tiatu and King Menelik II led an army united under a clean sendek alema (flag) to repel uninvited guests.

Ethiopia became a clarion call for oppressed people throughout the world, Adwa became the North Star for those who felt the boot of tyranny on their backs. The sons and daughters of former slaves were the first to understand the significance of the Battle of Adwa and the value of what Ethiopians accomplished in defending their freedoms. Ethiopia gave hope to the decedents of the African diaspora who endured the legacy of the slave trades. Intellectual giants like Marcus Garvey, Carter G. Woodson and Langston Hughes were inspired by Adwa and passed the significance of Ethiopia’s accomplishment to African-Americans and maltreated people throughout the world.

On the left are African-Americans volunteering to defend Ethiopia, on the right is Colonel John C. Robinson (Brown Condor) who died for Ethiopia.

It was for this reason that African-Americans lined up by the thousands during the 1930’s to volunteer to defend Ethiopia when Italy decided to avenge Adwa by unleashing a chemical genocide against my grandparent’s generation. The world ignored the horrors of mustard gas being unleashed on citizens as hundreds of thousands perished under the bombs and bullets of depraved fascists. Injustice ignored becomes injustice that takes from all, the same fires that came for Ethiopia boomeranged and landed as an inferno at the doors of Europe. Where the world ignored the plight of Ethiopia, those who had the heart of Louverture answered the call and traveled to Ethiopia to join a new generation of jegnoch in taking on Mussolini’s army.

The past is prologue to the future, the few who oppress billions and purvey suffering throughout the planet without fear of repercussions would do well to remember Haiti and Adwa (watch the Adwa Ghion Cast below). People will only take so much before they push back; injustice is kerosene that sparks into a fire when mass frustration meets a unifying moment. This is why the status quo invests billions is pushing divisive stories and empowering demagogues who propagate separable grievances. They are trying to bury the legacies of freedom under the ashes of despondence. Truth endures, the legacies of a free people are greater than the fortunes of aristocrats.

The stories of Haiti and Adwa are stories that are rarely told by an educational system that indoctrinates us and by a punditry class that would rather have us view ourselves as being insufficient. It is for this reason that I see the Black Panther as just entertainment and nothing more. If I want inspiration, I’ll read about real life heroes who stood against oppression and fought for their freedoms. Louverture, Atse Tewodros II, Taitu and Menelik are examples that we are greater than Wakanda. Our ancestors are reminders that no matter how immovable injustice seems, a people united by hope can obliterate the might of oppressors. #WeAreAdwa Click To Tweet

“It is not a liberty of circumstance, conceded to us alone, that we wish; it is the adoption absolute of the principle that no man, born red, black or white, can be the property of his fellow man.” ~ Toussaint Louverture

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Lij Teodrose Fikremariam
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Lij Teodrose Fikremariam

Lij Teodrose Fikremariam is the co-founder and former editor of the Ghion Journal. He is currently the chair of Ethiopians for Constitutional Monarchy. A published author and prolific writer, a once defense consultant was profoundly changed by a two year journey of hardship and struggle. Going from a life of upper-middle class privilege to a time spent with the huddled masses taught Teodrose a valuable lesson in the essence of togetherness and the need to speak against injustice.

Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.
Lij Teodrose Fikremariam
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