I must admit that I knew very little about the life of Haile Selassie before I wrote my children's book, The Big Buna Bash. My book, a story about an Ethiopian/American girl, needed an endorsement that would bring credibility to the Ethiopian community. I was very blessed to connect with HIH Joel David Makonnen Haile Selassie, the great-grandson of the last Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie! Joel was kind enough to write a sweet, sensitive endorsement for The Big Buna Bash, which can be found on the back cover. And ever since, I can't learn enough about this defining figure in history who ruled Ethiopia from 1930-1974.
So who was this man who led the social, economic, and political advancement of Ethiopia, established the Organization of African Unity, and became known as a prophet and messiah of the Rastafarian religious movement?
Haile Selassie was born Lij Tafari Makonnen on July 23, 1892 in Ejersa Goro, Ethiopia. He was a member of the Solomonic dynasty who traced his lineage back to Emperor Menelik I. His father, Makonnen Wolde-Mikael Gudessa was a general in the Ethiopian army, govenor of the Harar province. and a cousin of Emperor Menelik II. His mother, Yeshimebet Mikael, died when Selassie was 18 months old, giving birth to one of his siblings.
Tafari, as he was known in his early years, was educated at home by French missionaries. Before long, his father began to recognize his son's abilities. At age 13, he made him commander of the Ethiopian local militia. Then a year later, when his father passed away, he was entrusted to the care of Menelik II who made him governor of the province of Sidamo .
In 1911, Selassie married Menen Asfaw and bore six children. He already had a daughter, Princess Romanework, from a previous relationship.
In 1916 he was crowned Prince, Regent, and heir to the throne. Haile Selassie worked to modernize Ethiopia following the course of Menelik II . In 1923 he promised an end to slavery (although it continued for a few more years), thus allowing Ethiopia to become a charter member of the League of Nations. He toured the Middle East and Europe on diplomatic missions and was the first Ethiopian leader to travel beyond the borders of Ethiopia.
In 1928 Selassie was proclaimed "King of Kings" or 'Emperor'. Finally in 1930, Selassie was crowned Emperor of the Empire of Ethiopia. He was Time Magazine's 'Man of the Year' in 1935.
As Emperor, Selassie introduced the country's first printed constitution, the first step towards democracy and making provisions for the re-Africanization of Ethiopia. Three years later, Italian forces invaded Ethiopia under orders of Mussolini. Selassie mobilized an army. The battle lasted several months and the Ethiopian army suffered heavy losses. The Italian forces took Addis Ababa in 1936 and Mussolini declared that Ethiopia was an Italian province.
Selassie and his family spent the occupation in exile in England, where he wrote his memoirs. He turned to the international community and United Nations for assistance and with the beginning of WW II, got British assistance in forming an army of Ethiopian exiles in the Sudan.
In 1941, British and Ethiopian forces invaded Ethiopia, recaptured Addis Ababa, and defeated the Italian occupiers. Haile Selassie regained his throne! On May 5th, 1941, Haile Selassie entered Addis Ababa and personally spoke to the Ethiopian people.
“It is good that you are here to record this picture of me in my palace garden at Addis Ababa. People who see this throughout the world will realize that even in the 20th century, with faith, courage and a just cause, David will still beat Goliath.”
Over the next two decades, Selassie attempted to reform Ethiopia's governmental structure by introducing taxation on church properties, abolishing slavery, and resolving ethnic conflicts.
It was Selassie's 1963 speech to the United Nations that inspired Bob Marley's hit song "War".
"On the question of racial discrimination, the Addis Ababa Conference taught, to those who will learn, this further lesson:that until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned;
that until there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation;
that until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes;
that until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race;
that until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained.
In 1974, a military branch called the Derg, staged a coup against Selassie, then in his 80's. They sent him to house arrest while members of his family were imprisioned and many of his former government officials executed.
On August 27, 1975, at the age of 83, Haile Selassie died in his own palace. The official story is that he died of respiratory failure, but in the 1990s an Ethiopian court announced that he had been strangled in his bed by members of the coup. The Derg was overthrown in 1991, and a year later, Selassie's bones were found under a slab in the Imperial Palace. 25 years after his death, Selassie was given a full state funeral and buried in Holy Trinity Cathedral.
In my next post, I'll discuss the fascinating story of the Rastafarian Movement.
I had so much fun writing The Big Buna Bash, and I want to share it to inspire cultural pride in kids who might feel like they don't fit in because of their differences. I believe in diversity and inclusion; that's why I wrote The Big Buna Bash!