African-American Participation in the Italo-Ethiopian War: Blog Post 3 (Memoirs)

Over the past week, I’ve discovered a not-so-surprising fact about library research: is it is very easy to get sidetracked. Remember how I said that my next blog post would be summing up African-American reactions to the war? Well, before I began  to compile my notes on African-American reactions into a cohesive blog post, I decided to check the secondary source accounts against memoirs of individuals who were in Ethiopia at the time of the war. My goal in doing so was to evaluate how the efforts of African-Americans actually affected life during the war, as seen through the eyes of individuals on the ground. Unfortunately, my selection of sources available was not great, and I ended up just consulting three memoirs for this stage of the research: the two-volume memoirs of Emperor Haile Selassie I, the recollections of John H. Spenser, an American lawyer who served as an advisor to the Ethiopian emperor until the 1970s, and the somewhat unreliable memoir of Wynant Hubbard, a rather racist American war correspondent who remained in Ethiopia for some of the crisis.

One of the biggest problems for me in creating this blog post on memoirs of the war—which also serves as a sneak peak of the paper I am going to write detailing my findings at the end of the summer—is deciding which memoirs I was going to include in this section and why. There are not a plethora of memoirs written about the Italo-Ethiopian War in the first place, and given that many of Haile Selassie’s advisors and all but one of the correspondents sent to cover the war from the American presses were white, it is especially difficult to get the African-American perspective.  Originally, I had chosen to exclude the 1965 biography of the aviator Hubert Julian, which was mainly constructed from his memories, from this list because many of the secondary sources I have consulted expressed doubt about its reliability. However, given my decision to include the memoir of Wynant Hubbard, I find it only fair to include Julian’s biography as well. It is out of print, but I am currently working on acquiring a copy through the Swem ILL.

There are two memoirs that I consulted that I decided to not include in this blog post and this section of my paper, simply because they will be used later in my summary of African-American reactions to the war. The first of these is the short memoir of Malaku Bayen, a cousin of Haile Selassie’s who was educated in the United States and received his medical degree from Howard University, which was a center of black intellectual life. When it came to advocating for African-American support during the war, Bayen was by far the most prominent Ethiopian in America; his role as an Ethiopian national rallying for support in America can be seen as a reverse of the role of Col. John Robinson, the black American pilot who contributed his aviation skills during the war and later moved to Ethiopia (Bekerie). Bayen founded one of the more prominent aid-for-Ethiopia organizations, the Ethiopian World Foundation (EWF), in 1937, and also served as an editor for its weekly publication, the Voice of Ethiopia. Furthermore, he edited The March of Black Men, a short volume that contains documents relating to the war, such as English translations of letters between the Ethiopian commanders and Haile Selassie’s address to the League of Nations at Geneva. In the beginning of this volume, Bayen also includes a short memoir of his life. However, because of the length of this volume as well as its importance in describing the development of the idea of Pan-Africanism, I have decided to use the information from this memoir in a later post. Also, because he was not in Ethiopia at the time of the war, I decided that examining his memoir would not help me determine the actual effects of African-American efforts.

The second “memoir”—if you will—that I have decided to omit from this blog post is actually a pamphlet published by Joel Rogers, a Pittsburgh Courier reporter who was the only African-American correspondent in Ethiopia. As opposed to publishing a full memoir of his experiences in Ethiopia as a correspondent, as Hubbard did, Rogers simply published a short pamphlet designed to clear up any misconceptions that Americans had about Ethiopians, entitled “The Real Facts About Ethiopia.” Because Rogers’ pamphlet does not include an account of his personal experiences, I decided to refer to it in later posts instead.

Doing research with memoirs has helped me hone a few valuable skills involved with working with primary sources. First of all, the usefulness of a memoir is limited by the reliability and truthfulness of its writer, and some memoirs are definitely more reliable than others. I experienced this first hand with the memoir of Wynant Hubbard; as I discuss below, his account—which is not used by many historians of the event precisely because of the problems I have mentioned—contains numerous factual errors. Even worse, he makes admission of faking news items and photographs, which, given the fact that he wrote the memoir during the war, leads one to wonder if all of his experiences were fabricated in the name of selling his book. In addition to checking correspondence to the historical record, there is a second, very useful way of gauging the reliability of a historical memoir: whether or not the individual supplemented their recollections with background research and other historical documents. The memoir of John Spencer, which contains meticulous footnotes and references to numerous sources, served as an example of what I would definitely call a reliable memoir.

A second method of evaluating memoirs for their accuracy is checking their timeliness: whether they were written immediately after the event, or whether they were written later. When memoirs are written several years in retrospect, their accuracy often diminishes greatly: the authors tend to forget important details, or obscure or hide certain actions or beliefs that they held in light of future events.  The four books that I looked at–Hubbard’s memoir, Spenser’s memoir, and the two volumes of Haile Selassie’s memoir–differed greatly in their timeliness. Hubbard’s memoir, published in 1936, was one I regarded as an extremely timely work, containing his immediate thoughts and reactions. Spenser’s memoir was a bit more problematic in timeliness: it was written and published in 1984, a fact I found quite understandable given its scope (it covers events up to 1974). However, the lateness of writing could potentially lead to mistakes in details; I do not think Spenser would honestly lead the reader astray in his very thorough analysis of Ethiopia’s foreign policy, but I do wonder how accurate all his details are. The memoirs of Haile Selassie differ greatly chronologically: Volume 1 was written immediately after his exile in 1936-9 and published in the 1960s, while Volume 2 was written in 1972 and published after his removal from power and death in 1975.

A final note about memoirs involves their biases and tone. Nearly everybody wants history to turn a kind eye on their doings, and few people are as honest and upfront in their memoirs as they would be in a diary or journal that is not meant for publication. In some of the memoirs I have examined, I feel this is not the case: for example, Wynant Hubbard is quite upfront in his racist tirades, his admissions of falsifying stories, and his admittance that there were no true news stories to be garnered from Ethiopia. He makes no attempt to present himself in a positive light whatsoever. However, in the case of the memoirs of Haile Selassie, I wonder if there is some self-projection as emperor that may have led to his memoirs being biased in his favor. I have not conducted detailed research into the accuracy of all the events that he retells, but based on all accounts of his sense of decorum and dignity—from Hubbard, Spenser, all of the secondary sources I have read so far and all of the newspaper accounts I have consulted—I have no doubt that he would have ensured that his memoir reflected favorably on him.

The last problem I discovered with the consulting of memoirs is the problems of language. Haile Selassie at the time was fluent only in Amharic and French, and composed both volumes of his memoirs in Amharic. I don’t speak or read a word of Amharic, so I can’t really attest to this, but according to the translators’ notes in both volumes it is an extremely complex language that is difficult to render gracefully into English while still maintaining the original form of the languages. Consequently, Haile Selassie’s memoirs presented the challenge of having to dissect and analyze rather unusual sentences. Furthermore, as the translators/editors also explained, the Emperor wrote about himself using the royal “We” construct, which makes for a very interesting reading experience indeed.


And now as a reward for making it through all that, here’s a sneak peak of the paper I am constructing about my project:

In Fiasco in Ethiopia, his highly insensitive and sensational memoir, the white American war correspondent Wynant Hubbard demonstrates the prejudices of his time. Describing his previous travels in Southern Africa, Hubbard illustrates the colonialist perspective of the “Dark Continent” myth, describing the wonders of Victoria Falls, big game hunts, and most ignorantly, the “terrible mutilating practices of fanatical native tribes” (11). In addition to revealing himself as a vehement racist with comments such as “We whites might believe with all our hearts in our racial supremacy” (109), Hubbard is also an unreliable narrator; his assertion that Haile Selassie spoke English is contradicted in John Spenser’s well-researched and far more reliable memoir, and he undermines his journalistic integrity with admissions of falsifying stories and photographs. Nevertheless, Hubbard does provide a first-hand account of events of the war, race relations with Ethiopians, and especially first-hand interactions with the two African-Americans who reached Ethiopia that deserve closer examination.

Although Hubbard saw little action while stationed in Ethiopia–hence the journalistic “fiasco” he refers to in his self-absorbed title–he provides an insight on the frequency and outcome of skirmishes along the border with Italian Somaliland. Describing an Ethiopian victory dating to before the Italian invasion of October 3rd, he explains “that sort of scrap was taking place all the time along the border ever since the Italians began massing troops and making exploratory expeditions” (104). His account of this skirmish, which he decides to censor from his news reports in fear of “[stirring] up unnecessary trouble if it was printed” (104) demonstrates how the mainstream press ignored incidents that could have led to stricter sanctions against Italy or greater moral support for the Ethiopians. Furthermore, Hubbard simplifies and glosses over the complexities of Ethiopian racial formation. In the beginning of his exceedingly racist account, Hubbard identifies the Ethiopians as Africans, describing them as a “dark skinned people” (3) and, in a statement laced with bigotry, deriding their “half-Negro mentality” (13). Towards the end of his lengthy account, as he begins to highlight notable Ethiopians in increasingly kind terms, he changes this approach, insisting that despite sharing similarities with African and American blacks, “It is true that Ethiopians are not Negroes” (359). Hubbard does not identify his racial classification of Ethiopians, but his account of their reaction to whites–he broadly asserts “Ethiopians had been reared in the tradition of hostilities towards whites” (42)–directly conflicts with the accounts of Brice Harris and the contemporary white newspapers, which claimed that Haile Selassie and the ruling Amhara tribe considered themselves Caucasian. (Harris 41).

Interestingly, Hubbard’s racism does not seem to infiltrate his accounts of his interactions in Addis Ababa with John C. Robinson and Hubert Julian. He does not go into detail about the race of either man, simply describing Robinson as “the negro flyer from America” (238). Although his assessment of the “notorious” (311) Julian is not complementary, it is consistent with contemporary reports of his character from both white and African-American sources. Furthermore, he describes Robinson quite positively, noting, “He is a quiet, capable man, modest to a degree and reluctant to talk about himself” (311). Hubbard’s account of Robinson’s actions indicate that the pilot exerted every effort possible to help the Ethiopians. While the journalist blasts accounts that Robinson had shot down an Italian pilot in a dogfight as false, he blames Robinson’s failure to help concretely on the pitifulness of the planes provided, explaining, “The Ethiopians could not claim a single modern ship” (239). Furthermore, Hubbard recalls that upon the arrival of an airship from France, “Robinson’s one thought was to get an American plane out to Addis and to show the Emperor what a real modern ship could do” (310), demonstrating his drive to help the struggling army. Despite Hubbard’s warm feelings towards Robinson, however, he does not mention any accomplishments, indicating that the actual role of the aviator in the conflict was indeed minimal.  Furthermore, while he describes many of his fellow correspondents in detail, he makes no mention of Joel Rogers, the only African-American correspondent stationed in Ethiopia.


Meanwhile, the memoirs of John H. Spenser, an American international lawyer and trusted advisor of Haile Selassie for forty years, only mention African-American participation in the crisis in passing. Without offering commentary, Spenser cites a 1942 memo approved by Sec.  of State Cordell Hull stating that Lend-Lease assistance would demonstrate “‘in a concrete way the interest of the United States in the stake which Negroes have in this war” (103-4). Spenser’s neglect to mention African-American aid–in the form of military, financial or supplies–during the war demonstrates the movement’s failure to affect the outcome of the war as well as his preoccupation with diplomatic measures. Likewise, in Volume 1 of his memoir My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress, which details his life from 1892-1936 and was written during the early years of his exile in 1936-37, Haile Selassie does not mention African Americans at all. He explains while Britain, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands and Egypt gave a wide range of medical aid including doctors, medicine and equipment such as ambulances, America only gave “considerable” help in the forms of money and medicine (Pg 211) Furthermore, he does not attach importance to the role of Dr. Malaku Bayen, mentioning him only in passing as his personal physician (pg 271).

However, in the second volume of his autobiography, written far later in 1972, the emperor highlights the role of African-Americans in the conflict, explaining “We cannot afford passing without mentioning the substantial support and political agitation which millions of Americans, particularly black Americans, have made” (Pg 27). Haile Selassie goes on to specifically mention the Organization for African Unity (UAE) and the Ethiopia World Foundation (EWF)’s Voice of Ethiopia weekly, even reprinting letters written by UAE officials to notaries such as President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Baldwin, and the Archbishop of Canterbury urging them to publicly denounce Italy (29-31).The emperor’s knowledge of African-American aid activities is further demonstrated with his description of his mourning for Bayen, who died in May 1940; he asserts that Bayen “did a commendable job of mobilizing and organizing African-Americans in support of Ethiopia’s cause” (95). Furthermore, he dedicates an entire chapter to discussing the background and reprinting the text of his December 1937 Christmas address to the American people. Explaining that he suffered a fractured knee in a taxi accident on the way to the station, the emperor asserts “We refused, however, to go back before We had fulfilled Our objective” (40), indicating the importance that he placed on addressing the American people.

The emperor’s motivations in completely ignoring the actions of African-Americans in the first volume of his autobiography, yet praising them specifically in the second volume, is unclear. The answer may lie in the dates in which he composed the volumes; in 1936, when the first volume was written, African-Americans had far less political clout than in the post-Civil Rights Era, when the second volume was started. However, as the first volume ends with Haile Selassie’s address to the League of Nations in Geneva in June 1936, only a month after his retreat from Ethiopia, it is probable that he was preoccupied with the logistics of warfare and therefore unaware of the extent of African-American support for Ethiopia during the time that the volume covers. Nevertheless, his neglect to mention the military contributions of Herbert Julian (he does not even speak of his mishap at the coronation) and especially John Robinson indicate the minimal role that African-Americans played in terms of combat and aid.