Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson both used an image of an Ethiopian in poems written in the 1860s. Dickinson locates "The Ethiop within," while Whitman's "Ethiopia" is the name given to an old black slave woman in the South who salutes the American flag as General Sherman's troops march by, while she wears on her own head a turban sporting the colors of Ethiopia's flag.

First, Dickinson's poem:


More Life--went out--when He went
Than Ordinary Breath--
Lit with a finer Phosphor--
Requiring in the Quench--

A Power of Renowned Cold,
The Climate of the Grave
A Temperature just adequate
So Anthracite, to live--

For some--an Ampler Zero--
A Frost more needle keen
Is necessary, to reduce
The Ethiop within.

Others--extinguish easier--
A Gnat's minutest Fan
Sufficient to obliterate
A Tract of Citizen--

Whose Peat lift--amply vivid--
Ignores the solemn News
That Popocatapel exists--
Or Etna's Scarlets, Choose--

(c. 1862)

Now, Whitman's poem:

Ethiopia Saluting the Colors

Who are you dusky woman, so ancient hardly human,
With your woolly-white and turban'd head, and bare bony feet?
Why rising by the roadside here, do you the colors greet?

('Tis while our army lines Carolina's sands and pines,
Forth from thy hovel door thou Ethiopia com'st to me,
As under doughty Sherman I march toward the sea.)

Me master years a hundred since from my parents sunder'd,
A little child, they caught me as the savage beast is caught,
Then hither me across the sea the cruel slaver brought.

No further does she say, but lingering all the day,
Her high-borne turban'd head she wags, and rolls her darkling eye,
And courtesies to the regiments, the guidons moving by.

What is it fateful woman, so blear, hardly human?
Why wag your head with turban bound, yellow, red and green?
Are the things so strange and marvelous you see or have seen? 

Why do Whitman and Dickinson focus on Ethiopia? And how is the name associated with slavery in the United States? Ethiopia is the name, of course, of an African country, but no American slaves came from Ethiopia (where the thriving slave trade was directed instead toward the Middle East, supplying Arabian countries with slaves).

"Ethiopians," though, or the more common shortened form of the name ("Ethiops"), had in the Western world by the mid-nineteenth century become synonymous with "Africans." The German comparative anatomist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach had, around the turn of the nineteenth century, divided humankind into five families--white, yellow, brown, black, and red--and named the black family Ethiopian. Blumenbach's nomenclature became generally accepted in studies of race, so, even in an 1864 travel book by a white anthropologist about his journey to West Africa, the author uses the term "Ethiopic character" to describe the traits of the natives of Sierra Leone. At least one widely reprinted mid-nineteenth-century map of Africa labeled the entire continent "Ethiopia," emblazoning the name from east coast to west, and calling the Southern Atlantic the "Ethiopic Ocean."

If Whitman's title were "An Ethiop Saluting the Colors," then, we could hear the reference simply as a common appellation for any black: "Ethiopia" derives from the Greek for "burnt faces," and the term has been used since classical times to refer to blacks. Whitman, early in his career, used the term in just such reductive and stereotypical ways, as when in 1851 he admired William Sidney Mount's painting "of a Long Island negro" who had "a character of Americanism," but went on to object to "the exemplifying of our national attributes with Ethiopian minstrelsy," as if to suggest that Mount's admirable American figure would somehow have been more effective stripped of its deceptive blackface (Whitman in the 1840s had been fond of a group of blackface singers called the "Ethiopian Serenaders"). So, if Whitman had chosen to title his poem "An Ethiop Saluting the Colors," he would simply have been representing an expected racist term for the slave woman: it would have made sense that one of Sherman's soldiers--all 62,000 of them were white--would have dismissed the old woman as an "Ethiop."

But Whitman instead insists on the nation's name. One critic assumes that "Ethiopia" is actually the slave woman's name and that the name is also a generic one that "applied to Negroes of the Southern United States in the nineteenth century." But there is no evidence that the country name (as opposed to "Ethiop" or "Ethiopian") was generally used this way. In fact, Whitman's choice of the country's name suggests far more than a generic racial term. By the mid-1850s Whitman, given his fascination with Egyptology, knew something about the history of Ethiopian culture, which was often portrayed as the seedbed of Egyptian culture. From Dr. Henry Abbott, proprietor of New York's Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (which Whitman visited often in the year or two before the first edition of Leaves of Grass was published), he learned of ancient Persians "finding monuments . . . with inscriptions and astronomical signs upon them" in Ethiopia (NUPM 1:138), and he found that "some antiquaries think the pyramids of Ethiopia the most ancient artificial structures now on the face of the globe": the country seemed to contain the dim origins of civilization itself. In his 1856 "Broad-Axe Poem," Whitman descends through a layering of cultures, down through the Greeks, Hebrews, Persians, Goths, Kelts, arriving finally at the bedrock: "before any of those the venerable and harmless men of Ethiopia" (LGC 184). In "Poem of Salutation," Ethiopia is one of the ancient fertile places Whitman imagines himself traveling to: "I see the highlands of Abyssinia, . . ./ And see fields of teff-wheat and places of verdure and gold" (LGC 143). Up to the final year of his life, Whitman was still evoking Ethiopia as the home of the "ancient song, . . . the elder ballads, . . . Ever so far back, preluding thee, America, / Old chants, Egyptian priests, and those of Ethiopia" (LGC 547); Ethiopia here furnishes the first entry in the catalog of human song that evolved into America.Whitman thus associates Ethiopia more with its Biblical heritage, and he would have been aware of Frederick Douglass's stirring evocation--at the end of his 1852 speech "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?"--of Psalm 68:31: "There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. . . . Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. 'Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.'" Here Ethiopia is again representative of all of black Africa and is appropriated by Douglass as a positive and spiritually charged appellation.

In "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors," then, the current displaced and degraded embodiment of Ethiopia--wearing Ethiopia's traditional flag colors (yellow, red, green) on her "high-borne turban'd head"--stands amazed and awed before a new mystery: an American flag that purports to liberate her from a long history of enslavement. Her head is not only borne high in pride for an ancient history she still contains, wears, and pays obeisance to, but Whitman's pun allows us to hear her as "high-born," born into a rich cultural tradition that those who see her in her current "hovel" with her "bare bony feet" cannot fathom. Ethiopia, in fact, is the only ancient state in Africa, the only nation that managed, as Sven Rubenson points out, to preserve "its independence throughout the era of European colonization," the one African country that never succumbed to European domination.

This rich past could no longer easily be imagined, because by the time of the American Civil War, Ethiopia was for most Americans a forgotten country, identified by those who knew of it at all as an ancient civilization that had declined over the centuries into a mysterious country of warring tribes. In the eighteenth century, Abyssinia (as Europeans and Americans usually referred to the country) was still the stuff of romantic legend: Samuel Johnson's History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia was published in 1759, and James Bruce's famous Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile appeared in 1790 (and inspired Coleridge's image of "an Abyssinian maid" who "on her dulcimer . . . played" in his 1816 poem "Kubla Khan"). Whitman's own mid-1850s notes suggest how distant this romantic Ethiopia had become: "Ethiopians," he notes, come from "a country doubtless of hot-breathed airs and exhalations cities, ignorance, altogether unenlightened and unexplored" (NUPM 1972).

Whitman's pre-Civil War composite impression of Ethiopians, then, was of an ancient and accomplished people, the originators of civilization, who were now inscrutable and unenlightened, but still fine physical specimens. This ambivalent impression is captured in "Ethiopia Saluting" by the soldier/narrator's characterization of the slave woman as "so ancient hardly human"; the soldier senses something both ancient (as opposed to "primitive") and noble (her "high-borne turban'd head") about her at the same time that he perceives her to be savage (her "bare bony feet"), animal-like (her "woolly-white" hair, the way she "wags" her head, the way she was caught "as the savage beast is caught"), and unknowable (she is seen as a "fateful woman" who provokes unanswerable questions about "strange and marvelous" things). The soldier's portrayal, in fact, is filled with blurring terminology-the woman is "dusky" and "blear," always just out of focus.

And in American newspapers in 1867 and 1868, Ethiopia was very much a dusky and blear country, but one that happened to be, for the first time, on the front page. An international incident had been brewing in Ethiopia since early in 1864 when the Ethiopian emperor imprisoned the British consul, in part because Queen Victoria had insulted him by neglecting to answer his letter to her asking for an Ethiopian embassy in London.

The significant background is this: in 1855, a few months before Leaves of Grass appeared, a major event had taken place in Ethiopia, one that would remain obscure to Americans for many years: Kasa, a well-educated Christian patriot who was almost exactly Whitman's age, culminated a long military campaign and was crowned "king of kings," the emperor of Ethiopia. Taking the name of Tewodros II (hearkening back to a legendary fifteenth-century emperor) and known in Europe as Theodore or Theodorus, he began a remarkable reign that would last more than a decade. A kind of Lincoln figure for Ethiopia, Tewodros worked to end a long civil war in his country, reunify it, abolish the slave trade, and usher the nation into the modern age. To help accomplish the latter objective, he approached Queen Victoria with a request to set up diplomatic relations with Britain. Victoria's failure to respond to Tewodros's letter led to his seizing of the British consul in Ethiopia. In a scenario not unlike some that have occurred more recently in United States history, Tewodros denied that he was holding the consul and staff hostage, claiming instead that they were his guests of state, but that they were not free to leave. These guests were held in chains, and Victoria eventually sent another emissary to negotiate their release. After an apparently successful negotiation, Tewodros summarily imprisoned the second group along with the first just as they were ready to leave Ethiopia in the spring of 1866. During the summer that Whitman was writing his "Ethiopia" poem, Britain decided to send a military expedition to Ethiopia to secure the release of the hostages. Regular reports of this expedition filled America's newspapers right up through the successful assault on the emperor's stronghold of Magdala, which resulted in the rescue of the hostages and the suicide of Tewodros, who shot himself with a pistol given to him by Victoria (and whose young son was taken to England to be educated at Rugby). Tewodros was almost immediately transformed into a legendary hero in Ethiopia, the subject of ballads still heard today, and Ethiopia returned to years of civil war and anarchy.

But it was during the summer of 1867, when Britain began its military incursion into Ethiopia, that the country first came to the attention of Americans, and Tewodros became a figure of international interest, a young and well-educated black African leader who had unified a country torn by civil war and who had taken steps to end slavery in his country. In the United States, the comparison to Lincoln was inevitable. Before 1867, Ethiopia was an unknown land: when the American Annual Cyclopaedia for 1866 opens with a discussion of the Ethiopian situation, it begins by noting "our little acquaintance with this country," and in the 1868 volume notes that "The difficulty between England and King Theodore of Abyssinia, during the past three years, directed the special attention of the civilized world . . . to the affairs of this country." By 1870, the country was quickly fading from the world's attention and memory: Ethiopia has "relapsed into entire obscurity," the American Cyclopaedia noted that year, "neither its relations to foreign countries nor its internal condition attracting the least attention" (American Cyclopaedia, 1870, 1). Ethiopia would in 1868 be forced to salute some foreign colors--the Union Jack--but in 1867 Tewodros responded to the British threat with self-assurance and firm resistance ("Let them come," he said in May 1867; "By the power of God I will meet them, and you may call me a woman if I do not beat them" [American Cyclopaedia 1867, 2]). In Whitman's poem, then, the slave woman's ancient pride in her country-her sartorial salute to Ethiopia's colors-is appropriate and would have made a good deal of sense at the time. Ethiopia-the real country and the degraded embodiment of the rich heritage that the country represented-was emerging from a long period of degradation and gaining some dignity, respect, and freedom.

And the news from Ethiopia in 1867 and 1868 played into the domestic news in America--Tewodros's charismatic leadership and his tough talk to mighty Britain hardly fit the racialist stereotype of the docile black that was so often being described in the Congressional debates on Reconstruction that Whitman spent his evenings listening to.

It would be easy to dismiss Dickinson's use of the term "Ethiop" in her poem as simply a term of exotic otherness, a shorthand for a black person.  Such usage has a long history in English: Shakespeare used the term in just such a generic way; Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing [V.iv] avows that he will marry a woman he has never seen, even "were she an Ethiop"; see also Midsummer Night's Dream III.ii, and As You Like It, IV, iii. The OED cites fourteenth- and fifteenth-century uses of "Ethiop" as a generic term for "a person with a black skin." The eighteenth-century black American poet Phillis Wheatley, in her poetry, refers to herself as "an Ethiop" (see John C. Shields, ed., Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley [New York: Oxford UP, 1988], 16).  By the time of the Civil War, "Ethiopia" is commonly used to refer to Africans.  George Templeton Strong, for example, describes a regiment of black soldiers (the 20th USCT) marching in New York in March, 1864: "Ethiopia marching down Broadway, armed, drilled, truculent, and elate" (see Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds., Diary of George Templeton Strong [New York: Macmillan, 1952], 411-412). This is an interesting description, evoking the black troops as a whole country or continent overtaking New York, and it relates to Whitman's own descriptions of armed blacks in Washington. Another case is Sarah E. Shuften's 1865 poem, "Ethiopia's Dead," which appeared in Colored American; the poem is a tribute to fallen black Union soldiers: "Each valley, where the battle poured / It's purple swelling tide, / Beheld brave Ethiopia's sword / With slaughter deeply dyed" (Paula Bernat Bennett, ed., Nineteenth-Century American Women Poets [Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998], 443).  Other poets in the nineteenth-century used the image of Ethiopia in related ways.  Read some representative examples here.

Parts of the commentary in this site are adapted from Ed Folsom, "Lucifer and Ethiopia: Whitman, Race, and Poetics before the Civil War and After," in David Reynolds, ed., A Historical Approach to Walt Whitman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 45-95, and are used here with the permission of Oxford University Press.