Open Letter to Princeton University and Princeton University Press: Black History Matters

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Concerned scholars have written an open letter to Princeton University. We invite you to add your voice below.

OPEN LETTER TO PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: BLACK HISTORY MATTERS TOO

It is over three decades since Edward Said’s book Orientalism took as its epigraph the stark dictum, “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.” In the intervening years, Said’s work has transformed many disciplines in the humanities, but Ethiopian Studies remains dominated by an orientalist approach. At Princeton University, this manifests in scholarship where the ancient texts of Ethiopia are represented and reinterpreted by a scholar who cannot read them in their original language.

We refer here to the work of Professor Wendy Belcher in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Department for African American Studies. Professor Belcher translated and interpreted The Hagiography of Saint Woletta Petros, and is currently working on The Teamere MariamThe Kebra Nagast and other texts. However, Professor Belcher does not know Ge’ez, the language of these texts. This, alongside her deliberate disregard for local experts, has resulted in a colonial rewrite of Ethiopian spiritual history.

Professor Belcher, and her co-translator Dr Michael Kleiner, made basic errors in their translation of the hagiography of Woletta Petros and inserted words into the text that distort its meaning. Concerningly, Professor Belcher states that she consulted local experts on the meaning of a key passage in the translation but chose to ignore their explanations. Professor Belcher does not know the language of the text she is co-translating, yet she presents herself as having more authority than the black indigenous scholars who can not only read the book, but understand all the nuances and contexts in which it exists.

In her reading Professor Belcher casts Woletta Petros as a lustful, diseased nun whose visceral disgust for heterosexual sex causes her to call on God to kill her own followers. The translation reproduces stereotypes about Africa as a place of poor sanitation and disease, using western medical speculation as an explanation for the text’s references to spiritual afflictions. 

In the past, Professor Belcher has characterized Ethiopian criticism of her work as homophobic. This is a cynical strategy to erase local experts’ knowledge, relying on the racist assumption that Africans are too ignorant to accept the truth about their own history. It speaks to a real problem within academia, where colonial practices persist but are disguised through rendering Africans as antagonistic to progress. Professor Belcher does this through privilege that positions the western expert as objective, while Africans are biased.

Princeton University has a large collection of Ethiopian Ge’ez manuscripts and scrolls. These texts were written by indigenous religious scholars who wanted to pass on their spiritual beliefs, history and culture to the next generation. It is morally reprehensible to dispossess Africans of their intellectual heritage and allow their books to be interpreted by someone who cannot read them but seeks to write their history. 

Princeton’s scholarship in Western Classics, Near Eastern Studies and Asian Studies is ranked among the highest in the world, a reputation that could not be achieved without high-level language competency. Western universities have a long tradition of requiring students wishing to study the classics to first commit several years to studying the language of primary texts. By supporting and enabling Professor Belcher to publish her translation and interpretation without any knowledge of the source language, Princeton University has violated this basic principle that is set to ensure quality research.

To quote Toni Morrison, a distinguished long-term member of the Princeton faculty, “Racism is a scholarly affair.” Academic freedom must be accompanied by scholarly rigor and compliance with standard ethical processes. Professor Belcher’s failures in both these respects are laid out in detail in Dr Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes’ article "Colonial Rewriting of African History: Misinterpretations and Distortions in Belcher and Kleiner’s Life and Struggles of Walatta Petros", published in the Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture (Vol. 9 No. 2 2020). Dr Woldeyes poses critical questions that we believe Princeton University must address about the ways in which the scholarship it supports impinges on the rights of Africans to narrate their own history. 

We, the undersigned, are calling on Princeton University and Princeton University Press to: 

  • Cease support for Professor Belcher and Dr Kleiner’s translation of The Kebra Nagast.
  • Cease the forthcoming publication of the Princeton University Press title Ladder of Heaven: The Miracles of the Virgin Mary in Ethiopian Literature and Art.
  • Ensure that future scholarship at Princeton does not reproduce racist stereotypes, sexualize or racialize black identities, or distort African history. 
  • Ensure that scholars with the appropriate indigenous Ge’ez expertise lead and direct scholarship that involves accessing, translating and interpreting Ethiopian manuscripts and scrolls in Princeton’s collection. Furthermore, translated texts should be presented and subjected to rigorous peer review by Ge’ez experts in Ethiopia before they are published.

It is time for Africans to tell their own stories to the world.

Original Signatories

Ato Yikunnoamlak Mezgebu Zerabiruk
Director General
Ethiopian National Archives and Library Agency, Ethiopia

Kesis Asteraye Tsige
Prominent Ge’ez Scholar
Head of Kansas Debre Sahel Medhanialem Church, USA

Prof. Ephraim Isaac
Board Director
Institute of Semitic Studies, USA

Prof. Bessie Dendrinos
Professor Emerita
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece

Dr Tove Skutnabb-Kangas
Åbo Akademi University, Finland

Prof. Suvendrini Perera
John Curtin Distinguished Professor
Curtin University, Australia

Professor Tariq Rahman
Professor Emeritus and National Distinguished Professor
Beaconhouse National University, Pakistan

Prof. Robert Phillipson
Emeritus Professor
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark

Prof. Joseph Lo Bianco
Emeritus Professor
University of Melbourne, Australia

Prof. Baden Offord
Director, Centre for Human Rights Education
Curtin University, Australia

Prof. Phil Clark
Professor
SOAS University of London

Prof. Mohamed Daoud
Professor
University of Carthage, Tunisia

Prof. Mitsuyo Sakamoto
Professor
Sophia University, Japan

Prof. Onwubiko Agozino
Professor
Virginia Tech, USA

Prof. Joseph Pugliese
Professor
Macquarie University, Australia

Prof. Fikru Negash Gebrekidan
Professor
St Thomas University, Canada

Prof. Biniyam Tibebu
Professor
Northern Virginia Community College, USA

Dr Aberra Molla
CEO and Founder
ABSHA/ECS, USA

Dr Belhu Metaferia
CEO, One Pupil Inc
Senior Research Scientist, Federal Institute, USA

Dr Meredith Jones
Reader
Brunel University London, UK

Dr Caroline Fleay
Associate Professor
Curtin University, Australia

Dr Setargew Kenaw
Associate Professor
Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

Dr Joseph Venosa
Associate Professor
Salisbury University, USA

Dr Gabriel Guillén
Associate Professor
Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, USA

Ato Agegnehu Adane
Director, Allé School of Fine Arts & Design
Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

Dr Lisa Hartley
Senior Lecturer
Curtin University, Australia

Dr. Omid Tofighian
Adjunct Lecturer, University of New South Wales, Australia
Honorary Research Associate, University of Sydney, Australia

Dr Hiruiey Ermias
Scholar of Ge’ez Literature
Hamburg, Germany

Dr Mohammed Girma
Research Associate
University of Pretoria, South Africa

Dr Tayechalem Moges
Human Rights and Gender Equality Researcher
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Dr Mengistu Gobezie Worku
Assistant Professor
Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

Dr Tilahun Emiru
Assistant Professor
Lake Forest College, USA

Dr Yonas Ashine Demisse
Assistant Professor
Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

Dr Yohannes Gedamu
Lecturer
Georgia Gwinnett College, USA

Dr Dean Chan
Research Development Consultant
Curtin University, Australia

Dr Eyob Balcha Gebremariam
LSE Fellow
London School of Economics and Political Science, UK

Dr Theodros A. Teklu
Lecturer, Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, Ethiopia
Research Fellow, Stellenbosch University, South Africa

Dr Rebecca Higgie
Scholar & Author
Perth, Australia

Ms Yodit Negede Gedamu
Researcher & Author
Wilmington University, USA

Dr Brook Abdu
Researcher
Institute of Semitic Studies, USA

W/ro Mahlet Ayele Beyecha
Researcher
Connect Africa, Netherlands

Ato Tekletsadik Belachew Nigru
Researcher
Concordia Seminary, St. Louis MO, USA

Ato Shimeles Mekonen
Founder and Board Director
Your Ethiopian Professionals Network (YEP), USA

Dr Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes
Senior Lecturer
Curtin University, Australia