Faculty Spotlight: Wendy Belcher
Wendy Laura Belcher, assistant professor of African literature in Princeton’s Department of Comparative Literature and Center for African American Studies, travelled to Ethiopia last year on a Fulbright grant to conduct research for her forthcoming books Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author and The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros, An Ethiopian Saint and Revolutionary. While reading a seventeenth-century Portuguese manuscript about Ethiopia that Johnson had translated, Professor Belcher made an unexpected discovery—the women of the Ethiopian royal court were responsible for stopping Portuguese Jesuits' attempts to convert their people to European Christianity, making them some of the earliest anti-colonialists.
At our request, Belcher met with Princeton student Haley White '12 to answer some questions about her year.
Bring me to the moment when you were reading the text.
This was a book that had been written by Portuguese Jesuits in the seventeenth century about their efforts to convert Ethiopians from their ancient African form of Christianity to Roman Catholicism. The Jesuits were ultimately not successful and they blamed the women in the royal family. They said these Ethiopian women were diabolical. At first I thought that it was just typical male behavior, blaming women for their failure, but, as I started to read more of these Portuguese texts and read more between the lines, I began to think, "You know, I believe there is an untold story here." The Jesuits specifically had blamed the Ethiopian emperor's wife, the Ethiopian emperor's mother, the Ethiopian emperor's eldest daughter, his nieces, all of these women who were in the immediate family of the emperor. I began to wonder if it wasn’t true that Ethiopian royal women were responsible for the failure of the Jesuits in Ethiopia.
Where you ever able to find out what the women had done?
The interesting thing is, around this time, I was talking with an Ethiopian priest. He said that the story about royal Ethiopian women who had refused to convert to European Christianity and who had led their nation in refusing to convert, was not only a tale told in the European texts. These women had become saints in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and there were actually books about them in Ge’ez, called gadla, or hagiographies, which are biographies of saints.
What did you learn about the women from the hagiographies?
What was so striking to me about the saintly women who appeared in these Ethiopian texts was that they were an early model of nonviolent resistance to European colonialism. These women didn't take up arms. They didn’t kill anyone. They resisted rhetorically. They preached in the streets, telling other people not to convert. When they were hauled up in front of the emperor for treason, they often they didn’t defend themselves at all. And if they did, they said, "I believe what I am doing is right." They are an early Ethiopian model of nonviolent resistance to power.
Now you said that these women refused to convert to Catholicism because they wanted to maintain their own church. For how long has Ethiopia had Christianity?
Ethiopian Christianity is one of the oldest forms of Christianity in the world. Ethiopia converted long before Europe, in the fourth century. Some people say it's the first kingdom or the first nation to have converted.
What do you plan to do next in your study of these women?
I've been working with Michael Kleiner, a leading scholar and translator of Ge'ez, on translating one of the hagiographies, a book about a woman name Walatta Petros who was the wife of the emperor's leading adviser. It is quite a wonderful, long book about her life. I think I would call it the first known written biography of an African woman, written in 1672. It's really an amazing, lively story, all about her life, her friendships with other women, how she grew up, her preaching and the communities she set up.
Do you plan to teach a class on your research about these women?
I plan to teach this book in a class on early African literature.
These aren't the only women you have been studying of late. Would you mind telling me about your course Model Memoirs: The Life Stories of International Fashion Models?
I have a long-term interest in biographies about and autobiographies by African women. My course Model Memoirs allows me to teach three such memoirs--by the Sudanese Alek Wek, the Somali Waris Dirie, and the Somali Iman, plus another by an indigenous Russian woman Irina Pantaeva. This class is a way of talking about gender and race in the media as well as the commodification of different kinds of bodies.
How did you become interested in the literature and history of Ethiopia?
I grew up in Ghana and Ethiopia, and those early experiences really shaped me as a scholar. In Gondar, Ethiopia, I lived near monasteries that contained 1000 years of African literature. In Ghana, I knew families whose members had written dissertations in eighteenth century Germany and taught Immanuel Kant. When I came back to the United States when I was 14, I saw that people thought of Africa as this wasteland. So I started off on a career of talking about what was so intellectually exciting about Africa. I began as a journalist. Unfortunately, my editors were not interested in the kind of stories I was interested in writing, stories about intellectuals and arts and writers. So I decided I needed a new way of reaching out to Americans. I pursued a doctorate and became a professor.
How has the Center for African American Studies community impacted your research?
I’m so grateful to be a part of the CAAS community, both the faculty and the students. I’ve learned so much from my colleagues, who are endlessly stimulating, and enjoyed my students, who are eager to engage with the world.