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Working Paper:
Blackshirts, Black Skins: Political Messianism in Fascist Italy and Colonial Jamaica during the "Ethiopian Crisis," 1935-1941

Enrico De Seta (1935). "Civilization – Look, Taitù, we are beginning to become civilized: this [baby] came white!"The purpose of this study is to explore the hybrid political, cultural, and socio-economic contexts behind the emergence of both Fascism in Italy and Rastafarianism in colonial Jamaica, and the border-crossing networks of exchange through which they developed, expanded, and, in the case of the Ras Tafarites, interacted. The Second Italo-Ethiopian War served as a converging point for the interests, hopes, and anxieties of Italians and Africans worldwide. It also launched two interwar politico-religious movements on a transoceanic collision course, sending information, ideas, and bodies into dynamic, global motion. Both Fascism and Rastafarianism, I argue, constituted two forms of interwar "political messianism" — to use J. L. Talbot's oft-quoted phrase — with significant connections, in one way or another, to the East African kingdom of Ethiopia. Both shared similar hybrid ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds; both were formulated as a response to challenging diasporic conditions, and, perhaps more importantly, marginal political and economic contexts. Lastly, both movements sought to achieve some form of cultural revitalization for themselves via the mutual medium of Selassie's Ethiopia. By seeking to purge Italy of its internal political dysfunction, cultural degeneracy, and to excise the psychological demons of previous national disasters and shames, Mussolini's regime embarked on a campaign of politico-cultural "revitalization" — or reclamation (bonificare) — within the fires of Italy's imperial conquest in East Africa. For Fascist Italy, Ethiopia symbolized both a source of collective psychological anguish and an opportunity to rise, once again, to its former glory as a Mediterranean Empire. By conquering Ethiopia, Italy hoped to draw an unequivocal distinction between itself — a "White," and therefore 'civilized' society — and the 'barbarity' of the pre-modern East African kingdom of Ethiopia. Similarly, for the Ras Tafarites in British Jamaica, Ethiopia served as the politico-spiritual vehicle through which diasporic Africans would be released from their so-called "Babylonian Captivity" and regenerated as a "people" in His Imperial Majesty's holy East African kingdom. By going "Back to Africa" at Selassie's global messianic proclamation, Rastafarians hoped to escape from the oppressive conditions of their colonial society and "revitalize" their proud heritage as Black sons and daughters of Africa. Thus, both movements featured deep, and sometimes surprising, historical roots with Ethiopia; both had, in one way or another, become intimately entwined with its destinies.

KEYWORDS: Italy, Jamaica, Fascism, Rastafarianism, Benito Mussolini, Leonard Howell, Diaspora, Nationalism, Empire, Political Messianism, Hybridity, Transnationalism, Borderlands