Haile Selassie's Birthday

Haile Selassie's Birthday

Date Observed: July 23
Location: Rastafarian communities

To African Americans and Africans of the diaspora who practice the Rastafarian religion, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, was and is considered to be Jah, "God incarnate," by followers of the Rastafarian faith. Also known by the honorific Ras Tafari, his birth date, July 23, is deemed one of the holiest days of the year for Rastafarians and a cause for great celebration.

Historical Background

Selassie was named Tafari Makonnen at his birth on August 23, 1892, in Ejarsagoro, Harar, Ethiopia. According to legend, his lineage is traceable to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Selassie was raised as a Christian in the royal court of Addis Ababa. At a young age, he was said to have demonstrated an excellent memory, a capacity for hard work, and a mastery of detail. By age 14, he had been appointed governor of Gara Maleta, a province of Harar; by age 20, he was dejazmatch (commander) of Sidamo province. In 1916, he was regent (acting ruler in the absence of the Empress) and heir to the throne of Ethiopia, going by his birth name Tafari, with the honorific "Ras."

Selassie's interests in modernizing the nation were often contrary to the conservative philosophies of Empress Zawditu during the time that they shared power. In 1923 Selassie negotiated Ethiopia's admittance to the League of Nations. In 1930, the Empress died, and he was named Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, Negusa Negast (King of Kings). In addition, he assigned himself the title "His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God."

Selassie was viewed as an autocratic leader, with an eye towards moving his nation into the modern world. He introduced a written constitution in 1931, for the first time allowing non-noble participation in official government politics. However, he also reaffirmed royal succession to his direct bloodline and maintained much actual control. In 1936 Italy invaded Ethiopia and Selassie went into exile. He sought aid, unsuccessfully, from the League of Nations. He was able to return in 1941, thanks to the resistance of his countrymen and the Allied troops. During his time away, Selassie had gained some international stature and was named Time magazine's "Man of the Year" for 1935. Selassie enjoyed the spotlight, and eager to have his nation recognized by the western world, supported Ethiopia's becoming a charter member of the United Nations.

In the years that followed his homecoming, Selassie's critics say he was more focused on his world presence than with happenings in Ethiopia; they contend that, while he spoke of change, he did little to effect it. Selassie did revise Ethiopia's constitution in time for the celebration of his coronation's Silver Jubilee in 1955. In it, as Emperor, he retained significant powers but did extend popular political participation by making the lower house of parliament an elected body. A 1960 coup attempt caused Selassie to respond with more conservative policies, which were not viewed favorably. On May 25, 1963, Selassie welcomed 32 African heads of state and government to Addis Ababa and presided over the establishment of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Selassie's welcoming address helped to set the tone that would lead to the adoption of a charter:

We seek, at this meeting, to determine whither we are going and to chart the course of our destiny. An awareness of our past is essential to the establishment of our personality and our identity as Africans. . . .Today, We name as our first great task the final liberating of those Africans still dominated by foreign exploitation and control. . . .We look to the vision of an Africa not merely free but united. . . .History teaches us unity is strength and cautions us to submerge and overcome our differences in the quest for common goals, to strive, with all our combined strength, for the path to true African brotherhood and unity.

Selassie's overall popularity among his own people came to an abrupt end. Dissatisfaction grew rapidly across the land, and even abroad, as news came to light about mass famine and other tragedies that had, up until then, been unreported. Selassie was placed under house arrest in September 1974. On August 27 of the following year, it was announced that he had died.


Rastafari is a religion, a culture, and a social movement. According to Randal L. Hepner, in the Encyclopedia of African and African-American Reli- gions, "Rastafari prefer the term livity, contending that Rastafari is a way of life informed by theocratic [divine governance] principles." Two main tenets guide Rastafari: (1) Haile Selassie I is the true and living God (Jah) and (2) for black people, salvation is only possible by freeing oneself from the white domination of the Western world (Babylon) and returning to Africa (the black Zion). Rastafarians base their way of life on biblical references, which, in their interpretation, confirms that God is black, and God - Jah - is a transcendent being and present in all beings.

There are no fixed rules or practices to the religion, although most are vegetarians and take care to respect the laws of nature (for example, eating and using natural and organic products and avoiding environmental pollution). Most avoid drinking alcohol and follow biblical injunctions against eating pork.

While there are no formal marriage rites, fidelity between couples is considered an important principle, and children are sometimes blessed by their elders in rites of passage. There are several Rastafarian organizations, such as the Ethiopian World Federation, Inc., and the Twelve Tribes of Israel, but very few Rastafarians formally affiliate with these groups. Worship ceremonies vary widely and are commonly held in people's homes. Singing and dancing, often to the accompaniment of reggae music, are part of the event. There are usually long sessions of debate or discussion (called "reasoning") and the cannabis herb, ganja , is often used to facilitate this. Contrary to common belief, Rastafarians do not smoke marijuana recreationally, only sacramentally; there are some who do not use it in their religious practices at all.

Another myth is that all Rastafarians wear dreadlocks; only the one group that abides by the biblical injunction that men should not cut their hair follow this fashion. Rastafarians are noted for often wearing African garb and for wearing the distinctive color-pattern of red, gold, green, and black. The colors respectively symbolize bloodshed/historic Rastafarian struggles, faith/prosperity/sunshine, the land and its produce, and the color of the Rastafarian people. Many wear lion medallions, the symbol of Ras Tafari's imperial Ethiopian throne, or crosses, standing for the burden of life.

Creation of the Observance

Upon Selassie's coronation in 1930, Marcus Garvey and his followers established the Rastafarian religion in Jamaica (see also Marcus Garvey's Birthday). Garvey espoused a pan-African philosophy and had prophesied in 1927 that an African ruler would arise and champion the cause of people of African descent around the world. In his view, Selassie was that champion, and many others agreed.

By the 1940s, Rastafarians were celebrating Haile Selassie's birth - as well as his coronation and Marcus Garvey's birth.


Some Rastafarians observe Haile Selassie's birthday by holding a binghi, a celebration that can include prayers, reggae music, and dancing. Rastafarians regard Haile Selassie I's birthday as the holiest of celebrations, closely followed by the anniversary of his coronation and the birth of Marcus Garvey. Two other dates many Rastafarians mark are Grounation Day, April 21 - the date in 1966 that Haile Selassie I arrived for his one and only visit to the island of Jamaica - and February 6, the birth date of Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley in 1945. Ethiopia allowed Marley to be commemorated with an annual festival in the country beginning in 2004.

Further Reading

Barret, Leonard E. The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997. Henze, Paul B. Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia. New York: Macmillan/Palgrave, 2000. Hepner, Randal L. "Rastafari in the U.S." In Encyclopedia of African and African-Ameri- can Religions , edited by Stephen D. Glazier. New York: Routledge, 2001. Ras, Nathaniel. 50th Anniversary of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I First Visit to the United States (1954-2004). Oxford: Trafford Publishing, 2004. "Rastafarians." In Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Ex- perience: The Concise Desk Reference , edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2003.

Writings by Haile Selassie

The Autobiography of Emperor Haile Selassie I: King of Kings and Lord of All Lords; My Life and Ethiopia's Progress 1892-1937 (Vol. 1). Translated by Edward Ullendorff. New York: Frontline Books, 1999. "Address Delivered by His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie 1st at the Conference of the Heads of States and Governments." Speech delivered at Addis Ababa, May 25, 1963. United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. forts/ref/speech/Ethiopia.pdf.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007

Haile Selassie's Birthday

July 23
Haile Selassie I (1892-1975), emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, was born Tafari Makonnen; he became Prince (or Ras ) Tafari in 1916. Among the Jamaicans known as Rastafarians, Selassie was believed to be the Messiah, and Ethiopia was identified with heaven. Rastafarian theology and political belief was based on the superiority of the black man and the repatriation of black people to Ethiopia.
Ethiopians still celebrate Haile Selassie's birthday. During the years of his reign as emperor, Selassie would stand on the balcony of his palace in Addis Ababa and greet the thousands of well-wishers who gathered there on his birthday.
See also Ethiopia National Day and Haile Selassie's Coronation Day
NatlHolWrld-1968, p. 123
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.