On January 2015, the Meek School of Journalism and New Media sent ten students on a reporting trip to Ethiopia. These students compiled their stories and photographs into a depth report for the Meek School of Journalism. HottyToddy.com is featuring each story in the in-depth report once a week.
Aida Solomon’s parents emigrated from Ethiopia to the United States in the 1970s. Solomon interned at the University of Mississippi William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation during spring semester 2015.
Solomon was interviewed by Sierra Mannie. Here is an edited transcript of that interview.
Mannie: Can you tell us what brings you to the University of Mississippi?
Solomon: In March 2014, I participated in a civil rights pilgrimage that was an eight-day tour, through the South. It took us through four states: Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. We stopped by this campus and got a tour by people who worked at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. There was a flier about a summer youth institute and they wanted mentors to apply. And so I applied and I got it. I came back in June 2014 for two weeks, worked with high school students from around the state. I met a lot of cool people, and in that two week span of time I felt so connected to a specific part of the University of Mississippi, and I felt like…I needed more. I wanted to explore more. My professor had told me that I could intern at the institute for a semester. I just said, “Yes, of course.”
Mannie: What was that part that connected to so much? Is there a moment, an event that happened?
Solomon: I didn’t know how students – I didn’t know how African-American students – would look at me because I’m Ethiopian-American. I know what it means to be Ethiopian, but do I know what it means to be black? I never asserted myself like “I’m Ethiopian!” I was like, “How will these kids look to me? Like will they connect with me?” We were on the bus to the Delta, I think to Greenwood. I got up, and one kid decided to sing this song called “Aida Belle.” They gave me that name, Aida Belle, and at that moment it just touched me so much because it was just this moment like I felt a connection with everybody on that bus. It was something we all had experienced together. Aida Belle, to me, is just kind of like my southern component or my southern personality. It’s not just a personality when I come down here, but it’s becoming a part of my identity.
To be honest, the whole pilgrimage made me connect more with my American identity because I never felt like I really knew what it meant to be an American. I just felt like I knew what it meant to be Ethiopian and be black.
Mannie: Were you born in the States or were you born in Ethiopia?
Solomon: I was born in the States. I was baptized in Ethiopia when I was a year old, and I go back every other year. I’ve lived in Washington (state) my
Mannie: How do you feel sometimes when things happen and you can tell these things come from a history of slavery? Like being in the Delta, how did that affect you? What
did you think?
Solomon: This whole experience, being here, has challenged how I look at myself and how I feel and how I embody all the different components that make me who I am but also how I relate to others. One that I’ve continuously been exposed to is that, in learning the history, in learning the trauma, in learning the terrorism that occurred. I constantly find myself feeling, “I cannot believe this actually occurred.” How structured and intentional the whole system has been created to oppress a race of people is just unfathomable to me. But at the same time, what I see from African Americans, and what I feel like I have been able to, at least try to, internalize is this resilience, this strength, this faith, regardless. Even in spite of everything that has happened, there’s still a strength that I see, like a confidence. The way in which black people can carry themselves high, and it’s something that I’ve continuously been admiring in Mississippi.
Mannie: What do you feel about the American stereotypes of Ethiopia? Do those things anger you? What do people say about Ethiopia that you just know isn’t true?
Solomon: Sometimes, especially in Seattle, the biggest thing that I deal with is just ignorance, ignorance on another level. Sometimes I try to see where people come from. I understand the fact that Ethiopia has not been holistically represented in Western media. If you’re really curious you might ask something like, “Are there houses in Ethiopia?” I’ve always kind of been the butt of jokes. One of my friends, I remember I was going to (visit) Ethiopia in high school, he just slid me 75 cents and was like, “I want a house, I want a boat.” Basically, it’s really westernized materialistic kind of things that they ask.
My dad now lives in North Ethiopia, and he’s CEO of a tourism agency. That’s his passion. He’s always been the type of person to just school you on Ethiopia. He sells it to us! He really was a huge part of me getting in touch of my Ethiopian ethnicity. He really encouraged me to.
There are definitely parts of Ethiopia that are very impoverished, have people who are just begging on the street. I think the moment where I realized that you can really spin a place to be anything better or worse than it actually is: the moment that Katrina happened in this country and you see the level of poverty not just after but just before. How can we talk about other nations and Third World countries when parts of our country are Third World?
I don’t like campaigns that say we are going to go help Africa, or we’re going to help Ethiopians. There are a lot of people now moving in (to Ethiopia), which is great, but we need to make sure that we’re not getting exploited. We’re not becoming this nation of like a handout, what Africa as a continent, in general, is viewed as. I know the potential of what Ethiopia can be. I know the pride in that.
Mannie: What do you feel people need to know about Ethiopia?
Solomon: I think the biggest message that I have learned through my experience, and through hearing your group’s experience in Ethiopia, is that there is nothing like experiential learning. You can’t substitute it for anything else. To be able to go to a place, to be able to listen and to talk to people and not be in like a touristy vibe, but just to talk and be present in that place and in that space and time is something that I have found and cherished so much.