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Bereket Selassie

The life story of Bereket Selassie, the William E. Leuchtenburg Professor of African Studies and Law, is worth telling.

He was born in Asmara, which eventually became the capital of Eritrea when it separated from Ethiopia. Selassie served as attorney general and associate justice of Ethiopia’s Supreme Court, narrowly escaped capture by a military junta, and joined the guerillas fighting for Eritrea’s freedom. As a UNC professor, he specializes in African law, politics and history, constitutional law, politics of development and international law of human rights.

Students praise his First-Year Seminar course on African civilization for the way Selassie opens their eyes, minds and hearts to the Africa behind the headlines.

“When it comes to first-year students, it is thrilling to teach them and to observe their reactions to my lectures, listening with rapt attention,” Selassie says. “It is exhilarating, and it carries with it immense responsibility. It is a privilege to be a teacher. I get that same thrill that Michael Jordan did putting that ball into the net.”

The fourth President of the United States, James Madison is often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution.” Selassie was not only constitutional commission chair and principal author of Eritrea’s constitution, but also served as senior consultant in creating constitutions for other countries, including Nigeria and Iraq. A prolific writer, he penned “The Crown and The Pen: The Memoirs of a Lawyer Turned Rebel.”

Selassie was living in exile and teaching at Howard University when he met Gloria Steinem in 1978 at a Smithsonian Institution conference. Years later, he was honored at a special conference at UNC, and Steinem came to pay tribute to him. The feminist icon and co-founder of Ms. Magazine praised her friend Bereket for giving “me and countless others ways of learning about and linking to universal struggles that might otherwise have seemed very far away.”

Story by JB Shelton excerpted from fall ’10 issue of Carolina Arts & Sciences magazine.

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