RASTAFARI: ACCORDING TO ENCARTA AFRICANA
Rastafarians, members of a social movement, established in Jamaica around 1930, that combines elements of religious prophecy, specifically the idea of a black God and Messiah; the Pan-Africanist philosophy of Marcus Garvey; the ideas of Black Power Movement leader Walter Rodney; and the defiance of reggae music.
Religion has been the principal form of resistance in Jamaica since colonial times. As scholar of Rastafarianism, Barry Chevannes, affirms: Whether resistance through the use of force, or resistance through symbolic forms such as language, folk-tales and proverbs . . religion was the main driving force among the Jamaican peasants. During the early twentieth century, resistance in Jamaica reached its pinnacle with the birth of Rastafarianism - as much an Afrocentric world-view and form of black nationalism as it was a new religion, inspired by the independent, anticolonial Christian tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. As Horace Campell notes, Rastafari culture combines the histories of the children of slaves in different societies. Within it are both the negative and the positive - the idealist and the ideological - responses of an exploited and racially humiliated people.
The Rastafari Movement
The roots of Rastafarianism can be traced back to Jamaica's earliest freedom fighters against colonialism. According to Leonard E. Barrett Sr., author of The Rastafarians, Jamaica's African population suffered the most frustrating and oppressive slavery ever experienced in a British colony . . . Under such complete domination two reactions were provoked: fight and flight. The Jamaican Maroons - African slaves, who, following the British defeat of the Spaniards in 1655, escaped to the mountains - waged guerrilla warfare against the British colonizers. In 1738 the British were compelled to grant them a limited freedom: although the Maroons were allowed their own lands and leaders, they were also required to police the plantation slaves, a duty which they accepted. Henceforth, the Maroons were loyal to the Crown. The freedom movement was taken up by plantation slaves. Indeed, in 1831, under the leadership of the slave and Baptist religious leader Samuel Sharp, Jamaica's slaves waged a mass rebellion against the planters. Like Sharp, many Jamaican slaves believed that God was calling on them to fight for their freedom - a messianic vision partly influenced by Baptistand Methodist missionaries, who, during the mid-eighteenth century, established churches in Jamaica and contributed to a syncretism of Christianity and the island's African religions. Although the rebellion was violently repressed by the British, it was one of the main reasons why the king of England emancipated the slaves in 1834.
In 1865 the Morant Bay Rebellion - another large-scale uprising of Jamaica's rural blacks against the colonial elite - forced political and economic reforms that diminished the power and privileges of Jamaica's ruling white planter class. Jamaica became a crown colony: the British drew up a new constitution that removed direct rule from the hands of the local elite and gave decision-making power to an appointed British governor, who presided over a legislative council. Yet the reforms only went so far: the overwhelming majority of council members, nominated by the governor himself, were white, and the gulf that existed between Jamaica's poor blacks (a significant majority of the island's population) and middle-class whites and mulattos continued to widen.
Jamaica's black population was systematically repressed until 1962, the year British colonial rule came to an end. Indeed, Jamaican blacks did not have the freedom to assemble or organize trade unions; abysmal working conditions led many to seek employment abroad. In 1914 the Jamaican worker Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey's Pan-Africanist philosophy, which established a sense of national identity based on race, instilled in many blacks worldwide the belief that their economic and political liberation could ultimately be found in a strong and unified Africa. After spending a decade in Great Britain and the United States, in 1927 Garvey returned to Jamaica, where he spread his political views among black workers and farmers. He told blacks to look to Africa for the crowning of a king to know that your redemption is nigh.
In 1930 Prince Tafari Makonnen was crowned the new Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I (Power of the Trinity,&; his baptismal name) - a monumental event that many blacks in Africa and the Americas saw as the fulfillment of Garvey's prophecy. Since the middle ages, a part of Ethiopia's nobility, including the Makonnens, had perceived themselves as descendants of King Solomon of Judah and the Queen of Sheba. This was a belief stemming from biblical prophecies, including the Song of Solomon 1:5-6, which states: I am Black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jersusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. As Chevannes points out, if Solomon was Black, so was the Christ. Both were descendants of David. Redemption of the African race was therefore at hand. The prophecy was further reinforced by Emperor Haile Selassie himself, who appropriated the titles King of Kings and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
The name Rastafari is taken from Ras, meaning prince in the Amharic language, and Tafari, the name of the emperor of Ethiopia. The earliest preachers of the Rastafarian world-view were the Jamaican workers Leonard Howell, Archibald Dunkley, and Joseph Hibbert. They asserted the idea of a black God, who physically lived on the earth; proclaimed that the African peoples shared in this divinity; and equated the liberation of blacks with their repatriation to Africa. Indeed, on three separate occasions (1934, 1956, and 1959) Jamaica's Rastafarian leaders attempted - unsuccessfully, due to a lack of governmental and organizational support - to repatriate brethren to their homeland. Howell also called for death to Black and White oppressors, an approach that ignited considerable hostility among Jamaica's elite: both Howell and Dunkley were imprisoned on several occasions and Howell was branded insane.
In 1935 the Italian army invaded Ethiopia, an event that drew attention to the incompetence of the Selassie regime, which had left Ethiopia's peasantry impoverished, uneducated, and untrained in military service and thus entirely unprepared for war. Moreover, Jamaica's economic crisis continued to worsen. Black workers, plagued by malnutrition and low wages, turned to practical action instead of religion as a form of resistance. Spurred on by these developments, the Rastafarian movement became increasingly politicized: during the 1940s and 1950s, leaders intensified their opposition to the colonial state by defying the police and organizing illegal street marches.
During the late 1950s, Claudius Henry, head of a Rastafarian meeting house in Kingston, set up a guerrilla training camp and in 1959 unsuccessfully tried to repatriate a group of Jamaican Rastas to Africa. Soon after, the police invaded Henry's headquarters, where they found a supply of arms and a letter inviting the Cuban leader Fidel Castro to take over Jamaica. Henry was arrested and tried on charges of treason. Throughout the 1960s, Rastafarian demonstrations against segregation and black poverty were violently repressed by the Jamaican police and military. While several Rastafari were killed in such clashes, hundreds more were arrested and humiliated by being forced to have their dreadlocks cut off.
Philosophically opposed to a culture of violence, many Rastafari soon turned to more peaceful means of resistance - a goal considerably aided by the visit of Haile Selassie to Jamaica in 1966. As Horace Campbell notes, state officials had to take a back seat while the mass of the black populace thrust forward to pay homage to the Ethiopian monarch. So profound was the popular feeling expressed for Africa that the Jamaican ruling class realized that it could not simply write off Rastafari. Rastafarian culture was explored and promoted in a plethora of academic studies in Jamaica and abroad, while the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was recognized as an institution worthy of respect. Rastafarianism also gained a new measure of credibility among Jamaica's middle-class blacks and mulattos who, during the late 1960s, formed their own Rastafarian group, the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
In 1968, Jamaican university lecturer Walter Rodney started the Black Power Movement, which significantly influenced the development of Rastafarianism in the Caribbean. Black Power was a call to blacks to overthrow the capitalist order that ensured white dominion, and to reconstruct their societies in the image of blacks. In Dominica, Grenada, and Trinidad, Rastafarians played a central role in radical left-wing politics. In Jamaica, Rastafarian resistence was expressed through cultural forms, particularly reggae music. Popular reggae singers, such as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, expressed Rastafarian ideas and social criticism in their song lyrics; during the 1970s, they significantly contributed to the growth of the Rastafarian movement throughout the Caribbean, the United States, England, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Latin America.
Rastafari Rituals, Practices, and Recent Developments
The rituals and practices central to Rastafarianism developed during the late 1930s and 1940s. Of particular importance are reasonings and binghi. At reasonings, Rastafari members gather informally to offers prayers and smoke ganja , or marijuana, considered a holy weed; it is passed around in a water pipe, which some Rastafari have likened to the Christian communion cup in its symbolic significance. Binghi are all-night celebrations that feature dancing accompanied by the distinctive rhythms of Rasta drums; they are held to mark special occasions throughout the year, such as the coronation of Haile Selassie I, Marcus Garvey's birthday, and the emancipation from slavery. Other significant practices include the wearing of facial hair by adult males (Ras Tafari was pictured with a full beard) and dreadlocks, or long matted hair. According to Barry Chevannes, dreadlocks originated among a group of Rastas known as the Youth Black Faith, who adopted the hairstyle as a symbol of their radically defiant views in a society in which blacks were made to feel ashamed of their skin color and hair texture.
Since the 1980s, the Rastafarian movement has become increasingly secular: many of the movement's symbols have lost their religious and ideological significance and the influence of Rastafari ideology on Jamaica's urban youth has considerably declined. The Rasta colors (red, green, and gold), in which all Rasta banners and artifacts are painted, have been largely shorn of their ideological meaning and are now worn by all. Dreadlocks too are sported as a trendy hairstyle by both blacks and whites in Jamaica and abroad. The loosening of Rastafari ideology has also led women to become increasingly outspoken within the movement. Women traditionally had been forbidden to play an important role in rituals; they were also expected to show complete deference to males. During the last decade, however, some women have begun to protest against and defy the movement's patriarchal beliefs and conventions.
The Rastafarian movement in Jamaica remains fragmented and unorganized; brethren adhere to the Rastafarian world-view through inner conviction, and generally prefer autonomy to cohesive organizational structures and rules. Nonetheless, two highly organized Rastafari groups exist in Jamaica: the Bobos and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Bobos maintain a communal life on the fringes of Kingston, where they earn a living producing and selling brooms. The Twelve Tribes, on the other hand, is a predominantly middle-class group, led by Prophet Gad. Members of the Twelve Tribes accept the authority of designated group members, pay dues, and hold regular meetings and events. In addition, there is the House of Nyabinghi, a loosely organized assembly of Rasta elders, who settle disputes between brethren and organize events. Beyond the Assembly of Elders, notes Chevannes, there is no membership, as such. All are free to come or stay away, to participate or remain silent, to contribute or withhold financial dues . . . . the openness of this sort of structure permits a great measure of democracy, in which all are equal, regardless of age, ability or function.
Rastafarianism remains a culture of resistance in many parts of the world. Although the Rastafarian movement has experienced a turbulent social history in Jamaica, it retains significant moral authority there, and its influence is increasingly felt beyond Jamaica. Indeed, it was one of the first full-fledged movement to confront issues of racial identity and prejudice, and to incite Jamaica's middle-class blacks to reflect on the importance of their African heritage.
Rastafarians, Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) Africana. (c)(p) 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
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