The meaning of Rastafarianism is largely dependent on the understanding of the historical as well as the cultural and social aspects that have influenced the rise of this movement. The Rastafarian faith is one which is deeply intertwined with social and cultural dissatisfaction and the search for an identity and consciousness that was particular to disenfranchised and dispossessed Black people. The roots of Rastafarianism also are deeply connected with the symbolism and the example of Ethiopia and the figure of Haile Selassie.
Rastafarianism therefore should be seen in the context not only of historical and social events and the search for freedom from oppression among the people of Jamaica, but also as an expression of the human search for religious meaning and cultural identity. The following paper will provide an overview of these central aspects and attempt to examine the links between the various cultural, social and philosophical aspects of the Rastafarian Moment.
The methodology employed in this paper was discursive research. Sources across a broad range were consulted. These included articles and database sources online as well as journal articles and books pertaining to the subject. While there is a plethora of information on this topic, the focus of the research was on the religious aspects of the movement and the way that that this related to the cultural and social dimensions.
2. The Rastafarian faith and Ethiopianism
In terms of cultural and social anthropology, the foundations of the modern Rastafarianism religion and culture lie in the poor and economically deprived areas of Jamaica. “Rastafarianism is a religion that was created in the early 1900 hundreds due to the social and poor economic conditions of the Black people in Jamaica.” (Pettiford E.T.) However the Rastafarian religion has deep and complex roots in both social and political events as well as in theology and philosophy.
The Rastafarian faith claims Tafari Makonnen as its symbol and originator. This is the pre-coronation title of His Imperial Majesty
Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. (Rastafarianism) In reality the foundations of the modern Rastafarian faith and movement in Jamaica and elsewhere can be traced back to the official coronation of Ras Tafari Makonnen as the new emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. (King, 1998, p. 39)
All true Rastafarians believe that Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, is the true and living god, at least of the Black race. A member of the Rastafarian Repatriation Association explained it this way: We know before that when a King should be crowned in the land of David’s throne, that individual would be Shiloh, the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ returned in the personification of Rastafari. (On his vesture and on his thigh is a name written, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”)
(Barrett, 1997, p. 104)
However the literature also points out that, “Selassie was more the embodiment of the Rasta faith than the actual founder of the religion. In actuality, he was known to have been devoted to Ethiopian Orthodox faith, which is more Christian-based in its theology.” (Rastafarianism)
In understanding the Rastafarian religion as both a faith and a culture it is important to take into account the influence of “Ethiopianism.” This point is emphasized by Barrett (1997). “The emergence of the Rastafarians will remain a puzzle unless seen as a continuation of the concept of Ethiopianism which began in Jamaica as early as the eighteenth century.” (Barrett, 1997, p. 68) In essence this refers to the attraction to and the “enchantment “that Ethiopia had for many people throughout the world – particularly for the Black people of Jamaica.
Ethiopia is also steeped in Biblical history and associations. These images and the history of the Ethiopian people have had a profound effect on the “Blacks in Disapora.” As Barret (1997) states;” The enchantment with the land and people of Ethiopia has had a long and interesting history.” This extends from “… biblical writings through Herodotus to the medieval fantasy with the mythic King Prester John right down to our day, Ethiopia has had a hypnotic influence on history, which has been retained by the imagination of Blacks in Diaspora.” (Barrett, 1997, p. 68)
The above view relates historically and culturally to the loss of identity and the oppression of Black people though slavery in the nineteenth century. The symbol of Ethiopa therefore became a social and religious ideal that many Blacks saw as an image of freedom and salvation from oppression. In other words, the symbolism of Ethiopia and its connections to the Biblical Scriptures acted as an antidote, as it were, to the distortion and oppression of Black consciousness and identity in the depressed and undeveloped regions of the world and Jamaica. This is an essential aspect in understanding the cultural as well as the religious significance of Rastafarianism. The following quotation clearly describes the importance of Ethiopia as a cultural and religious symbol of freedom for the Jamaican people.
When confronted by stalwarts of religion, philosophy, and science who sought to falsify history in the service of Western slavery, Black preachers — though for the most part unlearned — discovered in the only book to which they had access (the Bible) that Egypt and Ethiopia were in Africa, and that these countries figured very importantly in the history of civilization.
(Barrett, 1997, p. 68)
This was to lead to an internalization and interpretation of the scriptures that suggested the existence of a ” Black God”; which was seen in opposition to the God of the White people and colonialists. This is a fundamental aspect that lies at the root of Rastafarian theology. “…they believe that numerous biblical texts support the doctrine. From Jeremiah 8:21 they are convinced that God is Black: ‘For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold of me.’ A Black god to the Rastafarians is of the greatest importance, because “Blackness is synonymous with holiness.” (Barrett, 1997, p. 105) In this sense the God of the White people is “…actually the devil, the instigator of all evils that have come upon the world, the god of hate, blood, oppression, and war…,” whereas the Black God is a God of “Peace and Love.” (Barrett, 1997, p. 108) This dichotomy in racial terms is a significant aspect of Rastafarianism and must be seen in the context of the social and political situation of the Black people in Jamaica, which will be discussed in more depth in the following section.
This view leads to the centrality of the figure of Haile Selassie, whose status and importance for Black people is also verified by scripture for the Rastafarians.
His Ethiopian birth further strengthens the belief, for the Bible clearly states that their god would be born in that country. So, according to cultists, Psalm 87:3-4 is unquestionable proof: Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God. Selah. I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know me: behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia; this man was born there.
(Barrett, 1997, p. 105)
There are many other references in Rastafarian theology to the importance of this figure; including references in the Book of Revelation, and in the new Testament, where Jesus is purported to have associations with the figure of Emperor Haile Selassie.
In the context of the dominance of white theology is also follows that the Rastafarians believed that some parts of the Bible were distorted or amended by….” ‘ Babylon’ which has come to represent the white power structure.” (Rastafarianism) However there are many parts of the Holy Bible where are retained and seen as sacred. In order to deal with these perceived intrusions and interferences in the Holy Text, the Rastafarians created their own “black man’s Bible” known as the Holy Piby. (Rastafarianism)
3. General characteristics and beliefs
There are a number of estimates of the extent of the Rastafarian movement in the world.
One general estimate is that there are approximately between 3,000 and 5,000 Rastafarians in the United States. A problem with the estimate of Rastafarianism is that many individuals who dress or adopt the outer appearance of Rastafarianism are in many cases not true Rastafarians. (Rastafarianism) This is partly due to the popularity that this movement has acquired through its views and music since the 1960’s. Worldwide, the estimate of those following the Rastafarian faith is approximately 1,000,000 people. (Rastafarianism) In terms of further significant demographic facts, it is also clear the majority of the members are male.
Traditionally, women have played a very minor role in Rastafarianism,” (Rastafarianism) and “Women’s role in the Rastafarian movement is at best a subordinate one…” (Barrett, 1997, p.78)
Another important demographic is that until fairly recently most of the members of the Rastafarian movement were from poor or socially disenfranchised backgrounds. However since the increased popularity of the movement in the 1960s and 70s, this is no longer seen to be the case. There is also no longer the sheer racial and ethnic divides that characterized the early years of the movement “…the Rastas have now penetrated the middle class. At present, the overwhelming majority of members are African, but there are also Chinese, East Indians, Afro-Chinese, Afro-Jews, mulattoes, and a few whites. Rastafarians are predominantly ex-Christians. “(Barrett, 1997, p. 2-3)
One of the early innovators and leaders of the movement,
Leonard Howell, stated a number of principles that have been the hallmark of Rastafarianism and still apply to a large extent today. These include the following:
1)hatred for the White race; (2) the complete superiority of the Black race; (3) revenge on Whites for their wickedness; (4) the negation, persecution, and humiliation of the government and legal bodies of Jamaica; (5) preparation to go back to Africa; and (6) acknowledging Emperor Haile Selassie as the Supreme Being and only ruler of Black people. (Barrett, 1997, p. 85)
Another essential aspect which is of cardinal importance in Rastafarianism is the concept of I and I. This is explained as “an expression to totalize the concept of oneness. ‘I and I’ as being the oneness of two persons. So God is within all of us and we’re one people in fact. ‘I and I means that God is in all men.” (Branch R).
Among the many outer characteristics of the movement is the wearing of the “dreadlocks” hairstyle. There is also an emphasis on the smoking of marijuana, which is seen as a holy sacrament. Their music is highly distinctive and the success of musicians such as Bob Marley has been largely responsible for the increased popularity of the movement. “… exponents such as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh became international stars. Reggae has immensely helped in the legitimization of Rastafarian life and ideals.” (RASTAFARI: ACCORDING TO THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN RELIGIONS)
4. Social and philosophical aspects
There is a strong tendency in the literature to see Rastafarianism as being deeply intertwined with social and political issues as well as a predilection tendency towards” negritude” that has been a dominant force in world of Black politics and culture in the past century.
This view also links Rastafarianism to “liberation theology.” (Royackers, 1999, p. 387)
As have been mentioned briefly, Rastafarianism emerged among the lower and working classes of Jamaica partly as an outcry against poverty, injustice and discrimination. This cultural view “delegitimizes forms of racism and domination.” (Hadden, 1984, p. 131) In essence Rastafarianism developed as a response to the search for a social and cultural sense of place and identity among the Black people to Jamaica. This is still the case today as one study points out… “… their theology is having a profound effect on Jamaicans’ understanding of themselves and their history of external domination. And in a broader context, Rastafarianism is impacting the consciousness of most of the peoples of the Caribbean. (Hadden, 1984, p. 131)
As a Black Nationalist Movement one of the foremost leaders and political activist in the history of Rastafarianism was Marcus Garvey. He was the founder of “…Universal Negro Improvement Association, who, among other endeavors, promoted a steamship company that would provide transportation for blacks going back to Africa.” (RASTAFARI: ACCORDING TO THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN RELIGIONS.)
Garvey also propounded the view that a Black King would be crowned who would lift the yoke of white domination. This was a reference to the 1935 coronation of Haile Selassie as emperor of Ethiopia. (RASTAFARI: ACCORDING TO THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN RELIGIONS.) In the 1920s; Garvey founded the “back-to-Africa” movement. (Branch R.)
It is also significant that Garvey would blend his politics with religious and biblical imagery. This would very often refer to the possibility of the return or “exodus” back to Africa. “We have gradually won our way back into the confidence of the God of Africa, and he shall speak with the voice of thunder that shall shake the pillars of a corrupt and unjust world and once more restore Ethiopia to her ancient glory.” (Cashmore, 1996, p. 142)
From an anthropological and cultural point-of-view it is obvious from the above discussion that the religious and philosophical elements are intimately bound up with the economic, political and socio-cultural aspects in Rastafarianism. As one study states: “Rastafarian theology is based upon a dialectical projection of a symbolically mediated presence that negates the specific subjective absences generated by the processes of marginalization and stereotypical redefinition.” (Pettiford E.T.) The marginalization of Black people in Jamaica was a central motivation of the development of the philosophical and theological aspects of Rastafarianism.
Rastafarianism has shown an intensified growth in recognition and acceptance since the 1970’s, largely due to the “…acceptance of reggae as an avenue of Rastafarian self-expression,” (Barrett, 1997, p. 213) The movement has grown beyond the confines of Jamaica and there are branches in many countries, including England, Canada, the Caribbean islands and America. (Branch R.)
However studies also note that there has been a decline in the theological and religious aspects of the movement. Many purists complain that there has been a split between the religious and the political aspects of the movement.
On the other hand, international reggae also exacerbated the split between “religious” and “political” Rastafarians. While., more traditional, religious Rastafarians seemed appalled by what they considered the commercialization and secularization of the movement, more politically oriented Rastafarians hoped to exploit reggae’s new popularity to further the cause. (King, 1998, p. 39)
Rastafarianism can thereof be discussed from both a socio-political perspective as well as from a religious point-of-view. However, any attempt at truly understanding this movement and religion requires that these two aspects be seen as coterminous and strongly integrated in the history of the Jamaican culture.
http://questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=91110344″Barrett, L.E. (1997). The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press. Retrieved November 7, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=91110344
Branch R. Rastafarianism. Retrieved November 7, 2006, at http://www.watchman.org/profile/rastapro.htm
Cashmore, E. (2003). Encyclopedia of Race and Ethnic Studies. New York: Routledge. Retrieved November 9, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=107717605
Cashmore, E. (1996). Dictionary of Race and Ethnic Relations. New York: Routledge. Retrieved November 9, 2006, from Questia database:
http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=103088579Chevannes, B. (1998). Believing Identity: Pentecostalism and the Mediation of Jamaican Ethnicity and Gender in England. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 4(4), 824+. Retrieved November 7, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001406183Gray, O. (2004). Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica. Kingston, Jamaica: University Press of the West Indies. Retrieved November 7, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=104313447Keith, N.W., & Keith, N.Z. (1992). The Social Origins of Democratic Socialism in Jamaica. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Retrieved November 7, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=99650555King, S.A. (1998). International Reggae, Democratic Socialism and the Secularization of the Rastafarian Movement, 1972-1980. Popular Music and Society, 22(3), 39. Retrieved November 7, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001500694Meeks, B. & Lindahl, F. (Eds.). (2001). New Caribbean Thought: A Reader. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press. Retrieved November 7, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=105182098Owusu, K. (Ed.). (2000). Black British Culture and Society: A Text-Reader. London: Routledge. Retrieved November 7, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=103308001
Hadden J.K. (1984) Prophetic Religions and Politics: Religion and the Political Order. Volume: 1. New York: Paragon House
Pettiford E.T. Rastafarianism. Retrieved 4 November, 2006, at http://saxakali.com/caribbean/EdP.htm
RASTAFARI: ACCORDING TO THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN
RELIGIONS. Retrieved 4 November, 2006, at http://www.inithebabeandsuckling.com/EAR.html
Rastafarianism. Retrieved 5 November 2006, at http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/rast.htm. Royackers, M. (1999). Jamaica Genesis: Religion and the Politics of Moral Orders. Theological Studies, 60(2), 387. Retrieved November 7, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001267576Vertovec, S. (2001). Transnationalism and Identity. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 27(4), 573+. Retrieved November 7, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5000908861Wardle, H. (2003). Anthropology and History. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 9(4), 794+. Retrieved November 7, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5002070480
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