Ras Tafari: “Look to Africa … “

Caribbean leaders to ask the UK for apologies, repatriation and debt cancellation Elders of Ras Tafari are calling on European nations to help repatriate fellow Rastafarians to the continent that inspired their way of life. The demand is part of a growing campaign by Caribbean governments for reparations from their former colonial masters for what they view as the remaining ill-effects of the slave trade on the West Indies (click the link above for the full story). I was struck by this news. In the late 1970s, I studied for my doctorate at the London School of Economics. The focus of my research was what was then a perplexing, fast growing movement that had sprung up in all Britain’s major cities and was attracting all manner of negative labelling. Rastas were regarded with suspicion and blamed for street crime, drug dealing and, later, the riots of the early 1980s. The reaction had all the hallmarks of what used to be called a “moral panic.” My first book Rastaman was based on the PhD thesis (and, if you’ll excuse the shameless self aggrandisement) was recently re-published. Some years ago, I was asked to write a short essay summarizing the history and development of the movement. Here it is:

Arguably the fastest-growing black movement of the 1970s/80s, it first appeared in Jamaica in 1930 just after the decline in fortunes of the leader Marcus Garvey, who organized his Universal Negro Improvement Association around the ambition to return to Africa. “Africa for the Africans” was Garvey’s basic philosophy and he worked at mass migration programs, buying steamship lines and negotiating with African governments.

Garvey had some success in the West Indies (he was born in Jamaica), but was more influential after his demise, for he was reputed to have prophesied: “Look to Africa when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near.” Around this prediction a whole movement was mobilized. In 1930, Ras Tafari was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia and took his official title of Haile Selassie I. Garvey, at this stage, had slipped from prominence, but at least some black Jamaicans remembered his prophecy and made the connection between “the black king” Haile Selassie and “the day of deliverance” the return to Africa. The connection was reinforced by a new element added by new adherents of Garvey. They made the conclusion that Haile Selassie was not just a king but also their God and Messiah who would miraculously organize a black exodus to Africa (used synonymously with Ethiopia) and simultaneously dissolve the imperial domination of Western powers “Babylon” to the new Garveyites.

It’s worth noting that in no way did Garvey endorse this new interpretation of his philosophy. Indeed, he assailed Haile Selassie as “a great coward” and “the leader of a country where blackmen are chained and flogged.” Further, Garvey insisted on practical organization and de-emphasized the value of spiritual salvation; his new followers went in the other direction, making no provision for returning to Africa, simply awaiting the intervention of their Messiah, Ras Tafari.

However, what Garvey actually said was less important than what he was reputed to have said and, quickly, the new movement gained followers among the socially deprived black Jamaicans, hopeful of any kind of change in their impoverished lives and willing to cling to the flimsiest of theories of how they might escape their condition. They adopted the Garvey movement’s colors of red, black, and green (from the Ethiopian flag) and twisted their hair into long matted coils called dreadlocks as if to exaggerate their primitiveness in contrast to Western appearances. Some made use of ganja, a type of cannabis found in Jamaica, and even endowed this “weed” with religious properties. They used it in ritual worship of Jah (the form of “Jehovah” used in bibles before the King James version). Many took to the hilly inner regions of the island and set up their own communes, one celebrated one being led by Leonard Howell, who, with Joseph Hibbert and H. Archibald Dunkley, is popularly attributed as one of the original formulators of the new Garveyism.

Garvey remained a reluctant prophet, although a careful reading of his speeches and published comments reveals his great interest in Ethiopian royalty and his repeated use of biblical, often apocalyptic, imagery to strengthen his beliefs. “We Negroes believe in the God of Ethiopia, the everlasting God,” wrote Garvey in volume one of his Philosophy and Opinions. His conception of a black god was also significant; he implored his followers to destroy pictures of white Christs and Madonnas and replace them with black versions. “No one knows when the hour of Africa’s Redemption cometh,” he once warned his followers. “It is in the wind. It is coming. One day, like a storm, it will be here.”

Periodically, the Rastas, as they came to be called, gathered at ports to await the ships to take them to Africa and, at one stage, a faction of the movement resorted to guerrilla tactics in a vain effort to assist the destruction of Babylon. More recently, the movement in Jamaica has gained a more respectable status and, nowadays, has become a vital cultural force on the island.

In the middle of the 1970s, the Rastafarian movement manifested itself in such places as the United States, England, Holland, France, New Zealand and Australia. Its growth was stimulated by the rise in popularity of Rasta-inspired reggae music which was given a personal focus by the almost prototype Rasta Bob Marley (1945–1981). It seems that the vision of a united African continent and a black god was a potent one. It was used in sharp counter-position to the imperial dominance of the West. Blacks feeling disaffected with society and searching for alternatives found in the movement a new force which upgraded blackness and instilled in them a sense of identity belonging to a unity.

Despite an infinite variation in interpretation of Garvey’s philosophy, two themes remained central to Rastafarian beliefs: the divinity of Haile Selassie (whose death in 1975 did little to dissuade Rastas of his potency in instigating the transformation) and the impulse to return to Africa – if not physically then in consciousness (as the Rasta reggae musician, Peter Tosh, sang; “Don’t care where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African”).

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