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Brown Bag Lecture series. . .

“Identity, Memory, and Constructs of ‘Home’ in Rastafarianism”

Presented by David Amponsah, first-year MA student in AAADS
March 29, 2007

David Amponsah, a first-year student in AAADS who was born in Ghana, presented an overview of the religious movement known as Rastafarianism, illuminating the origins and ideology of those Jamaican people of African descent who sought salvation in a home they had never known. He began by giving a brief history.

In the early part of the 20th century, impoverished black Jamaicans found hope in a newly emerging religious movement called Rastafarianism, which was oriented to returning to Africa as “home.” A couple of centuries earlier, 7,000-8,000 captured Africans had been taken to Jamaica as slaves. Over time, and especially after emancipation, these people developed social strata based on occupation and color: house workers vs. field workers and mulatto vs. black. They made the transformation from slaves to free peasants, working land for others, but seldom owning it themselves. As the sugar plantations were abandoned by white owners, some black owners took over. Both classes cheated the peasants, who remained the poorest, from emancipation into the 20th century. It was with them that the philosophy of Rastafarianism resonated most.

During and after slavery, white Jamaica was a place where Africans were under constant attack, physically and ideologically, with the intent of eradicating their identification as Africans. Rastafarianism emerged as a form of resistance to this history of white oppression. In 1932, Rastafarianism was formally established to fill the needs of the peasants.

Based on a prophecy made by the political organizer and entrepreneur Marcus Garvey, Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie was declared the new messiah promised in Revelations, the black God, and Ethiopia was considered home to all Africans in the diaspora. Before becoming emperor, Haile Selassie, which means “Lion of Judah,” was called Ras Tafari (Chief Tafari). Ethiopia (or Abyssinia), with its great biblical significance, was the first independent nation in Africa. Furthermore, said Amponsah, Haile Selassie was believed to be a descendant of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba.

The long indignities of slavery and peasantry found solace in the dignity offered by Rastafarianism. Among the new religion’s doctrines were hatred of whites (whose lands were called Babylon), belief in black superiority, the persecution and humiliation of the Jamaican government, the desire to repatriate to Africa, and the acknowledgement of Haile Selassie as the ruler of all black peoples. Amponsah noted that, while Garvey was considered a prophet of Rastafarianism, the religion was seen as succeeding where Garvey had failed to help black people.

The idea that Africans in the diaspora were thought to be black Jews—one of the lost tribes of Israel—helped Rastafarianism find its place in the Bible as descendants of God’s chosen people. They were black because Sheba’s baby was stained from being born out of wedlock. Amponsah said that, like whites, blacks sought position and validity in the Bible, with a black Jesus, a black God, and Haile Selassie as the black God incarnate. Even so, they do not consider themselves Christian.

All Rastafarians want to make a pilgrimage home to Ethiopia, rejecting Jamaica as their homeland. Originally, only Africa could be their home, but that has modified over time, said Amponsah, so that some Rasta accept Jamaica as home. Complicating matters for the Rastafarians was the fact that Haile Selassie himself, ruler of Ethiopia, was seen as an oppressor of peasants in his own country. Often, said Amponsah, he would choose to give employment to Arabs and other whites rather than to native Ethiopians.

Rastafarian practices once included eating no salt, which was believed to cause misfortune or prevent “flying back to Africa.” Now, however, because salt fish is the national dish of Ethiopia, as well as a staple of West Indian food, it is eaten by Rastafarians. Other practices include wearing dreadlocks as a highly visible sign of the faith and smoking ganja (marijuana), which is illegal in Jamaica and therefore a form of resistance.

During the 1960s, many unskilled Rastafarians went to Africa to “repatriate,” only to find they had to return to Jamaica to find work. Haile Selassie told them to “seek liberation before repatriation.” The influx of immigrants surprised the people of Ethiopia, who, being predominantly Christian or Muslim, found the Rastafarians strange. Nor did they view Haile Selassie as a god. Citizenship for the immigrant Jamaicans, said Amponsah, was problematic because while they saw Ethiopia as their “home,” the Ethiopians did not recognize Rastafarians as Ethiopian.

In answer to a question from the audience, Amponsah noted that Ghana offers dual citizenship to anyone in the diaspora, but especially for African Americans and skilled black people, not just for Rastafarians in particular.

Amponsah situated Rastafarianism, not as a mystery religion, but traced it as an outgrowth of the “Ethiopianism” that began in the 1700s, which was, in turn, part of the flow through history, and through the diaspora, of a “revivalism” that would reclaim a home in Africa for people descended from inhabitants of that continent. Today, the Rastafarian movement is not growing in Jamaica and is losing ground in the wider world, said Amponsah, because it has developed no institutions and has remained apolitical. The question remains for Rastafarians: If they are not welcome in the country they want and they do not want the country they are in, where do they go to make a home?