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Rastafari: A Return to the Roots
March 4, 2004
by Ras Tyehimba
Many have the misconception that Rastafari started in Jamaica in the 1930's, but the reality is that Rasta has its genesis much, much earlier on the continent of Africa, from which all humanity originated. Even so, it is important to understand the context and the factors that shaped this Jamaican revival of something that in essence was authentically African. Jamaica, like the wider Caribbean, was a colonial subject, a place where more than 400 years of White Christian Colonial rule had shaped the society in a rigid way, with clear-cut divisions between the minority of whites, a few light skinned blacks, and the majority of Blacks who were the descendents of enslaved Africans. The patriarchally-inclined social order was one of White over Brown over Black, which ordered the way resources, power and status were distributed, and this underlined all interactions and relations in society. Thus for the African facing such trauma and attack on his psyche and his notion of self, the Rasta movement was a counterforce against the Miseducation, Exploitation, Racism/White Privilege and Gender Discrimination that was being experienced. It was a movement that allowed for the expression of 400 years of repression.
The deep experiences and sufferings of the grassroots people gave rise to fiery and passionate self-expression that emphasized the need for justice, morality and equality. Inspired by the works of Marcus Garvey, early Rastas in Jamaica expressed pride and confidence in being African/Black and advocated moral conduct and a life shaped by adherence to natural law. Many took to the hills or natural surroundings and became self-sufficient, learning to live in harmony with the universe by observing nature and natural law, the essence of which is that every action has a reaction. The need for a spiritual and/or a physical return to Africa was emphasized, and is highly symbolic of the black man realizing his true self (his divinity). Some refashioned the colonial religion of Christianity and the Bible to counteract colonialism by viewing it through the 'spectacles of Ethiopia' as espoused by Garvey. Because the Bible was about the only book readily available to the masses, many began to relate the stories within it to their own situation.
For many centuries the notion of white superiority had been reinforced through the Caucasian images of Christianity, including the image of the White Jesus, one of the most dangerous images ever perpetrated on Black people. Realizing the damaging effect of this on the psyche of African people, some directly looked to the African continent for divine inspiration, finding solace in the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, who emphasized the importance of education and moral conduct. Many Africans worldwide identified deeply with Emperor's struggle against the brutality of Italian imperialism, which was a symbol of the anti-colonial movement within the wider African continent.
In the light of the information age, many old ideas are being challenged and some of the aspects of Judeo-Christianity and the Bible which were used at earlier stages have been rejected by many because of the inability to reconcile the path of black self-actualisation with the religion of the oppressors. Even though it is widely recognized that Christianity (like all mainstream religions) and the Bible originated from the periphery of ancient African traditions and concepts, it can't be said to be a totally accurate reflection of the African self. Thus for example many reject the notion of one male savior, asserting instead that we all are inherently divine and have the potential to become Gods (one with God) as exemplified by the titles given to such people throughout history: Heru, Christ, Krishna, Buddha.
Though there are Rastas who still hold on dogmatically to Christianity and the Bible as the essence of Rastafari, it is clear to me that Rastafari has existed thousands of years before Christianity and before the first mention of the creation myth of Adam and Eve. Africans have been adhering to natural law and achieving God-consciousness for thousands of years before the birth of the biblical Jesus. The parochial, dogmatic, and patriarchal nature of Christianity, which for example subordinates the role of the female, is often seen as being contrary to ancient indigenous African principles and to the concept of the African self.
A Rasta is an eternal gatherer of wisdom, a student of life who utilizes experiences to discover and manifest his/her own divinity. All the mysteries of life are seen to be within and by seeking to discover the nature of ourselves, divinity can be realized. Emphasis is placed on history as a means of self-understanding and as a means of learning the lessons of those who have gone before us in order to shape a better life in the present. Thus esteem and respect for the ancestors, elders and other teachers is a central aspect of Rastafari. It has been and still is necessary for Rastas and the wider African community to re-write their history as myths, lies and distortions have been prevalent in mainstream history.
Rastafari is not a religion as understood by the modern connotations of the word, and the blind faith and dogmatic adherence to rules required in mainstream religions is not compatible with one who is seeking truth, as information needs to be critically examined and continually questioned. However, the word religion coming from the Latin 're' meaning back, and 'ligio' meaning to link, can be an appropriate description of Rastafari. Indeed Rastafari is a way of life that empowers one towards linking back to the roots, the source of our Blackness and be thus nourished by the lessons and principles that originated in Africa long ago.
Furthermore, the path towards self-actualization is not divorced from, but rather intimately connected with, struggle against racism, white superiority, gender discrimination and injustice. Integral in this re-balance is the role of the female principle that in the Judeo-Christian-shaped Western mindset has been subjugated by male arrogance. This gender discrimination with its correlative male arrogance is the root cause of a lot of societal problems and it has even affected the drive for liberation, as a lot of the models for liberation have been heavily patriarchal. History thousands of years ago in the heart of Africa gives the best example of a relatively egalitarian society that had an inherent respect for the complementary roles of males and females. Thus for many (males) to try to define and confine the role of women is to ignore the lessons of history and serves to reinforce the status quo of false values and privileges, and worse yet, some hypocrites do this while giving the female fancy titles such as 'queen' or' princess'.
The universality of the African experience has meant that Africans worldwide have had to generally face the same issues and this has made the Rastafari principles of justice, morality and equality relevant worldwide. However, with the popularity and commercialization of reggae music, the glorification of marijuana, dogmatic adherence and the quantitative growth of those that call themselves Rastas, the essence of Rastafari is often lost, with symbols, dreadlocks and rhetoric often having predominance over the essence. Under the guise of one love many have identified with Rastafari yet fail to properly address the issues of racism, white/light skin privilege and other injustices both in terms of their own role and the existence of these issues in the wider society. Calling oneself a Rasta doesn't automatically negate one's responsibility or complicity in upholding the system of false values and corruption. This statement is especially valid for Whites and light skinned Africans who though they call themselves Rastas, still perpetuate color-based superiority complexes on others.
There is no central governing body for Rastafari and even though there are the sects of Nyabinghi, Twelve Tribes and Bobo Shantis, the journey of Rastafari is individualistic. Even though this will mean that many may just adopt certain pre-conceived externals and call themselves Rastas, this feature has allowed for ones to define their path for themselves and not be shackled by dogma.
The notion of heaven being a place up in the sky where you go when you die has been rejected and Rastafarians instead advocate that that state of heaven can be achieved on earth while one is still alive. Implicit in this is the character refinement and moral conduct that would allow one to achieve this state of heavenly bliss. Likewise hell is a state of ignorance in which the majority dwells, unconscious of the nature of themselves and of the consequences of their behavior. Every action has a reaction and thus every single word, thought and deed has an effect and can either lead towards freedom or can serve to shackle the self down in bondage. The potential for good and evil dwells in Mankind and manifests by the choices that one makes.
My experience as a Rasta consisted of different stages as since I was a little child I knew myself as a Rasta and experienced the anti-Rasta/anti-African mindsets inherent in the societal structures. Earlier on I defined myself as a Rasta based on the notions of others in my environment, I saw myself as a Nyabinghi and I defended the total divinity of Haile Selassie even though I was not totally comfortable with it. At a later stage where my search for truth was heightened, I developed along more ancient principles of Rastafari that emphasized the importance of not accepting anything because some 'holy' book said it, or some elder or respected person spoke it, but rather because a direct evidence validated it. Thus I define Rasta according to my experiences and understanding and now I see Haile Selassie as being no more divine than myself.
The factors that gave rise to the Rasta movement have not been settled, and thus at its heart the movement is still about addressing Black people's experiences at the hands of a White Eurocentric system that demonizes and downplays any notion of African Heritage. Thus being a Rasta is about systematically addressing racism/white superiority, gender discrimination, injustice and any other abuse which stems from ignorance and insecurities. This ignorance has to be addressed not by blind faith, emotional responses or dogmatism, but by reasoning, understanding the nature of ourselves and our environment and thus forging ourselves in the fire of truth, which involves going against the norms and false values that have been conditioned deeply into the social fabric.
Words are mere words, and idealistic ideas are mere ideas, so ultimately Rastas need to lead by example.