Name: Rastafarians, Rastas, or Ras Tafarians 1
Founder: Tafari Makonnen, pre-coronation title of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. However, 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. 2
Date of Birth: 1892
Birth Place: Harer, Ethiopia
Year Founded: approximately 1930 3
Sacred or Revered Texts: Certain sections of the Holy Bible are considered sacred, however the Rastafarians believe that some aspects of the Bible were changed by " Babylon," which has come to represent the white power structure. To greater represent the truth, Rastafarians reject the Bible used by most Christians, opting instead for a "black man's Bible," known as the Holy Piby. 4 Also, Rastafarians give special significance to the Ethiopian Holy Book, the Kebra Negast.
Size of Group and Member Characteristics: There are between 3,000 and 5,000 Rastafarians in the United States. However, these figures may be slightly distorted as a result of the large number of people who have adopted the external appearance of Rastafarians. 5 Worldwide, the total number of followers is approximately 1,000,000 people. 6
Most members are male. Traditionally, women have played a very minor role in Rastafarianism. Until 1965, the membership was essentially lower class, but this is no longer the case. Once considered "products of the slum," 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. 7
The original Rastas drew their inspiration from the philosophies of Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887-1940), who promoted the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the 1920s. The organization's main goal was to unite black people with their rightful homeland, Africa. Garvey believed that all black people in the western world should return to Africa since they were all descended from Africans. He preached that the European colonizers, having fragmented the African continent, unfairly spread the African population throughout the world. As a result, blacks were not able to organize themselves politically or express themselves socially. Their intellect had been stunted by continuous European oppression. Enslavement had provided blacks with a "slave mentality" so that they had come to accept white racist definitions of themselves as inferior. For Garvey, blacks in the Americas had not only been repressed physically, but their minds had been affected by years of white subordination. Slavery had degraded them so badly that they actually considered themselves as little more than slaves. 8
As a result, programs aimed at the gradual integration of blacks into white society were worthless in Garvey's eyes. His mission was to restore the lost dignity of blacks by severing ties with the white world. As he expressed in the New York Times on August 3, 1920, "We shall organize the four hundred million Negroes of the world into a vast organization to plant the banner of freedom on the great continent of Africa... If Europe is for Europeans, then Africa is for the black people of the world." 9 After spending nearly a decade in the United States and Great Britain, Garvey returned to Jamaica in 1927, where he spread his political views among the black working class. He assured his followers, "No one knows when the hour of Africa's redemption cometh. It is in the wind. It is coming. One day, like a storm, it will be here." 10 He told blacks to "look to Africa for the crowning of a king to know that your redemption is near." 11
In 1930, Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned the new Emperor of Ethiopia. Upon his coronation, he claimed for himself the title of Emperor Haile Selassie (Power of the Trinity) I. This announcement was a monumental event that many blacks in Africa and the Americas saw as the fulfillment of Garvey's prophecy years before. 12 After the crowning of Selassie, the Rastafarian movement gained a following and officially began. 13 Ironically, Selassie was never a Rastafarian himself, and no one is really sure what he ever thought of his following. 14Also noteworthy is the fact that Garvey himself was admittedly not an admirer of Haile Selassie, and he went as far as to attack the Ethiopians as "crazy fanatics." 15
Although Leonard Howell has been proclaimed the first Rastafarian preacher in Jamaica, there were at least three other Rastafarian groups in existence during the 1930s. While each group exemplified a different style of worship and emphasized distinctive aspects of the Rasta "doctrine," there were several common themes uniting these factions. First, all four groups condemned Jamaica's colonial society. Second, all believed repatriation to Africa was the key to overcoming oppression. Next, all of these groups advocated non-violence. Finally, all four groups worshipped the divinity of Haile Selassie I. The four early Rastafarian groups reflected the movement's history of diversification and lack of centralized leadership. 16
In 1935, the Italian army invaded Ethiopia. This event drew widespread attention to the incompetence of the Selassie Regime, which had left Ethiopia's peasantry impoverished, uneducated, untrained in military service, and entirely unprepared for war. Moreover, Jamaica's economic crisis continued to worsen. Black workers, plagued by malnutrition and poor wages, turned to practical action as opposed to 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. 17
By the mid-1950s, the Rastafarians were viewed by many in Jamaica as bearded drug addicts, a national eyesore, or a "cult of outcasts." 18 There were frequent clashes between Rastafarians and the police, and Rastafarians were viewed as black racists who wanted to rule over the white man. 19 While the Rastafarian movement did indeed promote racial pride, in actuality, it posed little threat to Jamaica's ruling class. Largely lower class, politically passive, and nonviolent, most Rastafarians were committed only to repatriating members to Africa and worshipping the divinity of Haile Selasie I. Rastafarians avoided the political world for meditation and prayer. 20 In spite of this, throughout the 1960s Rastafarian demonstrations against segregation and black poverty were violently repressed by the Jamaican police and military. Several Rastafari were killed in such clashes, and hundreds more were arrested and humiliated by being forced to have their dreadlocks cut off. 21 In sum, during the period from 1930 until the mid-1960s, Rastafarianism was little more than a local Jamaican religious movement. Not only did no Jamaica-wide Rastafarian Church develop, but there was not even agreement on basic doctrine or a canon of scripture. 22
Haile Selassie visited Jamaica on April 21, 1966, while the country was amid an ongoing national social crisis in which Rastas were perceived by the majority as a revolutionary threat that had to be defused. During this first and final trip to Jamaica, Selassie met with several Rastafarian leaders. The visit resulted in two profound developments within the Rastafarian movement. First, Selassie convinced the Rastafarian brothers that they "should not seek to immigrate to Ethiopia until they had liberated the people of Jamaica." 23 Second, from that day forth, April 21st has been celebrated as a special holy day among Rastafarians, "Grounation Day." 24
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 for blacks to overthrow the capitalist order that ensured white domination, and to redevelop their lifestyles in the image of blacks. In Dominica, Grenada, and Trinidad and Tobago, Rastafarians played a major role in radical left-wing politics. In Jamaica, Rastafarian resistance was expressed through a variety of cultural forms. 25
The Rastafarian image went through a significant transformation in the 1970s. Whereas in the 1960s Rastas were perceived negatively, in the 1970s they became more of a positive cultural force, contributing to Jamaica's art and music (especially reggae). In the late 1970s, one reggae musician in particular, Bob Marley, came to symbolize Rasta values and beliefs. But, more than this, Marley played a catalytic role in the Rastafarian movement worldwide. His popularity ensured a diverse audience for Rasta messages and concepts, and his music captured the essence of Rasta ideologies. 26
On August 27, 1975, Haile Selassie died, and a tremendous crisis of faith ensued. 27 With his death came various forms of rationalization from many Rastafarians. The responses concerning Selassie's death ranged from "his death was a fabrication" to "his death was inconsequential because Haile Selassie was merely a personification of God" 28. Many Rastafarians believed that his death was staged by the media in an attempt to bring their faith down, while others claimed that Haile Selassie I had trotted on to the perfect flesh, and sits on the highest point of Mount Zion where He and Empress Menen await the Time of Judgment. 29 There are others, however, who were quite logical in their approach to the theological problem surrounding the Emperor's death. They saw the death of Selassie as changing nothing, except that their God was no longer physically present. Such Rastafarians claimed that He is omnipresent in spirit and visited the clouds with the hosts of heaven. 30
Rastafarians came to the United States in large numbers as a result of the general migration of Jamaicans in the 1970s. They brought with them an image of violence, and frequent news reports detailed murders committed by individuals identified as Rastafarians. Relations with the white culture ever since have been tense, and mirrored the Rasta concept of "Dread," a term used to describe the confrontation of people struggling to maintain a denied racial selfhood. Most Rastafarians are pacifists, although a lot of support for the movement developed out of intense anti-white sentiments. In actuality, violence has been confined to individuals and loosely defined groups. In fact, it has been suggested that Rastafarians are often viewed negatively in the media because many young Jamaican-Americans have adopted the outward appearance of Rastas without adopting Rastafarian beliefs and lifestyles, 31 thereby misrepresenting the Rasta culture.
Since the 1980s, the Rastafarian movement has become increasingly secular. Many of the movement's symbols have lost their religious and ideological significance. Furthermore, the influence of Rasta ideology on Jamaica's urban youth has considerably declined. The Rasta colors (red, green, and gold), in which all Rastafarian banners and artifacts are painted, have been largely stripped of their ideological meaning and are now worn by all. Further, dreadlocks are now 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 expected to show complete deference to males. Previously, menstruating women were not allowed to cook, and in certain areas Rastafarian women were secluded from social contact. 32 During the last decade, however, some women have begun to protest and defy the movement's patriarchal beliefs and conventions. 33 As a sign of change, Rastafari women have become quite vocal against these beliefs and practices, and some have defied such conventions as covering their dreadlocks or wearing only ankle-length dresses in public. Notwithstanding these recent developments, the Rastafari movement retains great moral authority as a result of its pioneering stance on issues of racial identity and color prejudice. 34
As Dr. E.E. Cashmore observed, "The belief system of Ras Tafari was so vague and loosely defined, even at its inception, due to its lack of a single authoritative voice, that what was to be acceptable doctrine was largely matter of individual interpretation." 38 However, in spite of that claim, early in the history of the movement Leonard Howell gave the Rastafarians six fundamental principles:
Hatred for the white race.
The complete superiority of the black race.
Revenge on whites for their wickedness.
The negation, persecution, and humiliation of the government and legal bodies of Jamaica.
Preparation to go back to Africa, and
Acknowledging Emperor Haile Selassie as the Supreme Being and only ruler of black people. 39
Further, there are three overriding concepts that are key to Rastafarian beliefs:
Babylon : " Babylon" is the Rastafarian term for the white political power structure that has been holding the black race down for centuries. In the past, Rastas claim that blacks were held down physically by the shackles of slavery. In the present, Rastas feel that blacks are still held down through poverty, illiteracy, inequality, and trickery by the white man. The effort of Rastafarianism is to attempt to remind blacks of their heritage and have them stand up against this Babylon. 40
I and I: This concept has become "the most important theoretical tool apart from the Babylonian conspiracy in the Rastafarian repertoire." 41 Cashmore explains, "I and I is an expression to totalize the concept of oneness, 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. The bond of Ras Tafari is the bond of God, of man. But man itself needs a head and the head of man is His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia." 42
Jah: The Rastafarian name for God is Jah. The presence of Jah in His children and in the world is the triumph over the tribulations of everyday life. 43 Ethiopia specifically, and Africa in general, is considered the Rastas heaven on Earth. However, there is no afterlife or hell as Christianity believes. 44
Rastafarians have redefined language syntax in other ways, thereby giving impedance to larger logical constructs by redefining certain terminology. Specific examples within Rasta culture of this redefinition of language are:
"Overstanding" replaces "understanding" to denote an enlightenment which places one in a better position.
- "Irie" is a term used to denote acceptance, positive feelings, or to describe something that is good.
- "Livication" is substituted for the word "dedication" because Rastas associate ded-ication with death.
- "Downpression" is used in place of "oppression," the logic being that the pressure is being applied from a position of power to put down the victim.
- " Zion" is used to describe heaven or Ethiopia, in contradiction to the generalized association of the term with European religious cults. 45
Also of significance to the Rastafarians...
Colors: The defining colors of the Rastafarian religion are red, gold, and green. These colors were taken from the Garvey movement. The color red symbolizes the blood that martyrs have shed in the history of the Rastas. The yellow represents the wealth of the homeland. Green represents the beauty and vegetation of Ethiopia, the promised land. Sometimes black is used to represent the color of Africans, to whom 98% of the Jamaicans are descended. 46
Ganja (marijuana): Contrary to popular belief, pious Rastas do not smoke marijuana recreationally, and some do not use it at all. Most Rastafarian teachers, though, have advocated the controlled ritual smoking of "wisdomweed" for religious reasons or to aid in meditation. 47 The use of this herb is very extensive among the Rastas, not only for spiritual reasons as in their Nyabingi celebration, but also for medicinal purposes. The following are a few of the Biblical texts that Rastas embrace as reasons Jah gave for use of the herb: 48
"... thou shalt eat the herb of the field." (Genesis 3:18)
"... eat every herb of the land." (Exodus 10:12)
"Better is a dinner of herb where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred there with." (Proverbs 15:17)
"He causeth the grass for the cattle, and herb for the service of man." (Psalms 104:14)
Lion: One of the most prominent symbols among the Rastafarians is the lion. The lion represents Haile Selassie I, the Conquering Lion of Judah. In Jamaica, it can be viewed on houses, flags, in their tabernacles, and just about any other place where Rastafarians have connections. It even appears in their artwork, in their songs, and in their poetry. The lion represents not only the King of Kings, but the maleness of the movement. The Rastas stimulate the spirit of the lion in the way that they wear their dreadlocks and in the way that they walk. To the general public, the symbol of the lion represents strength, knowledge, and aggression. 49
Diet: The true Rastas eat only I-tal food. This is unique food because it never touches chemicals and is completely natural. The food is cooked, but served in the rawest form possible, without salts, preservatives, or condiments. Devoted Rastafarians, therefore, are completely vegetarian. Drinking preferences rest with anything that is herbal, such as tea. Liquor, milk, coffee, and soft drinks are viewed as unnatural. The term I-tal food is rapidly taking hold in Jamaica. 50
Dreadlocks: The dreadlocks on a Rasta's head symbolize the Rasta roots, contrasting the straight, blonde lock of the white man. Dreads do not only portray the Rastafarian heritage, but their adornment is supported in the Bible: "They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh" (Leviticus 21:5). The way the Rastas' hair grows has come to represent the symbol of the Lion of Judah. Further, dreadlocks have come to depict rebellion of the system and the "proper" way to wear hair. 51 Recently, dreadlocks have been the subject of controversy in American schools and the workplace. The giant U.S. supermarket chain Safeway was sued by a worker who claimed that the company was guilty of racism when it barred him from wearing his hair in dreadlocks. 52 Also, eight Lafayette, LA, children, whose Rastafarian values forbade them from cutting their dreadlocked hair, were recently allowed to re-attend school after officials banned a school rule excluding "extremes in hair styles." According to the lawsuit, the family had been denied its constitutional rights of free expression and free practice of its Rastafarian religion. 53
Rastafari is described as an acephalous movement. In other words, the religion does not have a clearly defined leader. There are groups, quasi-groups, and individuals who remain independent in spite of sharing the core beliefs. Meetings generally begin as informal street gatherings which attract attention and escalate into religious services. Except for two highly organized sects, the Bobos and the Twelve Tribes of Israel, most brethren do not belong to a formal organization. They refuse to surrender their freedom and autonomy by joining any organization. This value of freedom from outward constraint finds expression for the majority of Rastafari in an organization referred to as the "House of Nyabinghi." This concept of "House" originated in the 1950s, when Rastafarians split themselves into two orders of Houses: The House of Dreadlocks and the House of Combsomes, that is, those who comb their hair. Since the 1960s the House of Combsomes has dissipated, leaving only the House of Dreadlocks. Any dreadlocked Rastafari is entitled to participate in the formal rituals and deliberations of the House. 35
The House is run by an "Assembly of Elders," theoretically consisting of seventy-two members, but generally far fewer. Eldership has been summarized as combining cunning and resourcefulness with initiative and trust, but avoiding selfishness, arbitrariness, or conceit. One does not become an Elder by appointment or election. The Elders oversee the affairs of the House, such as planning liturgical events, settling disputes, or appointing delegations as the need arises. However, beyond the Assembly of Elders, there is no membership to specific Houses as such. All Rastas are free to come or stay, to speak up or remain quiet, to contribute financially or withhold dues. One retains membership to the House simply be being a Rastafari. In turn, all members are equal, regardless of age, ability, or purpose. Nonetheless, this loosely-defined structure makes a united, organized religious movement virtually impossible. 36
The practicing of Rastafari faith is not as structured as most other world religions. The majority of worship occurs during rituals. Rastafari rituals are of two basic types: reasoning and the "binghi." The reasoning is an informal gathering at which a small group of brethren generally smoke the holy weed, ganja, and engage in discussion. He whose honor it is to light the pipe, or chalice, recites a short prayer while all other participants bow their heads. Once lit, the pipe is passed counter-clockwise around the circle, until all of the people have smoked. Reasoning ends when the participants one by one don their caps and depart.
The "nyabinghi," or "binghi" for short, is a dance held on special occasions throughout the year. Generally, the celebration marks the coronation of His Imperial Majesty (November 2nd), His majesty's ceremonial birthday (January 6th), His majesty's visit to Jamaica (April 25th), His majesty's personal birthday (July 23rd), emancipation from slavery (August 1), and Marcus Garvey's birthday (August 17th). The word "binghi" is believed to be of colonial African origin, originally referring to a secret order vowed to bring "death to Black and White oppressors." Today, these dances are purely ceremonial celebrations and sometimes last for several days. In Jamaica, "binghis" bring together hundreds of Rastafarians from all over Jamaica. They camp in tents on land owned by the host Rastas. Formal dancing takes place at night in a tabernacle especially set up for the occasion. The Rastas sing and dance to their distinctive beat until the early hours of the morning. In the daytime, they "rest and reason." 37
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Note: Full references are found above. Page numbers for web sites were found by printing the information from the ULR of the links provided above, and then counting the number of pages.
Created by Kyle Littman
For Soc 257: New Religious Movements
Fall Term, 2000
University of Virginia
Last modified 05/10/01