On November 2, 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen (1892–1975) was crowned emperor of Ethiopia, an event that received wide international attention. Makonnen assumed as his imperial name and titles Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, and Light of the World. In what was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity, the Makonnens had long before claimed descent from the biblical Judaic king, Solomon, and Candace, the queen of Sheba. The story of Candace's visit to the famous king, of his seduction and her return home with his child Menelik, of Menelik's visit to his father and his rescue of the ark of the covenant, which he brought to Ethiopia for safekeeping, is set out in the ancient text, Kebra Nagast.
In Jamaica, a few followers of Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) interpreted Ras Tafari's coronation as the fulfillment of two prophecies, one by Garvey that the redemption of black people was at hand, and the other by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah that the messiah would bear the title King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. The person generally credited with being the first to go public with this insight was Leonard Howell (Lee, 1999), but others followed—including Joseph Hibbert, Archibald Dunkley, and Robert Hinds. They all took to the street corners of the capital, Kingston, with the message: Black people have a king; their king is black; he is the messiah, the son sent by God to set free his captive people.
The message found fertile ground among the thousands of migrants fleeing rural poverty. By August 1, 1934, it had taken definite shape: followers of Howell staged a march demanding to be repatriated to Africa. The date marked the one hundredth anniversary of the end of slavery in Jamaica.
The emergence of the Rastafari needs to be understood in the context of a society with a long history of deep racial divisions based on a brutally prosecuted enslavement of Africans by the British, an equally long history of some of the fiercest resistance seen in the Americas, and the culture-building imperative of the Africans centered around a new religious cosmology.
Captured in 1655 from the Spanish, Jamaica became one of Britain's most lucrative sugar-producing colonies based on African slave labor. Until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the steady influx of Africans guaranteed huge fortunes for the planter class, even as it kept memories of "Guinea" alive among the black population. There evolved on each estate a social structure in which the divisions between those who exploited labor and those whose labor was exploited were racialized. The whites, notwithstanding differences between planters, professionals, and artisans, soon came to regard themselves as members of the ruling elite by virtue of their race. The blacks, notwithstanding differences among themselves between the newcomers, or "salt-water Negroes," and those born in Jamaica, or Creoles, soon came to regard themselves as members of an oppressed class by virtue of their race—the field slaves. And wedged in between these two groups was a new group, the people of mixed racial origins, who attended to the personal needs of the whites in the great house—the house slaves, who regarded themselves as better than the field slaves. An ideology based on skin color emerged: white was associated with power, beauty, enlightenment, virtue, privilege, and wealth; black was aligned with poverty, ignorance, ugliness, vice, and evil. These divisions, formed as early as the seventeenth century, were still current in the twentieth century, inducing theories of cultural pluralism based on an ethnicity of color (Smith 1965).
Slavery met stiff, multiform resistance, ranging from suicide to poison, from sabotage to go-slows, from marronage to uprising. By the turn of the eighteenth century, the Maroons had become a viable community able to defend their freedom.
Two extensive revolts occurred, the first in 1760 engulfing two-thirds of the country. The second revolt, from 1831 to 1832, was led by Samuel Sharpe and is regarded as hastening the abolition of slavery in 1834. Their widespread nature was a function of the solidarity brought about by the emergence of a new religion called Myal, which played the same role in Jamaica as vodou was to play a few decades later among the Haitian slaves. Belief in a supreme deity, possession by spiritual powers, and blood sacrifice were central to Myal, one of whose other characteristics was its ability to absorb new influences. When, following the American Revolution of 1776, several American planters and their Christian slaves fled to Jamaica and began proselytizing, Myalists incorporated such powerful Christian figures as Jesus, John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit, and Isaiah, along with a new instrument, the Bible. The Bible gave them a different vision of themselves. They identified themselves in its mention of Ethiopia (in, for example, Psalms 68:31 and 87:4), appropriating its myths of exile, exodus, and redemption as their own. Myal thus grew into the Native Baptist movement, and later in the 1860s into Revival. Jamaican followers of Marcus Garvey were steeped in the Revival cosmology, according to which the children of Israel would soon be delivered into the "promised land." That deliverance, they believed, began with the crowning of the Lion of Judah.
Selassie Addresses the United Nations
On October 6, 1963, Haile Selassie addressed the United Nations with praise, criticism, and deep sincerity. He proclaimed, "It is the sacred duty of this Organization to ensure that the dream of equality is finally realized for all men to whom it is still denied, to guarantee that exploitation is not reincarnated in other forms in places whence it has already been banished."
Selassie was instrumental in founding the United Nations, viewing it as an institution that would provide the best hope for the peaceful survival of humankind, replace inhumane self-interest with tolerance and goodwill, and protect the small and weak against those with the most power. He hoped that this institution would devise peaceful methods and procedures to resolve conflicts between nations. Selassie, however, was not a pacifist and acknowledged the use of force as often being necessary to prevent injustice and human suffering. He praised the United Nations for being an effective defense against violations of human rights and for daring to take action in Palestine, Korea, Suez, and Congo. The guaranteeing of basic human freedoms, he noted in the address, require the courage to speak and act—and if necessary, suffer and die—for truth and justice.
Beards and Dreadlocks
Rastafari tenets have been a function of its interaction and response to society. Initially, the main focus of its new prophets was preaching allegiance to the "King of Kings," a black man, and the reincarnation of the messiah. This often brought Rastafarians into confrontation with the colonial state, especially in the tense years leading up to World War II, when disloyalty to the British Crown was a serious offense. In the postwar years, when Jamaicans began to migrate to the United Kingdom, repatriation, an idea present from the beginning, came to the fore. Its difference from Garvey's back-to-Africa movement lay in the Rastafari belief that repatriation was to be a divine act instead of a movement executed by humans. By then a clear identity had been established in the beards worn by the men and the uniforms embroidered in the colors of the Ethiopian flag—red, gold, and green. In addition, a younger generation had joined the movement. Their impatience and aggression led to a series of reforms that further transformed the outlook of the entire Rastafari movement.
First, the younger generation instituted a clear break with Revival, out of which the early founders had come, by denouncing all forms of possession and eliminating certain ritual practices, such as the use of candles to signal the presence of the powers. Younger Rastafari also introduced several far-reaching innovations: the ritualization of "Reasoning," and with it the elevation of ganja (cannabis) smoking to sacramental status; the ritual dance known as the nyabinghi (pronounced nai-ya-bing-gi, with a hard g; meaning "death to white and black oppressors"); the wearing of dreadlocks; the ritualization of the patriarchy; the use of dread talk; and a naturalistic style of living.
The Reasoning ritual brought Rastafari into a circle of discussion in which national and international events were interpreted within the framework of the Bible and the words of Haile Selassie. Insights were thereby gained, and thoughts and attitudes were shaped. Facilitating the process was the ritual partaking of the "chalice," or ganjastuffed chillum pipe. The use of ganja, a banned substance, drew the attention of the police, out of whose repressive actions the young Rastafari developed the notion of "Babylon," the powerful captor of the children of Israel, whose downfall was already prophesied. They enacted this in the nyabinghi on the occasions of Haile Selassie's coronation; the Ethiopian Christmas (January 7); the birthday of Marcus Garvey, who was revered for his role as John the Baptist announcing the coming of the messiah (August 17); and, since 1966, Selassie's visit to Jamaica (April 21).
Out of the Reasoning also came the dreadlocks, a hairstyle that identified the Rastafari with Kenyan freedom fighters known as the Mau-Mau. Dreadlocks inspired dread and signaled their rejection of a society in which the characteristics of African phenotype—color, nose, lips, hair—were not only denigrated but subject to chemical as well as physical attempts to suppress them. Dreadlocks symbolized a radical acceptance of the racial self and thereby became a practical criticism of white racism.
Another important innovation was dread talk: homonyms, inversions, and other wordplay elevated to the level of philosophy. The central word is I, the singular first-person pronoun. The power of I transforms the objectified and possessive self (you, me, yours, mine) into a singular subject of unity or I nity—I an' I ; breathes new life into others—I ncient, I lalu, forI ver, I ly (holy), I ses (praises); and uncovers new meaning—the I (eye) of sight and of position ('igh). Other words are restored to their true meaning hidden by the English captors: over stand, down pressor.
Such innovations, which quickly became institutionalized throughout the movement, were accompanied by a radicalization of patriarchal relations. Women were subject to the Levite strictures of the Old Testament concerning menstrual flow and relegated to the periphery of Reasoning circles, while their domestic subordination found expression in the generic word "daughter," or I aata. Their status as queens and empresses within the movement derived from their spouses, their kings.
Reggae and Internationalization
During the 1960s and 1970s, Rastafari embraced the youths alienated by the unfulfilled hopes of national independence in 1962. Rastafari gave them its philosophy of an integrated black self and a vision of an end to the historic injustice done to the children of Africa. The movement received in return their creative energy and passion. The young people became the new missionaries, and their medium was reggae music. They spread both music and vision around the world. Since the 1970s Rastafari groups may be found throughout the rest of the Caribbean, including Cuba, Brazil, and in other countries of Latin America, West Africa, South Africa, Europe, North America, New Zealand, and Japan.
The global spread of the movement has not come about without the development of differences in beliefs, particularly those concerning the divinity or merely prophetic character of Haile Selassie. But such divergence is nothing new, since throughout Rastafari history variations in beliefs and practices have been marked. The Bobo, a Rastafari group that worships on the Sabbath, believe in a divine trinity: Haile Selassie the Father; their founder, Immanuel, the Son; and Marcus Garvey the Holy Spirit. The Twelve Tribes of Israel, on the other hand, believe in Jesus Christ, "who has revealed himself in the personality of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I." The Nyabinghi, who believe only in Jah, the almighty, regard such differences as an example of what Jesus (which they pronounce Jess-us ) meant when he said that "in my father's house are many mansions." The fact, then, that Italian Rastafari believe that Haile Selassie is God, while some Africans do not, regarding him instead as a great man, or that those in New Zealand do not uphold repatriation to Africa, does not attenuate the power of Rastafari identity, which is constructed on the basis of a menu of beliefs and practices characterized by a radical opposition to all forms of oppression.
The women's movement of the 1970s and 1980s also had an impact on the Rastafari. Recognition is now given to the matriarchs in the Nyabinghi mansion, who may speak on behalf of the house and participate in the ritual Reasoning. This change has been effected by an internal struggle by Rastafari women.
A common thread running through all the movement's various groups is the naturalistic style of living called livity. Livity refers to a life in harmony with nature as created by God and in avoidance of manmade intrusions into that order. Thus, Rastafari favor a diet of fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts, and avoid processed and packaged foods and bottled juices. A salt taboo is part of the livity, as are such ritual observances as the wearing of dreadlocks and the maintenance of good, principled relations with one another. As a way of living, livity is intended as a practical criticism of the hubris of Western, Babylonian civilization, which puts humans above God.
Founded in the 1930s, Rastafari has taken its current shape from developments of the 1950s, which saw the emergence of dreadlocks. Rastafari continues its growth in the twenty-first century in response to the opportunities offered by the communications revolution and other aspects of globalization.
Chevannes, Barry. Rastafari: Roots and Ideology. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1994.
Chevannes, Barry, ed. Rastafari and Other African-Caribbean Worldviews. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.
Hausman, Gerald, ed. The Kebra Nagast: The Lost Bible of Rastafarian Wisdom and Faith from Ethiopia and Jamaica. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Lee, Hélène. Le premier rasta. Paris: Flammarion, 1999. Translated by Lily Davis and Hélène Lee as The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism. Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2003.
barry chevannes (2005)
"Rastafarianism." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rastafarianism
"Rastafarianism." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved April 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rastafarianism
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