Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Rastafarianism Revealed: a Review of Leonard E. Barrett’s Classic Study

“These are the words of the Rastas. A people politically, socially, and historically aware of their reason for being.”

Sure, you could check out Wikipedia’s page on Rastafarianism or search the internet for articles on the history of Rastas. But I doubt there is any other medium that captures the essence of Rastafarianism better than this book. Decades after it hit shelves, Leonard E. Barrett’s book The Rastafarians is still in print. In short, it’s an epic work.

The quality of the historical research is impressive. Barrett has the eye of a journalist and the dedication of an anthropologist. He does a great job explaining the colonial history of Jamaica, the slavery and exploitation of the black population, and the many rebellions and grassroots movements that emerged from this environment.

I had no idea the roots of Rastafarianism went so far back in time, but the messianic-millenarian movements that came to be known as Rastafarianism have a long history. “Today’s Rastafarians have come a long way from their ‘birds of passage’ existence in the 1930s,” writes Barrett. “Rastafarians now occupy enviable positions in Jamaica. There are Rasta physicians, pharmacists, professors, journalists, pilots, teachers, nurses, bus drivers, technicians, mail carriers, photographers, city council members, mechanics, carpenters…”

Part of the joy of reading this book comes from glimpses into Barrett’s research process. Sometimes referring to himself in the third-person (“the author” or “the writer”) and sometimes in the first-person, Barrett inserts himself into the story in various ways. Rather than detracting from his subject, the noticeable presence of the author enriches understanding of the subject. For example, when Barrett is interviewing some remote Rastafarian villagers, he explains the trouble he has getting people to talk. He writes: “There were some objections to taping the interview, but this was finally permitted upon the presentation of a few dollars.”

Barrett is a serious researcher and a serious religious historian, and I appreciate the way he analyzes Rastafarianism as a serious religion. It seems Rastafarianism is frequently portrayed as something of a joke, not a real religion. The dress, the dreadlocks, the use of marijuana, these cultural and religious practices are mocked as somehow not deserving of the same recognized status of other religious sects. I realize that some of the specific religious beliefs of certain Rastafarians are quite ridiculous (for example, the belief that Ethiopian monarch Haile Selassie was god), but they are no more ridiculous than the beliefs of, say, Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists or other religious sects. In all these systems of belief, people ignore reason and science in favor of fanciful claims about god and the nature of the universe.

While keenly focused on the specifics of certain people at certain times, Barrett extrapolates on his findings and attempts to draw larger historical conclusions. His subject is Rastafarianism in Jamaica, but the underlying themes are universal. For example, Barrett analyzes Rastafarian myths in a way that is relevant to other religious myths: “By their very nature, myths remain outside the realm of truth or falsehood, being subject neither to the rules of logic nor to the techniques of scientific investigation. A religious myth such as Rastafarianism, then, claims for itself an immunity from logic not granted to any other kind of knowledge system…”

Barrett points out the long historical connection Rastafarians have with The Bible. “To the Rastafarians, the Bible is a holy book, but not all its contents are acceptable.” Now, I’m not saying Rastafarians are “Christians,” but I think this description could apply to most sects of Christianity. (Doesn’t every sect accept certain Biblical texts and reject others?) The Bible can, and has been, used by religious groups to argue every side of every issue, and the Rastafarians are simply keeping in that tradition. Of course, much of their beliefs stem from extra-Biblical sources, but it’s impossible to ignore the connection with The Bible. I also learned that there are several Biblical references to consuming herb, passages which the Rastafarians cite frequently when discussing the use of ganja in their religious rituals.

There’s obviously a lot of discussion about “the holy herb.” Quoting a Rastafarian on ganja, Barrett writes: “We do not find ganja as a mental depressor, ganja sharpens your wit, and keeps you intellectually balanced.” He adds: “There is no end to the praise of ganja among the brethren.”

One of the most interesting aspects of Rastafarianism is the language used by its adherents. “I and I” for example, doesn’t just sound cool, it signifies a larger socio-religious concept: “The language of the Rastafarians is a soul language in which binary oppositions are overcome in the process of identity with others sufferers in the society.”

Art is a core aspect of Rastafarianism. Growing up with two reggae fans for parents, I’ve appreciated Rastafarian art since before I knew what Jah or Ethiopia was. Barrett quotes a Rastafarian painter, who explains the Rastafarian respect for art like this: “Art to me is the integrator of all mankind. As a Rastafarian, I am a humanist and in art I try to integrate all mankind. Art has the power of liberating man from certain drudgeries and their way of life… This is what art is all about. It is vision, it must lead somewhere. It must lead to the enrichment of life.”

Rastafarian poetry, music and art focuses consistently on issues of social justice. That said, it’s interesting how Rastafarian art took root in wealthy countries like America and England. Barrett writes: “The Rastafarians, who are living examples of Jamaican social and cultural deprivation, are now the prophets preaching to the elite about the conditions of squalor. Their songs carry the message to the living rooms of the rich; they are the social catalysts of the island; and no one can escape this message… The Rastafarians must be seen above all else as the champions of social change on the island.”

Several times in this book the author refers to Rastafarian art giving the movement “aesthetic credibility.” Indeed, one of Rastafarianism’s most profound contributions has been religiously-inspired art. I’m speaking mostly about music — which is such an inseparable part of the cult — but Rastafarians have produced some great paintings and sculptures as well. However, it’s important to note that not all reggae music is Rastafarian, and not all Rastafarians are involved with reggae. Barrett notes: “Although outsiders link reggae music with the Rasta religion, few people know that the music is an imitation of the Rastafarian religious drumming known as Nyabingi music… Most Rastafarians do not even listen to reggae.” Still, Barrett tells a lot of good stories about Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals and other reggae artists who were connected in one way or another with the Rastafarian movement.

While I sympathize with the underlying themes of Rastafarianism (anti-colonialism, social justice, peace), some facets of the religion trouble me. The objections I have with various expressions of Rastifarianism are similar to the objections I have with various expressions of the major Abrahamic religions: the deification of mortal men, the undue reliance on people who call themselves prophets, the rejection of reason, the traditional elements of chauvinism and sexism. The latter, confining women to second-class status, is an obviously flawed aspect of Rastafarianism, at least as the cult has operated historically. (It appears that sexism has become less prevalent in Rastafarian communities in recent decades, but this study cuts off in the early 1980s. I’m in no position to judge the current state of women’s rights in Rastafarian sects.)

Summing up the messianic-millenarian views of Rastas, Barrett puts it this way: “Here is the attitude of a true believer. He is not confused with so-called facts, his belief is his truth… Faith so expressed needs so proof.” I’m quite wary of such expressions of faith. But Rastafarianism, as described in this book, still provides a whole lot of interesting ideas to chew on.

Anyone interested in world religions or the history of oppression in Jamaica will find this book very rewarding.


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