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Delving on a movement that shaped Black Culture

Published:Sunday | March 29, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Book cover

Book: Let Us Start with Africa: Foundations of Rastafari Scholarship

Editors: Jahlani Niaah and Erin MacLeod

Publisher: The University of The West Indies Press

ISBN: 978- 976-640-409-3

Let Us Start with Africa is an anthology of essays; a collection of progressive studies tracing the growth and contribution of Rastafarianism to black culture. It marks the inaugural Rastafari Studies Conference at the University of the West Indies, Mona, in 2010. Therein are diverse ideas, arguments and pronouncements of a movement that many societies still deemed a fifth column.

For the most part, this is a constructivist body of work that lends interpretation to an enigmatic, counter-cultural philosophy that has slowly seeped into modern black thought. It is a revelatory and catalytic thesis on black theology, history, philosophy, and music. Repatriation, the cornerstone of the movement, Rex Nettleford argues, is multilayered. Migration to the African continent is dynamic, happening in the subtlest realm of the mind. It stands alone, never predicated by physical departure from the diaspora. In some ways, Rastafarianism has always been a prophetic movement.


That Africa today is calling the diaspora the sixth region of the continent, and with open calls to repatriate by officials in Benin and Ghana lends credence to the movement's mystical character.

But grounding with the Rastafarian can be enlightening but a frustrating experience. Competing branches comprise pan-Africanism of which Rastafarianism is but one. Ethiopia is Zion to its followers, their Mecca. Nowhere else in Africa. When the Church of Haile Selassie 1 openly challenges the authenticity of the other three Rastafarian sects and claim that they are progeny of the Zara Yacobrite people of Ethiopia - a fundamental truth of the black experience is challenged.



And any discourse on the diaspora cannot marginalise its strong Yoruba roots. Where does all this fit into the Rastafarian paradigm?

But Let us Start with Africa is all about Rastafarian epistemology and black ontology laid bare. All else must fit into its uncompromising, idyllic template. Impressive, but arguably, it opens the door to sophistry and pedantry. And for all its gem-like worth, stubborn questions surround the birth of this movement.

Regrettably, scholars are sometimes their own worst enemy, presenting their reality in a romantic veneer that subverts history and irrefutable truths. And naivete is a direct corollary of romanticism. There is no mention of the likes of Leonard Howell and Claudius Henry.

Rastafarianism cannot be viewed through cone-like lens. Adopting a linear, monolithic approach to such a complex study can be a disservice to students of the movement. Rastafarianism is as much haunted by its past as it is by its intrafaith rivalry. Who or what constitutes a Rasta is yet to be clearly and universally defined, although Nettleford comes close, with his suggestion of an inner landscape, an unfolding experience with no reference to physical appearance.

For the most part, though, Rastafarianism is still stripped of its profound sociological and theological roots by white culture, and sometimes seen as a mesmerising curiosity; a one-dimensional counter-cultural expression propelled by the driving sounds of reggae. To national leadership in the Caribbean, the Rastafarian movement remains 'quietly' confrontational, posing an existential challenge to the status quo; a clear and present threat to nationalism and nation building. However, its immeasurable contribution to black consciousness and 'liberation' is undeniable. Regrettably, it will remain mired in its own uncompromising lore and stymied by entrenched competing black interests and by a Third World still spellbound by Western culture.

Ratings: Recommended

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