Emory Report
April 17, 2006
Volume 58, Number 27


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April 17, 2006
Erskine book explores Rastafari From Garvey to Marley

by Michael Terrazas

Growing up in Jamaica, Noel Erskine would often see them: The Rastafari, with their dreadlocks and “Dread Talk,” decrying the ways of “Babylon” and preaching the divinity of a black king in faraway Ethiopia.

Decades later, Erskine was moved to write about the Rastas, whose elders, he admits, nurtured and nourished not only him but other people in his hometown of Trinityville who were willing to listen to the Rasta creed of a black God living inside all Africans. Erskine’s From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology (University Press of Florida, 2005) is his way of honoring the contributions Rastas made.

“Looking back, I discovered that part of the ethos of my village was the Rasta ethic,” said Erskine, associate professor of theology and ethics in the Candler School of Theology. “It’s only on reflection that that’s come home to me. When I look at what I call the Rasta ethic or the Rasta theology, there was a sort of intermingling of values. There was resistance [to the Rastas], but there was intermingling.”

“Intermingling” is perhaps a good word to capture the cultural, political and theological circumstances that gave way to the formation of Rastafari in early 20th century Jamaica, and in his book Erskine traces the religion’s roots back even further, to the 18th and 19th centuries. As planters loyal to the crown fled America following the Revolutionary War and settled on the Caribbean island (also a British colony), the slaves they brought with them began a tradition of quasi-Christianity among Jamaica’s poorest, blending European Christian theology with African spiritual traditions.

Fast-forward more than a century to the time of Marcus Garvey, also a native of Jamaica, who in the early 1900s began urging repatriation for the African diaspora. “Africa for the Africans” was Garvey’s refrain, and in the darkest of Jamaicans, who had always chafed against a Creole culture that favored lighter complexions, Garvey found a ready audience.

Indeed, it was Garvey’s fabled comment upon leaving Jamaica once in the 1920s, “Look to Africa from which a black king shall arise to deliver his people” (and tied to favored Scriptures, such as Pslams 68:31, “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God”), that led directly to the cult that became Rastafari.

In November 1930, Prince Ras Tafari was crowned emperor of Ethiopia. For some of the humblest of Jamaica’s lower class, Garvey’s prophecy had come true. The new king took the name Haile Selassie (“Might of the Trinity”) and claimed descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Immediately, some Jamaicans began hailing the Ethiopian leader as Christ returned and incarnated in a black man, and so began what others soon would call “the cult of Ras Tafari.”

“In a country which, certainly in the 1920s and ’30s, was still shaped by a colonial ethic—we had a governor from Europe and had been a colonial outpost of England since 1655—to talk about God being black was very problematic,” Erskine said of Rastafari’s beginnings.

Until the 1960s, middle-class Jamaica rejected the Rastas. Not only did they preach theological concepts that challenged accepted cultural mores, they rejected land ownership and other capitalist principles, processed foods, even standards of cleanliness; the dreadlocks that have come to characterize Rastafari emerged in part as an attempt to mirror a lion’s mane (Selassie was also called “the lion of Judah”).

Rastas, initially, were concerned not with reforming Jamaican society—it was too far gone, the product of Western, colonial “Babylon”—but rather urged a return to Africa. Finally, they flouted the law by preaching the benefits of the “holy herb,” marijuana, the smoking of which they claimed enabled people to shed the trappings of Babylon and become closer to Jah (God).

Two things happened in the 1960s that brought Rastas into the mainstream. First, at the behest of the Jamaican government, a university commission studied the Rastas’ practices and beliefs, ultimately endorsing many of them as positive for everyday Jamaicans, and the group’s ensuing report legitimized what until then had been considered by many a fringe group of societal outcasts.

Second, a young Rasta named Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley began recording a new kind of music, native to Jamaica, that would come to be known as “reggae.” Marley’s music, with its refrains of worldwide peace and harmony, made him an international superstar, and it carried Rasta ideas into the homes of millions of listeners.

“Nobody has done—for Jamaica and for Rastafari— as much as Bob Marley did,” Erskine said. “He is the chief icon, the ‘spokesperson,’ if you will.”

Today, Erskine estimates, there are perhaps a million people worldwide who call themselves Rasta, and scholarship on the faith is growing, he said. His book has been the focus of several meetings of Atlanta’s Jamaican community, and it has been nominated for an award by the American Academy of Religion.

In the end, the author suggested that perhaps one appeal of Rastafari that has enabled it to endure long after its namesake died is the fact that it is a malleable faith. Because they eschew conventions of organized religion, Rastas do not preclude their followers from joining other congregations. Indeed, the essence of their theology is that Jah not only lives in every human—Jah is every human. To the “downpressed” people of the world, as Rastas call them, this idea has great appeal.

“They have refined [the repatriation goal] to say: Africa is within,” Erskine said of how Rasta tenets have evolved. “[Now they] talk not about going back to Africa, but about discovering Africa in Jamaica, just like the concept of the kingdom of God.

“It’s not over there; it’s here. The kingdom of God is where we are.”