Observations on Rastafari Cosmopolitics from the Caribbean

Rastafari-grounded and Caribbean imaginative reinventions have long influenced the evolution of Caribbean ethnography. They could inspire a decolonial anthropology for this century.

“I am Ethiopian just like my neighbor who was born and grew here.” These words were spoken by Ras Henry, a mature Rastafari man who migrated 12,000 kilometers from Jamaica to Ethiopia in the 1970s. Like many other Rastafari, Ras Henry took up the offer of land in the southern Ethiopian city of Shashamane. And like his fellow migrants, Ras Henry’s experiences and self-ascriptions are imaginative acts of self-invention occurring in the insular and diasporic Caribbean. These kinds of contradictions over imagination, identity, movement, and citizenship characterized the core concerns of Caribbeanist anthropology and ethnography throughout the twentieth century.

As emerging scholars of the Global South teaching in Trinidad and Tobago in the English-speaking Caribbean , we propose that these transnational elements can sustain an insurgent potential of Caribbean ethnography, thereby contributing toward a decolonial anthropology for the twenty-first century. The Rastafari claim to an equal human status reinvents the subordinated black Caribbean colonial subject to reflect the embodied quality of dignity and a state of freedom. Here Rastafari “cosmopolitics” refers to the emic expressions of world community situated in such acts of imagination and corresponding action, which can help us highlight localized scenarios and interconnections with global processes.

The Rastafari claim to an equal human status reinvents the subordinated black Caribbean colonial subject to reflect the embodied quality of dignity and a state of freedom.
This exercise, in a certain respect, is in keeping with the radical branches of Caribbean theory. In the interwar years, Trinidadian-born West Indian philosopher C. L. R. James’s book The Black Jacobins (1938, republished in 1963 following the Cuban revolution), deliberately changed the analysis of modernity, showing how central the West Indies was to the growth of capitalism in Europe as well as the limitations of those political doctrines. Emblematic of this radicalism, James argued that emancipatory projects were not only to be found in the politics of the Enlightenment and proclamations of European philosophers or in revolutionary North America, but also—and perhaps more acutely—in an insurrection led by Haitian slaves who were able to conceive of themselves in a different condition, and then struggle accordingly.

While Ras Henry’s imaginative declaration and concerns are different from those of Toussaint L’Ouverture during the Haitian Revolution, both nevertheless offer an insurgent reinvention of themselves and their communities—with much emancipatory potential. We think studies of this impulse are important for enhancing cultural understanding and the awareness of social inequalities, but they must also also contrasts starkly with some traditions in anthropology. For instance, the “peoples and cultures” approach that predominated in early twentieth-century anthropology inadequately captured the heterogeneity of the multiethnic, multilingual, proto-capitalist Caribbean (to paraphrase Sidney Mintz). Noteworthy ethnographies were still written and produced, such as Life in a Haitian Valley (1937) and Trinidad Village (1947) by Americans Melville Herskovits and Frances Herskovits that posited African cultural retentions in the Caribbean, thereby complicating simplistic accounts of the native “Other.”

Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz’s Contrapunteo Cubano del Tabaco y el Azúcar (1940) or Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, maintained this complexity by putting forth the transculturation thesis for modern culture contact through the site of the New World plantation (the English-language volume contains an appreciative forward by doyen of European anthropology, Bronisław Malinowski). Such nuanced transnational underpinnings also emerged in the ethnographies of British-trained Jamaican anthropologists, M. G. Smith (The Plural Society in the British West Indies) and Edith Clarke (My Mother Who Fathered Me). They offered detailed accounts of colonial power dynamics and the complex intersection of plantation, peasant, and urban living, but within a functionalist paradigm. The transnational and diasporic peoples and processes of the then colonial West Indies (a region peripheral within the discipline) pushed anthropologists in the center to find new approaches to and theories for the region. While theories of acculturation (Herskovits 1938), creolization (Mintz and Price 1976), and transculturation (Ortiz 1940) can help navigate the kinds of complex affiliations Ras Henry’s words address, these are also incomplete.

For us, Ras Henry’s ruminations exemplify these acts of the imagination—an Afrocentric but also a cosmopolitan view of self and world; the position of Rastafari within the cosmos and within an inclusive world community that is nonetheless internally differentiated. In making his existential statement “I am Ethiopian just like my neighbor who was born and grew here,” Ras Henry reiterates a Rastafari reimagination of self as Ethiopian and as a human being in the image of the Rastafari-designated Ethiopian Creator, His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I. Such deliberations by everyday persons raise cross-culturally relevant questions around belonging and the cosmopolitan actor at the core of the human condition, matters which we think are central to the ongoing project of decolonizing anthropology.

Here, the ethnographic work of Jamaican anthropologist Barry Chevannes (1940–2010) offers promise. Chevannes had a wide-ranging career researching religion, spirituality, resistance, and popular culture. Through an impressive range of studies into continuity and change in Caribbean social life, thought, and cultural forms, Chevannes highlights how a Rastafari praxis of heterogeneous movements challenges Eurocentric concepts of modernity, implying that the Caribbean can still contribute to our work as anthropologists (1994; 1998; 2006; Besson and Chevannes 1996). The most notable of these assertions comes through reimagining the subordinated black colonial subject in the androcentric image of Ethiopian royalty: Ras Tefari Mekonnen or Haile Selassie I.

The “openness” of Rastafari is grounded in an historical awareness of the making of Caribbean sociality out of the transnational plantation economy, its hierarchies, multicultural environment, and imaginative acts of self-fashioning.
The coronation of Ethiopian monarch Haile Selassie I was a momentous event for Africans and colonial subjects worldwide. As Horace Campbell summarizes, looking toward Ethiopia, even as an imperial state, was a response to the “racial repression of capitalism” (2007, 2). In the Caribbean, poor black Jamaicans watching newsreel footage, exchanging information, and reading newspapers and magazines came to reimagine themselves as “Rastafarians” or “Rastafari.” This declaration reclaimed an imperialist ethnocentric concept of “the African” as inferior to “the European” and worthless—notions legitimated through Christian doctrine. Ethiopia signified a heaven on earth or “Zion” with the West and the Caribbean as “Babylon” or hell.

Within this moral framework, the Rastafari challenge to a European-defined scale of civilization (see for example, Tylor’s Primitive Culture) recognized and embraced a common humanity—a world community that was distinguished for Rastafari between those “in the faith” and those who had not yet “manifested” or become Rastafari, as common sayings go. Here the cosmopolitan characteristic of this Rastafari worldview adheres to “an aesthetic and intellectual openness toward divergent cultural experiences” (Hannerz 2005, 205). The “openness” of Rastafari, we suggest, is grounded in an historical awareness of the making of Caribbean sociality out of the transnational plantation economy, its hierarchies, multicultural environment, and imaginative acts of self-fashioning. In a related vein, British anthropologist Huon Wardle (2001) argues for an “everyday cosmopolitanism” emerging from his ethnography of working class Kingstonians in urban Jamaica. Through narratives of adventure related by both sedentary and mobile Jamaicans, Wardle suggests that everyday instances of cosmopolitanism, which are enacted and embodied, exemplify such a cosmopolitan imaginary. These Rastafari-grounded and Caribbean imaginative responses can be translated into macroinstitutional change through expressions and mobilizations of global belonging. Considering citizenship in a holistic way is one such example. Rastafari migrants in Ethiopia assert a place within the multicultural Ethiopian nation and insist on legal rights and privileges accorded to citizens.

The emic expressions of world community that are foregrounded in Rastafari cosmopolitics can also provide tools for us, as postcolonial anthropologists, to critique the reproduction of narrow hegemonic nationalism and encroaching neocolonialism in the Global South. Within this context, Rastafari cosmopolitics can be interpreted as an instance of decoloniality. Highlighting the continued impact of what Aníbal Quijano (1992) calls “the coloniality of power” in contemporary global capitalism, such ethnographies of the Caribbean engage with reverberations from the various projects of modernity. Decoloniality, then, can be “read as the refusal of a hegemonic frame of self-referencing, and as a changed relation to such frames that cast humanity and its progress in terms of a particular re-ordering of discriminatory development” (Crichlow 2012, 131). If anything, material and institutional change—whether in terms of redressing power imbalances through political inclusion and corresponding rights within the state or cultural recognition of legitimacy within the postcolonial nation—are central elements of this Rastafari decolonial project, a project which seeks to reclaim social and subjective ontological reimagining. We see significant value in anthropologists working with decolonial orientations of this sort to reckon with persistent injustices.

We do not wish to convey that Rastafari alternative cosmopolitics cannot be co-opted by the very forces they critique. Indeed, recent politics (or “politricks” as Rastafari say) in postcolonial Jamaica has brought about a change of status of Rastafari. The postcolonial Jamaican nation has shifted the positionality of Rastafari from “outcasts to culture bearers” (Edmonds 2003). One example of the symbolic appropriation of Rastafari values is the development and promotion of “Brand Jamaica.” Anthropologist Moji Anderson and Erin MacLeod (2017) show how the recent image of Jamaica has been crafted through the cultural attributes and characteristics of reggae and Bob Marley, ganja or marijuana, and the Western-derived tourist gaze of white-sand beaches and aquamarine waters that hide the “slow violence” (Nixon 2011) of urban Jamaica. This representation stands in sharp contrast to how Rastafari were perceived in the 1960s, portrayed as violent, dirty, dreadlocked criminals who threatened the respectability mores of colonial and postcolonial Jamaica. This adds a fuller picture of how this cosmopolitics is crafted by socio-cultural dynamics and material conditions globally, not only specifically in Jamaica, the Caribbean, or Ethiopia. It also conveys how decolonial scholars must avoid making similar errors as we also take part in the politics of knowledge production.

The Caribbean lineage of imaginative acts of self-invention that challenge inequalities and group subordination point to the potential contributions of ethnographies of the diasporic and insular Caribbean toward a decolonial anthropology for our present and future. Through Rastafari discursive demands for recognizing the egalitarianism of a world community and an equal belonging within this community—that also challenges the Eurocentrism of modernity—the emancipatory potential of Caribbean anthropology carries on.

Shelene Gomes is a Caribbeanist anthropologist whose research interests include migration, cosmopolitanism, the transnational Caribbean, and gendered narratives. She is presently a lecturer at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago, and her work appears in African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal and The Global South (forthcoming).

Scott Timcke is a political economist at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. His projects are unified by the attempt to study the uneven and combined development of capitalism and to write about it in a narrative form.

Featured image by Emily Thiessen, an illustrator and community organizer with a fire for creative troublemaking. She recently graduated with a degree in anthropology from the University of Victoria. You can see more of her work at emilytheissen.ca or @archipelagic on Instagram.

Cite as: Gomes, Shelene, and Scott Timcke. 2019. “Observations on Rastafari Cosmopolitics from the Caribbean.” Anthropology News website, April 8, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1137

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