This article was compiled by Jodi Phillips April 2014, for the Institute of Black Academics
concerning Black Under achievement.

PUBLISHED 09 APRIL 2013  05:26


Diasporas invariably leave a trail of collective memory about other times and places. But while most displaced peoples frame these attachments with the aid of living memory and the continuity of cultural traditions, the memories of those in the African diaspora have been refracted through the prism of history to create new maps of desire and attachment. Historically, black peoples in the New World have traced memories of an African homeland through the trauma of slavery and through ideologies of struggle and resistance.

Arguably the most poignant of these discursive topographies is that of the Rastafari faith and culture. Like the Garvey Movement and other forms of pan-Africanism before it, the Rastafari fashion their vision of an ancestral homeland through a complex of ideas and symbols known as Ethiopianism, an ideology which has informed African-American concepts of nationhood, independence, and political uplift since the late 16th century. Derived from references in the Holy Bible to black people as 'Ethiopians', this discourse has been used to express the political, cultural, and spiritual aspirations of blacks in the Caribbean and North America for over three centuries. From the last quarter of the 18th century to the present, Ethiopianism has, at various times, provided the basis for a common sense of destiny and identification between African peoples in the North American colonies, the Caribbean, Europe, and the African continent.

While the present-day Rastafari Movement is undoubtedly the most conspicuous source of contemporary Ethiopianist identifications, the culture of Jah People obscures the wider historical range and scope of Ethiopianist ideas and identifications among African peoples in the Diaspora and on the continent. Names like Phyllis Wheatley, Bishop Richard Allen, Prince Hall, Denmark Vesey, Martin Delany, Casley Hayford, Frederick Douglass, Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, Albert Thorne, and Marcus Garvey all drew upon the powerful identification of this discourse to spread a message of secular and spiritual liberation of black peoples on the African continent and abroad. More so than any of his predecessors or contemporaries, however, it was Marcus Garvey--a Jamaican of proud Maroon heritage--who championed the cry of "Africa for the Africans, at home and abroad" and encouraged his followers in the biblical view that "every nation must come to rest beneath their own vine and fig tree."

From the period prior to the American Revolutionary War, slaves in North America equated Ethiopia with the ancient empires that flourished in the upper parts of the Nile Valley and--largely through biblical references and sermons--perceived this territory as central to the salvation of the black race. black converts to Christianity in colonial America cherished references to Ethiopia in the Bible for a number of reasons. These references depicted Blacks in a dignified and human light and held forth the promise of freedom. Such passages also suggested that African peoples had a proud and deep cultural heritage that pre-dated European civilization. The summation of these sentiments was most frequently identified with Psalm 68:31 where it is prophesied that "Princes shall come out of Egypt and Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God." During the late 18th century, black churchmen in the North American colonies made extensive use of Ethiopianist discourse in their sermons. Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, was among those who identified the cause of African freedom with this prophecy in Psalms. During the Revolutionary War, it is reputed that one black regiment proudly wore the appellation of "Allen's Ethiopians." Phyllis Wheatley, the black poet-laureate of colonial America, also made frequent use of this discourse as did Prince Hall, a black Revolutionary War veteran and founder of the African Masonic Lodge. Commenting upon the successful slave insurrection in Haiti (1792-1800), Hall observed: "Thus doth Ethiopia begin to stretch forth her hand, from the sink of slavery, to freedom and equality." There was, in nearly all expressions of Ethiopianism, a belief in the redemption of the race linked to the coming of a black messiah. Perhaps the first expressed articulation of this idea is seen in The Ethiopian Manifesto published by Robert Alexander Young, a slave preacher in North America in 1829.

In large part because of the movement of peoples spurred in its aftermath, the American Revolutionary War provided a major impetus for the spread of Ethiopianism from Britain's North American to its Caribbean colonies. As British loyalists departed from North America for places like Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados, the churched slaves and former slaves who traveled with them transplanted Ethiopianism to these plantation societies and inaugurated an independent black religious tradition. In Jamaica, George Liele, a former slave and churchman from Savannah, Georgia, founded the first Ethiopian Baptist church in 1783. Liele called his followers "Ethiopian Baptists." Thus began a deep rooted tradition of Ethiopian identification in Jamaica, the birthplace of both Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association (founded in 1914) and the Rastafari movement (born in 1930).

Ethiopianism and its associated ideology of racial uplift also spread to the African continent. By the 1880 and 1890s, "Ethiopianist" churches, an independent black church movement, spread throughout Southern and Central Africa. During the same period, African-American churchmen missionized actively on the continent and, through the efforts of figures like Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, Ethiopianism served as an ideology which linked African-American brethren with their African brothers and sisters. During this same period, largely due to the sovereignty of Ethiopia amidst European colonialism on the continent, African Americans fixed greater attention on the ancient Empire of Ethiopia itself, thinking of Ethiopia as a black Zion. In 1896, the defeat of invading Italian forces by Menelik II in the Battle of Adwa served to bolster the mythic status and redemptive symbolism of Ethiopia in the eyes of Africans at home and abroad.

By focusing attention on events on the continent, the Battle of Adwa served as a catalyst for a modern pan-African movement led by men like Casley Hayford of the Gold Coast, Albert Thorne of Barbados, and Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey. Garvey founded the largest mass black movement in history, starting in Jamaica and spreading his message to the rest of the Caribbean, Central and North America. Inspiring blacks through the African world with a vision of racial uplift, Garvey made conspicuous use of 18th century biblical Ethiopianism in his speeches and writings. For Garvey, it was "Every nation to their own vine and fig tree," a theme which continues to resonate in the contemporary Rastafari Movement. Garvey, like other pan-Africanists of his generation, saw the liberation of the African continent from colonialism as inseparable from the uplift of black peoples everywhere. In the 1920s, his movement reached from Harlem to New Orleans, from London to Cape Town, Lagos to Havana, and from Kingston to Panama. During this same decade, Garveyism and its associated rituals of black nationhood became a vibrant and essential element of the Harlem Renaissance.

Many scholars argue that Ethiopianism peaked during the early 1930s prior to and during the second Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Certainly the single event in this century which resonated with the multiple cultural, political, and religious dimensions of Ethiopianism was the coronation of Ras Tafari Makonnen, the then Prince Regent of Ethiopia. In November of 1930, the biblical enthronement of Ras Tafari as His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, became an internationally publicized event which was unique in the African world. The news of a black regent claiming descent through the biblical lineage of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, stirred the imaginations of an entire generation of African Americans and refocused attention upon ancient Ethiopia. The second Italian invasion of Ethiopia in October of 1935 produced an enormous wave of pro-Ethiopianist sentiments among blacks across the African continent as well as in the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States. Particularly to blacks in the diaspora the invasion was seen as an attack on the dominant symbol of African pride and cultural sovereignty. In Harlem, thousands of African Americans marched and signed petitions asking the U.S. government to allow them to fight on behalf of the Ethiopian cause. In Trinidad, this crisis in the black world coincided with the emergence of calypso and a fledgling Caribbean music industry. Calypsos which described the crisis from a black perspective were carried by West Indian seamen from port to port throughout the black world. Music--always an integral part of African and African American culture--served to crystallize shared sentiments of racial pride in support of the Ethiopian cause.

 It is in the Rastafari movement, with its origins in Jamaica, that Ethiopianism has been most consistently elaborated for nearly seven decades. The biblical enthronement of Ras Tafari Makonnen in 1930 as His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of King, Lord of Lords, and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah was an event widely reported throughout the European and colonial world. It was the ensuing interpretation of the Solomonic symbols by which Ras Tafari took possession of a kingdom with an ancient biblical lineage which transformed Ethiopia into an African Zion for the nascent Rasta movement. The independence of Ethiopia as one of only two sovereign nations on the African continent ensured Selassie's placement at the symbolic center of the African world throughout the colonial and much of the post-colonial period. Indicative of this is the fact that the Organization of African Unity (founded in 1963), is headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. To this day, it is the biblical imagery associated with the theocratic kingdom of Ethiopia which fuels a Rastafari vision of nationhood and underlies their deification of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Today, it is probably fair to say that when most people hear the word "Rastafari" they think of Bob Marley, the "king of reggae." Through his inspirational music, Marley did more to popularize and spread the Rasta message worldwide than any other single individual. But neither Marley or reggae represents the roots of the Rastafari experience. Reggae, as a music of populist black protest and experience which has had a formative experience upon Jamaican nationalism, emerged in Jamaica only during the early 1970s. For at least three decades previous to this, Rastafari in Jamaica were evolving an African-oriented culture based on their spiritual vision of repatriation to the African homeland.

The "Roots" or Elders of the movement have built upon earlier sources of African cultural pride, identification, and resistance such as those embodied by Jamaica's Maroons --runaway slaves who formed independent communities within the island's interior during the 17th century. Rastafari, in fact, must be seen as a religion and movement shaped by the African Diaspora and an explicit consciousness that black people are African 'exiles" outside their ancestral homeland. As one Rasta Elder stated, "Rastafari is a conception that was born at the moment that Europeans took the first black man out of Africa. They didn't know it then, but they were taking the first Rasta from his homeland."

From the early 1930s, Rastafari in Jamaica have developed a culture based on an Afrocentric reading of the Bible, on communal values, a strict vegetarian dietary code known as Ital, a distinctive dialect, and a ritual calendar devoted to, among other dates, the celebration of various Ethiopian holy days. Perhaps the most familiar feature of Rastafari culture is the growing and wearing of dreadlocks, uncombed and uncut hair which is allowed to knot and mat into distinctive locks. Rastafari regard the locks as both a sign of their African identity and a religious vow of their separation from the wider society they regard as Babylon . In the island of its birth, Rasta culture has also drawn upon distinctive African-Jamaican folk traditions which includes the development of a drumming style known as Nyabinghi . This term is similarly applied to the island-wide gatherings in which Rastafari brethren and sistren celebrate the important dates on an annual calendar.

With the advent of reggae, this deeper "roots culture" has spread throughout the Caribbean, to North American and European metropolis such as London, New York, Amsterdam, Toronto, and Washington, D.C., as well as to the African continent itself. This more recent growth and spread of the movement has resulted from a variety of factors. These include the migration of West Indians (e.g., Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Antiguans) to North America and Europe in search of employment, the travel of reggae musicians, and the more recent travel of traditional Rastafari Elders outside Jamaica. At the same time, many African American and West Indian individuals who have become Rastafari outside Jamaica now make "pilgrimages" to Jamaica to attend the island-wide religious ceremonies known as Nyabinghi and to seek out the deeper "roots culture" of the movement. Despite the fact that Rastafari continue to be widely misunderstood and stigmatized outside Jamaica, the movement embraces a non-violent ethic of "peace and love" and pursues a disciplined code of religious principles.

Since 1992 and the 100th anniversary of Haile Selassie's birth, the Rastafari settlement in Shashamane, Ethiopia (part of a land grant given to the black peoples of the West by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1955) has come to serve as a growing focal point for the movement's identification with Africa.

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