The Rastafari Movement

A North American and Caribbean Perspective

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Michael Barnett
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , September
     2017.
     192 pages.
     $39.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781138682153.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his book, The Rastafari Movement: A North American and Caribbean Perspective, Michael Barnett provides a thorough and multidisciplinary account of Rastafari, from its inception in the early 1930s to the present. Barnett deploys his expertise as a social scientist and his personal insights as a Rastafarian to clarify the nature and meaning of Rasta and Rastafari. Barnett’s focus on the historical and ideological dimensions of the movement seeks to elucidate Rastafari as an evolving social movement within a larger sociopolitical matrix. As a social phenomenon, Rastafari is a formidable source of “positive black identity formation” (4-6) and an expression of African-centered spirituality. While scholars often emphasize the political dimensions of Rastafari, Barnett shows the interconnectedness between the political and spiritual dimensions of Rastafari.

Barnett’s discussion of the ideological roots of Rastafari places the movement within the rich and varied tradition of black intellectual thought. In Barnett’s analysis, Rastafari shares a genealogy with pan-Africanism, Black nationalism, and Ethiopianism, although mediated through Garveyism (9). The shared ideological heritage between Rastafari and other black religious movements allows Barnett to make comparisons between Rastafari, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Hebrew Israelites. The comparisons that Barnett makes, for example between Rastafari and the Israeli School of Practical Knowledge, focus on differences in theological interpretation. Biblical texts loom large in both Rastafari and the Black Hebrew Israelite conceptualizations of Israelite lineage yet Barnett does not provide a lot of details about Rastafarian biblical hermeneutics per se. Barnett mentions the Rastafarian “literal interpretation” of several biblical texts but he does state whether literalism is selectively applied or if it is the default interpretative approach of Rastafarians. The comparisons are nevertheless important because they depict the ways in which black-oriented Abrahamic faiths pull from a shared ideological ancestry but arrive unique theological and political positions.

The connection to pan-Africanism, Black nationalism, and Ethiopianism partly orients Rastafari as a North American creation. Barnett tacitly makes this point in his conceptual framework of Rastafari development in five epochs (22-23). The epochs show the transnational nature of Rastafari. Some of the earliest Rasta leaders discussed in the first and second epochs traveled extensively throughout the Americas and lived in the United States. Founder Leonard Howell and Claudius Henry, an influential leader in the 1950s, both lived in New York before coming to Jamaica. The transnational nature of Rastafari goes beyond its connection to the United States. When economic necessity prompted Jamaicans to migrate to England, Canada, and the US, the migrants brought their faith with them. For Barnett, migration, reggae music, and missionization contributed to the globalization of Rastafari. This globalization not only includes the routinization of Rastafari in the north but also its travel to Asia, Africa, and the eastern Caribbean. A lingering question, perhaps an ideological contradiction, that Barnett does not answer in this book is that Babylonian systems allowed for Rastafari to spread. Rastafarians use the biblical metaphor of Babylon to characterize Western societies as evil, rapacious, and ungodly (77-78). Yet as Barnett records, the earliest contact between Rastafari and the imperial Ethiopian government happened in London (88). Also, a significant portion of Rasta organizing took place in these developed nations, viewed by Rastafarians as Babylonian. Rastafarians may not necessarily see these interactions with Western societies as incongruent with their theology, but a discussion on Rasta participation in the so-called Babylonian system would clarify this seeming contradiction.

Another important aspect of Barnett’s book is his focus on the heterogeneous and polycephalous nature of Rastafari. The three main branches of Rastafari are diverse in their organizational structure and theology. For example, the Twelve Tribes differ from the other mansions in their embrace of twelve as numerically and theologically significant. On the point of the Twelve Tribe’s understanding of Haile Selassie’s divinity, Barnett shows that theological differences exist even among members of the same mansion. Barnett’s discussion goes beyond the traditional three Rastafari mansions to include other Rasta-affiliated organizations such as the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church. Barnett also highlights self-cultivated Rastas who are not attached to any mansion. The “I-and-I” concept, as discussed by Barnett, provides the ideological framework for individuals to claim Rastafari identity without authentication from established mansions (43). Barnett further argues that despite theological and ideological diversity, all Rastas are united in their affirmation of Emperor Hailie Selassie I as divine (61).

Finally, Barnett examines some of the ongoing and contemporary issues impacting Rastafari. Gender dynamics, reparations, repatriation, and marijuana decriminalization are perennial issues discussed throughout the book. Commendably, Barnett devotes all of chapter 8 to the issue of Rastafari and gender. Barnett gives priority to the work of Maureen Rowe and Imani Tafari-Ama based on their social location as female and Rastafari (66). The insider position of these scholars allows for their contribution to the scholarly debate on Rastafari and gender to be perceived as more legitimate than outsiders offering critique. Barnett sees the cultural sensitivity (relativity) in these scholars’ work as important to understanding the gender dynamics in Rastafari. Yet a constant critique of Jamaican society is that it is deeply patriarchal. As such, scholars typically characterize religious institutions including Rastafari as patriarchal and sexist. Barnett navigates the gender question by looking at each mansion’s approach to gender. However, Barnett recognizes that there are tensions. He concludes that “where gender dynamics within the Rastafari movement are concerned, the glass is half full” (75). The Rastafari woman exercises personal agency in some areas (like attire) but she is restricted in others (such as abiding by purity laws). A meaningful discussion on gender dynamics involves more than a look at gendered roles but an unmasking of the ways in which patriarchy becomes normalized in Rastafari tradition.

Overall, The Rastafari Movement is a timely and important contribution to the growing body of literature in Rastafari studies. The combination of sociological, theological, and anthropological methods to study Rastafari makes this book a truly significant multidisciplinary contribution. Barnett successfully clarifies misunderstandings about the Rastafari and provides meaningful insights into ideological dynamics of the movement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Randy Goldson is a doctoral student in Afro-Caribbean Religions at Temple University.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Barnett is presently a senior lecturer in the department of sociology, psychology and social work, University of West Indies, Mona Campus, Kingston, Jamaica.

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