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Birth and Rebirth: Emergence and Change in the Rastafari Individual and Collective

Updated on May 17, 2017
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Justin Aptaker graduated summa cum laude from the University of Tennessee, earning a B.A. in psychology and a minor in religious studies.

A Review of "Becoming Rasta", by Charles Price

Charles Price, in Becoming Rasta, often refers to “seeds” (134, 142, 163). This is an apt metaphor, pointing to the themes of conception and birth that inform Rastas' understandings of their identities. Rastafari don't picture their identity transformations in terms of conversion; they see Rastafari as a seed present within them at birth, which germinates and begins to mature when they “discover” it, bringing it “into consciousness” (141 - 142). While birth metaphors are present in Christianity—one may be “born” of the Spirit—, Rastafari “inborn conception” is more akin to certain Buddhist teachings, which posit that an “embryo of Buddhahood” exists in people at birth, but must be consciously realized.

Rastafari ideas of birth and rebirth apply not only to individual Rastas, but to the Rastafari collective. The Rastafari envision time as cyclical, such that they view their movement itself as a rebirth of ancient religious movements, and anticipate that similar faiths and collectivities “may arise again” (145). Even the academic term “ethnogenesis”, with which Price frames the emergence and evolution of a Rastafari collective, carries the idea of birth. The “genesis” in ethnogenesis comes from the Greek verb γίγνομαι, which essentially means “to come to be”. Applied to people, however, this verb carries an additional layer of meaning: “to be born”. Becoming Rasta seeks to identify how and why both individual and collective Rastafari identities are born, and how they are reborn over time. To this end, Price employs ethnographic methodology, recording twenty-six Rastafari life story interviews (15). He deems life stories “an empirical entry point to understanding” (10) racial and religious identities. Becoming Rasta doesn't stop at seeking to better understand the Rastafari alone. Price makes his examination of the Rastafari into a case study, by which he hopes both to shed light on the forces that shape a social or religious movement in general (2), and to further our understanding of how “personal experience, society, and history reciprocally shape each other” (ix). This three-way interaction is the foundation upon which Price attempts to offer a novel “conception of morally configured Blackness” (223).

The interplay between individuals, society, and history can be seen in the events surrounding Claudius and Reynold Henry. The Cuban revolution under Fidel Castro had “great impact throughout the Caribbean” (Chevannes, CDB 62). That the ripples of this social event affected individual agents in Jamaica was evinced by treasonous letters addressed to Fidel Castro, written by Claudius and some of his followers (Price 75). Price indicates the impact of history by saying that Reynold acted out of the conviction that “Whites stole Africa” (76). Partly in reaction to the Henry debacles, “repression of the Rastafari grew more severe in 1960 [, which] reinforced conviction . . . and personal and collective identity” (77). The fact that a revolution in remote Cuba thus impacted individual and collective Rastafari trajectories both gives sociohistorical context, and illustrates the workings of complexity in ethnogenesis. Complexity, says Price, pictures “sociocultural phenomena as dynamic, open systems with shifting boundaries . . . influenced by feedback from various sources” (58).

The fact that Price credited persecution with “reinforced conviction” should not be overlooked. This paradox partially answers one of Price's central questions: “Why were Rastafarians willing to embrace a stigmatized identity?” In part, the stigma itself is reinforcing; it heightens the sense that the Rastafari are a select, peculiar people (108, 188). This peculiarity is construed positively by the Rastafari, allowing them to view themselves as a standard for normalcy and righteousness in the midst of a world gone mad (107). Such self-elevation connects to Rastafari beliefs about seeing, knowing, and truth. To the Rastafari it seems that only they are able to see deep truths that escape the blind masses and which alone can lead to mental/spiritual freedom (136, 144, 165). For someone not yet a Rasta, such privileged and liberating knowledge, and the answers to pressing existential questions that such knowledge provides (130, 156 – 160), could serve as enticing attractions into the identity.

Stigma also reinforces conviction indirectly, through resultant persecution. By enduring persecution, Rastafari neophytes engage in sacrifices on behalf of their new beliefs, which serve as investments in the new identity (185, 188). That such sacrifices would strengthen commitment makes perfect sense within the framework of Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance can be used to explain attitude change in terms of attitudes following action. Connected with this is the idea of “insufficient justification” (David Meyers, Social Psychology, 10th ed., 2010, 142). When actions seem freely chosen, the mind demands sufficient cognitive justification for those actions. Enduring persecution would be an action for which such justification would be required. If, before enduring persecution, a Rasta had only attached moderate value to their new identity, such moderate valuation may have seemed an insufficient justification for their having suffered so. This contrast between action and cognition would produce an uneasy tension that would motivate one of two things: to change the action—in this case, by abandoning the new identity so as to avoid future persecution—or to change the attitude, that is, to increase one's valuation of and commitment towards Rastafari identity. So for those who don't abandon Rastafari in the face of persecution, persecution naturally increases commitment. Cognitive dissonance can even help explain an element of what Price calls “experiential witnessing” (160). If a non-Rasta assumes that society is basically just, but then witnesses inexplicable mistreatment of Rastafari at the hands of society, there is now cognitive dissonance between the idea that society is just and the fact that society treats the Rastafari unjustly. This tension can be eased by deciding that society is not just, and so the Rastafari might be right (160 – 161).

Stigmatization and persecution constitute social rejection, and the Rastafari were social pariahs due to the stigmas surrounding them. Therefore, many of the attractions that drew Rastafarians into a stigmatized identity were the same attractions that eventually drew society to a greater acceptance of the Rastafari as a collective. For example, the perception of social injustice, just discussed as a possible portal into Rasta identity, could also serve to increase acceptance of the Rastafari even among those without the conviction or possibly the courage to embrace Rasta identity for themselves. This points to the social functionality of the Rastafari; they serve pressing needs and fill gaping voids within Jamaican society. According to Chevannes, Rastafari provided the “ideological antidote” to racism and classism in Jamaica (CDB 68), effecting a “reversal of values” without a “large-scale conversion . . . to the religious movement itself” (CDB 66). Hutton and Murrell say that Rastafari gave “Jamaica a way to its neglected soul” (CDB 51), providing a new psychology of Blackness that disrupted the widespread stereotype internalization that had gone before it. In a country where black women would say, “I hope I neber hab a black or dark Chile to shame me” (CDB 47), the Rastafari raised Black consciousness on a mass scale, propagating truths about the beauty and nobility of Blackness.

While the social functionality of the Rastafari played the key role in their transition from social pariahs to cultural exemplars, Price also identifies a number of crucial events connected to this transformation. These include Haile Selassie's visit to Jamaica, and his positive attitude toward the Rastafari (92); the “symbolic association of the Rastafari with new sociopolitical possibilities” during Michael Manley's campaigns (96); and the rise of Bob Marley and other reggae artists (96). While these specific events were important in their own right, they were also largely dependent upon the aforementioned social functionality of the Rastafari. Michael Manley rode winds of change that the Rastafari had already helped to set in motion. And although reggae certainly has aesthetic appeal, Marley would never have become a global phenomenon were it not for the power of his words, crying for social change, as the Rastafari had been doing for decades before Marley ever embraced the faith. Moreover, the struggle for social justice in Jamaica predated even the Rastafari, who were therefore able to draw upon entrenched cultural resources—justice motifs and a “moral economy of Blackness”—to legitimate their own claimed rights to “livelihood and identity” (27).

The realization of both social injustice and the concomitant ideological antidote to be found in Rastafari provides a motivation—a “why”—both for individual identity transformation and for mass acceptance of the Rastafari collective. This fails to describe, however, the actual birth processes—the “how”—of such transitions. Despite the Rastafari idea of “inborn conception”, from an academic perspective, people are not literally born Rasta. Nor are they born Black; Blackness is socially constructed (225). Thus, Black identity formation and transformation are socialization processes by which one's conception of Blackness increases in positivity and salience within the self-concept (8, 225). Another aspect of Rastafari identity, however, is morality/religion. So while Price draws from Cross's nigrescence theory to explain positivity and salience in Rastafari identity formation, he draws from theories of religious conversion to explain Rastafari as a moral Black identity (8, 124 - 129).

Nigrescence describes a series of stages in “becoming Black”. Price loosely applies these stages to becoming Rastafarian, but prefers to conceive of the “stages” as “processes”, saying, “People and their identities are always in a state of becoming” (116). For example, when Brother Bongo lived in Back-o-Wall, he would likely have thought himself a committed Rasta, who had internalized his Rasta identity—here I refer to the “internalization-commitment” stage of nigrescence (115). After Back-o-Wall was destroyed, however, he found himself “backsliding”, and had to leave the tenement yard where he suffered from a lack of Rasta influences (220 - 221). He had to find a more Rastafarian environment, where he would likely undergo a degree of resocialization reminiscent of the “earlier” immersion-emersion stage of nigrescence. Price's conception allows for such ambiguities.

Ambiguity and unpredictability also characterize the birth and evolution of the Rastafari collectivity. Concerning the birth of a social movement, Price says, “We can only approximately pinpoint initial conditions” (58). This much we do know: a number of evangelists from various backgrounds began preaching around similar themes of justice, black redemption, and the newly crowned emperor of Ethiopia. From there, Price uses complexity theory to explain how the Rastafari evolved “without a plan or some guiding force” (5), driven by the self-organization that emerges out of adjustments to various interactions and perturbations (58). For example, there are today among the Rastafari both groups that are progressive in their attitudes towards women and other sub-populations that are more patriarchal or even misogynistic. This current complexity has much to do with the rise of the passionate, reactionary Dreadlocks faction throughout the '50s and '60s (66- 67, 213 – 214). Although the reasonings behind the rise of the Dreads largely focused on purging the movement of traditional “superstitions”, a by-product of these interactions was the introduction of a more rigidly patriarchal element, perhaps due to the female's role in transmitting “cultural practices of an African nature” (Rowe, CDB 77). This unguided increase in complexity exemplifies the concept of self-organization. Patriarchy in Rastafari, introduced by what Price considers more of “an interruption . . . than the pattern of gender relations” (214), is gradually fading as more Rasta women rebel against gender oppression (216 – 217). This leaves Rastafari with its currently variegated landscape of gender relations.

The examples of Brother Bongo and the rise of the Dreads illustrate the ambiguity, flux, nonlinearity, and unpredictability inherent in the evolution of individual and collective Rastafari identities. For this reason, Price's review discusses change and challenges to these identities both now and in the future. Situating “personal identity formation within the context of ethnogenesis” (57), Price shows that changes involving the Rastafari collective and its social environment present new challenges to personal identity maintenance. For example, the globalization of the Rastafari and the proliferation of information technology provide new doors into Rastafarian identity, which do not involve contact with Rastafari elders and community-based socialization (205). Likewise, the de-emphasis of these traditional means of immersing oneself in the Rastafari identity may result in superficial commitment to the identity, as many people worldwide are drawn to Rastafari through reggae music and marijuana consumption (205 - 206). The very fact that the Rastafari have transitioned from pariahs to cultural exemplars constitutes a threat to individual identity maintenance; as Rasta culture is commodified, less sacrifice and personal investment is required (192). Cognitive dissonance predicts that less sacrifice may lead to less commitment. Additionally, a nihilistic and consumeristic “modern Blackness” is, to some extent, displacing the moral configuration of Jamaican Blackness, so important to Rastafari identity (205, 231). This modern Blackness is even found among Rastafari, as some middle-class Rastas are criticized “for not sharing their success and for taking on the ways of Babylon” (218).

It has been shown that ethnogenesis is unpredictable. While challenges of modernity, such as “modern Blackness” and monied Rastas, could lead to stagnation, they could also lead to renewal. Perhaps the movement will direct its potent energies towards filling new existential voids generated by nihilism and rote consumerism, reminding us of what makes us feel truly human and gives our lives meaning. A new generation of Rastas is already showing revolutionary trends, making “militant noise [and saying] them want to burn everything” (201). Considering the history of the Rastafari, and their propensity for transfiguring adversity into advantage, I would hope that surprise is more likely than demise.

Becoming Rasta was a joy to read. Charles Price, in my estimation, laudably succeeded both in his goal of shedding new light on Black and Rastafari identity formation, and in his goal of furthering our understanding of social/religious movements in general. The Rastafari provide us with a rare glimpse into the birth of a religion. The more ancient world religions do not allow us to clearly see the social milieus and earliest individual agents that shaped these religions. Thus, Price's work is invaluable for its focus on both the earliest carriers of Rastafari—most of his interviewees were Rasta “elders” (15)—and the social environments in which these elders' Rastafari identities were shaped. His life story interviews also illuminate the actions of individual agents in ethnogenesis. According to Price, personal testimonies of Rastafari about their identity transformations are “surprisingly absent” (ix) from the prior literature on the movement. Indeed, Leonard Barrett's book, The Rastafarians, while providing an excellent introduction to the Rastafari movement, involves nothing like Price's sophisticated ethnographic analysis. This analysis shows how religious/social movements are born from the interaction between history, society, and individuals, and how/why the earliest carriers of a new religion give birth to and maintain new personal identities. Thus, Price greatly contributes to our understanding of religion.


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