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Telling the Rastafarian story

Published: 
Wednesday, April 25, 2018

On Monday April 18, 1966, the late Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, stepped onto the tarmac at Piarco International Airport and was greeted by then prime minister Dr Eric Williams and members of his Cabinet.

The year before, Dr Williams had visited the east African country and issued an invitation to Selassie who had been planning to visit the region, especially  Jamaica where he was revered as a spiritual figure by Rastafarians there. When the Caribbean expedition came off, T&T was the firststop, followed by a tumultuous trip to Jamaica.

Rastafarian researcher, Tyehimba Salandy, believes the emperor’s visit was pivotal to the subsequent, exponential growth of the faith in T&T and the strengthening of the movement in Jamaica and the Caribbean.

In introducing Salandy at a National Trust public lecture in Port-of-Spain last Thursday, Lisa-Ann Paul, who functions as heritage preservation and research officer at the National Trust, argued that “this momentous occasion (the Selassie visit) may have provided the impetus for the early beginnings of the Rastafari movement in Trinidad and Tobago.”

However, Salandy went on to advise a packed Old Fire Station hall last Thursday, Rastafarianism was yet to confront its sturdiest challenges.

In fact, Salandy argued that in addition to endemic racism against people of African descent, the “nationalist project in Trinidad” contributed more than its fair share of physical violence against and the marginalisation and social alienation of Rastafarians.

Backed by a selection of news clippings and photographs, Salandy said Rastas were openly vilified by different sections of the national community and persecuted by the police.

“It was clear that the authorities and many members of the public viewed Rastas with great contempt and disgust, viewing them as illiterates, insane, deviant and criminal,” Salandy argued.

He said the movement gained momentum in the years following the 1970 Black Power uprising when Afro hairstyles began giving way to dreadlocks. This was bolstered by the growing influence of Jamaican reggae superstars “who were rooted in the Rastafari tradition.”

He identified other influences such as the use of marijuana in the religious rites of Hindus together with their vegetarianism.

There was also the legacy of a relatively strong, black conscious, Garveyite movement during the pre-independence years that fed into the growth of trade unionism and radical thought.

Salandy argued that an important contributory factor behind a lack of recognition for Rastas was a prevailing repudiation of “the strong ethnic identification” of the group with things African.

This, he said, found expression in Dr Williams’ famous speech in which he asserted that there was no place for “Mother Africa” in T&T.

He also pointed to media reportage on the growing presence of Rastas throughout T&T, citing one 1973 newspaper article which referred to the group as “a bunch of filthy, unkempt black power terrorists who are only out to make trouble.”

Rastafarians were also readily associated with the activities of the National Union of Freedom Fighters (NUFF), whose members were systematically hunted down and killed after launching attacks on police stations and other facilities throughout Trinidad.

This, Salandy argued, provided the impetus behind growing threats of violence, killings and discrimination that threateneda proper place in school for Rastafarian
 children and jobs for adherents to the faith.

The evening’s proceedings also gratuitously conflated the problems of Rastas with the plight of Afro-Trinidadians generally.

Paul, for example, suggested that the gains of the Black Power movement “were such that persons of darker hues were able to navigate social and economic spaces with greater ease.”

However, she added, “The Black Power Movement was by no means a cure-all. We still have a lot of work to do to move the mountain that is colonialism, self-hate and general ignorance.”

She argued that in addition to the conflict associated with a lack of self-appreciation was the battle to claim “our heritage; that is, the tangible and intangible legacies of a culture or environment that informs usabout ourselves.”

“European heritage represented through sites, monuments, properties, and other cultural facets are often regarded more highly than others mostly based on the outdated misconception that colonial inheritances are superior to indigenous and non-European heritage.”

Both Paul and Salandy, whose lecture was the highlight of the evening, appeared to be saying that the insights of the early days of African/Rastafarian awareness remained challenged by school curricula, mass media and general systems of social organisation that continue to marginalise the value Rastafarian values can bring to T&T society.

There were no dissenting voices in the audience.

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