Garveyism and Rastafarianism:
A Closer Look
April 25th, 2002
In the twentieth century, two movements have emerged out of Jamaica in protest of black oppression and slavery, both mental and physical. The first to evolve was Garveyism, founded by Marcus Garvey, and was born in the aftermath of the First World War. Rastafarianism was the second movement to emerge, lead by Leonard Howell during the depression years of the 1930’s. Garveyism and Rastafarianism are both resistance movements based on the same ideal: consciousness and essentialism of Africa and its descendants. The founding brethren of the Rastafari movement were Garveyites themselves, although not members of the Universal Negro Improvement Asscioation (UNIA), they agreed with and defended the principals for which Garvey stood. Essentially, Garveyism provided the ideological premise for the Rastafari movement, and out of this foundation, we see the Rastafari religion evolve. Stemming from many of the ideas that Garvey pursued through the UNIA, but adapting them in different ways, we see the Rasta ideology evolve into a realm it calls its own. It is the spiritual side of the Rastafari movement from which all the major differences the two movements are. This paper attempts to explore the path that Garvey made for the blacks of the world and understand the divergence and principles from which the Rastas made their theological trail.
II. Garveyism Movement
Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica, and it was in his home country that he recognized the social and political oppression with which the black population lived. From this discontent, he was the first to provide a plan to free the black population from the grips of the Eurocentric world that controlled them. Garvey’s plan called for a rallying of “Africa or Africans at home and abroad”. This African essentialism was to be a concentration of effort and drive to bring about fundamental transformation of an unjust society.
Garvey’s aim was to recontextualize particular aspects of seeming irreconcilable systems of Marxism/Leninism, monarchism, and even of National Socialism for the African of Africa American experience (Zips, 224). Garvey did not feel restricted by established political ideologies, instead he felt free to pick out the best attributes of every government. Ultimately, Garveyism hoped to develop the African continent into a modern network of nations, modeling it after the United States and Western Europe (Lewis, 146).
Garvey established the UNIA in Jamaica in the year 1914, two years later he left for the United States in order to gain more momentum for his movement and spread the African unity he had started in Jamaica. Before leaving Jamaica, Garvey made a prophecy of sorts to his followers: “Look into Africa for the crowning of a black king. He shall be the Redeemer” (Barrett, 67). From this prediction stems most of the discrepancy between Garveyites and Rastafarians, something I will discuss later in this paper.
The four main themes that the Garvey movement was built upon were 1) Africa for Africans at home and abroad, 2) unity, 3) self-reliance, and 4) retaining their black pride in the presence of whites (Chevannes, 95). Garvey brought this ideology with him to the United States where he founded an American branch of the UNIA in 1917 and furthered his initiatives (Zips, 223). The timing in America was impeccable and the perfect mood was set for Garvey’s arrival:
“Although it may seem a simple thing to recognize that self-determination is the right of all peoples, in the 1920’s, black people felt the sheer weight on the mind and body of a system of slavery armed with the machinery of the states, all the legal and ideological weapons designed obliterate from the minds the very capacity to think and do for themselves as human beings; if we visualize the steady insidious effect of the image of Africa as a dark continent, the brutalizing effect of white supremacist ideology – if we take all these things into account, we begin to form some idea of the magnitude of Garvey’s conception of an independent Africa as the arm and shield of every black man.”
Garvey was able to teach African Americans to dream big again, and reminded them that they had once been kings of great nations and would be again (Zips, 223). Based on a common denominator that spanned all social strata, Garvey brought African unity to the forefront by identifying this essentialism apparent in all those of African decent. This Pan-African movement strove to, and still strives today to rid minds of the stigma that anything African, anything black is inherently inferior. The movement has been influenced by Dr. Love, a leading black scholar of the time who published a journal which inspired Garvey (Chevannes, 38). The Pan-African Association states its main objectives in Dr. Love’s journal as the following:
1. To secure the Africans and their descendants throughout the world their civil and political rights.
2. To ameliorate the condition of our oppressed brethren in the continent of Africa, American, and other parts of the world.
3. To promote efforts to secure effective legislation and encourage our people in educational, industrial, and commercial enterprises.
4. To foster the production of writing and statistics relating to our people everywhere.
5. To raise funds for forwarding these purposes.
-Pan-African Association 1901 (Chevannes 38)
The Garvey movement peaked in the early 1920’s, and by the late 1920’s and early 1930’s was in its decline. Resulting from his radical demands for total reversal of social reality, Garvey was deported from the United States back to his homeland, Jamaica, in 1925. Garvey’s response to being deported and his efforts being suppressed was optimistic; “Now that we have started to speak, I am only the forerunner of an awakened Africa that shall never go back to sleep” (Garvey: Magubane, 108). He knew that what he had started, and the momentum with which it was moving, could not be halted. Garvey felt very strongly about repatriation and felt that it was the only method of launching a successful bid for equality with other races and nations. Although, in his lifetime, Garvey never set foot on African soil, he envisioned “Africa as the legitimate, moral and righteous home of all Negroes, and now, that the time is coming for all to assemble under their own vine and fig tree, we feel it our duty to arouse every Negro to a consciousness of himself” (Garvey: Chevannes, 41). The Black Star Shipping Line was an attempt of his to physically ship African descendants back to their homeland. Although this attempt failed, in a speech given at Madison Square Garden in New York City, March 16th, 1924, Garvey illustrated the movement in these words:
The Universal Negro Improvement Association represents the hopes and aspirations of the awakened Negro. Our desire is for a place in the world; not to disturb the tranquility of other men, but to lay down our burden and rest our weary backs and feet by the banks of the Niger and sing our songs and chant our hymns to the God of Ethiopia.
(Garvey: Barrett, 79).
Garvey died in London in 1940, but not without making a lasting impression among the black consciousness of the world and sowing the seeds of resistance in discourse and practice that grew in the action of those who succeeded him. What he did was awaken the black psyche, and fostered a mass movement, the largest up to that time, that challenged the world in which blacks have been enslaved while resisting and radical assumptions and notions of their inferiority (Lewis, 147). Garvey wished for the blacks of his time to know themselves, to become aware of the great potential of their blackness, and to enjoy the pride that flows from this awareness (Nettleford, 149). It is out of this Afro-centrism that the Rastafari movement was inspired. The origins of the Rastafari movement focus on two events. The first is Garvey’s prophecy sighting the significance of the coronation of an African king for the people of African decent. The second is the fulfillment of this prophecy, the coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930. So, in the 1930’s the Rastafari movement rose out of Jamaica, finding itself rooted in the poorer classes in Jamaican population. In this disproportionate society, where blacks were in the majority, yet were ruled by the white elitist minority, came the rumblings of the Rastafari movement. Leonard Howell was the main leader of this movement, a Garveyite himself; he drew upon many of Garvey’s ideas. What has come out of Jamaica since is a theological phenomenon that has spread to all corners of the world.
III. Rastafarian Movement
To understand the Rastafari philosophy, one must understand the importance they attribute to Haile Selassie’s coronation in 1930. Garvey prophesized that a black king in Africa will be the Redeemer and to look to Ethiopia for she shall stretch out her hands unto God according to Psalm 68:31. Consequently, the coronation of Haile Selassie signified the Second Coming of Christ, and it is from this event that the Rastafari movement is rooted; the divinity of Haile Selassie's fundamental in their belief system. The twin concepts of African redemption (repatriation to Ethiopia) and the divinity of the most revered ruler in Africa, have marked the Rastafari movement since its inception in 1930 by Howell (Nettleford 42). Howell began a ministry in the dilapidated slums of West Kingston from which he recruited members from various splintered cells of old Garveyites, and by 1934, a solid nucleus of Rastafarianism has been established in Kingston (Barrett 82). In the pantheon of the Rastafari movement, Marcus Garvey is second to only Haile Selassie, thus we can see how influential he was to the movement and how he helped shape its foundation (Barrett 67). The inception of the movement was founded in key verses of the Old and New Testament. Not interested so much in the empirical truths, the Rastas were more interested in the certitude of the doctrine (Barrett 84). The 1930’s were a rough time; Jamaica was experiencing a depression and colonialism. Any doctrine that promised a better hope and a better day was well received, for it filled an emotional void.
In their interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, the Rastafari identified themselves with the plight and struggle of the Jews. They saw Ethiopia representative of early Egyptian civilization and connected modern Italy with ancient Rome (Chevannes 43). It is from these Biblical references that Rastas have built their theological philosophy. The main themes of Garveyism that permeate the Rasta theology are those of essentialism, Pan-Africanism, black consciousness, and most importantly, repatriation. What the Rastafari movement has brought to these ideals is a religious overtone. The Rastas strive to bring down Babylon, that which has oppressed them, mainly in the western European imperialism, materialism, and capitalism. To show their resistance towards these “isms”, the Rastas wear their hair in dreads signifying that they are going back to nature and also symbolizing their power. Another practice of the Rastas is in the smoking of ganja as means of loosening the tongue and interacting with the spiritual world only accessible in an altered state.
Reggae music has become the primary vehicle by which the Rasta theology has spread across the globe. Robert Nesta Marley, or more universally known as Bob Marley, is perhaps the most well-known reggae performer who spent his life delivering the Rastafari message to millions of people through his music. He wrote music that not only embraced the Rasta theology, but also gave praise to the inspiration of Garvey whom he recognized as a prophet.
“So Africa, Unite ‘cause the children wanna come home
Africa, Unite ‘cause we’re moving right out of Babylon
And we’re grooving to our father’s land
How good and how pleasant it would be
Before God and Man
To see the unification of all Rastaman, yeah!”
(“Africa Unite”-Bob Marley)
IV. Continuity Between Garveyism and Rastafarianism
The continuity between Garveyism and the Rastafari movement is rooted in the belief of an African essentialism that exists among all those of African decent, a Pan-African type of centricity. Both movements aim to defend the beauty and dignity of Africa and its descendants, and are committed to the ideology of nationalism, which supports political and economical independence for blacks everywhere (Lewis, 148). Garvey proclaimed the Pan-African essentialism as follows:
“We say to the white man who now dominates Africa, that is to his interest to clear out Africa now, because we are coming…400,000,000 strong; and we mean to retake every square inch of the 12,000,000 square miles of African territory belonging to us by right divine”
(Garvey: Magubane, 104)
The issue of nationalism was something that both movements strove to preserve amongst its African followers. Garvey’s plight for nationalism began to give blacks a sense of identification with the whole of Africa, while at the same time stressing self-reliance (Campbell, 57). Garvey instilled these nationalistic tendencies on both Jamaica and in the United States, and from this the Rastafari movement was spurred on the idea that black people should never forget their heritage, and in this, linked their future to the redemption of Africa (Campbell 89). In his book, Magubane best defines the Black Nationalism that both movements drive to strengthen in the black consciousness.
“The central theoretical assumption of Black Nationalism is that before the Negro can truly be free, he must first effect a psychic separation from the idea of whiteness; that is, he must stop believing that he cannot believe in himself” (Magubane, 109).
This is what Garveyism and Rastafarianism both were and are committed to achieving, a self-determination. The Rastafari movement was a continuation of the effort started by Garvey, toward black self-determination on the collective as well as on the individual level, and in this respect, paralleled the earlier efforts of the Garvey movement (Lewis 155).
Building on the continuity of nationalism, we move into the continuity of racial pride that both movements shared.
"Both racial pride and African nationalism were inextricably woven together in the Garvey philosophy…Garvey’s unparalleled success in capturing the imagination of the masses of Negroes throughout the world…explained only by recognizing that he put into words what large numbers of his people were thinking”
Moreover, this is why Garvey succeeded more than any other black leader before him. He was able to organize mass action, something that those who preceded him were unable to attain. Garvey was able to articulate the desire of black masses for freedom and self-determination. By generating a “durable consciousness” among blacks, Garvey was able to encourage blacks to do things for themselves and not rely on the good will of those who have oppressed them (Magubane 103).
The Rastas share the ideology that blacks must be proud of their blackness and allow no one to tell them differently. As Garvey said:
“Some people are not disposed to give us credit for having feelings, passions, ambitions and desires like other races; they are satisfied to regulate us to the black-heap of human aspirations, but this is a mistake…We feel that we, too, are entitled to the rights that are common to humanity”
It is upon Garvey’s success in a mass movement that the Rastafari movement was able to build itself up and prosper well into contemporary society. It was on the work and risks taken by Garvey that the Rastafari movement got its first followers and supporters. When the Garvey movement was in its decline, Howell was able to resurrect and nurture the ideals of Garveyism and develop them further through the Rastafari movement. Rastafarianism and Garveyism do not so much differ in their ultimate objectives and end results, but rather on the methods of achieving that result. Next, we will look to how these movements diverge from one another in their means for accomplishing their goal. Most of the discontinuity arises in from the spiritual dimensions Rastafarianism added to Garvey’s agenda (Lewis 147).
V. Discontinuity Between Garveyism and Rastafarianism
The main discontinuity between Rastafarianism and Garveyism is how Haile Selassie is viewed. As mentioned above, Garvey foretold that a king would come out of Africa and that would be a Redeemer figure for the children of Africa worldwide. While both groups show great respect for the Bible, Garvey was much less interested in giving a theological interpretation to his Afro-centric political ideology than the Rastas have (Lewis 147). Garvey recognized Haile Selassie through a secular view as a prominent figure in the Pan-African, Black Nationalist movement whereas the Rastafari saw him as God, the Second Coming of Christ. Even when Haile Selassie denied being the Second Coming of Christ, it seemed not to have any effect on his perceived divine position through the eyes of the Rastafari (Nettleford, 42).
Garvey had used Hebrew prophecy in his speeches, but he did not intend them to be taken as literal interpretations. What the Rastafari did was fuse the Hebrew prophesies in Garvey’s speeches with Africanist ideas, and this gave rise to the cultural and spiritual Rastafari movement (Lewis 149). It was Howell who first began to interpret Garvey’s speeches literally and take Biblical texts to a new level of interpretation. While Garvey may have identified the plight of the Africans with that if the Israelites in Biblical Scriptures, he was much more secular in his political position and outlook than the theological tradition of Rastafarianism (Lewis 152). Since Garvey was speaking to a Pan-African movement that had believers from different religious and scriptural backgrounds, he had to admit to more than one belief system, and, therefore, criticism arouse from the Rastafari who firmly believed Haile Selassie was divine and a direct descendant of King Solomon (Lewis 151).
Although Garveyism lost some support because of his opposition to Selassie’s divinity, his work and reputation caused him to become a prophet to Rastafari. He was named a national hero in Jamaica for revitalizing black consciousness and pride amongst those of African decent. The Rastafari still believed in Haile Selassie’s divinity, and, although he is believed to have died in the 1960’s, it has made little difference to the Rastafari because they now view him as more accessible to them now that he resides in the spiritual world (Barrett 215). Also, for the Rastafari, Ethiopianism is more important as a whole concept than just Haile Selassie. The Rastafari hold the King, throne and land as a combined ontological concept in their theology, and so the King is only one part (Lewis 216).
The process by which each movement evolved was quite different. The early Rastas were drawn from the religious, cultural and social practices that were characteristic of the African-Jamaican peasantry or underclass (Lewis 149). On the other hand, The Garvey movement originated amongst the emergent black petite bourgeoisie, whose organizational structure and practices had the stamp of the emergent black middle class (Lewis, 149). Where a political movement stems from is an important determinant as to how it will evolve and its ideological framework. It is out of this discontinuity that we can recognize the difference between the two movements’ methods of achieving an ultimate goal. The Garveyites used conventional means in order to manipulate the western world and take their own place in the world. But the Rastafari were not satisfied with the western world and opted to make a break from western ideals and attempted to repatriate to their home, Africa (Lewis 149).
Another important discrepancy between the views of Garveyism and Rastafarianism are their views on the smoking of ganja. The Rastafarians smoke ganja both ritually as well as socially, and have always had ganja as a part of their culture. Garvey, however, leaves no doubt of his views of the illegal plant. In an editorial, which was printed in Garvey's publication, New Jamaican on August 13th, 1932, he states:
"Ganja is a dangerous weed. The smoking of it does a great deal of harm or injury to the smoker…our people are being destroyed by the use of ganja, there is absolutely no doubt. Aren't we playing with the danger by not more severely putting it down? Most of the people who smoke ganja do so as a means of getting themselves in such a state of condition as to forget their troubles or worries-troubles or worries brought upon them by the bad conditions that exist in our country."
He went on to call ganja the "evil weed", and saw their rituals of smoking it as un-Christian and degrading to the African personality. The position that Garvey held placed him into conflict with those who advocated and performed the sacramental use of ganja. Although he inspired the Ethiopianist vision of the Rastas, Garvey stood in strong opposition of their fundamental beliefs and practices (Lewis, 153).
Organizational differences were also apparent as a result of where the two movements originated. The Garvey movement was institutionalized and centralized through the UNIA, whereas the Rastafari had no central organization. While Garveyism was spread by means of organizing and channeling, the Rastafari movement used reggae music as its vehicle for spreading its ideology throughout the world (Lewis 153). With reggae artists like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, the Rastafari philosophy was globalized, and reggae music helped decentralize the Euro-American music industry (Zips 218).
Reggae music is a powerful message of nonviolence, peace, redemption and freedom and can be applied to many walks of life; it is not restricted by race or ethnicity, and, therefore, has made a major impact in all corners of the world for its universality. Through reggae, Rastafarian philosophy has canonized Garveyism and become the most active force in Jamaica for perpetuating aspects of Garvey’s philosophy. The popular reggae artist Burning Spear speaks of Garvey in his lyrics.
“I have a vision about Marcus Mosiah Garvey
I have a vision
He was youth like no other youth
I have a vision
He was a speaker, he speak universally
I have a vision
Up you mighty race
You can accomplish what you will
I have a vision
Up you mighty race, Up you mighty race
You can accomplish what you will
I have a vision…
…I have a vision about Marcus Mosiah Garvey
I have a vision
Up you mighty race, Up you mighty race
You can accomplish what you will
You can accomplish what you will
(“Garvey”- Burning Spear)
One concern that the Rastafarian Movement must face is whether it will experience the same fate as Garveyism, failure. Not all great social developments are made in the halls of parliament or in the sanctuaries of learning. In fact, some of the most creative trends and breakthroughs in the nations’ development are born in the dreams of the visionaries (Barrett, 228). They have already shown what a revitalization movement can do; their example must me capitalized on for the good of all, and should now be promoted by making them models for the masses (Barrett, 226).
Rastafarianism has derived itself from Garveyism, and shares many similarities with the movement from which it has received its foundation from. However, the Rastafarians must choose a path that does not divert it from its roots in spirituality, for it is the difference that will allow them to succeed where Garveyism has failed.