Rastafari Nationalism & the Questions of Reparations.

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By Dr. W. Gabriel Selassie I

The move by the United States and other nations to make legal the production, sale, and consumption of ganja has produced an unintended consequence of providing more energy toward Rastafari groups seeking legitimate social recognition and political power in Jamaica and the Diaspora. This has come at a time when the possibility of a global movement toward the legalization of Ganja has taken hold.

This is a good thing. But the quest for Rastafari ganja rights also raises fundamental questions about the possibility of Rastafari national sovereignty, the right of African repatriation and the quest for genocidal reparations. While they may appear on its surface to be quite distant these issues are uniquely related in that they highlight the tension between local and national recognition and maintaining Rastafari’s existence as a truly international movement.

Political movements are not born outside of the nation state. They derive their foundations from existing histories, and these histories in the West are born from the quest for inclusion or exclusion from particularistic national identities. At some point all socio-religious-cultural movements must negotiate with nationalist ideology. Rastafari is unique in that the movement’s origins are largely bound up between Old World and New World epistemologies. (The New World is an ideological construction that developed with the rise of modernity and its science used to justify the Atlantic slave trade) This unique origin gives Rastafari more leverage as a truly international structure similar in many ways to both world religious and internationalist socialist movements. Therefore, all Rasta’s share a global culture bound together by the long train of slavery and colonialism. This shared history renders Rastafari-as members of an international body that defies borders and subordinates national identity.

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Rastafari is way of life, but its is also a religious way of life, intended to unite diasporic blacks in an alliance of humanism, sensitivity to the environment, reorientation of racial theology, and care of the self (cura animae) often trivialized and reduced to Marcus Garvey’s ideology of One. Yet, the quest for political power, via ganja rights or what have you is largely national in its orientation. This is cause for concern. How will Rastafari continue to uphold the values that have made the movement the most remarkable religious, cultural and international movement of the 20th century? The problem as I see it, is that the move toward national political recognition, which is a fundamentally a quest to participate in national political power sharing calls into question the international thrust, as I have mentioned earlier, that gave Rastafari the ability to spread from Kingston to Nairobi.

Only complete political, social and cultural autonomy will enable Rastas to maintain their right to internationalism. But is this the proper avenue for the movement given its underlying desire to claim rights offered to other local groups within their borders? Can Rastafari maintain its belief that it is an international movement not subject to the whims of local governments and yet seek recognition as a national body and its people entitled to political and religious rights? These questions are not trivial. The question is whether Rasta Elders should subordinate their national tendencies for the greater cause of maintaining Rastafari’s international identity? Is internationalism greater than nationalism?

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The very logistics of repatriation, even for Marcus Garvey, presented this very question. What national allegiances would be served by Diasporic repatriation? African, Ghanaian, Ethiopian? Can Rastafari remain true to its principles and yet become loyal members of the receptive national community? (I am thinking of national military conscription for the children of Rastafari that are called to military service). These are vexing and troubling questions that Rastafari mansions must consider. Can one be in it but not of it? For example, does seeking local ganja rights negate Rastafari international ambitions, like the quest for global reparations? The history of social movements shows affirmatively that the pull of nationalism tends to take priority over internationalism. The 20th century global socialist movement faced this same question when confronting the harsh reality of nationalism.

Today the Rastafari tradition is uniquely placed to spread its message of human rights, among them racial reconciliation; animal dignity, proper environmental stewardship, health and food security and a move towards living simply and respectfully on the planet. Consensus toward these goals appears universal but their application will face scrutiny in the face of national political recognition. What we need more than ever are new religious and social ideas. New ideas that will help Rastafari face the challenges of survival in the coming decades. Without coming to some form of consensus by the many Rastafari mansions and Yards the coming years will reveal an uneasiness by which cold hard political reality will haunt the beautiful black movement.



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