Marcus Garvey and Rastafari
published: Thursday | August 26, 2004
SHOULD MARCUS Garvey be hailed as 'Ras Marcus'? Was Garvey the first Rasta, the prototype and father of the movement which sprang up when he was at the height of his powers in the 1930s? To provide any kind of sensible answer we shall need to know what Rastas believe and what Garvey taught which might support or contradict those beliefs. Garvey is only outranked by His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie, Ras Tafari, as an icon of Rastafarianism.
In their highly romanticised history, 'The Story of the Jamaican People', Philip Sherlock and Hazel Bennett made some interesting connections between Haile Selassie, Garvey and Rasta: In 1930 Ras Tafari was crowned Negus of Ethiopia in St. George's Cathedral in Addis Ababa, taking the name Haile Selassie which means might of the Trinity. Note the strong presence of Christian symbolism in cathedral and title. Garvey was reported to have said, "Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King. He shall be the Redeemer."
I am anxious to obtain verification of this quotation. The coronation of Haile Selassie was therefore fulfilment. Sherlock and Bennett went on to say that Garvey thought and dreamed of Ethiopia. Garvey declared, "We Negroes believe in the God of Ethiopia, the Everlasting God * God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, the one God of all ages. This is the God in whom we believe but we shall worship him through the spectacles of Ethiopia; and, as Scripture foretold, Ethiopia shall once more stretch forth its hand to God."
Both Garvey and Haile Selassie were
pretty orthodox Christians in an Ethiopian Christian tradition going back to the time of the apostles and remaining purer in form than much of European Christianity. The writers of 'The Story of the Jamaican People' tell us that by 1933, the founder of Rastafarianism Leonard Howell and his followers were ready with their redemptive message of Haile Selassie as the Supreme Being. These highly influential interpreters of our past then proceed to let us know, as a matter of course, that, "The question is not whether or not they were right in their belief. This is what they believed and in the strength of that belief they placed Africa at the centre of Jamaican concerns."
NEVER AT THE CENTRE
Africa has never, in fact, been at the centre of Jamaican concerns, however much that may be wished, otherwise afro-centric Garvey-ism itself would have been far more successful here. Haile Selassie reacted with shock and alarm on his visit here in 1966 when he was welcomed as a most reluctant god by devotees. In a 1968 interview with Dr. Oswald Hoffmann of the Lutheran Church Haile Selassie proclaimed his own Christian faith. The life of Christ is one which men everywhere must emulate. "This life and the faith that he has taught us assures us of salvation," the Emperor said.
It is rather difficult to ascertain what Rastas believe since there is such diversity, no central ecclesiastical authority and no common creed. There is, for example, a very mixed response to Jesus the Christ, whom Garvey and Haile Selassie venerated, ranging from 'bun Jesas' to 'respec' due to a manifestation of God'. Marcus Garvey did not have a very high opinion of Haile Selassie. In 1936, in the aftermath of Ethiopia's defeat by Mussolini and his Italian forces and just about when Sherlock and Bennett's Rastas were recognising the Ethiopian emperor as their Supreme Being, Garvey wrote in bitter disappointment: "He kept his country unprepared for civilisation." "Why he kept the majority of his countrymen in serfdom (instead of adopting the civilisation and freedom of Europe and America which he knew) is difficult to tell." "If Haile Selassie had only the vision, inspired with Negro integrity, he would still have been the resident Emperor, with not only twelve million Abyssinian citizens, but with an admiring world of hundreds of millions of Negroes."
A COMMON BELIEF
Haile Selassie was finally deposed and murdered by Marxists. Garvey heartily despised Marxism and would very likely have similar problems with the favoured communalism of elements of Rasta. "Communism is a dangerous theory of economic and political reformation. Ultimately, communism, in its treatment of the Negro, will be no better than the other 'isms' since the Negro came in contact with European civilisation." It would be enormously interesting to hear what Garvey would have had to say about the black, home-grown Rastafarianism. Garvey and Rastas share a common belief in the centrality of Africa in Black redemption, and particularly Ethiopia; never mind the largely West African origins of the African Diaspora. "Africa is the legitimate, moral and righteous home of all Negroes." "Africa belongs to every black man wheresoever he is found." "The glorious continent of Africa stands to be redeemed." "A mighty nation must be built in Africa." "Africa will be the natural centre of Negro salvation."
It is for me a little difficult to imagine Marcus Garvey "licking the chalice" loaded with the wisdom weed which grew on Solomon's grave. Garvey had little regard for Solomon. "The new Negro does not give two pence for the line of Solomon (from which Haile Selassie supposedly sprang). Solomon was a Jew. The Negro is no Jew. He is proud of Sheba but he is not proud of Solomon."
Martin Henry is a communication specialist.