Obeah to Rastafari: Jamaica as a colony of ridicule, oppression and violence, 1865-1939.

Author:Barima, Kofi Boukman


Obeah and Rastafari theologically directed attention to different sources, the former manipulated immaterial forces, objects and plants to influence people and events whereas Rastafari's mysticism rejects magical rites and retools Judeo Christianity's messianic emphasis to articulate a version of Ethiopianism where Haile Selassie is the godhead. (1)

The ontological extremities between Obeah and Rastafari embodies Black peoples cultural metamorphosis in the Americas, a process, jumpstarted with enslavements' curtailing African peoples practices and post-emancipations' continued socio-political assaults on surviving traditions. This cultural transformation, noted in several studies, gave rise to Black cultures specific to the "new world" experiences, a transition Michael Gomez refers to as Exchanging Our Country Marks. (2) While Gomez's text largely reports on Black cultural transformations In North America the situations, episodes, and other occurrences he highlights parallels the Afro-Caribbean cultural shifts. Similarly Afro-Caribbean peoples cultural spectrum, which for Afro-Americans Gomez indirectly indicates as having three distinct segments is also in many Caribbean societies a three part continuum composed of an early period where Africa was the cultural and spiritual site of reference, in the second leg Christianity and African culture amalgamates as conversion spreads and lastly since the early twentieth century is the growing rejection of Christianity and search for African cultural identity. Reading Obeah and Rastafari through this view I locate Obeah towards the spectrum's beginnings as Obeah symbolizes the struggles to root Africa in the "New World" and Rastafari occupies the spectrum's opposite end when Black people questioned Christianity's usefulness in the voyage to reclaim African ideals. And crawling from beneath this oppression often meant borrowing the Bible and other ideologies obtained as oppressed people to write redemption stories.

Throughout the African Diaspora several movements exist in the same vein as Rastafari, the Nation of Islam for instance likewise mushroomed as Christianity's critics and ex-believers sought new religious homes and how Rastafari and the Nation of Islam accommodated former churchgoers is a subject Michael Barnett explored in great details. (3) For this paper how Michael Barnett discusses Rastafari theology is used to explain the movements redemptive purpose where redemption for Rastas is linked either to physical repatriation or psychological alignment to Africa . Rastas, however shun Obeah and the dismissive attitudes towards Obeah causes us to question what Africa Rastas hope to spiritually reconnect to as Obeah like activities intersect with everyday life throughout the African continent.

I explore why Rastas underrate Obeah's value as it symbolizes the ways ancestors navigated their universe and its functionality as a guide to read how many African people still negotiate for place and power. Other than addressing Rastafari's problematic relationship with Obeah this paper investigates how colonial elites with control of the state and the press turned people against Obeah and Rasta. The elites agenda to suppress Obeah and Rastafari is discussed, below, in a broader context where the elite opposed the wide spectrum of Afro-folk cultures; this includes Revivalism and Pocomania. Both traditions blended African and Christian spiritualisms, doctrines and deities-a common practice in the African Diaspora following massive Christian conversion in the nineteenth century. (4) The state objected Revivalism's and Pocomania's strong African orientations and frowned its biblical usage as a text of liberation.

This alternative way to view the Bible brought the state into direct confrontation with Paul Bogle, Alexander Bedward and Leonard P Howell, the first in a series of Rastafari preachers. With the violence met when either returning to an African centered livity (5) or practicing Afro-Folk culture the work discusses Babylon's brutality which adversely impacted on Revivalists, Obeah workers and Rastafari brethren as they frequently were ostracized, imprisoned and murdered. And writing the African Diaspora, highlighting the establishment's deliberate usage of violence provides crucial exposure of the injustices Black peoples encountered in the Americas as violence is all too commonly used to beat Black people into submission as it is found with recent and past police killings in the United States where the parallels between Baton Rouge's Alton Sterling, St. Paul's Philando Castile, Tulsa's Terence Crutcher, New York's Amadou Diallo , Chicago's Fred Hampton, and Money's Emmett Till are all too familiar to the witch-hunts Jamaican authorities pursued to eliminate Rastas, Revivalists and in the early period Obeah workers were hounded and slaughtered by the state.

"Deproblematizing" Obeah: The Shaming and The Shunning

Addressing the legacy of state violence in Jamaica is fraught with several problems, the most significant is how Rastafari's intellectuals and creative class ignores Obeah's persecution while they petition the State to recognize and apologized for how Rastas were systematically attacked, abused and denied opportunities in Jamaica. At several recent rallies, forums and conferences where Rastas assembled in numbers to draw attention to numerous hostile encounters between their communities and the state as with the 1940's raids and the 1954 subsequent destruction of Pinnacle (6) and the 1963 Coral Garden affair where Rastas were savagely beaten, killed and had their locks "forcibly trimmed" while informative were aggressively silent on parallels between Rastafari's suffering and ways Obeah workers likewise were crushed with state power. (7) And failure to connect violence towards Rastafari with the unpleasant experiences Obeah workers met in their dealings with colonial authorities the various gatherings wasted key opportunities to frame their protest in larger historical paradigms which rather than suggesting state violence as endemic towards Rastafari explains it as an activity trained to eliminate movements or peoples, irrespective of their beliefs, who challenges Eurocentric thinking and the status quo. (8) Being extremely disturbed with Rastas' narrow demands to collect apologies, from the state, I ask why these Rasta centered gatherings squander opportunities to expose state violence in Jamaica as an issue with deep historical roots. And what seemingly discourages many Rastas from demanding apologies as well for Obeah workers, in their petitions, are the negative attitudes harbored towards Obeah.

Fear, fright, hatred, shame and other disturbing emotions Obeah conjures in Rastas and other Afro-Jamaicans is driven through social elites' manipulating media and other platforms to control how people perceive history, culture and Black bodies. Skin bleaching ,for example, while it is popular for various reasons, preferentially featuring lighter black skin tones in many advertisements definitely contributes to bleaching creams' high usage in Jamaica and other Black societies where economic value is attached to lighter skin as fairer skin tones are perceived to guarantee financial success. (9) The media without question shares culpability for spreading this misnomer and several Black analysts attest to medias' role in the devaluation of darker skin; Ronald E. Hall, Debora Gabriel, Yaba Blay and others criticize the media for perpetuating the myth that "light skin is more attractive than darker skin". (10) Participating as architects of the color caste syndrome-imprisoning Black communities in centuries of self-hatred-is part of a wider media assault on the Black community. Anything too Black/African is targeted for destruction and in ways black skin is reproached Obeah confronts similar onslaughts of bad coverage.

The campaign swaying public opinion against Obeah is managed mainly through the Gleaner, Jamaica's premier newspaper. Part of its popularity is its social position as the elites' mouthpiece and in its one hundred plus fifty years existence the elites' unflattering opinions on Obeah reflects in the Gleaner reports on this very African spiritual system. (11) There is a clear bias towards dressing Obeah in dark rhetoric and donning Obeah in unsavory clothing is on display in the very recent October 2, 2016 headline reading "Satanic Scammers--Pastor Says Mobay Gangsters Drinking Blood, Among Other Protection Rituals". The article juxtaposes Satanism and other western occult practices with Obeah and suggesting Satanic associations with Obeah, in a Bible driven country, achieves the goal to further alienate Afro-Jamaicans from their heritage. (12) And there is little evidence to refute that the Gleaner's underlying motive ,behind this article, was to sully Obeah's name as this news medium has from its inception generally vilified Obeah. Space is limited so I recall only a few articles, in the Gleaner's archive, showing its reports, on Obeah, were written with malicious intent as read in each of the following titles "Our Witchcraft", "Witchcraft in Jamaica: The Obeah Man as a professional Man", and "They pay me One Quattie for a Curse" appearing respectively in 1936, 1938, and 1945.

Equally damming Obeah's reputation were the nightmarish cartoons that at times accompanied the articles. The aforementioned 1945 example illustrates how images in the Gleaner's arsenal were as destructive as words and the cited 1945 article features two images the first is a grotesque Black male figure supposedly dressed in African garb beating a drum. (13) The second is also male, to emphasize his blackness his skin is obscenely darkened; the mouth, the lips and the nose were disproportionately enlarged, awkward and protruding emphasizing scary, unintelligent, criminal and other stereotypical connotations liken to Black men in white run societies. (14)


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