Welcome to our series, “Excellent Excerpts,” where we share selections from recently or soon-to-be published books we think you should check out! In this post we are featuring An Ethos of Blackness: Rastafari Cosmology, Culture, and Consciousness by Vivaldi Jean-Marie, published September 2023 with Columbia University Press. You can learn more about Vivaldi in our interview with him here.
Vivaldi Jean-Marie examines Rastafari’s core beliefs and practices, arguing that they constitute a distinctively Black system of norms and values—at once an ethos and a cosmology. He traces Rastafari’s origins in enslaved people’s strategies of resistance, Jamaican Revivalism, and Garveyism, showing how it incorporates ancestral religious traditions and emancipatory politics.
From the Preface:
An Ethos of Blackness: Rastafari Cosmology, Culture, and Consciousness provides a detailed elaboration of the norms, culture, religious practices, and epistemological boundaries of Rastafari in order to argue that they are advancing Rastafari’s distinctive postcolonial ideals of Blackness for people of African descent. Rastafari’s norms, culture, and religious practices constitute Rastafari cosmology. The six chapters of this book demonstrate that Rastafari cosmology is remedial in promoting an alternative system of norms, culture, and religious practices to those established by colonial and postcolonial institutions to define Blackness for people of African descent. The account of the book is unique in drawing out the implications of the religious, cultural, and aesthetic conventions of Rastafari. It shows that, by means of their religious, cultural, and aesthetic conventions, Rastas seek to define a normative guideline for people of African descent to conceptualize themselves according to an Afrocentric ethos. Rigorous and sensitive philosophical reflections on the normative implications of Rastafari’s religious, cultural, and aesthetic conventions reveal that Rastas sought to elaborate an alternative conception of Blackness around Afrocentricity and in resistance to the Eurocentric and colonial conception of Blackness. The uniqueness of Rastafari is that Rastas grasped that people of African descent may only transcend Eurocentric postcolonial oppression by espousing a normative guideline that is consistent with their original Afrocentricity.
An Ethos of Blackness is written for all interested readers and scholars of religious studies, Caribbean religious traditions, and African Diaspora studies. This account is pertinent to current debates about the lack of and need to create discursive space for Black topics in academia by drawing attention to Rastafari’s understated take on Blackness for people of African descent. My hope is that it will be embraced by readers and researchers who are promoting the inclusion of Black topics in academia. The distinctiveness of this book consists in the elaboration of Rastafari’s discourse on Blackness, which is an aspect that is overlooked in the existing literature. These chapters present the rigorous framework to tease out this discourse on Blackness in a cohesive fashion. Moreover, this book informs readers about the distinctive strategies that Rasta communities created to refigure the social, cultural, and religious experiences of people of African descent according to an Afrocentric regime. Readers will learn about a coherent approach to Black identity that strives to transcend the colonialist and postcolonialist accounts of Blackness. Finally, it fills a gap in the literature about Black lives in the Diaspora since there is no existing publication that teases out Rastafari’ advancement of a distinctive ethos of Blackness.
From Chapter Two: The Genealogy of Rastafari Cosmology and its Distinctive Ethos of Blackness
This chapter begins by elaborating how the Rastafari movement emerged at the intersection of Jamaican Revivalism and Garveyism. On the one hand, the tenets of Revivalism informed the Afrocentric religious beliefs and practices of the Rastafari movement. On the other, Garveyism supplied the socioethical and cultural guidelines of Rasta communities. As a result, the complex system of norms, religious beliefs, cultural practices, and social attitudes that emerged from Garveyism and Revivalism constitute Rastafari cosmology. Then, on the premise of this elaboration, I argue that the norms, religious beliefs, cultural practices, and social attitudes inherent in Rastafari cosmology define a distinctive ethos of Blackness that is intrinsically tied to the Rastafari movement. I proceed by delineating how the set of events in the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 in southeastern Jamaica provided the platform for the elaboration of a distinctive account of Black identity and collective unity as the suitable means to achieve freedom from oppression. To do so, I draw out the centrality of the Native Baptist Church’s tenets to show that they were the medium which united the scattered freedmen into insurrectionists. Ultimately, this chapter shows that the distinctive account of Black identity, which emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century on the basis of the Black Native Baptist Church’s tenets, shaped the endeavors of the Rastafari movement in the twentieth century, more specifically Rastas’ notion of Black identity and their emphasis on the end of oppression. It is imperative to grasp the continuity of the Rastafari movement in the larger context of Jamaican historical evolution and the set of social, cultural, and religious events that influenced its formation. Finally, the conclusion is that the role of religious events and the unity of the slave communities that carried out the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 are key for elucidating the link between slavery, religion, and communal unity as the preambles to the Rastafari movement.
The Morant Bay Rebellion was spearheaded by Paul Bogle, a Native Baptist Church preacher. It is noteworthy that the Native Baptist Church arose out of the exclusion of people of African descent from the traditional English Baptist Church in the colony. The English Baptist Church denied people of African descent the privilege of becoming pastors. This denial led to the organization of the Native Baptist Communion circa 1860–1861 through the cooperation of its two leaders George William Gordon and Paul Bogle, mainly in Eastern Jamaica with distinctive tenets to guide people of African descent in the colony. The English settlers’ exclusion of people of African descent from the English Baptist Church turned religious oppression into a normative practice. Before the rise of the Native Baptist Church, people of African descent were bereft of a well-defined religious community and religious tenets. George William Gordon and Paul Bogle thus set out to fill this religious void and to mend the religious oppression of people of African descent by establishing the Native Baptist Church. The concomitant collective unity among people of African descent, which made the Morant Bay Rebellion feasible, is concurrent with their attempt to end religious oppression. It is thus consistent with this mission and its byproduct that Paul Bogle spearheaded the rebellion.
On October 11, 1865, Paul Bogle led an animated crowd of hundreds of men and women into the town of Morant Bay, which is located in southeastern Jamaica in the parish of St. Thomas. Some of the main causes of the rebellion were fear of the loss of provisional grounds, burdensome taxes by the planters to counterbalance diminution of their profit, and the worry of being reenslaved. The insurrectionists regarded the landowners and elites, which were predominantly white, as a menace to their livelihood, their privilege to use land, and their ability to obtain just hearings in the courts. The symbolic configuration of the rebellion is equally noteworthy. The rebels were driven by social, economic, and lack of justice issues. Moreover, the racial dimension of the Morant Bay Rebellion was expressed in the rebels’ plan: “We will kill every white and Mullato in the Bay. . . . [It] is your colour [Black], don’t kill him. You are not to kill your colour.” Collective unity to end these social and economic issues, the insurrectionists’ religious beliefs, and the leadership of Paul Bogle were the prominent factors that defined people of African descent’s racial identity around unity and the demand for social justice. These motifs captured the late nineteenth-century notion of Blackness among people of African descent in Jamaica. Hence, it is reasonable to think that the insurrectionists’ confidence in uprising as the means to improve their socioeconomic conditions was reinforced by the tenets and the sense of community that they derived from the Native Baptist Church. It is also remarkable that the two most important rebellions in Jamaica—namely, Paul Bogle’s Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 and Samuel Sharpe’s Baptist War slave rebellion of 1832—were led by religious figures. This fact highlights the historical continuity between the formation of religious communities and struggles for social improvement by people of African descent in Jamaica.
Excerpted from An Ethos of Blackness by Vivaldi Jean-Marie. Copyright (c) 2023 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
You can order the book here.