August 16, 2006

Rastafari and Renaming: A Model for Freedom

RastafariSince the inception of nation states in the West Indies, the process of “decolonizing the mind” has been the aim of many nationalist, artistic, and religious movements. As Rex Nettleford in an essay, “Caribbean Perspective: The Creative Potential and the Quality of Life” states, “West Indian society needs to restore the human being to the center of Caribbean life and society. Historically, he never was at the center of Caribbean life. The raison d’ etre of our existence has been commercial profit…The slave was at the center of the system not as human, but as property” (Nettleford, Caribbean Rhythms 314)

In many of the nationalist, artistic, and religious movements, one of the most successful strategies has been the act of renaming, and Rastafari with the concepts of InI and I-man set a pattern in Jamaica that would dramatically re-order the thinking of the post-Independence generation.

The origin of I-man and InI are shrouded in the mystery. Joseph Owens in Dread argues plausibly that the “I” language of Rastafari was as a result of a misreading of the King James Version: “In referring to the King, for instance, the Roman numeral I, is read like the pronoun “I” and thus is best written as Haile Selassie-I” (45). Whatever the origins, Rastafari with the concept of InI revealed a system of thought that would sometimes resemble early Gnostic Christianity or Buddhism: “Traditional Buddhist meditation aims to transcend the subject-object barrier and realize the perfect oneness of the self and external reality” (Hochswender, The Buddha Your Mirror 84). Rastafari also extended the idea of oneness into their speech. So, incense became “I-shence” and creation became “I-ration.”(Owens 66).

 Rastafari also resembles the mystical forms of religious devotion that regard deity not as something to be addressed as “Thou” but as one with the divine. Oneness expressed in the symbolic language of InI represents the seamless integration of the human with the divine where it is hard to discern linguistically and conceptually where humanity begins and divinity ends. As Nettleford points out, “At the heart of his [Rastafari] religious system is the notion of his own divinity and the first person image of self. As if for emphasis the terms “I-n-I” and “I-man” are used as a constant reminder of the transformation of a non-person into a person”* (Nettleford, Dread xiv). Rastafari’s aims were no less than the redemption of Africans in the Americas. Nettleford continues, “God is in the world, not outside it…God is not only Man, he is a Man”(Nettleford, Dread xvi). Rastafari in a bold creative act of renaming themselves changed the story of Black people in Jamaica and in the Americas.

Renaming as a method of cultural liberation is not unique to Rastafari. In the poem, “Names,” by Derek Walcott, the speaker asks, “And when they named these bays/ bays/ was it nostalgia or irony?” (Walcott, Sea Grapes 41). And in Omeros, the meanings of names are echoed throughout the collection with the personae trying to define themselves despite the misspelling of names and things: “When he smiled at Achille’s canoe, In God we Troust, Achille said: “Leave it! Is God’ spelling and mine.” (Walcott, Omeros 8). Similarly, Kamau Braithwaite in responding to the colonialist attitudes in The Tempest bypasses all the “major” characters in the play and focuses on Sycorax, Caliban's mother, and develops his own “Sycorax style” as a methodology of artistic liberation-- a reversal of the initial obscenity of racist colonialism. Indeed, renaming or creatively misreading one’s antedcents has been argued by Harold Bloom as one of the methods that many writers have used to overcome the “anxiety of influence”—a condition that many artists/writers in the Caribbean must confront.

What is interesting about Rastafari, however, is that unlike other cultural movements when confronted with colonialism, Rastafari asserted themselves and refused to become the Other thereby ceding authority to the colonizer (e.g. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart). Rastafari placed themselves at the center of the I-niverse: “A sense of place, a sense of purpose are assumed to him who might otherwise be a captive in Babylon and barely exploited as the exploited of men. The assertive individualism of Rastafarianism is therefore a silent challenge to the propensity of secular political movements to freeze their kind into such categories as “the masses”…For to the Rastafarians each member of the masses or the proletariat has a personality, a divine dimension with direct routing to the Creator, Jah himself” (Nettleford, Dread xv).

“Rasta free the people,” is perhaps one of the truest lyrics that Buju ever sang and it mirrors the sentiments in “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley, “We forward in this generation triumphantly.” By the assertion of InI and I-man Rastafari changed the stories of victimhood punctuated by the trauma of slavery and colonialism into a call for immediate solutions, “So now you see the light, stand up for your rights” (Get up, Stand up). The former Negroes of Plantation America were given a new identity that had existed before time and if only they could recall their true names, they would know and overstand that they were children of the Most High, Haile- I, Selassie-I, Jah Rastafar-I. Even for non-adherents to the faith mired in cynical rationalism, it was a bold creative act and a model for freedom.


*InI is a visual and aural representation of inseparability of man and God.
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Anonymous said...

one of the most important song of Bob Maley is "them belly full"
the lyrics are
"a pot a cook but the food no enough"
but bob sings:
"a y-ot a y-ook but the food ..."
I know that is a rasta language, a rasta patois... but do you know why this "y"???

Geoffrey Philp said...

Marco, I may be wrong about this, but in Rasta, the "I" is the primary means of understanding/overstanding Life.
So, "pot" and "cook" would be written as I-ot and I-ook and pronounced as "yot" and "yook".
This is a powerful way of viewing the universe/I-niverse. "Universe" suggests that "You"-U or me control things.
So, InI can't blame anyone for anything that happen to InI.
For InI Man-trol the I-niverse--So Jah Seh!

Stephen A. Bess said...

Brother Geoffrey, I love this post! I am learning a great deal about Rastafarianism through your post. I really like the whole concept behind the origin of "i-man" and "InI" because it is so empowering! Yes, if only those ancestors knew their true African names. Powerful!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Yes, Stephen.
Rastafari taught me many things about myself. Through Rastafari I could vision many things so that even when I was studying deconstructionism and the whole idea of language and power, these concepts were not new to me.
The only difference was Rastafari said power came from InI--everything else was Babylon (the Other). A total reversal of western thought and ideology--powerful stuff

Anonymous said...

I come from italy that in rasta language could be I-tal-y :)

Geoffrey Philp said...

Yes, Marco, it would be I-tal-y!