Scholar Spotlights Early Role of Rastafari Women
By Swan (IPS)
HAVANA TIMES – The Rastafari movement, which began in Jamaica during the 1930s, has become internationally known for its contribution to culture and the arts, as well as for its focus on peace and “ital” living. Major icons include reggae musicians Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Burning Spear, with the movement overall projecting a very male image.
But women have contributed significantly to the development of Rastafari, as Jamaican-born historian Daive Dunkley has shown through his research. Rastafari women were particularly active in the resistance against colonial rule in the first half of the 1900s, and they created educational institutions for young people and helped to expand the arts sphere in the Caribbean, among other work.
These contributions are highlighted in Dunkley’s latest book, Women and Resistance in the Early Rastafari Movement, an essential addition to the history of Rastafari – which scholars generally see as both a religious and social movement. US-based Dunkley, an associate professor in the University of Missouri’s Department of Black Studies and director of Peace Studies, spoke to SWAN about his research, in an interview conducted by email and videoconference.
SWAN: What inspired your research on women’s role in the early Rastafari movement?
Daive Dunkley: There is a story here. My inspiration for writing about women’s role in the early Rastafari developed from research I had been doing since 2009 on Leonard Howell, one of the four known founders of the movement. I quickly realized that women were a significant force in the group that became known as the Howellites and were critical to all their considerable initiatives. These included developing the first self-sufficient Rastafari community, known as Pinnacle.
Hundreds of women joined the estimated 700 people of the Pinnacle community in 1940, located in the hills of St. Catherine, Jamaica. I realized too that the women had been part of establishing the Ethiopian Salvation Society (ESS) in 1937 and were members of its governing board. They were secretaries and decisionmakers, including Tenet Bent, who married Howell. Bent was one of its leaders and financial backers. She also had connections in middle-class Jamaica that proved critical to the development of the ESS as a benevolent Rastafari organization.
Interestingly the ESS created a constitution written chiefly by women who called it a “Christian charity.” And some of its first outreach programs were also clearly determined by women, such as providing relief in the form of food and clothing to survivors of natural disasters in several parts of Jamaica in the late 1930s. In 2014, I decided to focus my research on the activities of the early women, who came predominantly from the peasantry. The colonial government and newspapers largely ignored the activism and leadership of these women in the development of the Rastafari movement.
SWAN: Were you surprised by the information you discovered?
D.D.: I was not surprised by my information about women’s political, economic, and cultural activism within the early Rastafari movement. My earlier research on the antislavery activities of enslaved people included research on women. Despite slavery, these women remained active in the resistance – undermining, escaping, or abolishing slavery altogether. I found out that women’s role in the early Rastafari encountered silencing by the colonial system. We helped maintain this silencing in later writing about the early movement. What I read in terms of secondary scholarship was largely androcentric. I learned the names of the four known founders and some other prominent men. They engaged the colonial system unapologetically as Rastafari leaders. I read nothing similar about women, which I found pretty strange.
Moreover, when women were portrayed, including by British author Sheila Kitzinger in the 1960s, it was essentially to reflect on how marginal they were in the movement. By the way, for me, the early Rastafari movement dates from the 1930s to the end of the 1960s. Women in the 1960s were members of the early action, and many joined from the 1930s through the 1950s. In other words, early women were members of Rastafari during and after the colonial system. This system was far more devastating in its attitudes towards Rastafari than the early postcolonial government of Jamaica that took over with the island’s political independence in 1962.
Rastafari obtained a male-dominated image from the mid to late 1950s with devastating consequences for all the movement’s women. The colonial system successfully imposed a veil of silence on women, resulting in our ignorance of these women. More research using interviews with and about women and closer reading of the colonial archives, including the newspapers, helped me uncover some of the hidden histories of the women in the early movement. I was inspired to continue searching for these stories because I knew that Black women were never silent in the previous history of the Caribbean or before the genesis of Rastafari in 1932.
SWAN: What was the most striking aspect of this story?
D.D.: This question is a difficult one to answer because all these stories involving women were fascinating or striking. But if I were to venture an answer to the question, I would say that the story about the women who petitioned the government for fairness and justice in 1934 stands tall among the most striking. I’ve written elsewhere about this story in a blog for the book published by LSU Press. I said that the women who petitioned the government for justice and fairness showed their awareness of the power of petitions in the history of the Black freedom struggle in Jamaica and the Caribbean.
These women organized themselves to defy the colonial police, justices of the peace, and resident magistrate. These entities had dedicated themselves to silencing Rastafari women and men. The women submitted their petitions to the central government. They did so in a coordinated fashion to ensure that the colonial officials did not ignore the pleas.
You will have to read the book to get a fuller sense of what happened due to these petitions. I will say that engaging with the government showed an effort not to escape from the society but rather to transform colonial Jamaica into a just and fair society. The women wanted the island’s Black people to see themselves improving. They wanted Jamaica to reflect their aspirations. The activities aimed at accomplishing this wish were among the most significant contributions of early Rastafari women. They were not escapists. They were radical transformationalists if we want a fancy term.
SWAN: How important is this particular segment of history to Jamaica and the world, given the international contributions of the Rastafari movement?
D.D.: Rastafari’s early history is critical to understanding both the history of Jamaica and the African diaspora at the time. People like to think of the internationalization of the Rastafari movement as starting from the 1960s and growing from there. However, my research on early Rastafari women has confirmed that this is not true. Rastafari was formulated with an international perspective and established ongoing connections with the global Black freedom struggle from its very beginning. The women also helped establish relations with Ethiopia on a political level that included fundraising, organizing, and participating in protests against fascist Italy’s aggression and subsequent occupation of Ethiopia in 1936-1941.
In addition, women protected the Rastafari’s historic theocratic interpretations of the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I and Empress Menen Asfaw in 1930. The coronation event was critical to inspiring the genesis of the Rastafari movement. Women such as the previously mentioned Tenet Bent maintained the correspondence with the International African Service Bureau (IASB) through one of its founders, George Padmore, the Trinidadian Marxist based in London. The women knew that the organization evolved out of the International African Friends of Abyssinia formed in London in 1935 to organize resistance against Italy’s attempts to colonize Ethiopia.
In 1937, Padmore created the IASB with help from other Pan-Africanists from the Caribbean and worldwide, including CLR James, Amy Ashwood Garvey, ITA Wallace-Johnson, TR Makonnen, Jomo Kenyatta, and Chris Braithwaite, the Barbadian labor leader. The early Rastafari women preserved the history of Rastafari’s attempts to engage with the global Garvey movement from 1933, though disappointed by Garvey’s unwillingness to meet with Rastafari founder Leonard Howell.
Women, however, helped preserve the movement’s links to Garvey’s Back nationalist ideology to maintain the Pan-African political consciousness of the African diaspora. Women also read and discussed the literature of Pan-Africanist women writers such as Amy Bailey. The newspapers of Sylvia Pankhurst, the British socialist and suffragist, also kept the early Rastafari women abreast of developmental initiatives in Ethiopia.
Undoubtedly, the 1960s onwards brought further development of this international focus, especially with the development of Reggae and primarily through the touring by Bob Marley and the Wailers in the 1970s. However, much of the success of Reggae was due to its Rastafari consciousness developed in the 1930s. This consciousness centered on the African origins of humans and empowered Reggae with a message of morality, peace, and justice that appealed to people worldwide.
SWAN: From a gender standpoint, how significant would you say the research is for Jamaica, the Caribbean?
D.D.: The early history of Rastafari women revealed some crucial developments in the story of gender and its dynamics in the modern history of the African diaspora. The early women challenged gender disparity inside and outside the movement from the 1930s’ inception of Rastafari. Many of these women had been part of empowered women congregations in the traditional churches, namely the Baptist church.
Still, they felt that Rastafari focused more on their African ancestry and therefore was more relevant to their social uplift. Among the gender discussions initiated by women was equality between the emperor and empress of Ethiopia, whereas men saw the emperor as the returned Messiah. The women proposed that the empress and emperor were equal and constituted the messianic message of the coronation event in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1930.
Women also ensured that they participated in preaching the Rastafari doctrine on the streets of Jamaica from the early 1930s. They defended men arrested and tried for their involvement in Rastafari. Many women also ended up imprisoned for their defense of the movement and its use of cannabis. Women were present during the court proceedings as witnesses and supporters. Their willingness to engage the justice system revealed to colonial officials that the male focus in suppressing Rastafari would continue to fail unless they paid attention to women.
The women carried on the Pinnacle community in the 1930s through 1950s when the police arrested the men. As my book discusses, women were at the center of initiating the most significant Rastafari organization of the late 1950s, the African Reform Church of God in Christ. One of its two founders was Edna E. Fisher. She was prosecuted for treason-felony and did not attempt during the trial to hide the fact that she was the owner of the land on which they built their organization. Fisher considered herself the brigadier of the movement. However, scholars have named the events and the trial after her partner and future husband, Claudius Henry. Still, Fisher was instrumental in the leadership and creating the organization’s cultural and political objectives.
SWAN: Why did the Rastafari movement become so male-oriented in later decades?
D.D.: My research has shown that Rastafari became male-oriented mainly in the 1950s. This change was primarily a response to the attempts of the colonial regime to suppress the movement. Its male leaders and many male followers decided they needed “male supremacy” to fight “white supremacy.” Scholarship on the Black freedom struggle in the United States has also disclosed this decision. Despite this reorientation towards male centrism, women continued to play pivotal roles inside and outside leadership positions.
Initially, it made sense for many women to capitalize on the image of male power to protect the movement because of the targeting of male members by the government.
However, state officials eventually recognized that targeting men could not end Rastafari. They needed to take a gender-equitable approach to suppress the movement. That recognition would lead to the detention of many women by the police on charges of disorderly conduct, showing animosity towards state officials, such as police and judges.
Of course, many women also faced cannabis charges. The male orientation of the movement continued into the independence period of Jamaica primarily due to the men seeking to consolidate power. Many cultural and philosophical attitudes developed around this male-centered identity that started in the 1950s. The male focus continues within the movement despite women challenging these attitudes using notions of gender equality inherited from earlier women.
SWAN: How did the book come about?
D.D.: I started to write chapters for the book in 2014 and revised them over the next seven years. One of the strategies I used was to return to some of the women and men I interviewed to ensure that the information was consistent with what they had told me previously. I also expanded the archival research to include Great Britain and the United States materials. Regarding research materials for the book’s writing, the most important sources were the Jamaica Archives, the British Archives, the Smithsonian, and the newspapers, particularly Jamaica’s Daily Gleaner.
SWAN: What do you hope readers will take away from it overall?
D.D.: One of the things I hope will happen with this book is that it stimulates further research into women’s role in founding the Rastafari movement. That part of the history needs analysis that I think will expand our understanding of how Rastafari came about and give a complete picture of the critical figures in founding this movement. I believe women were vital to both the genesis and initial development of Rastafari, who had been articulating its consciousness before the 1930 coronation of the empress and emperor of Ethiopia.
It is clear from my research that women read the same materials men read and gradually developed their ideas about Rastafari consciousness independently of men. I also hope the book will inspire people to see poor Black women as agents of historical, social changes in the history of the African diaspora. These women had meaningful conversations regarding materializing social change for the greater good. I’m hoping readers see these women as intellectual catalysts and activists who helped shape the evolution of the modern African diaspora. These women were critical to the decolonization process, for example.
*Women and Resistance in the Early Rastafari Movement is published by Louisiana State University Press.