I, Ethnographer: A Reflection on Being (in) the Field

My first ethnographic fieldwork experience was a short trip to Jamaica, where I interviewed twenty Rastafarians regarding their perspectives on white people and non-Rastas participating in reggae music. Prior to this, I had little knowledge of field methods, much less theoretical approaches in anthropology and ethnomusicology; I was a reggae musician who had become curious about how this genre informs—and is informed by—a sense of identity and connection to the black liberation struggle in Jamaica, especially that of the Rastafari movement. While this music appealed to me on many levels, the reactions my all-white reggae band often received from audiences in the Philadelphia area raised several questions: Is the authenticity of our sound compromised by our ethnicity and heritage? Is this somehow inappropriate or disrespectful? Most importantly, can a community of people claim ownership or authorship of a form of creative expression? I am still struggling with these questions, but what I learned during that brief undergraduate research experience helped to prepare me for the fieldwork I have done in the Greater Philadelphia Area, where I live and work.

Shortly after I returned from Jamaica, I received a message from John Homiak, the Smithsonian anthropologist who had connected me with my guide and hosts in Red Hills, right outside of Kingston, and who had just looked over some of my reflections from that trip. He challenged me to think about the extent to which anyone within the Rastafari community had made me feel like an outsider. My “otherness” was certainly blurred during this experience: I had the appearance of a non-Jamaican, non-Rasta, white man, and I know people took notice of my presence, often confusing me for other white males who had visited previously; however, I cannot count the number of times that I was told, “Jah no partial,” that is, anyone can be a part of this community, regardless of “race, color, or creed,” as one Nyahbinghi priest assured me. Those first two categories, race and color, are common themes in Rastafarian discourse and music, and while they are not simple issues, I can understand the flexibility with which Rastas treat these categories in judgments of who is or is not a legitimate Rastafarian. What remains a puzzle for me is this issue of “creed”: how is it that I am often included in a Rasta’s idea of “InI” when I do not profess a belief in the divinity of Haile Selassie?

This question has been answered, in part, by the notion that Rastafari is a “divine conception of the heart"—to quote the Morgan Heritage song, “Don’t Haffi Dread,” which is often cited by Rastas as a reminder that “you don’t haffi dread [don’t have to wear dreadlocks] to be Rasta” (Morgan Heritage 1999)—and not necessarily a matter of following cultural or religious behavioral codes. I still wonder, however, how it is that one can deny some of the central components of the faith yet be regarded as within, or at least connected to, the movement. Despite the diversity of expressions and social structures among the various Rastafarian communities, as well as the absence of initiation rites in most groups, I would still expect a sharper distinction between members and non-members based on, at the very least, some kind of outward identification of oneself as a Rastafarian. The fact that such discrimination seems to be lacking may be due, in part, to the legacy of resistance against colonial norms, including the religious institutions that require acceptance of specific tenets of faith and morality. Another possibility is that Rastafarian identity, being at an intersection of several loyalties and motivations, is assigned or claimed primarily in relation to specific sociopolitical situations, albeit still perceived as an “inborn conception” (Price 2009:142) for all of humanity. This paradox, Rastafari as a permanent, eternal identity that takes on meaning in individual agency or collective action rather than permanent features or generalizations, reveals possibilities for relationship within the community based solely on behavior or intent. Rastafari’s insistence that their teachings are knowledge, rather than belief, further elucidates the preference given to experience and conscience, rather than specific expressions of ideological or cultural solidarity. I do not mean to minimize the role of tradition in sustaining Rastafari culture, but it is evident that the dynamics of the movement prioritize participation over explicit identification through initiation rites and creeds.

The role of the Bible in Rastafari illustrates this point. With several years of education in Christian teachings and interpretations of the Old and New Testaments, I naturally consider Rastafarians’ interpretations in light of my own conclusions or what I have learned from biblical scholars. Some Rasta individuals or entire communities adhere, to various degrees, to the scriptures’ regulations for sexuality, observance of the Sabbath, and maintenance of hair and clothing. Prophecy also holds an important place in Rasta thought, the most obvious examples being the return of Christ in his kingly character, as Haile Selassie I, and the repatriation of the Israelites (the African Diaspora identified as such) to their promised land. Beyond these basic doctrinal foci, the use of Bible verses and stories serves a more universal purpose: demonstrating and sharing wisdom by applying the text to current events. I recall a few reasonings (a term used within the Rastafari movement for sacred conversations on spiritual and political topics) in which I had the minority view about gender roles, sexual morality, race, and religion, and the underlying cause of the difference in opinion was a divergence in interpretation of a passage from the Bible, or a different understanding of church history. In one of the most telling examples of this, on one occasion when I was reasoning with three elders, one of them mentioned a passage in the Bible that declares that homosexuals “shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). I politely replied that the same passage includes drunkards, thieves, fornicators, and others, who, despite their transgressions against biblical law, do not receive the same level of condemnation from Rastas or Christians. The discussion then turned toward the question of whether or not homosexuality is “natural,” and our different views on the debated scripture were not resolved; however, I was able to enter more deeply into this Rasta activity of reasoning because of my familiarity with the verses being discussed. Despite my age, race, nationality, and lack of affiliation with the movement, these well-known elders continued to show me respect as we reasoned—over a beer, I might add.

Altar in the center of the Nyahbinghi tabernacle in Scott's Pass, Jamaica. The circular layout of the tabernacle is supposed to facilitate reasoning, in which all present may participate.

While some Rastafarians have rejected the Bible or questioned the integrity of the text as handed down through Christian institutions (Price 2009:176), a general knowledge of its stories and teachings can serve as a sort of cultural lexicon to facilitate communication, especially in divine reasoning. The tensions associated with interpreting and accepting the Bible are paralleled by Rastafari’s engagement with scientific inquiry and cultural discourses, as well. Although opinions naturally vary, evolutionary theory is often viewed with skepticism because of its association with atheism. On the other hand, Rastafarians cite the discoveries of evolutionary anthropologists as evidence that the first humans came from Africa. Cultural anthropologists have also been treated with caution, a stance that makes sense in light of Jamaica’s colonial past; however, if scholarly work can advance the message and positive image of Rastafari, or if an ethnographic study notes a connection between an ancient African tradition and a modern cultural practice in the diaspora, it may be welcomed among an otherwise anti-academic Rasta community. The various disputes over the divinity, death, and political career of Selassie also suggest that a person’s own conclusions are secondary to the intent of their participation in the debate, especially their degree of respect for the emperor and the goals of African unity and repatriation. These apparent contradictions and ambiguities demonstrate the legacy of struggle that has emerged from cultures of slavery, betrayal, colonial and post-colonial violence, and continued exploitation in the Caribbean as well as in communities around the world where Rastafari is being embraced. Unsure of who is an ally and who is a “bag o’ wire” (betrayer), Rastafarians collectively and delicately author a narrative of identity that is flexible and open yet ever conscious of “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” deceivers who seek to keep the world in mental slavery.

It is also entirely possible to be a sheep in wolves’ clothing; although I have much to learn about ethnography, my encounters with Rastafari have taught me this. I am indebted to the anthropologists who have gone before me in much more precarious times and places. Carole Yawney was one of these trailblazers. In a tribute to Yawney, her long-time research partner John Homiak (2013) describes the many challenges she faced in attempting to establish a relationship with the Rastafari movement in Jamaica during the early 1970s. A white woman from Canada living and moving among the Rastafari in West Kingston, especially at a time when women were virtually excluded from reasonings, naturally earned a great deal of scrutiny and suspicion. However, her persistence resulted in well over three decades of purposeful collaboration with the international Rastafari community, and her activism included offering expert testimony on behalf of Rastafari in Jamaica and South Africa (Homiak 2013:105). Hoping to become part of a meaningful partnership such as this one, I am particularly inspired by the fact that Yawney “never professed a Rastafari identity” but “took Rastafari spirituality very seriously” (Homiak 2013:109). I am reminded of a conversation with B. Davis, a musician from Trenton, New Jersey, in which I told him that I do not call myself a Rasta, and he replied, “Breddah, you a real Rastaman from ancient imes in the present trodding in the future!” Collaborative ethnography is a challenge that requires much more than sharing information and resources; in the Rastafari community, it means moving with the movement, taking its values seriously, and respecting people enough to speak with them in a language they know and love.

The cover photo is Humble 13: Pictured (from left to right): RyRy Joji, Dubsmith, B. Davis, Timi Tanzania, of the Philadelphia-based reggae/dubtronica group, Humble 13. This photo was taken in May 2014 in West Philadelphia, where we were reasoning on Dubsmith's porch.

References

Homiak, John P. 2013. “When Goldilocks Met the Dreadlocks: Reflections on the Contributions of Carole D. Yawney to Rastafari Studies” In Let Us Start with Africa: Foundations of Rastafari Scholarship, ed. Jahlani Niaah and Erin Macleod, 62-122. Kingston: The University of the West Indies Press.

Price, Charles. 2009. Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica. New York: New York University Press.

Discography

Morgan Heritage. “Don’t Haffi Dread.” From Don’t Haffi Dread. © 1999 by VP Records. VP 1545. Compact disc.

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