Guessing at the world and seizing a chance, she eludes the law and transforms the terms of the possible.Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives
For Mama Irone and Miriam Lennox
When most people think about Rastafari, a Pan-African socio-spiritual movement, they immediately think of a masculine image, but the movement’s visual archive always included men, women, and children. The past two years of the global pandemic have raised new issues in the international Rastafari community about the ways Rastafari people affirm the influence and presence of women and atone for the archival erasure of mothers, sisters, daughters, and aunties from the stories told about the Rastafari movement. What new knowledge emerges from centering the lifeworlds of colonized young Black Jamaican women and girls who helped shape the foundations of Rastafari in the midst of British Empire during the 1930s and ’40s? Following Saidiya Hartman, I propose that Rastafari women in the early twentieth century transformed the realms of the possible in colonial Jamaican society and in the very movement where they would become sacred by foregrounding new conceptual frameworks for the divine feminine and gender justice. As scholars rethink the import of Black metaphysical religion in Black Studies and Africana Religious Studies, it is important to acknowledge that excluding foremothers from narratives about Rastafari harms women and girls. The erasure of the intellectual and practical contributions of sistren advances the disinformation of patriarchy and allows Rastafari brethren to join the oppressor class.
Rastafari was created by Black people to affirm Black dignity, beingness, and divinity in colonial 1930s Jamaica. Founded by Leonard and Tyneth Howell, Pinnacle in Sligoville, St. Catherine, Jamaica was the first Rastafari commune. The Howells and 2,000 members of the Howellite community made Pinnacle their home in the 1940s. The Howells’ audacious desire for self-determination set off a firestorm of political, economic, social, and cultural exploitation and repression, which continued into the twenty-first century. In fact, Leonard Howell was in prison when his book The Promised Key, which became the foundational document of Rastafari, was published. In his book, he wrote that central to idea of Rastafari was the formation of a protected space for Black people to heal. He called this space the Balm Yard. He wrote:
A Balm Yard is a Holy place that is wholly consecrated to God Almighty for the cleansing and healing of the nations. Where only the Holy Spirit of God alone is allowed to do the Royal work of healing. Who does the balming work? Consecrated men and women that the Holy Spirit moves upon the blazing altar of their soul and endowed them with power that they command and handle the infirmities of the nations.
As “vessels of the divine honor,” Howell envisioned Rastafari people as being vested with the authority to heal. Consecration is the only prerequisite for doing balm work, the work of healing. Sistren and brethren who have become consecrated or sacred through the space of Rastafari were imbued with the power to heal their physical and metaphysical selves and the power to heal others. If we think about these words being published in 1935, the very idea that Black people can be sacred, that we can heal ourselves and each other, is an absolute revelation in a space with totalizing white supremacist racial capitalist imperialism. The radical imaginary it took to create a space of healing where there was no place for Black people to exist except as tools of extractive labor to support the British Empire was then and now revolutionary.
Even though Rastafari created an alternate reality, the vestiges of misogynoir that structured Jamaican society left Black women in Rastafari bereft. Rastafari women not only innovated ways to critique the dominant societal structure, but also gender oppression within the Rastafari movement. Ultimately, sistren created an entire way of existing in the world that sought to decolonize everything from language to diet to hairstyle to sexism. Therefore, when we think of Rastafari women, the balm yard became a space for sistren to breathe, and with every breath, they became sacred and shared strategies for healing, self-affirmation, and futurity. The balm yard was a decolonial imaginary that allowed for spheres of reference such as a positive valuation of Black womanness, centering African freedom, and a transformative sense of self that is confident and experiences joy. This means structural oppression did not overdetermine the ways Rastafari women experienced their metaphysical selves. This focus on intimate healing and community building is not a recreation of individualism or neoliberal preoccupation with self-care but reorients us to the long legacy of Black women’s metaphysics around healing and ritual community. Rastafari women’s healing practices remind us that we are flexible, durable, and expansive enough to grow and be transformed in the process of becoming sacred.
According to a new book by Daive Dunkley, Women and Resistance in the Early Rastafari Movement, Rastafari women like Miriam Lennox shaped the theological notions of divinity within the movement from at least the 1940s. Lennox’s Ethiopianist and biblical read on the divinity of Empress Menen Asfaw alongside His Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie, positioned “women and men [as] partners in a codependent arrangement that will mentally and culturally prepare them to improve their ability to overcome deprivation and resist oppression.” During her time at Pinnacle, Lennox learned about women’s agency and her independence was nurtured by a “matrifocal arrangement” at Pinnacle and the self-reliance that her mother, Sister Elvie, taught her. There is an intergenerational commitment to women’s empowerment within the movement that can only be gleaned through Rastafari women’s remarkable biographies. Dunkley writes, “Lennox’s case summons us to think about ways in which other women were possibly creators of the doctrinal diversity of the early Rastafari movement.” As thinkers and intellectual stewards of Rastafari, women were instrumental in innovating new conceptual frameworks for divinity rooted in a divine feminine and masculine balance.
Due to the lack of archival records detailing the lives of sistren in the early years of the movement, oral histories of sistren who lived at Pinnacle help counter epistemic erasure. Through my oral historical work with sistren in 2017, I was able to learn from their memories about what life was like at Pinnacle, an outpost of Black resistance under the British Empire in the early twentieth century. The life experiences of sistren form part of the global tapestry of young women and girls at this time who dared to challenge the British Empire and form new frameworks for Black self-determination. One such woman was Mama Irone, who lived at Pinnacle until it was destroyed in 1958 and she went to live in Spanish Town, where I interviewed her at her home. Even though she was well into her nineties when we met, she recalled vivid memories from her Howellite days. As a storyteller, she responded to my questions by telling stories full of names and prescient details mixed with a witty humor. Women like her, keepers of generational knowledge, are reminders that Rastafari women have a long herstory to tell. While shaping the intellectual and theological foundations of the movement, women played important roles in the development and maintenance of Pinnacle. While men were harassed by the colonial government, women kept Pinnacle operating. When I asked Mama Irone, longtime Howellite and former resident, what women did at Pinnacle, she said, “Dem work dem ground.” She enumerated the ways women kept the daily operations at Pinnacle going by farming, pounding rocks into gravel, making clothing, cooking, building houses, and running the school and bakery. Rastafari women’s labor and cultivation of the land created the space for other ritual activities.
Black self-determination and self-sufficiency in the midst of colonial domination, where Black subservience and dependency on a wage economy were used for social control, threatened the British imperial order. Mama Irone recalls raid after raid where vigilantes and government officials destroyed their property and stole food provisions. Women’s maintenance of Pinnacle coincided with them being the targets of intrapersonal patriarchy, state violence, and incarceration. Although men were the primary targets of state violence, women lived under the precarity of policing and its aftermath, because while some of them were arrested, the rest were left to rebuild and sustain the outpost of Black resistance. After one of the last police raids on Pinnacle, where the government burnt down the school, the bakery, and the houses and destroyed the farms, she and other members of the commune moved into the depressed areas of Kingston.
Mama Irone and Miriam Lennox are examples of early-twentieth-century young women who used their Rastafari identity to eschew social constraints of normative behavior and chart their own paths to self-actualization through reshaping the possible. Imagining a new world order requires new conceptual frameworks. Clinton Hutton and Nathaniel Samuel Murrell argue that Rastafari psychology was formed in the crucible of Black resistance struggles and movements that led up to the 1930s and continued long after that decade. By working with a flexible temporality, the concept of Rastafari becomes deeply intertwined with the Africana religiosity and Black radical imaginaries that made visible the unthought and created new realms of possibility for Black aliveness. According to Imani Tafari-Ama, “The Rastafarians regard themselves as inheritors of the Maroons’ freedom-fighting tradition, and the Rastafari woman is appropriately characterized as a ‘lioness,’ positioning rebel woman against the Babylon system.”
While 2020-2021 ushered in new colloquiums and books that recognize Howellite women for their contributions, it is important not to become so zealous in the new acknowledgement of their importance that as scholars and as Rastafari people, we forget to offer material and epistemic reparations for almost a century of neglect. We offer material and epistemic reparations by caring for our elder mothers and their families, ending the abuse of women and girls, writing balanced narratives of the movement, and citing Rastafari women as partners in revolutionary struggle. In order to continue the healing work Rastafari innovated, I call on all of us to move beyond the politics of recognition and into the politics of reparations for harm committed and injustice perpetuated.