Sylvia Wynter – “A Dream Deferred: Will the Condemned Rasta Fari ever Return to Africa?”

Below is a duplication of an article by Sylvia Wynter, which I found in the UK National Archives, entitled: A Dream Deferred: Will the Condemned Rasta Fari ever Return to Africa?

I have tried to find this article reprinted elsewhere, but have failed. It was originally published in “Tropic”, October 1960, pp.50-51. So, just in case the article has not been reproduced elsewhere, I have typed it out below, as a resource for Wynter scholars.

Wynter wrote the article – presumably as a political commentary –  in the immediate aftermath of the Claudius Henry affair. During the final years of colonial rule in Jamaica, some members of the political elite began to worry that Cubans were manipulating Rastafari (which had effectively come down from the hills to increasingly taken prominence in Kingston) into a conduit for Communism. Claudius Henry, an outspoken repatriationist, had in fact written to the Cubans and was tried for treason. In 1960, Reynold Henry, Claudius’s son, took to the bush and killed some British soldiers. Reynold Henry was, along with his four accomplices, an ex-US marine.

In 1962, Wynter published the Hills of Hebron, which in her own words was probably written with Rastafari in the “back of my mind”. The themes introduced in the article reproduced below wonderfully demonstrate Wynter’s evolving critique of nationalism, race and class as well as her ethos of rehumanization. To my mind, this article is testament to the ways in which 20th century Caribbean scholarship of the highest caliber has so often been influenced by Rastafari in a subterranean or surface manner. Might there be a history of Caribbean thought that takes Rastafari seriously as the ground of critique?

In the article, Wynter obviously takes Rastafari seriously. This generosity, at the time, must have come at some cost to her reputation in Jamaican society. But her article also presents some problems in this regard – albeit problems I think that in good faith you would have to say were largely redressed in her intellectual evolution.

Wynter presents Rastafari as a “protest” religion. Such a description implies negativity, while Rastafari is principally a positivity. Rastafari is not even a ”counter-culture” as Dick Hebdige famously believed. If anything, Rastafari is a livity of justice, redemption and reconstruction –i.e. rehumanization. Wynter also describes the Rastafari ethics of repatriation as a “ridiculous hope”, and reduces the matter of reparation-as-repatriation to a technical consideration on migration policies. At the end of the article, Wynter also uses Rastafari as a rhetorical device by which to pitch political-economy concerns at the level of justice rather than of narrow interests. Yet in doing this, she reduces Rastafari culture, ethics and desires to blindness, confusion and inchoateness. In other words, Rastafari becomes a cypher for Wynter to talk about politics. There are no grounds for Rastafari politics, apparently.

One last factual point: Wynter claims that Claudius Henry is the recognized leader of Rastafari. This was not the case at the time nor since.


A Dream Deferred: Will the Condemned Rasta Fari ever Return to Africa?

The Rasta Fari sect in Jamaica is one of dispossessed men buried under tinsel layers of progress in this island society. A complacent middle-class dismisses them as dirty, bearded, ganga-smoking, illiterates, as men apart locked away in the fastnesses of their own ignorance. But the condemned Rasta Fari dreaming their steadfast dream of a return to Africa will not be dismissed. Recently they erupted into headline news as conspirators plotting to kill Prime Minister Manley, as terrorists hunted down by the Police and British soldiers. In one engagement two British soldiers were killed. The official line is that this violence must be stamped out, that it was instigated by a small group of American Negroes, aliens. No mention was made of the fact that the “Americans” are of Jamaican extraction. One of the men charged with the shooting of the soldiers is the son of Claudius Henry, leader of the Rasta Fari now awaiting trial on a charge of treason.

Catherine the Great once said, “when the people revolt I look for the reason in their rulers”, and this pocket-sized rebellion in Jamaica deserves analysis in this light. The Voodoo Priest, the Prophet, the leader of a sect have always been the forerunners of rebellion and political change in Caribbean society. There were Makandal and Boukman in Haiti, Bedward in Jamaica, Jordan in British Guiana, these are all men who arose out of the same tensions and frustrations of unjust social systems. They spoke for the men apart, the disinherited. After them the political movements, the new leaders arose. But the situation in Jamaica today is different – the rulers are not white but black and brown men. The skin colour of the rulers has changed but the social system that bred prophets, agitators and those blinded by the anger of their discontent remains intact.

The Church in the West Indies, whatever it might have been immediately after emancipation, is no longer a temple for the shirtless ones, for the middle-class has taken it over. The Rasta Fari religion like many of the cults of the dispossessed Negro is based on the concepts of a black God and a black Christ, it is a religion of protest. Boukman’s incantation to his followers on the eve of the Haitian revolution echoes in the hearts of the bearded men, the “Brother Men” of Jamaica:

.. the god of the white man inspires him to crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works .Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty which speaks in the hearts of us all.

More specifically the Rasta Farites claim that Marcus Garvey was their most recent John the Baptist. According to a study done by the University College of the West Indies, the Rasta Farite movement began to take shape around 1930. It’s main centre is in Western Kingston, although since the survey was made the movement has spread to other areas of Jamaica. There are many groups, all with high sounding names: “The United Afro-West Indian Federation”; “The Ethiopian Coptic Faith”, ‘the African Cultural League”, etc. … The Different groups in principle recognize Claudius Henry, Repairer of the Breach, as their leader.

What are the Rasta Fari protesting against? The crypto-colonial regime in Jamaica? The miasma of borrowed beliefs by which the Jamaican middle-class lives? The half truths and the insensate follies of coloured men who have won the right to rule themselves but who have been conditioned to bow and scrape so long that they now do it unconsciously? All of these factors have a profound bearing on the Rasta Fari problem. While the government of Jamaica shuffles towards independence burdened by the appanage of colonial rule, the symbols of a recent past of servility and shame, will continue to fester in the hearts of the poor and the black.

In the “Agammenon” of Aeschylus it is written: “If the conquerors respect the Gods and Temples of the conquered they will be saved.” The Anglo-Saxons were not noted for their reverence for the gods and temples of the conquered; they desecrated and destroyed, and those who survived their depredations were fed on trans-Atlantic myths – the myths of white gods and white kings, of “all things white and beautiful”. But even the myths were exclusive, they were handed down to an elite, and in the West Indies, to a carbon-copy elite.

At the heart of the Rasta Fari discontent and violence is the need of a society in which the shirtless ones can see themselves winning the dignity they have never known in Jamaica. While the present rulers of Jamaica continue to plaster up sores without looking for the causes of the disease in the island’s bloodstream, the discontent will not only continue but will spread its infection.

It is rumoured that the Rastas turned against the Manley Government because they were encouraged to believe that if they helped, by votes and violence against the P.N.P.’s opponents, they would be assisted in their return to Africa. But certainly Mr Manley is far too astute a politician to have inspired such ridiculous hopes. A more constructive programme for a return to Africa would entail the establishment of technical training on a wide and comprehensive scale. One of Jamaica’s main exports are her citizens. The Government should have the integrity and foresight to ensure that its people emigrate to countries where they are wanted, that once they leave they should have skills which qualify them to contribute on the highest level to the well-being of their adopted country. The export of unskilled labour to countries white or black pays dividends only in frustration and bitterness in the long run.

The Rastas are inspired by dreams which are blind, inchoate, confused, but their dreams are big ones. It is well to remember that when Mr. Manley, in 1938 told a crowd of strikers that “half a loaf was better than none” the strikers shouted back, “We would rather die!”.

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