Rastafarians in Post-Independence Caribbean Poetry in English

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Rastafarians in Post-Independence Caribbean Poetry in English (the 1960s and the 1970s): from Pariahs to Cultural Creators Eric DOUMERC, Maître de conférences - Université Toulouse 2 – Le Mirail erdoum@aol.com

L’objectif de cet article est d’examiner plusieurs modes de représentation des Rastafariens dans la poésie antillaise anglophone des années 1960 et 1970. Après s’être attardé sur le contexte historique et culturel, il sera question de trois tendances générales dans la représentation des Rastafariens pendant cette période. Dans certains poèmes, les Rastas apparaissent comme des parias et des idéalistes qui ont fondé leur vie entière sur un rêve absurde. D’autres poètes ont vu chez les Rastas le symbole de l’absurdité de la vie de l’homme, qui attend une certaine délivrance avec patience. Enfin, il existe une autre tradition dans la poésie antillaise anglophone qui a tendance à considérer le Rasta comme le vecteur d’une nouvelle culture créole et donc on mettra l’accent sur l’apport culturel des Rastas, par exemple en ce qui concerne les codes linguistiques et symboliques.

This article proposes to look at the way Rastafarians were portrayed in various ways by West Indian poets in the 1960s and 1970s. After paying attention to the historical and cultural context, the article focuses on three main strands in the portrayal of Rastafarians at the time. In a number of poems, Rastas emerged as pariahs and idealists who based their life on a fantasy. Other poets saw the Rastafarians as the symbols of the absurdity of man’s condition, patiently waiting for some kind of deliverance. Lastly, another tradition in West Indian poetry in English tends to look at the Rastafarians as the bearers of a new, creole culture and the emphasis is laid on their contribution to Caribbean culture in terms of language and symbolism.

The 1960s in the English-speaking Caribbean were a troubled period and a time of change. Independence (in 1962 for Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, and in 1966 for Barbados and Guyana) raised people’s expectations and meant that a new cultural climate set in. The American Black Power and Civil Rights Movements came to have a certain influence on mentalities, and the Rastafarian movement, a millenerian and messianic movement which first developed in the 1930s, began to exert a major influence on popular culture and particularly on popular music. The 1960s were also characterised by a certain disillusionment with the benefits of independence and with a rediscovery of the African or Afro-Caribbean dimension of Caribbean culture. In the 1960s, Rastafarians began to appear in poems by West Indian poets about social issues, the fragmentation of Caribbean societies and the search for "roots". Rastafarianism in these poems seemed to function as a symbol of the absurdity of man's condition in the Caribbean and Rastas often appear as outcasts or pariahs who long to escape from Babylon. This view of Rastafarianism was shared by a number of poets who sympathised with the Rastas but who remained detached observers and gave an account of Rastafarianism from the outside. Other poets who were closer to Rastafarianism chose to focus on the role of the Rasta as a cultural agent, the bearer of a new Caribbean culture, a creole culture.

The Rastafarians, with their striking hairstyle, Bible-inspired code language and general detachment from "Babylon", appealed to West Indian writers, who were trying to find their own voice at the time. These writers saw a similarity between the Rastas' status as pariahs and the writer's lone search for a West Indian aesthetics. As the critic Laurence A. Breiner wrote, the most common scene in many poems about Rastafarians is the lone Rastafarian ghetto-dweller smoking his ganja to escape from reality while he waits for the arrival of Marcus Garvey's ship to come and take him back to Ethiopia, his Promised Land (Breiner 218). In some of these poems, the Rastafarian is an outsider, an outcast,...
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