Apr 212017

Today is Grounation Day, an important day for the Rastafari, second only to Coronation Day (November 2). It is celebrated in honor of Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica.  When Haile Selassie visited Jamaica, around 100,000 Rastafari from all over Jamaica descended on Palisadoes Airport in Kingston. When his Ethiopian Airlines flight landed at the airport at 1:30 pm the crowd surrounded his plane on the tarmac. After about half an hour, the door swung open and the emperor appeared at the top of the mobile steps. A deafening tumult was heard from the crowd, who beat calabash drums, lit firecrackers, waved signs, and sounded Abeng horns. All protocol was dropped as the crowd pressed past the security forces and on to the red carpet that had been laid out for the reception. Selassie waved from the top of the steps and then returned into the plane. Finally Jamaican authorities asked Ras Mortimer Planno, a prominent Rasta leader, to climb the steps, enter the plane, and negotiate the Emperor’s descent. When Planno reemerged, he announced to the crowd: “The Emperor has instructed me to tell you to be calm. Step back and let the Emperor land” After Planno escorted Selassie down the steps he refused to walk on the red carpet on the way to his limousine. Thus was born the term “grounation” a portmanteau of “foundation” and “ground,”  meaning something like “the spiritual leader (foundation) makes contact with the soil (ground).”

As a result of Planno’s actions, the Jamaican authorities were asked to ensure that Rastafari representatives were present at all state functions attended by Selassie, and Rastafari leaders, including Planno, also obtained a private audience with the Emperor, where he reportedly told them that they should not attempt to emigrate to Ethiopia (or Africa in general) until they had first liberated the people of Jamaica. This dictum came to be known as “liberation before repatriation.” Defying the expectations of the British colonial Jamaican authorities, Selassie never rebuked the Rastafari for their belief in him as the Messiah. Instead, he presented the movement’s faithful leaders with gold medallions bearing the Ethiopian seal – the only recipients of such an honor on this visit. Meanwhile, he presented some of the Jamaican politicians with miniature coffin-shaped cigarette boxes. So let’s explore what Rastafari is all about (in very little space – as always).

The word Rastafari comes from Haile Selassie’s birth name and title in Amharic: Ras (Chief) Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael. From the 1930s onward a movement, known as Rastafari, grew in Jamaica as a militant reaction to colonialism and former slavery, at one time advocating a return of the descendants of former slaves to Africa and revering Haile Selassie as the reincarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. Outsiders define Rastafari as a religion, but devotees prefer to see it as a movement, although it has many of the hallmarks of a religion, with many features taken from Judaism and Christianity.  I see no point in quibbling about terminology.

Rastas use the Biblical term “Babylon” to describe the colonial forces of oppression, one major form of which is language itself. Thus suffixes, such as “-ism” and “-ian,” are seen as linguistic forms of limitation and control. I am wholly sympathetic with this agenda. Labels such as “Marxism” or “Freudian,” for example, are both limiting and misleading. I happen to like the word “Christian” when it is strictly applied, meaning “a person who strives in all ways to be Christ-like.” By this definition there are precious few Christians. In my opinion the word “Christian” should not be randomly applied to anyone who happens to go to a certain kind of church, but should have a clear and precise meaning. In this respect I am fully in accord with Rastas.  The trouble is that with or without suffixes, “Rastafari” and “Rasta” are labels and bring the limits of definition along with them.

It is fair to say that Rastafari has no rigid dogmas, but is rather a way of life with multiple paths. These ways include an emphasis on an Afro-centric worldview (replacing the desire for repatriation to Africa), eating unadulterated and unprocessed foods, smoking ganja (marijuana) as a sacrament, communal singing and chanting, belief in a single God – called Jah, and belief that Haile Selassie was the Second Coming of the Messiah. These paths are not all rigid. Not all Rastas smoke ganja for example. Some are strict vegans, while others eat meat. Early on Rastas realized that language can limit ways of thinking and developed a dialect of English which is now called Iyaric (a portmanteau of “I” and “Amharic”). The idea was to break away from standard English, the language of the colonial masters, and, since the former languages of African slaves had been lost, to create a new mode of speech that rejected the ideology of “Babylon.” “I,” signifying the empowered self, is of prime importance in Iyaric – hence the name.

In the first place, “I” can signify at least two meanings through “wordsound” (the power of sound in words). It can mean the self, but can also signify “high” (which is sounds like), not in the sense of high from ganja, but spiritually high. Here’s a very brief lexicon:

I replaces “me,” which is much more commonly used in Jamaican English than in standard English. Me is felt to turn the person into an object whereas, I emphasizes the subjective nature of an individual.

I and I (also spelled I&I, InI, or Ihi yahnh Ihi) is a complex term, referring to the oneness of Jah (God) and every human. Rastafari scholar E. E. Cashmore says: “I and I is an expression to totalize the concept of oneness. ‘I and I’ as being the oneness of two persons. So God is within all of us and we’re one people in fact. I and I means that God is within all men. The bond of Ras Tafari is the bond of God, of man.” The term is often used in place of “you and I” or “we” among Rastafari, implying that both persons are united under the love of Jah.

I-tal (like “vital”) is spiritually blessed food that has not touched modern chemicals and is served without preservatives, condiments, or salts. Alcohol, coffee, milk, and flavored beverages are generally viewed as not I-tal. Most Rastas follow the I-tal proscriptions generally, and many are vegetarians or vegans. Even meat-eating Rastas abstain from eating pork, crabs, lobsters, and shrimp (which coincides with the restrictions of Kashrut).

I-man is the inner person within each Rastafari believer.

Irie refers to positive emotions or feelings, or anything that is good. This is a phonetic representation of “all right”.

Ites derived from English “heights”, means “joy” and also the colour “red”. It can also be short for “Israelites”.

Irator replaces “creator”, and Iration replaces “creation”.

Idren refers to the oneness of Rastafari and is used to describe one’s peers.

Itinually replaces continually. It has the everliving sense of I existing continuously.

Reggae developed out of the Rastafari movement, with its early lyrics expressing core Rasta values of militancy and freedom.  Here’s Bob Marley and the Melodians singing “By the Rivers of Babylon” which explores notions of slavery and alienation in a Biblical context. The song is dear to my heart because it was the first on a mix tape that I used every night 25 years ago to rock my son to sleep when he was an infant.

There are, of course, plenty of Rasta recipes exploiting I-tal food. Like Buddhist monks, Rastas don’t want to sacrifice taste and complexity just because they avoid certain ingredients. Many avoid red meat because of a belief that it rots inside the body, but fish is acceptable to some. Callaloo is a common Caribbean dish, ultimately deriving from West African cooking, that can be made from various leafy greens. In Jamaica amaranth leaves are the usual component. They are best if cooked fresh, but in the US I only ever found tinned callaloo, which is all right. The flavor is correct, but the greens are too mushy for my taste.

If you can get fresh amaranth leaves, take a bunch, cut off the tough part of the stems and roughly chop the  leaves. Soak and rinse them in fresh water for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile peel and slice an onion and mince 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, and thinly slice a scotch bonnet pepper. Also de-seed and chop a tomato. In a large heavy skillet sauté  the onion in a little vegetable oil until translucent. Add the garlic and pepper and cook for 1 or 2 minutes longer. Then add the amaranth (with fresh water still clinging to the leaves) and the tomato. Mix well, cover and steam for about 10 minutes, or until the leaves are tender. Add a little water if necessary during the cooking process so that the pan does not dry out and scorch. Callaloo is often served in Jamaica with salt fish and plantains, but it can be used as a green vegetable accompaniment for any dish.