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Language, Faith and Healing in Jamaican Folk Culture

Language, Faith and Healing in Jamaican Folk Culture

Peter L. Patrick

University of Essex

Comments to patrickp@essex.ac.uk

Brief details about this paper here

The act of healing essentially includes a spiritual or religious component, and language is often a prime medium for enacting it. Personal narratives are sites for the negotiation and construction of cultural and linguistic norms; healing stories recontextualize bodily struggles as social and spiritual conflicts. This paper examines a personal narrative of spiritual healing told in the language of Rastafari, the Jamaican religious movement. A discourse analysis of the narrative focuses on elements of Rasta Talk in order to discover how Rastafarian beliefs underlie and shape the telling, which is itself an act of faith and a profession of commitment. The healing itself, however, draws primarily on a variety of non-Rasta spiritual and occult traditions of Jamaican folk culture; their relation to Rastafari, and the reasons for employing Rasta religious rhetoric in the narrative, are also explored.

Rasta Talk, a register of Jamaican Creole (JC) undergoing functional expansion, is characteristically (though by no means exclusively) used by Jamaicans who follow the Rastafari religion. Rastafari is a syncretic Afro-Christian faith which invokes and reinterprets Old Testament Biblical imagery in the service of particular religious, cultural and political themes. This narrative of supernatural illness and cure applies a historical critique of colonialism and racism to the healthcare system, allows the teller to reposition himself discursively to alleviate suffering and stigma, and claims the moral high ground for Afro-Jamaican ethnomedical practices and traditional values through the enactment of Rastafarian principles.

Rastafari is briefly introduced first in relation to other Jamaican faith traditions, and Rasta Talk is described. The narrative is outlined chronologically. Subsequent analysis links linguistic features to key elements of Rasta beliefs, which - together with elements of Jamaican folk medicine and culture - provide the necessary context to understand the healing narrative as an act of identity.

Rastafari in Jamaican folk religious and cultural tradition

Jamaica has a very rich and productive tradition of indigenous Afro-Christian religion, covering a wide spectrum, and also retains strong elements of pre-Christian belief systems. Rastafari is a relatively new member: a syncretic sect with strong Christian roots which claims Africa as its spiritual homeland, it emerged only in the 1930s and 1940s in an urban context (Smith, Augier & Nettleford 1960, Simpson 1978). It arises directly from Jamaican Revivalism (Chevannes 1995). Myal, a folk religion whose roots in central African traditions extend from the eighteenth century throughout and beyond the slavery era (Schuler 1979), was cross-fertilized with the Native Baptist strain of Christianity, introduced to Jamaica by former American slaves who were preachers and rapidly developed by their Jamaican converts, under the influence too of British missionaries. This led to the Great Revivals of 1861 and 1862 (Curtin 1955, Simpson 1970, 1978, Vest 1992, Bilby 1993). Hundreds of new churches were founded, with African influences and innovations freely incorporated alongside Christian materials, and a dynamic tradition flowing from Revivalism continues strongly up to the present.

On the one hand, then, Rastafari owes much of its substance to this input, and is also based squarely in other aspects of Jamaican folk culture (Chevannes 1995). Yet Rastafari vigorously opposes many aspects of Revival belief and ritual, and is clearly differentiated from all other religions in Jamaica today, projecting a positive Afrocentric awareness. Rastas reject the colonial Christian God and revere Haile Selassie I, former emperor of Ethiopia, as the living incarnation of Jah (identified with Yahweh, the Old Testament god). The religion crystallized rapidly after Selassie, whose given name was Ras Tafari, ascended the throne in November 1930, and has continued unchecked since his death was (falsely, in their view) reported in 1975. As Selassie's rule is both divine and political, Rastas acknowledge no allegiance to the state of Jamaica and its instruments of authority, collectively labelled Babylon; their cultural, political and religious focus is Ethiopia, and thence Africa as a whole.

Rastas have a well-developed analysis of history, especially regarding European colonization and oppression of Africans and their descendants. (It will be convenient to speak of a single set of Rasta beliefs, practices or analyses; however, the reader should be aware that this often oversimplifies matters, as Rastafari is a relatively non-hierarchical and decentered religious movement with many groups differing in specific beliefs and a strong individualist ethic.) Though non-violent and often estranged from current political processes, Rastas constantly articulate protest, and forward an Afrocentric vision that has challenged yet powerfully influenced their society's self-image. They are thus also firmly situated in a long Caribbean and Jamaican tradition of resistance to slavery, plantation society and colonial rule, including the Maroon wars, slave rebellions, peasant movements and, in the twentieth century, Marcus Garvey's movement, and political organization through labor and nationalist parties (Patterson 1973, Chevannes 1978, H. Campbell 1987). This Rasta critique, and its symbolic forms of expression, have been taken up widely outside the movement, whose strictly religious membership has always remained fairly small in number.

At the same time, despite overtly championing the African elements of Jamaican identity, Rastafari is forced to rely on other components of Jamaican folk culture which have older and more direct lines of African descent. The religious traditions of Kumina, Pukumina, and Convince (Seaga 1969, Simpson 1978), as well as the Maroons (Bilby 1981, 1983), have their own healing traditions which may overlap with each other and even with the occult methods of Obeah (Bilby 1993), but there is no distinctly Rastafarian collection of healing practices. Though adherents of each of these groups often profess to be at odds with each other and with urbanized European-derived institutions - e.g. Rastas denounce the established churches, 'Pocomania', and Obeah alike - they all exist as elements of a creolized Jamaican culture, available as a base for individuals to select, synthesize and improvise from as needed. Nevertheless, this complex web of interlinked traditions and innovations is generally perceived by Jamaicans on a polarized axis of European versus African. In such terms, Rastafari is considered to be African, alongside e.g. the Maroons and Obeah.

Rasta Talk as symbolic expression

Rastas are commonly identified by a number of symbolic elements: chiefly, their hair, worn in dreadlocks ("a sacred and inalienable part" of their identity, Chevannes 1995:145) or formerly in beards, but also foodways (ital food, which is saltless), display of colors (red, gold and green), and their language use. Rasta Talk is a register of Jamaican Creole: an internal variety, or functional code, distinguished from everyday Jamaican speech only by simple overlays upon the common JC grammar (Patrick 1997). It does not significantly differ in core areas such as phonology and syntax, but is characterized primarily by lexical choice, productive morphological mutation rules, and rhetorical strategy (including some prosodic features), all often metaphorical in motivation.

Rasta Talk has been described as "lexical expansion within a creole system" (Pollard 1994:1). Pollard notes four types of distinctive morphemes and lexical items (1994:31-8):

Category I: "in which known items bear new meaning"

Ex.: chalice = pipe for smoking ganja, a sacred herb; block = speak seriously

Category II: "in which words bear the weight of their phonological implications"

Ex.: downpress for 'oppress', overstand for 'understand'

Category III: "/ai/-words" of two types:

(a) serving a pronominal function

Ex.: I, I-man, I-and-I = 'me, I, mine, myself'; I-and-I = 'we'

(b) "initial syllable replacement" in words of varying function

Ex.: I-dren = 'brethren', I-ditate = 'meditate', I-nite = 'unite'

Category IV: new lexical items, not previously attested

Ex.: livity = way of life, livelihood, or vocation; donza = money

Roberts (1988:36-44) includes rhetorical strategies, adding use of "biblical and apocalyptic words" and puns or wordplay to this list. Though these are generally-available activities, and quite common in Jamaican speech, in Rasta Talk they are especially frequent and, more importantly, systematically employed with a subtext of Rastafarian themes, as shown below. Chevannes (1995) gives texts of Rasta reasonin sessions with many such examples, and argues that the inventory of distinctive expressions may have evolved through such intensive debates within an influential Rasta community, the Youth Black Faith, in the 1940s-50s.

However, as with other symbolic expressions, Rasta Talk has been appropriated by many non-Rastafarian users in Jamaica to the point where it now forms part of the generally accessible set of styles, registers, and ways of speaking that are known and recognized throughout the JC speech community as rhetorical resources. Indeed, it is widely found throughout the Caribbean (Pollard 1990, 1994) and beyond: Hewitt (1986) notes that it has been secularized and incorporated into a stylistics for British black urban youth culture. Just as, in the post-slavery era, Revival "reconstruct[ed ...] a world-view in response to European subjugation and dominance" (Chevannes 1995:33), Rastafari has done so in post-colonial times; and the success of this ideological work, deeply bound up in the rhetoric that embodies it, has led to its adoption wherever Caribbean peoples have immigrated in strength. While there are linguistic aspects of Rasta Talk that make it suitable for such expansion as a functional code (Patrick 1997), here we are concerned with the cultural context within Jamaica that enables others - Rasta or not - to use it creatively and interpret it readily.

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