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Book of Memory: A Rastafari Testimony

Williams and his family at Salt Marsh, Jamaica in 1972.

Outside Jamaica, Rastafarianism is commonly associated with Bob Marley and reggae music; for adventurous tourists it may conjure images of dreadlocked beachbums lounging under palm trees.

But behind the cliché of a jolly dread smoking a big spliff are tales of hardship and injustice, particularly for those who came to the faith before Marley made it world-famous. Based on the life of Prince Elijah Williams, who became a Rasta in the early 1950s, Book of Memory is a fascinating attempt to delve behind such myths. A woodcarver and drummer, Williams recounted his testimony and observations over a 10-year period to Michael Kuelker, a US human-rights activist.

With poetic clarity, Williams makes clear that to be a Rasta in the 1950s and 1960s meant being beaten or jailed for no reason. Rasta children were barred from attending schools and adults had their dreadlocks and beards forcibly shaved off by the police. Some were even killed.

Today, in spite of the Bob Marley legacy, being a Rasta and proclaiming an African identity still draws public ridicule within Jamaica. And with Williams’ wooden-shack home about to be flattened to make way for a tourist road, he has some sharp observations to make about the bankrupt state of his country that has sold its soul to the IMF, foreign business and exploitative tourism.

As one man’s testimony unfolds, a picture emerges of the rampant poverty, deep-set Eurocentric prejudices and widespread power imbalances that have blighted post-independence Jamaica. Engaging and thought-provoking.

Steven Katz

New Internationalist issue 378 magazine cover This article is from the May 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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