This article is part of the ‘Power in the Telling’ feature – curated by the Windrush Strikes Back project – on the production of community-engaged histories of Black Britain.
When future generations study the pages of history, seeking to understand the growth and development of black community histories, what will they find? Will they remember a history that contributed to our understandings of dominant ideologies and visions of social change? Or will they recall its failures, and its inability to dictate and archive the narrative?
I was confronted with the overwhelming silences in academic writing in my final year of my undergraduate degree in History at Royal Holloway, University of London. Many young Black historians can testify to the uncomfortable and often incommunicable experiences of being the only Black person in the room. Yet, an even greater pain is when you are coming to the end of your degree and you realise that you have invested in a course where Black history is only seen through the gaze of the United States and slavery. I knew that the only way for me to find something meaningful was to completely re-programme my mind. I knew I had to be radically vulnerable. I knew I had to pursue my own authenticity by researching and investing in my own sense of truth. I therefore decided to dedicate my final year to exploring my own history as a Jamaican-born, London-raised member of Rastafari tradition.
The image of ‘Rasta’ conjures many colourful representations. When I speak to friends and colleagues about my research on the Rastafari, they often recite a time when their aunt or uncle had found themselves chanting down Babylon in a movement of Roots, Rock and Reggae. From the iron curtains of snow in Russia to pub crawls in the heart of Phuket, the symbols of the “Dread” have engraved the cultural and political landscape of our global village. Yet, from a quick search of the history books here in Britain, one struggles to find works that articulate the experiences of British Rastas outside of the scope of criminality and idleness.
Having grown up within the Rastafari tradition, I was in search of the written reference points that would allow me to understand the community in its totality. How did they arrive in Britain? How did they organise? Where did they meet? And what were their key successes and challenges?
The historiography of the Rastafari movement in Britain reveals the way in which Eurocentric approaches persist in national narratives that claim to ‘include’ multiple perspectives and voices. Like many scholars studying communities at a local level, the producers of works on Rastafari insisted that they were writing for the community. They claimed that they had informally worked with members of the community, uncovered new ground, recorded their stories, and written a narrative that was very much ‘by the community, for the community’.
As someone who straddles academia and ‘the community’, I couldn’t help but question the possibilities of writing for a community from the outside, to produce works that would be consumed by ‘the outside’. We must ask ourselves what it means to ‘know’ and ‘represent’ within the context of academic writing. The tendency to feel that we, as researchers and academics, can save community groups tends to reproduce a type of violence, pushing underrepresented groups further into the boundaries of essentialism.
The study and practice of Black community-led history forces us to consider important questions that demand balanced and sober reflection. How can institutions collaborate with individuals who are trying to fashion alternative historical approaches and narratives? How do we engage with empathy or the act of ‘doing good’ in the context of academic writing? How can we embed legacies and voices not only in the research process, but also into the research? And how can we speak critically without watering down?
Such questions rest at the heart of my PhD research. The inspiration behind my project comes out of the recognition that the history of the Rastafari in England is still ‘untold’ within the academic arena. From the establishment of the Jamaican Working Committee in 1960, to Rastafari centenary celebrations in 1992, my research will chart a political history of the Rastafari in England that moves beyond lazy clichés of the movement as a corrosive cultural phenomenon. Far from being powerless victims in need of empowering, the Rastafari see themselves as pioneers leading radical approaches to Black history. From the development of international relations with Sylvia Pankhurst during the 1930s, to the establishment of the Ethiopian World Federation during Haile Selassie’s exile in Bath, England, the history of the Rastafari in Britain stretches beyond the margins of sub-cultures.
Intervening in the white-dominated production of history involves firmly addressing the erasure of the Black voice, perspective and experiences in academic writing. This is not just about how we engage with communities, but it also involves being unapologetically critical in the frameworks, theories and material we draw on to support our analysis.
In trying to shift intellectual authority, I have consciously refused to adopt western ways of knowing, analysing and interacting and have sought to find ways to incorporate indigenous and communal knowledge systems within my approach. The ‘I and I’ methodological approach that I will be using is based on the Rastafari’s collective process of dialectical enquiry – also known as ‘reasoning’. Within the ‘I and I’ model, participants engage on a horizontal platform that seeks to ‘over-stand’ truth and rights from the experience of the everyday.
Adopting an ‘I and I’ approach allows me to interrogate my position as a researcher whilst paving way for more critical reflexivity. As part of my research, for instance, members of the community will be given a space to publish their reflections and critique about my project.
Moreover, it gives me a method to negotiate my dual position as an ‘outsider from within’. As a Black historian researching Black community histories, the psychological, metaphysical and intellectual aggressions can often times leave me breathless. In acknowledging that I am very much with and of them, I recognise the importance of filling non-existence with existence. I also recognise that I cannot be a voice for the community as a whole, but I can interrupt dominant narratives.
For me, it is important to not only ‘research back’, but also ‘research forward’ to illuminate the experiences of ordinary British-Caribbean men and women for whom Rastafari remained an enduring and ever-evolving political project. If history is concerned with changes through time, and historians are the agents of change, we must take an active role in democratising history.
Aleema Gray is Community History Curator at the Museum of London and PhD candidate at Warwick University. Her research is funded by the Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies and uncovers a community-engaged history of the Rastafari movement in England. Aleema’s work focuses on documenting Black British history through the perspective of lived experiences. Her practice is driven by a concern for more historically contingent ways of understanding the present, especially in relation to notions of belonging, memory and contested heritage. She tweets @AleemaGray.