Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Divergent Fates: Ikael Tafari


When he entered the University of the West Indies (Mona) in the late 1960s his name was Michael Hutchinson; a former student of Harrison College, Barbados (one of the island’s elite high schools); from a privileged white family. When he returned nine years later to his island home he had changed. He was Ras Ikael Tafari, lush beard wearer of his new faith, and fierce believer in the prophetic eminence of Haile Selassie I.

He would join the faculty of Social Sciences UWI (Cave Hill) as lecturer. From his campus base he would become active in Pan African affairs, joining the Pan African Commission in 1997. In 2004 he was appointed its director.

The task here: how to explain the transitions and transformation of this extraordinary individual?

He was a student during the Walter Rodney street upheavals in ‘68. So volcanic was that event it would take many years for the fallout of cultural values and assumptions to resettle. A rearrangement of the social boundaries between blacks, browns and whites was in full swing in the early 70s. Had he chosen a different island campus (say, St Augustine) or faculty programme (Medicine) he might have been sufficiently insulated from events & temptations of the time.

Many students, bearing the heaviness of parental expectations, elected to rise above the turmoil. They stayed focused on tertiary aspirations, arguing, this is not my island; no need to feel connected. It seemed a rational, commonsense approach. It was adopted by, for instance, many Indians from Trinidad, many blacks from the Bahamas.

Ikael’s immersion into the Nyabinghi faith was gradual. Changes in his features were the first signs of inner transformation: from clean-faced innocence to facial hairiness, marijuana’d eyes, his general appearance roughened-up as if to blur his distinctive island origins.

His language and modes of communing slowly altered. The tools of academic discourse were put aside or interspersed with the messianic I-Words of Rasta I-Manity. At times a self-conscious smile on his face seemed to question what he was doing: entering himself, entering the moment on the island.

But these were in many ways extraordinary post-Rodney times. Youth culture had been at the forefront of rebellious activity in European capitals (Paris in ’68). Some of that youth optimism carried over to the 70s in Jamaica where praises to ‘de youth’ formed part of an ascendant reggae romanticism.

At the same time a unique confluence of brilliant teachers, students, pioneers in thought and creativity had emerged in Kingston; young men & women in the prime of their intellectual & creative life: among them Vaughn Lewis, Kamau Brathwaite, Rex Nettleford (professors); Owen Arthur, Bruce Golding, Ralph Gonsalves (students) Bob Marley, U Roy, Count Ossie (music pioneers).

With minds & talents functioning at their highest capacity, the campus was bright with ideas for changing the course of Caribbean history & politics. Few were aware of the roles and destinies they would later be asked to fill.

Among his friends Ikael encouraged a kind of introspective “reasoning”, a variant of Walter Rodney’s “groundings” with the underclass. They were in effect interpersonal (I & I) “conversations”; confessional at the beginning, argumentative often; filled with student impulse and hypothesis.

Listening you sensed his anxiety about his blue-eyed identity, the “sins” of his privileged upbringing. He worried, too, about his postgraduate role in an intellectually unaccommodating region (how would he fit back in?). Jamaica offered a laboratory for experiment and redefinition.

In the 60s Jamaica was the island for transient souls eager to fulfill escapist longings. Playgrounds of pleasure could be found in its lovely music & liberating sex, in the fashion of dread and the bounty of marijuana. Tourists, who saw no need for caution in those days, flocked to the North coast to sample & indulge illicit freedoms. After Rodney “conscious” students discovered the wayward possibilities for (self) discovery if they ventured into the wards and valleys of Kingston.

In Ikael’s conversations there were early indications of what he would later become: the good shepherd of the Nyabinghi, its philosopher-scribe. Not just giving intellectual validation to the faith, or working in an advocacy role (as trade union rep, or academic housekeeper). He believed the Ras had the power to transform & rebuild the region’s human resources after the depredations of plantation. “Rastafari is the most important consciousness to have arisen in the 20th century.” he has said. The House of Nyabinghi would be his new psychic home.

Here our thinking diverged. It was hard to conceive of Rastafari as a transferable faith rippling down the Eastern C/bean islands. Surface aspects – the drumming & redemptive promises, the breakaway language constantly at war with local evil-doers and Babylon’s materialism – might appeal to groups languishing on the margins. But old ways and habits like seedbeds sometimes need raking up before new faith could take root.

Message and island might be viewed as incompatible. In his island home, for instance, the historical imbalance between colonizer and colonized had stabilized into a feel-safe working pact between tourist & islander, proprietor & resident. It was a pact for which there was unspoken consensus and measurable economic progress. To return to that context with messages of a radical reordering of lives, with calls to re-examine the collective well-being of former slaves, would raise anxiety levels. Barriers of resistance would go up.

In Jamaica tiny ironies caught your attention. Though “the masses” listened to the pro-active message in Bob Marley’s Get up, Stand up, and wept when they remembered Zion, their hearts – believing deliverance would come from above, not from abroad – felt comforted singing along to the bouncy hope of Max Romeo’s Let the power fall on I.

Our student minds turned often to issues of island sexuality. How to explain the nexus of unreflecting, carnal males, those luscious women, the batty-bwoy obsession? There were readily available theories linking behaviours to ‘persistent poverty’, ignorance, unemployable rude energies, the groiny power of the powerless (or the island’s peculiar legacy from the plantation – its testosterone blessings & curse.)

Whatever the cause, practices and norms could be changed, communities rehabilitated. Ikael was confident change would begin when islanders looked to Africa and embraced the transforming values & majesty of the Ras.

I followed his return through news and internet reports. I didn’t think he would complete his postgraduate studies. I imagined him remaining in Jamaica, hirsute beyond recognition, and missing a few teeth; having resolved to exchange the (material) trappings of one island for the (spiritual) wrappings of another

A newspaper interview in 2002 sounded ominous. In it he felt compelled to affirm (for aspersions were being cast) his blackness and black roots. (“My Creator has already decided by my mother’s line that I am black.”) He cited a Marcus Garvey’s definition of blackness in ardent defence. I had a flashback to colonial Guyana, and a half-white vagrant (named Walker) who defended himself when anyone looked at him hard. He’d screamed that he was “British”; children sometimes threw stones and called him, “Walker the nigger!”

In 2003 I heard of the launching of his book Rastafari in Transition: Politics of Cultural Confrontation in Africa and the Caribbean (1966-1988) Volume 1. He talked about the unfinished nature of “his work”; the dry interest shown by an old-thinking UWI academy. He issued apocalyptic warnings (“We are in the last hour of time. Look at Daniel 1, read from verse 36.”)

I read of his appointment in 2004 as Director of the Commission for Pan African Affairs – “I have waited a long time in my life for the opportunity to make this contribution.” – and the trust placed in him by the Barbadian Govt. The appointment was met with disquiet even in Rastafarian circles. Angry messages questioned whether a white Barbadian face was “truly representative” of Pan African affairs. (In 2008 it was reported he’d been “fired” from the position.)

As for death and its incalculability Ikael spoke back then with the coolness of indestructible youth, as if the lining of his lion heart could hold off the encroachment of mundane infections. (Statins and cholesterol were not yet a conspicuous part of the vocabulary of physical wellbeing.) Belief in the power of Jah, in the moral universe of the Ras would form a natural mystic firewall, unbreachable by the diseases of Babylon.

It is tempting to consider his state of mind in his last hours on earth. From all accounts he had gone to T/dad to deliver a lecture on African Liberation. At some point he complained of feeling unwell and returned to his hotel bed. Later he was discovered unconscious, and pronounced dead at the hospital (apparently of heart attack.) Difficult, then, to imagine the conversation with himself as he waited for that gathered cardiac storm to pass; as he slipped from “consciousness” into that silent zone (or Zion) of hereafter.

An extraordinary individual in a time of extraordinary events, he dared as student to leap into realities outside theory & textbook, mastering the knowledge he found there. He seemed determined to redirect the narrative of his life, to construct a new persona fusing elements from the African continent and his dismantled island psyche.

Those who joined his conversations will remember the way he showed up after days of island trod, looking loose, street-weathered, the blue eyes ablaze with new I-World “visions”; his metamorphosis in fevered progress. Sceptical as some of us remained, the conversations helped adjust our thinking about the world. His evolving faith-based sureness of self threw light on roads not taken, the labours of One Love now lost.

It was good and pleasant to know him. In those seminal student years he was Lion of the void. Yes, I.