Rastafarian: It’s Haile’s Birthday! (Just ask the Smithsonian)

FRIDAY, JULY 23: Bring out the red, yellow and green streamers as Rastafarians celebrate today the birthday of late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, born July 23, 1892. The Ethiopian Orthodox Christian was heir to a dynasty traced back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, through the blood of his paternal grandmother. (Wikipedia has details.) Haile Selassie I was regarded as much more than another emperor, though; because of his specific lineage and of prophesies proclaimed by African Marcus Garvey, Rastafarians hail Haile Selassie I as Jesus incarnate. Although he ruled Ethiopia, it was in Jamaica in the 1930s that the Rastafarian movement was born. (Parents—take advantage of this learning opportunity for your kids, courtesy of a UK educational site.) This group regarded Jamaica as hell and Ethiopia as heaven. Over the years, racial tenets of the religion have faded as the Rastafarian movement has spread across the world to a rainbow of ethnicities. Nevertheless, Rastafarians believe Selassie will lead the people of Africa and the African diaspora to a golden age.

Worship is highly individualized in Rastafarianism, and because of this, no major events are usually planned for Rasta observances—even on this, one of the most important days of the year for devotees. Small gatherings that result in dancing, drumming, the creation of music and worship are commonly found today, as are feasts of vegetarian foods. Rastafarians will study the Bible and rejoice through music in numbers that vary widely; the number of Rastas in the world is estimated between 200,000 and 800,000.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History currently features a Rastafarian exhibit that was supposed to end in 2008 but has been extended to “indefinite” status. “Discovering Rastafari!” was created because of increasing academic interest in the religion and its cultural influences. (Smithsonian.com featured a lengthy interview with the exhibit’s curator a couple of years ago.) Together with 17 Rastafarian advisers, Curator Jake Homiak put together the exhibit after 30 years of interest in the cultural movement. (See a photo of the exhibit and read a review at Exhibit Files.) Next month, the Inaugural Rastafari Studies Conference will be centered around the University of the West Indies; the Smithsonian Museum is involved in the conference. (The Gleaner, a Jamaican publication, featured an article earlier this month.)

(By ReadTheSpirit columnist Stephanie Fenton)

(NOTE: To see more short articles about upcoming holidays, festivals and anniversaries, click the “RTS Magazines” tab at the top of this page and select “Religious Holidays.”)

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