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“Can an Ethiopian change the colour of his skin?” Rastafari faith in continental Europe

Giulia Bonacci

Specific Research Project:

Rastafari is an afrocentric faith which considers Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia (1930-1974) as a divine character. First developed in Jamaica in the early thirties, Rastafari has always been expressed and studied as a black militant cultural manifestation. Rastafari is grounded in the tradition of ethiopianism, which is a set of practices and references instrumental in the construction of race consciousness. The heights of ethiopianism occurred at specific times in colonial struggles, in Africa and in the West. Relying heavily on race identification and biblical phraseology, ethiopianism was promoted by dedicated individuals and eventually took a political shape with the pan-African construction.
Rastafari can be considered as the climax of ethiopianism, its most developed and recent manifestation, in the sense that it identifies the Emperor of Ethiopia as the saviour and leader of the Black race and advocates for Black redemption and empowerment.

With the world wide diffusion of Rastafari vision through reggae music, the symbolic struggle between Black and White which is permanently enacted within Rastafari has been reappropriated and reinterpreted in many different nations. Rastafari even found a way into continental Europe and we witnessed the unexpected: White Europeans taking part in the rituals and expressions of a Black militant faith. Largely ignored by the academic literature, the European Rastafari experience is interesting for different reasons. It requires an understanding of the appeal for a White population of ethiopianism as a world-vision; it provides a cartography of European networks crystallised around Rastafari practitioners; it offers differential insight within Black – White relationships on the continent. I have been in contact with European Rastafarians in Sweden, Germany, Austria, France and Belgium and conducted fieldwork in Italy with the Rastafari community. I would like to take the opportunity of this Black European Studies Conference to present and discuss issues of appropriation, interpretation and self-representation of a Black militant faith by European practitioners.

Larger research interest:

Heirs and Pioneers Coming Home: Repatriation to Shashemene, Ethiopia 1950-2000

I am currently writing a PhD dissertation on the history of the Black repatriation to
Ethiopia. The concern and involvement of African descent population in Ethiopia goes back as far as the late 19th century.

However, in the late forties, Emperor Haile Selassie I granted land to the ‘Black people of the West’. As a consequence, several hundred people settled on the outskirts of a southern Ethiopian town, Shashemene. This project challenges the existing literature at different levels, redefines the space of the African Diaspora and provides very detailed data and critical interpretation of the repatriation process. I have conducted archival and documentation research in Jamaica, England and Ethiopia and worked on an oral history project with returnees in Ethiopia. The main issues I am interested in this project are the organisational forms and political strategies that allowed people to repatriate from the USA, Jamaica and the wider Caribbean, England and continental Europe; the history of the Ethiopian land and its settlement; the representation and assimilation process of returnees within Ethiopian society.

Since the late sixties, the majority of the returnees are Rastafari brethren and sistren, and it is naturally that I started documenting the Rastafari experience in Europe where I have been based for some years. I am grounded in African history, already familiar with issues pertaining to the Black US and Caribbean experience, really interested by pan-African and diaspora issues, and eager to confront this background with the European context. Regarding the workshops, at this stage, I would like to discuss issues related to Racism and the Academy. Being myself of European ancestry and working on Black radical movements, I have often been confronted with diffused racism both by Black and White academics. I would greatly appreciate to discuss issues pertaining to the racialised institution we move in. How do we uncover biased approaches and teaching? How to address Black issues in a context where it is almost not possible to speak about race (very relevant in France)? How could Black European studies inspire and differentiate themselves from African-American studies? How to confront a dominant discourse when they are so few Black European researchers holding positions in the academia and so few European researchers impartially concerned about the Black experience?

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