Anthropologists use the term “poetics” to refer to all manner of creative self-expression. Since how we express ourselves is based on our sense of self and identity, you can learn a lot about what people in another culture think about themselves. One important way people lay claim to power (particularly if they’re in a subordinate position in society) is through the production and maintenance of identities. In the case of the Rastafari those identities are always bound up in opposition to what they perceive as mainstream society.
Take for instance this image, drawn from the ethnography Soul Rebels:
Lewis notes that some Rasta, “freely used Christian imagery to sustain belief in Rastafari.” In this folk painting depicting the Biblical last supper (a common Christian image with a long history in European art traditions) all the persons represented are Black men with dreadlocks. What might be the political and religious significance of this painting for the Rasta? What does its racial and colonial inversion say about Rasta culture and how they see themselves?
During his visit to the most destitute Rasta who squat on the beach beneath a pier, the author engages in a reasoning session, this time with David and Lion, in which the following exchange takes place:
The light fades. More silence. The bay water slaps against the pilings. A rat tears across the planks and startles me. I jump. Lion, however, admonishes me with a reminder that the rat is only a creature.
“The barber shop is the mark of the beast. Comb and razor conquer. The wealth of Jah is with locks, in fullness of his company.”
All nod in agreement. I mention that my understanding is increasing.
“Be careful with words, brother,” Lion says, “overstand not understand. I people are forward people not backward.”
Lion seems to be talking in poetry here. The Rastas are well known for taking mundane everyday things and making them into political and religious statements. What do you think Lion is getting at in the figurative language of his command to “overstand not understand”? How is this play on words also a reflection of his beliefs and worldview?
In the comments section below, offer your reaction and interpretation to either of these examples. What do you think is going on here? How can the study of poetics provide another avenue for exploring cultures different than our own?