Tag Archives: Rastafarianism

African Spiritual: Religion and Children’s Books

The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child does not specifically say that a child has the right to choose his or her religion.  However, it mentions both religion and morality several times.  In Principle 1, it says that “Every child, without any exception whatsoever, shall be entitled to these rights without distinction or discrimination on account of . . . religion”.  Principle 2 argues that “The child shall enjoy special protection . . . to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially”.  Principle 6 says that the child should grow up “in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security”.  Principle 7 says that children’s education should develop a “sense of moral and social responsibility”.  And Principle 10 argues that “The child shall be protected from practices which may foster racial, religious and any other form of discrimination.”  But today I am taking as my starting point for a discussion on religion and the UN declaration Principle 9, which states that children “shall not be the subject of traffic, in any form.”

At first glance, this principle does not seem to have anything to do with religion.  But in fact, the historical period when African children were most likely to be trafficked, that is, the period of European enslavement of African people, was the period when Africans were most likely to lose their traditional forms of religion.  During enslavement, some African people were prevented from practicing their religion in a community.  Some were too young to remember or have learned the traditional religious practices of their community.  Some were given incentives to convert (or at least appear to convert) to Christianity.  All of these had an effect on the way that people of African descent in the Americas, the Caribbean and in Europe practiced religion—and these effects can be seen in children’s books right up to today.


Morna Stuart’s story of two boys enslaved in Haiti and in France during the revolution includes reference to Yoruba religious tradition.

Many of the enslaved African people came or were descended from West African tribal groups, including the Yoruba people.  The main religion of the Yoruba was based on multiple deities and spirit guides, or orisha.  When Yoruba people were enslaved and brought to the Americas and the Caribbean, their religion changed.  In West Africa at the time, one of the gods, Ogun, was the deity associated primarily with iron—used for weapons but also agricultural implements and hunting tools, and thus a destroyer and creator god.  John Parker points out that in Haiti, “It was the aggressive, warlike attributes . . . which came to the fore on the Caribbean island, where hunting and smithing were less important than in West Africa” (Journal of Religion in Africa 28.4: 495).  Many of the French-speaking islands had enslaved people who practiced a modified version of the Yoruba religion, one which often mixed in elements of Catholic religious practices and saints; the modified religion is referred to as Vaudou, Voudou, or Voodoo.  This change can be seen in Morna Stuart’s Marassa and Midnight (New Windmills 1969) when one of the main characters calls on “Ogoun . . . the African God of fire and war” (4).  Stuart is unusual in portraying African-based religion as ordinary and acceptable; most writers whether Black or white (Stuart was white Scottish) depict alternative religions as at best anomalies practiced only by outsiders and at worst superstition.


This cover of Benjamin’s Coming to England declares that “Belonging is the most important thing”–but white Christians did not make Benjamin and her family feel welcome in the church, even though the Benjamin family had always been Christian too.

Indeed, by the 20th century, many people of African descent in the Caribbean (and the Americas) were members of a Christian (usually Protestant) religion.  However, their method of worship was often very different from European (and European-descent) Christians, so even when they were practicing the colonizer’s religion, they weren’t always accepted.  Floella Benjamin, in Coming to England (Puffin 1997), discusses her visits to traditional Church of England services when she and her family first arrived in England from Trinidad.  “Inside, the light from the stained glass windows shone on the handful of people taking part in the mild, controlled, unemotional service—not at all like the ones I was used to” (113).  Trying to make herself feel at home, Floella sings the hymns in the manner to which she was accustomed—i.e., loudly and joyfully—only to overhear the white congregation criticize her on the church steps.  Her family eventually switches to a church started by other people from the West Indies, “always full to the brim with people rejoicing out loud” (114).


The cover of Tony Medina’s I and I, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson. The phrase “I and I” was not meant to signify rugged individualism, but rather a connection to God and to the community.

Other people of African descent created their own forms of worship.  Probably the most well-known (though not necessarily understood) of these on a global scale is Rastafari.  Rastafari began in the 1930s in Jamaica, and mixed Protestant religious ideas with Pan-African ideals and a mysticism attained through a simple diet and the use of cannabis.  Bob Marley, perhaps the most famous Rastafarian to date, is one of the few who are portrayed entirely positively.  Most Rastafarians are presented as loners, sometimes spiritual but always outsiders.  Tony Medina explains the title of his biography of Marley, I and I (Lee and Low 2009) by saying, “The ‘I and I’ of the title is, like Bob himself, multifaceted.  It is a way of referring to oneself, yet it means more than simply ‘I’.  ‘I and I’ can refer to the unity of God . . . and every human—meaning God is within all of us and we are all one people. . . . It discourages thinking of oneself solely as an individual but instead as part of a community” (n.p.).  But Rastafarians in Britain often faced not only isolation from their community, but trouble from the white police force.  Farrukh Dhondy, in “Go Play Butterfly” (Come to Mecca, Collins 1978) shows his character Jojo “wearing a red, green and gold tam” (119), a symbol of Rastafari, right before he is beaten by the police at carnival.


Colin Williams’ illustration of Dhondy’s “Go Play Butterfly,” on the cover of a later edition, does not include the Rastafarian character being beaten up by the police.

It’s enough to make a person of African descent want to give up on any religion connected to European traditions in any way, and return to the religion of their ancestors.  This is, after a fashion, what Tomi Adeyemi does in her debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone (Macmillan 2018).  The novel is a fantasy, but it uses Yoruba-based gods and goddesses (including Ogun) and their traditionally-allocated spheres of influence.  Adeyemi, who is Nigerian-American, uses Nigerian understandings of these spheres; thus, Ògún is the deity with influence over iron and earth; fire belongs to Sangó and war to humans.  The novel itself depicts what happens when a child is ripped away first from her mother and then from her religion (although it is called “magic” in the novel, it functions as a religion).  When Zélie realizes she has lost her magic, “The realization reopens a gaping hole inside of me” (456) and notes that “It’s like losing Mama all over again” (456).  Adeyemi’s novel serves as a powerful (and possibly unconscious) metaphor for what happened to Africans who were taken from their mother country and then had their religion taken from them as well, often by brutal force.  Children have a right not to be trafficked—in no small part because doing so can take away or alter their ability to believe in, or reject, the faith into which they were born.


The cover illustration by Rich Deas for Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, which blends a fantasy world with traditional Nigerian religion.Mo


Locked Out: Hair, Children’s Books, and people of African Descent

Early in my university teaching career, Carolivia Herron came to speak to my children’s literature students. She had not too long since published her first children’s picture book, a book which had a bright, strong, African-American girl main character, and which could also teach readers about the African-American storytelling tradition of call-and-response. However, it was not the narrative technique that had brought the book to attention, nor the protagonist’s character. It was a single word—half of the book’s title. Carolivia Herron’s first picture book, illustrated by Joe Cepeda was Nappy Hair (Dragonfly, 1997), and the book raised a heated debate over whether the word “nappy” was an insult or not, and who was allowed to use the word in a picture book, and who was allowed to read the word to children.


Carolivia Herron’s book raised controversy about who could talk about nappy hair.

Herron, on a website to celebrate the book’s twentieth anniversary, explained the reaction: “why were folks so upset? I’ll tell you two of the real reasons. They were upset because they did not want a white teacher talking about black hair, and since many of them always used the word nappy as a negative word, they couldn’t appreciate a book that used nappy as positive” (http://nappyhair.club/nappier-hair-brendas-own-voice/). Obviously, since the book is celebrating its twentieth anniversary, it has survived, and even been followed up by other books, such as the poet bell hooks’ Happy to be Nappy (Jump at the Sun, 1999) and Nappy (Brand Nu Words, 2006) by Charisse Carney-Nunes, illustrated by Ann Marie Williams. Carney-Nunes, a former classmate of Barack Obama, weaves the idea of African-American history into her picture book by including biographical sketches of famous women with nappy hair, including Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, Josephine Baker, and Sonia Sanchez. The reviews of all of these books have been mixed. Many are positive about the idea of celebrating African-American hair (and particularly female hair; although Stevie Wonder famously used the word to describe his own hair, all of these books focus on African-American girls). Others still worry about the connotations and history of the word nappy, and of its potentially negative use outside the African-American community.


Carney-Nunes’ book mixes hair and history.

Girls, and African-Americans, are not the only people who have had hair concerns, however. The politics of Black British boys’ hair became an issue in the 1970s with the rise of Rastafarianism and Black Power movements. Paul Gilroy, in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack quotes from the 1981 Scarman report. Lord Scarman led the inquiry into the 1981 Brixton riots; Scarman suggested that “young hooligans” (Gilroy 135) had appropriated the symbols of the Rastafarian religion, “the dreadlocks, the headgear and the colours” (135) to excuse their destructive behavior. Scarman was not the only one to believe that dreadlocks were associated with criminality; Sally Tomlinson, in Race and Education, points out that schools debated whether or not to ban dreadlocks (49) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A young person’s hair was not, as in the case of the “nappy hair” books, simply a reminder of a (possibly negative, possibly positive, depending on your point of view) past history, but a political and particularly anti-authoritarian statement, one that faced censure from official government institutions such as the police and the schools.


Why is the Rasta hat-wearing girl placed outside the fence when all other unaccompanied children are in? Illustration by Dan Jones in Inky Pinky Ponky.


British children’s books had an uneasy relationship with dreadlocked or Rastafarian-symbol-wearing child characters. Especially in picture books, if child characters wore dreadlocks or green, gold and red Rasta hats, they tended to appear incidental at first glance. Illustrator Dan Jones’s follow-up to Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann’s Mother Goose Comes to Cable Street (Kestrel, 1977) was another collection of playground rhymes set in London’s East End, Inky Pinky Ponky (collected by “Mike” Rosen, as he was known then, and Susanna Steele in 1982). Unlike Mother Goose Comes to Cable Street, which shows turbans and burkas and saris and dashikis but not a single red, green and gold Rasta hat, Inky Pinky Ponky has two: both children, one boy and one girl. The girl is watching a policeman’s interaction with an older white gentleman; she doesn’t appear to like what she sees. The boy is pictured on the book’s cover, raising a fist at a white girl who is looking down at the ground. Neither of these illustrations seems in any way directly connected to the playground rhymes that accompany them, so it is difficult to know if there is any significance to the Rasta hats. But given Gilroy’s and Tomlinson’s comments, it is difficult to see these characters as random, especially given that the only two characters associated with Rastafarian symbols are depicted as connected with the police and with aggression.


The only closed fist belongs to the boy in the red, green and gold hat.


That the negative meaning of Rastafarian and reggae symbols had filtered down to children is obvious in Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus, originally published in 1984 by the community-based Peckham Publishing Project. The story is of a four-year-old boy worried about being made fun of in school because of his dreadlocks. But interestingly, the class has been prepped for Marcellus; the teacher tells him, “When I told the children you had locks/ They all wanted to see” (n.p). However, Marcellus’s dreadlocks are not associated with any kind of political or religious statement in the book; they are just a mark of difference, and one that the other children, after their initial curiosity, ignore. My copy is a 1995 edition published by Black Butterfly in the US, and I am unsure if the text was changed along with the pictures (which were originally done by Yinka Sunmonu, and which were done in my edition by Alvin Ferris). Dreadlocks have a potentially negative connotation, but without any kind of reason given. Having solved the “problem” of wearing dreadlocks to school, the sequel, Marcellus’ Birthday Cake, shows the same little boy—but without dreadlocks.


To cover or not to cover your dreadlocks? If kids are just curious, then it doesn’t matter.


More recently, dreadlocks have become normalized through characters like Rastamouse. But Rastamouse is a case in point for the use of children’s literature to contain the potentially “dangerous” Rastafarian. Rastamouse, unlike the Rastafarian-symbol-wearing “hooligans” of the Scarman report, is a crime-fighting mouse who works for the president of Mouseland. He has been co-opted. His dreadlocks are, in keeping with his character, kept neatly under his hat, and the history of the politics of Black British hair is tucked away with it.


A different vision of Rastas and the law . . . Rastamouse as depicted on CBBC, characters by Genevieve Webster and Michael da Souza.

Reggae Man, Rasta Man: Bob Marley in Children’s Books

Try searching for “Reggae and children’s books” and you won’t find much. Try searching for “Rastafarianism and children’s books” and you’ll find even less. Even though reggae music and the Rastafarian religion are two aspects of a uniquely Jamaican culture, they are seldom written about in books published by mainstream publishers for children. Even nonfiction texts (the kind you find in libraries when looking for sources for your school report) about Jamaica give little attention to either.

With regard to religion, all of the nonfiction books I looked at begin with a phrase like the following, from Globetrotters Club: Jamaica by Michael Capek (Carolrhoda Books, 1999): “The British and Spanish colonists brought Christianity to Jamaica, where many African slaves began to practice the religion. These days, most Jamaicans are Christians”. While this may be true, it obscures the connection between colonialism and Christianity, and normalizes the Christian faith. African slaves in many cases “practiced” the religion because they had no choice. Today there are many sects of Christianity, some of which are more radical than others, but the photos in these texts that accompany a discussion of Christianity focus on well-dressed and orderly people. Only after establishing the dominance of the (apparently unified) Christian faith do they go on to discuss other religions, which range from Animism to Obeahism to Rastafarianism—which is usually listed last. The books for children seem to hesitate about how to discuss Rastafarianism, usually mentioning Haile Selassie and Africa, and commenting on the dreadlocks that Rastafarians wear. One of the commonly-known (though not necessarily understood) aspects of Rastafarianism, that of smoking marijuana, is treated gingerly if at all. One book, Sean Sheehan’s Cultures of the World: Jamaica, minimizes and criticizes the practice, suggesting that it is only a single sect of Rastafarianism involved with marijuana and “This sect is looked down on . . . because of its willingness to engage in the commercial distribution of marijuana” (79). Another of these books—Jamaica in Pictures, part of the Visual Geography series produced by Lerner Publications in the late 1980s, briefly mentions marijuana in connection with Rastafarianism, explaining somewhat obliquely that “Rastas share the belief that ganja (marijuana) is the biblical herb and the means of communication with God or of gaining insight or wisdom” (46).

Christians, well-dressed and orderly, on their way to church in Capek's book.  Rastafarians neither dress "properly"--nor go to church.

Christians, well-dressed and orderly, on their way to church in Capek’s book. Rastafarians neither dress “properly”–nor go to church.

Reggae in nonfiction books about Jamaica is generally given a paragraph or less. Some books argue that it is in the tradition of the mento, or work song, because both used “music as a medium of protest and social commentary” (Jamaica in Pictures 49). Cultures of the World: Jamaica mentions reggae a lot more than other books, but this is because it connects it first with gangsters (38), urban ghettos (65), and Rastafarianism (78) before ever discussing its musical qualities. In fact, most books connect Rastafarianism and reggae together, even though Rastafarianism has been around since the 1930s and reggae only appeared in the late 1960s. (A clear example of the way these two have been connected in the public imagination is in the children’s picture book and animated series, Rastamouse, which has a reggae-playing, crime-fighting mouse band. I’ll discuss these books and the series in a later blog.) This connection comes largely from one man, Bob Marley, and nonfiction books almost never discussed either Rastafarianism or reggae until his death.

Despite Bob Marley’s importance to Jamaica, as well as to Rastafarianism and reggae music, and despite being well-known internationally, it is only relatively recently that picture book biographies of the singer have begun to appear. (I have found one, published by Hamish Hamilton and written by Chris May, from 1985, but this is for older readers.) I was curious about how much these picture books would address either Rastafarianism or reggae music, if they did so at all. I’ll focus here on two of these biographies, one written by Marley’s eldest daughter Cedella Marley and Gerald Hausman from 2002, and the more recent I and I: Bob Marley (2009) by Tony Medina.

Blackheart men are not so scary after all!  Illustration by Mariah Fox from The Boy from Nine Miles

Blackheart men are not so scary after all! Illustration by Mariah Fox from The Boy from Nine Miles

The Boy from Nine Miles by Marley and Hausman focuses on Marley’s very early years (the story ends when Bob Marley is seven); however, it does dwell on Marley’s musical beginnings and his connection to Rastafarianism. Like many of the nonfiction books about Jamaica, this book suggests that Marley’s singing career began with the folk tradition. The young boy would often go to Kingston Market and the market-sellers, or higglers, “did not only sell their things, they sang about them” (23), which later inspired Bob to do the same. In this same paragraph, the young Marley comes across a “blackheart man” who initially inspires fear, but who turns out to be “soft-spoken and nice”. By looking at the book’s glossary, a child reader can find that blackheart man was “An old way of saying Rastafarian” (48). The story’s text uses neither of the terms reggae nor Rastafarianism, but the inference is of a singer, connected to the working people’s song tradition, who sees Rasta men early on as nice rather than threatening. This image is repeated in Medina’s I and I, with its gorgeous illustrations by Jesse Joshua Watson, where the young Marley is in the Kingston Market, this time being served by a singing Rasta haggler.

Now the Blackheart Man becomes the singer as well; Watson's illustration for I and I unites reggae and Rastafarianism.

Now the Blackheart Man becomes the singer as well; Watson’s illustration for I and I unites reggae and Rastafarianism

The book goes further in Marley’s life, and so both Rastafarianism and reggae are specifically mentioned. Medina’s biography is written as a series of poems, and “I am a Rasta Man” makes the connection between Rastafarianism and reggae explicit. The poem, written in Marley’s voice, proclaims, “A troubadour for the common man/ Singing what a Rasta sings/ Reggae music from/ My guitar strings” (n.p.). Medina goes on to describe Rastafarianism in the poem, connecting it with Africa and Haile Selassie as the nonfiction books do, but also adding it is a religion of peace and love. Reggae music embraces that message, but also adds a political dimension; in the poem “Reggae,” Bob and Rita Marley are dancing in a club to reggae music—seemingly an apolitical activity—but in the midst of the “sweet” beats, “We sufferers we shufflers/ Party to the music/ Of our hopes and dreams/ Chantin’ down Babylon/ All night long” (n.p.). While still sticking to the more socially acceptable aspects of both reggae and Rastafarianism (with nary a word about marijuana or gangs, for example), Medina’s book allows for Bob Marley to be both a Rasta Man and a Reggae Man—and present these things as something that child readers can admire.