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News & Features » December 2018 » Bobby Sullivan’s Introduction to Revolutionary Threads

Bobby Sullivan’s Introduction to Revolutionary Threads

To celebrate the release of Revolutionary Threads: Rastafari, Social Justice, and Cooperative Economics, we’re pleased to share a glimpse at this retelling of American history with an anti-colonial thrust. Here is author Bobby Sullivan’s introduction, “Decolonizing Our Minds.”

Event: Don’t miss Bobby Sullivan at Firestorm Books & Coffee in Asheville, NC, on January 12, 2019 at 3 p.m. Click here for more information.

Decolonizing Our Minds

This book is a collection of ideas I have gained through my experience as an activist and my participation with the Rastafari movement—I write for my sistren and brethren across the globe. I grew up making music in the punk scene in Washington, DC, which was centered around Dischord Records and the do-it-yourself (DIY) culture that continues to inspire many around the world. I have an international perspective because the city that raised me is a global hub. I have worked for food co-ops for most of my adult life, and this enables me to continue moving toward the goals I aspired to early on: promoting cultural tolerance and equitable relationships in an effort to simply get people to work, and to do it together for the benefit of all.

Each chapter of this book begins with the words to a song I have written, and these lyrics introduce the chapter’s subject matter. I then describe the historical, cultural, and political significance behind the lyrics’ meaning. In the ensuing pages, I will seek to expand upon alternative versions of history, citing diverse and colorful perspectives that are routinely neglected and marginalized in Western culture. In order to support my claims, I have cited as many sources as possible, so readers can follow the trail of authors frequently left out of historical records. In many ways, this is my own story too, because while this book is a collage of ideas, the subjects tie together quite nicely in my mind.

The movement of Rastafari is complex and largely misunderstood. There is tension with those trying to understand it, as well as within the movement itself, even regarding the teachings of its figurehead, Haile Selassie I—the emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 until a political coup in 1974. To further confound outsiders, the cultural context of Jamaica birthed this movement with a black nationalist perspective, yet the teachings of the emperor and some Rasta elders exhibit a more universal/humanist perspective. Because of this, the Rastafari movement is both inclusive and exclusive, and as history has played out, many diverse themes have predominated.

Although this book touches upon many themes, Rastafari is the glue that holds the work together. With that being said, I do not attempt to define Rastafari, as my perspective is derived chiefly from the movement’s globalization rather than from my exposure to Jamaican elders. Of course, the Rastafari movement in the US has a different flavor than its Jamaican root; it is my belief that American Rastas should not try to emulate Jamaican culture, but instead take inspiration from the movement, especially from Haile Selassie I, and properly apply the sacred practices and teachings to one’s own cultural context. In this book, I wish to give credit where credit is due. I want to honor the culture that ignited my journey. In a statement celebrating the work of Rahdakrishnan, Haile Selassie I offered some of his own key ambitions as a world leader: “To free the human race from superstition and fear that originate from ignorance; to enable him to transcend the apparent obstacles of race and religion; and to help him recognize the blood-ties of the whole human race.”

Although Selassie I uses the word “him,” he does not hold any lesser view of our sisters in the human family. As I will show you in this book, Haile Selassie I’s teachings and the Rastafari movement cannot be reduced to patriarchal orders. “As with any spiritual order seeking perfection,” notes Jake (John) Homiak, longtime Rastafari chronicler and director of the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution, “Rastafari is in a continual state of ‘becoming’ as individuals and mansions seek to refine their livity.”

When I became exposed to diverse and global perspectives, the indoctrination I was raised with began to wither away, and I started to confront challenging realities about my native country. This book considers anticolonialism through the lens of an American grappling with the contradictions of an empire supposedly based on freedom. As an antidote to American hypocrisy, I will introduce the concept of cooperative economics. It is, I believe, the way: it is literally the intersection between democracy and the real economy, and it not so quietly builds a new world within our dying old one.

The Rastafari movement informs my critiques of capitalism. As Joseph Owens points out in his book Dread, Rastafari allows for a variety of perspectives:

Despite a certain value to perceiving the primordial Rasta doctrine before its syncretization with other ideas, the Rasta faith should also be appreciated for its ability to assimilate other doctrines which are in keeping with its own basic thrust. Indeed, much of the vitality and creativity of the Rastas stem from their openness to new ideas and progressive forces.

. . . Thus the Rastafarians sit and read with the newspaper in one hand, as it were, and the Bible in the other. They search out the manifold correlations between contemporary events and the sacred recorded history. Where correlations are found, they are used to help interpret the precise meaning of the present reality and to divine the course of future events.

With this kind of holistic approach as context, this book plunges into American history, as well as the history of Rastafari, in order to demonstrate why Rastafari offers a suitable cure for contemporary ills. I also explore the American continent before European conquest, shed light on the first European settlements, pause briefly at the Civil War, and jump ahead to the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and ’70s.

After surveying these histories, I examine another disturbing reality: through the hands of multinational corporations, fascism stands as the true victor of World War II, and it is alive and well in the US. Fascism has, in fact, morphed into a global force that works to colonize people who lack the means to coexist as partners in the “empire of money,” which is a term the Zapatistas of Mexcio coined for such international aggression.

Even after my extensive research, I’ve concluded that human history is truly a mystery. So much persists by word of mouth, and then gets recorded long after actual events took place. No standardized history book, or any singular source, can possibly deliver our whole incredible story. Therefore, many perspectives need to be considered. Too often, conquerors and power brokers write their own versions of history. This volume hopes to explore different perspectives and introduce narratives and ideas unlikely to be told in conventional historical renderings.

After all, American history is rife with so-called culture bandits, as author Del Jones labeled Elvis Presley. This means that many people, including some rock and rollers, appropriate and repurpose culture that is not their own, profit from it, and ignore the complexities and legacies of colonial history. This cultural highjacking has happened to and even within Rastafari, largely due to the fact that it is decentralized and highly pluralistic. As Jake Homiak posited in When Goldilocks Met the Dreadlocks: Reflections on the Contributions of Carole D. Yawney to Rastafari Studies: “Even in Jamaica during the early 1970s, Rastafari had become too organizationally complex and ideologically dynamic for any one researcher, or even any single Rastafari participant, to grasp in its fullness.”

Due to my own personal journey, I see the world of Rastafari as a living culture that transforms perceptions in cosmic proportions. Rastafari is mystical and mysterious, challenging and serious. It is unlikely that one can truly “overstand” Rastafari from an outside perspective.

“Why yuh talk ’bout research? Research! No, is an I-search,” Bongo Watto said in 1983. “The mon haffi search himself first. An’ yuh cyan study Rastafari. Mi say, no mon can study Rastafari. Yuh can only live Rastafari!”

As our modern minds work to untangle the past, we can uncover different modes of thinking that dominated ancient times, before Greek and Roman historical, philosophical, and spiritual perspectives took over. Yet Rastafari’s culture of “livity,” with its dual modes of cognition—reasoning and meditation—can help us reach beyond the current smokescreen to appreciate ancient thinking in a new way.

Beginning in 476 CE, the Romans and the Dark Ages cast a Eurocentric shadow over world history. Even though the Greeks looked to Africa as the birthplace of their spirituality and sciences, the Romans severed the link to this glorious past. The rest of Europe followed suit, thus many significant ideas, philosophies, and religions were effectively erased from dominant consciousness. Throughout time, pluralism is stamped out again and again, replaced by new forms of fundamentalism.

For example, many students of history don’t know that Islamic Spain was a religiously tolerant empire from 750 CE up to the mid-1400s, and essentially spawned the Renaissance in Europe. What is now known as Kabbalah in the Hebraic tradition, and Sufism in the Islamic tradition, sprang from Islamic Spain, as did paper, sewers, streetlights, and many of the sciences with which Europe was just becoming acquainted. The Crusades not only appropriated these technologies, they destroyed the lives, wealth, and land of the people who pioneered them, along the way eliminating the notion of religious tolerance.

It is my contention that we are presently living out the legacies of European colonialism and conquest, changing our relationships with language, religion, and culture. The colonial intrusion and its economic structures have persisted and gone increasingly global. Those of us caught up in the web of these controlling tendencies need to take action, both physical and spiritual. Ultimately, we must decolonize our very minds.

Haile Selassie I’s message continues to be compelling for those questioning colonial powers. Anyone searching for new meaning in their life will find Rasta principals useful in dismantling poisonous concepts that compartmentalize human beings. Many people, myself included, don’t fit neatly within the confines of colonialist definitions of race and culture. In this context, Haile Selassie I’s words are especially poignant:

We must become something we have never been and for which our education and experience and environment have ill prepared us. We must become bigger than we have been, more courageous, greater in spirit, larger in outlook. We must become members of a new race, overcoming petty prejudice, owing our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow men within the human community.

The time is here: more people must connect with a rightful path, even if cautiously. The sacred “I” is our primal connection, which also suggests our differentiation from others. No matter how hard people try to group themselves into races, cultures, nationalities, social groups, or even genders, every single life-form on earth is undeniably unique. Nature proves over and over again that such diversity is a strength.

The concept of “I” is central in Rastafari spirituality, and many words are reconstructed to reflect this. For example, “heights” becomes “Ites,” “brethren” and “sistren” become “Idren,” “unity” becomes “Inity,” and many more I-words are created on the spot. “I” also replaces “you” or “me,” which in turn denotes our equal footing. Most importantly, “I and I” is often used to refer to oneself or another individual to reflect divinity in the form of a oneness between the Most High, Jah, and every person.

Many forces on earth elude our understanding, and we tend to fix ideas into our psyche that may not be healthy for us or those around us. As humans, we are all creators of vibration and intent, able to bring forth great beauty and harm in a single breath. Therefore, our relationship with our life force in all its modalities needs to be constantly examined. Thoughts, through words, physically manifest—we are agents of action, powered by impulse, shaping our shared reality. As Haile Selassie I stated: “It is only when a people strike an even balance between scientific progress and spiritual and moral advancement that it can be said to possess a wholly perfect and complete personality and not a lopsided one.”


BOBBY SULLIVAN grew up in the Washington, DC, punk scene, fueled by Rasta rockers Bad Brains and the foundational Minor Threat. His most notable band continues to be Soulside (of which he is the singer), which had multiple releases on Dischord Records. Along the way, Sullivan became an activist, working with Food Not Bombs, the Anarchist Black Cross political prisoner support network, and a Rasta prison ministry. He currently manages a retail grocery co-op and sits on the board of the National Co+op Grocers. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina with his family. His latest work is Revolutionary Threads.

Posted: Dec 12, 2018

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