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An ASU professor's new memoir on growing up Rastafari — and why she left it behind

When most of us think of Rastafari, we probably think of Bob Marley, Jamaica, dreadlocks. But, for Safiya Sinclair, who grew up in a strict Rastafari home, it means something very different. 

Sinclair is a professor of English and creative writing at Arizona State University and, her new memoir, "How to Say Babylon," documents her childhood as a Rastafari girl and why she left it behind as a teenager. It’s been met with critical acclaim and popular success, and when The Show spoke with her more about it, the conversation began with what it really means to be a Rastafari. 

Sinclair said the Rastafari movement began in the early 1930s in Jamaica out of an anti-colonial desire to be free. At the time, Jamaica was still under British colonial rule and a street preacher there heard one of the final speeches of Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey.

Full interview

SAFIYA SINCLAIR: That said, look to Africa for the crowning of a Black king. He shall be the redeemer. And this was around the same time that Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was being coronated. And Haile Selassie was the only Black leader in the world at the time, and Ethiopia was the only African nation to never be colonized. And so he said this is the man, like this is him. And so the movement of Rastafari, you know, was rooted in this aspirational idea of Black unification and Black liberation.

Many of the tenants of the religion sprang from there.

SINCLAIR: A lot of them include this idea of, of purity and righteousness rooted in these principles of your body being a temple for Jah, which is what they call Haile Selassie. And so that involves, you know, eating a very like highly restrictive diet. It's like, you know, a vegan diet, but even, you know, even more restrictive, you know, it's no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no fish, no sugar, no salt, no spices, you know, and the idea is that your body is a temple for Jah.

Of course, wearing of the dreadlocks is a big part of it. But it's not just a hairstyle for the Rastafari. For them, it's marker of your sacred devotion to Rastafari and also a signal to the outside world of your purity of your righteousness. For the women, there were some rules also that did not exist for men. And so for, for the women and the girls, we had to also dress a specific kind of way, you know, cover our arms and our knees, wear no adornments, no jewelry, no makeup, you know, nothing that was seen as, as, as vain or the trappings of Babylon, which is what the Rastafari call anything that is of the outside world, anything that's seen as evil or anything of a capitalist society rooted in Western ideology they call Babylon.

That's so interesting. So you grew up in a Rastafari family and I think a lot of people associate Rastafari and, and Jamaica. But, but in fact, like, and I didn't realize this until I read your book, but like, it's actually a minority, right.

SINCLAIR: Yes. The Rastafari are historically a persecuted minority in Jamaica. I mean, when the movement began in the '30s, as I said, we were still under colonial rule with Britain. And the British government really targeted the Rastafari. They there was a commune, thousands of, of Rastafari lived peacefully and they called it the British government called it a cult and they sent the army to burn it to the ground. And that kind of scattered the movement.

In the 1960s, we then had a prime minister who's, who gave a directive to the army who said, bring me all Rastas dead or alive. And this led to a brutal weekend of terror in Jamaica where all Rasta were pulled out of their homes. They were for jailed, they were tortured, their dreadlocks were forcibly cut, their beards were forcibly shaved. And this led the Rastafari to becoming even more, I think, paranoid about this idea of the outside world of Babylon out to get them.

And it's led to, you know, isolation. But the Rastafari Jamaica are less, 1% or less of the Jamaican population. And yeah. And so when, when I was growing up, my siblings and I were also kind of used to being oddities, like we were the only Rasta children in school. We were the only Rasta children at the beach side.

Like wherever we went, we were teas pointed at, we were questioned, we were like curiosities in Jamaica, which is something I think most people don't realize because they think of Rastafari as a thing that defines Jamaica when actually historically and even in more modern times, it was not.

So that's fascinating because, yeah, I mean, you think of Bob Marley, right? Like that's what most people will think of. OK, so let's talk about what this meant in your life, right? Like let's talk about your childhood, your upbringing, you kind of beautifully describe growing up in sort of a small house by the seaside as a kid and being really happy. When did you start to realize that you were oddities? As you said, like, was this something you knew from a young age?

SINCLAIR: No, it wasn't something I knew. I mean, I was born by the sea. I lived in this village which belonged to my mother's father and grandfather, you know, this community of fishermen. And this was even now when I think about home and I think about even writing anything, it begins there with the sea and the rhythm of, of, of the waves behind it. So I had this really, you know, happy and beautiful childhood.

I knew my parents were kind of different than everybody else because they were the only ones around who had dreadlocks. They were the only ones who, you know, spoke the name Haile Selassie in reverence. But for me, I had just a normal Jamaican childhood by the sea. And it wasn't until I began to get older, you know, around eight or nine years old that I felt most acutely the differences of being Rastafari.

And that came from how my teachers treated me and how my friends and peers treated me at school, you know, which was not very kind. And that's when I began to feel like, feel the burden of what it meant to walk the path of Rastafari.

I want to ask about the transition, right? Because I mean, the book is about, you know, your childhood and growing up this way, but also about your path to leaving, right? Cutting your dreadlocks is a big moment here. Don't tell us the entire story and give away the entire book here, but give us a sense of what led there for you.

SINCLAIR: I won't spoil my life, but I, I'll say that it was no, you know, and I began to question a lot of the rules that were different for me than they were for my brother, you know, which, which was rooted in my gender, my femininity. And I remember there was a day, you know, my siblings and I were always wild children. We would always run around in the yard and play climb trees, do all of that stuff. And I remember there was one day I was nine years old. My father called me to him and he said, how tall are you now? And I was above his shoulders. And he said, you're not climbing trees anymore. That's over.

Rasta girls don't do that and you're not wearing pants anymore or shorts, that's over. And my mother, he asked my mother to throw out all the, the pants and shorts in the house, which she did. And he said from now on, all my daughters will wear only skirts and dresses. None of my girls are going to dress like Jezebels. And I really began to question at that point, you know, what was wrong with me? Simply because I was a girl.

And this only deepened as I grew older and I became a teenager and there was a moment where I began to just look into the future that my father was paving for me. I said, who is the woman that he wants me to become? And you know, I saw this young Rasta woman who, you know, was dressed the way he wanted me to dress, who was silent and obedient and pliant, which I was always told was a woman's highest virtue, who was a woman who had no dreams, no desires, no art, had no value except to be in the kitchen or to be the bearer of children for a Rasta man.

And I said, that's not me. I don't want this future. And I was determined to cut that woman and her future away from me entirely. And that's when I decided to cut my dreadlocks and to leave all of that life behind.

And you became a writer, a poet first. And now you've written this book which has been so widely received. Can you talk a little bit, before I let you go, about the process of writing this? I know your father has read this. You have sort of reconciled. At least it sounds like in some ways with your family and your mother went with you, right? Talk talk a little bit about where you are now.

SINCLAIR: Yes. You know, my sisters and my mother, they also all cut their dreadlocks and kind of left Rastafari behind, which is not unusual. All the girls and women I knew growing up in Rastafari also cut their dreadlocks and rejected Rastafari.

But you know, I think even though it would seem that my world would have been so narrow and restrictive, my, it was my mother who made it feel expansive because she gave me and my siblings her love of literature, love of language. You know, she would have us writing poems, memorizing, and reciting poems, writing songs. And so I always felt from a young age that writing was the place where I could truly be myself, where I could nurture my voice and nurture a vision of who I wanted to be, to author my own future.

And it began there on the page. So, you know, I published my first poem when I was 16 in the national newspaper in Jamaica. And I've been writing and, and honing my poetry and, and my writing from then. So, you know, what my mother gave me was a true gift and it really, I believe, changed the trajectory of my life.

And so even though there were moments where writing the book was quite hard, to relive some of the memories and making sure I got it all right, to make sure I was as truthful as I could be about what happened and to also present everybody with grace and with love, you know, it was difficult. But when I began to write the book, my hope was that I could turn all of that struggle and strife and pain into something better to, I could change the shape of the future in the writing of the past in hopes that it could be something beautiful.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.