Book of Memory
A Rastafari Testimony
Composed by Prince Elijah Williams
Edited by Michael Kuelker
Published by CaribSound Ltd. ISBN 0-9746021-0-8
For some, whose perceptions of Rasta are shaped solely by reggae images and lyrics, Rastafarianism is a glamorous and exotic lifestyle choice. For others, Rastafarianism is a backward-looking sect preoccupied with such incomprehensible doctrinal points as the divinity of Haile Selassie. Sadly, in Jamaica itself, many still regard Rastafarians as lunatics and criminals.
For all three groups, this book of oral testimony by Prince Elijah Williams, born in the parish of St James, Jamaica in 1942 and a Rasta since the age of 13, will come as a revelation. A transcript of taped interviews with Michael Kuelker conducted over a period of about ten years, Book of Memory testifies both to Prince's fifty years as a Rastaman and to the richness and despair of life in rural Jamaica.
To become a Rasta in 1955 was no lifestyle choice. It meant
being refused employment, your children being mocked and excluded
at school, having your hair forcibly cut by the police. It took
guts and conviction. In 1963, a half crazed semi dread, with a
personal grudge and a few followers murdered five Montego Bay
residents. In the government led pogrom that followed,
Rastas across the island, including Prince himself, were terrorised, brutalised and locked up on the direct orders of Prime Minister Bustamante. It is believed that many were murdered and secretly buried. This is known as the Coral Gardens Incident and it is humbling that, although commemorated every year as part of the Rastafarian calendar, I had to read this book to
find out about it. Rastafarians are now campaigning vigorously for a Truth Commission, along the lines of its South African post apartheid namesake. Although Prince acknowledges the strides made towards justice in Jamaica since those times, it is his belief that until you fully acknowledge the past you can never escape it.
For while the natural beauty of rural Jamaica infuses Book Of Memory, and Prince's loving descriptions of how he uses its herbs, cultivates its crops and makes charcoal in its earth are among its greatest delights, for Prince and his Rasta brethren, Jamaica,s history is written in the cane fields, the big houses, in the schools and what is taught, in the churches and how the people worship, in the land and who owns it. It is a landscape and a people shaped by the violence of slavery: 'That's where I spend half of my life- working at Amblin EstateYou can see the slavery on the place. You see the old barracks that the slaves used to live in.'
For Prince, it is not the Rastaman who is backward looking and obscurantist, but the rest of Jamaica, trapped in the nightmare of the past because they cannot wake up to it. The Rasta is the wide-awake man, the man living in the reality of the present: 'This is how religion form, you know, to take away your mind and to give you their mind. They give you thoughts of your own, not the thoughts you should have.'
Those looking for a definitive Rough Guide account of Rasta
doctrine will find little enlightenment here. Pressed on his relationship
to the Bible, Prince states 'If you should check out this Bible,
it were written by some man who go to Rome, drink rum-and-drunk
and whole heap of dirty things'. In the next breath, asked
why he relies so heavily on the Bible in his
reasonings, Prince replies 'because the word is true... this is mi daily food, a part of my livity.'
However, as the book slowly unfolds it becomes clear that such contradictions are not important. What really matters is the act of reasoning itself. Rastafarianism is not a book of rules but an act of questioning and there is no aspect of human experience, including the Bible,
which cannot be subjected to the reasoning process by Prince and his Rasta brethren.
A revelation for many readers will
be the deep humanism of the Rastas and their commitment to a way
of life conscious and inquisitive, rooted not in some faraway
delusional place but in the everyday life of poor people in Jamaica.
The very best sections of the book are Prince's
meditations on the basics of existence, food, the land, language, the human body, the law, not arcane interpretation of Biblical text. Everything is of significance to Prince: 'The things that go in your mouth, affect the brain.'.
Prince's constant theme is that we need not be what others make us. Of one spell in the jailhouse, he comments 'Many people to a cell, one bucket. We learn to discipline ourselves by not eating a whole lot in the night to full that bucket with shit. You make yourself the way you want yourself to be'. Here Prince sounds like Hamlet, the greatest humanist of them all; he can be bounded in a nutshell, yet count himself a king of infinite space.
Book of Memory opens abruptly and without preamble with the voice of Prince Williams: 'At the time of the Coral Gardens insolence...' By the end you know that voice well, almost as the voice of an old friend, as Michael Kuelker knows him. Kuelker is a reticent narrator who appears in the book only towards the end, but his editorial decision to leave the talking to Prince is integral to the book's success. First, he gives us the sheer pleasure of Jamaican patois in all its glory and eloquence, rolling out over nearly 400 pages. Second, no one can speak for Prince except himself because, as Book of Memory makes clear, at the heart of Rasta is a shared experience of fellowship lovingly, and painfully, acquired over more than half a century, through such experiences as the Coral Gardens Incident: 'I nah deal wid the semi-Rasta. Mi deal with the full-grown Rasta who know what it takes to be a Rastaman. Beca it takes a whole lot of sacrifice.'
Book of Memory will leave you humbler and wiser. It is a book for anyone who loves Jamaica.