CORAL GABLES — On a recent weekday, students at the University of Miami watched a screen in front of a blackboard ignite with lively performances of music legend Bob Marley.
Then, suddenly, those images were juxtaposed with graphic footage of segregation and violence.
When it comes to English lectures, the ones given by Professor Rachel Panton are far from routine.
Panton’s course, titled “Mix Up, Mix Up: Reviewing Bob Marley as the Militant Mulatto” has been a recurring hit among UM undergraduates. Since 2006, more than 400 students have enrolled in the class. They examine Marley’s life and music through his social and political times, and his contribution to the international recognition of reggae and Rastafari as empowering black power movements.
“There is all this iconography of Bob Marley just floating out there,” Panton told the South Florida Times. “This course analyzes the context in which he became a luminary.”
The class also explores the singer’s mixed heritage. He was born the son of a Jamaican black mother and an English white father at a time when intermixing of races was not rare, but still not welcome.
Marley chose to identify himself as black.
“Marley is an interesting figure because most biracial people don’t see the dichotomy ‘either or,’ but think of themselves as ‘both and,’” said Panton, alluding to her own black-white heritage.
Gina Maranto, director of UM’s English Composition program, said Panton’s course fits in with a larger curriculum across the university that deals with issues of gender and racial identity.
“UM is characterized by a diverse student body,” Maranto said. “Going beyond the use of books creates a broader intellectual framework for discussing racial and cultural identity issues.”
Before moving to Miami to teach at UM, Panton, 32, served for three years as director of African-American Cultural Affairs at
Columbia College in Chicago, where she also taught “Black Beauty Women and Culture,” a writing course on the way black women are depicted in popular culture and “the ongoing issues we have accepting ourselves, our bodies, our beauty and our hair,” she said.
Her tightly coiled locks of hair in plain view, Panton said that – like Marley – what gripped her about Rastafari were its black references.
“As a child I would go to the Protestant church, look at the white God and angels and ask myself, ‘They run the world and the heavens too?’ – That just didn’t seem right,” she said.
A movement developed by poor Jamaicans of African descent who felt oppressed and ignored by society, Rastafari is rooted on Afrocentrism and the belief that 20th-century Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was the black Messiah.
Another fundamental doctrine of Rasta is that racial animosities must be set aside and world peace and harmony must be embraced.
Panton said she does not weave her personal choices into the course material. Every semester, she invites guest speaker Stephen Newland, the Rasta lead singer of the Jamaican band Rootz Underground to share his experiences with her classes.
A former corporate man, Newland gave up his job as a marketing representative for a food distribution company after he was asked to get rid of his locks.
“Being different is what makes you stand out, be strong, make a change,” Newland said recently to Panton’s students. “As a Rasta and musician I feel free.”
Newland also urged students to closely examine Marley’s “biting” reggae, lyrics of change and freedom that transcended race and culture at a time when consciousness was blooming. Music, he said, was Marley’s weapon for social and political reform.
Marley died in 1981, but his message of universal love continues to influence people around the world. His music lives on through fellow reggae musicians and sons Stephen, Ziggy, Damian and Ky-Mani Marley. The Marley sons on Feb. 28 brought together a multiracial crowd of more than 12,000 fans to Bayfront Park in downtown Miami for the 16th Annual Caribbean Festival, also known as the Bob Marley Fest.
Having grown up listening to Marley’s music, Erin Nutshgah enrolled in Panton’s course because of her appreciation of the singer’s dreadlocked semblance and his “joyful beats.” But after a few weeks into the semester, she said she’s glad the class doesn’t focus solely on his music.
Having fully embraced her blended African-American heritage, Nutshgah said Marley’s choice to deny his biracial background
seems counterintuitive, almost mystifying, but that it resonates with his other efforts to make known the plight of black people.
The 18-year-old also said that the election of an American biracial president will help illuminate racial issues.
“The election forces some people to address why they were uncomfortable with Obama being president in the first place,” she said.
“That’s gonna have an impact in the way people relate – which could be quite empowering to black people.”
Photo: Rachel Panton