Black History Month: Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey is regarded as the leader of the largest organized mass movement in black history and the progenitor of the modern Black Is Beautiful revival that reached its apogee in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. Hailed by his followers in the 1920s as a kind of political redeemer and dubbed “the Negro Moses,” Garvey has continued to fascinate writers and commentators as well as scholars and researchers.
Although there is today of plethora of scholarly research for students to draw upon, the problem of interpreting Garvey and his movement is still as challenging as it ever was. And yet simply collecting more and more data might not provide answers to the questions that people have always asked. Was Garvey sincere? Did Garvey, in his espousal of the repatriation of blacks to Africa, forsake the rights of African Americans in America? Were his ventures, such as the Black Star Line and the Negro Factories Corporation, honest? Perhaps it is the way the questions have been framed that constitutes a major part of the problem. It is time to start asking a different set of questions and stop looking for answers to old questions.

Although Garvey obviously failed to realize many of his objectives, such as the creation of an African empire or the establishment of a sovereign black state in Africa or an international black economy, he was responsible for putting forward ideas that helped to advance the political consciousness of blacks worldwide. The important psychological liberation from the bondage of racial inferiority that Garvey helped to break (and that Bob Marley sings about in his music) stands as a living, breathing testament to the breadth and depth of the movement he created and its lasting historical significance.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born on August 17, 1887, in the tiny seaside town of St. Ann’s Bay on the north coast of Jamaica. As a young man he was apprenticed to a printer and learned the skill of a compositor. He left school at fourteen and eventually moved to the capital of Kingston, where he worked as a printer; at the same time, he patiently acquired the skills of public speaking and participated in debating and elocution contests. He left Jamaica in 1910 for Central America, settling first in the coastal town of Limón, Costa Rica, where he published a small newspaper. He would also spend time in Honduras and Belize and published another small paper in Panama. After returning to Jamaica briefly in 1912, he again left in 1913 when he moved to England and worked with the enigmatic Sudanese-Egyptian nationalist Dusé Mohamed Ali, in London, on the staff of Ali’s influential pan-African journal, The African Times and Orient Review.

On his return to Jamaica in 1914, Garvey was content at first to preach accommodation to the system of colonial rule. He aspired to open an industrial and agricultural training school modeled on Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Garvey was not unique in this, however, since other blacks, in particular mission-educated blacks in West Africa and South Africa, were attempting to do the same thing under the influence of Washington’s Tuskegee. After writing to acquaint Washington with his efforts in Jamaica, Garvey was invited by Washington to come to the United States. Washington died in 1915, however, before Garvey could leave Jamaica.

Upon his arrival in America in the spring of 1916, Garvey still made a pilgrimage to the world-famous Tuskegee school in Alabama to see firsthand the monument to Washington’s memory. If Garvey went to Tuskegee to pay his respect to the great Washington, who had been such an inspiration, as well as to pay homage to the beacon of black progress and achievement that was Tuskegee Institute, the visit also marked, in historical terms, a changing of the guard. Garvey’s whole political outlook was about to undergo a radical transformation as a result of what he would encounter in America. Up to that point, he had been a follower of Washington in espousing racial accommodation as well as the eschewal of politics. Arriving totally unheralded and unknown in America, Garvey was about to become his own man. He would take the black world by storm, and it would never be the same afterward.

Garvey came to the United States at the dawn of the militant “New Negro” era. Black discontent, punctuated by East St. Louis’s bloody race riots in 1917 and intensified by postwar disillusionment, reached record heights by 1919 with the Red Summer of nationwide racial disturbances. Not long after his arrival, Garvey quietly organized a chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which functioned as a benevolent fraternal organization. Within a few years of this humble beginning, Garvey rose rapidly to become the best-known, most controversial, and for millions, the most attractive and compelling of a new generation of black leaders.

Garvey urged African Americans to be proud of their race and return to Africa, their ancestral homeland and attracted thousands of supporters.  To facilitate the return to Africa that he advocated, in 1919 Garvey founded the Black Star Line, to provide transportation to Africa, and the Negro Factories Corporation to encourage black economic independence. Garvey also unsuccessfully tried to persuade the government of Liberia in west Africa to grant land on which black people from America could settle.  Source: NY Public Library, Marcus Garvey, “The Negro Moses,” Robert A. Hill – University of California, Los Angeles

In 1922, Garvey was arrested for mail fraud in connection with the sale of stock in the Black Star Line, which had now failed. Although there were irregularities connected to the business, the prosecution was probably politically motivated, as Garvey’s activities had attracted considerable government attention. Garvey was sent to prison and later deported to Jamaica. In 1935, he moved permanently to London where he died on 10 June 1940. In 1964, his body was returned to Jamaica where he was declared the country’s first national hero.  Source: BBC

Garvey’s Legacy

Garvey’s legacy has also been manifest in the careers of leaders ranging from Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana to Malcolm X in the United States. Borne along on the tide of black popular culture, Garvey’s memory has attained the status of a folk myth. He is daily celebrated and recreated as a hero through the storytelling faculty of the black oral tradition. As the embodiment of that oral tradition transmuted into musical performance, Jamaica’s reggae music exhibits an amazing fixation with the memory of Garvey. Re-evoking spiritual exile and the historic experience of black dispossession, the music of such performers as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Burning Spear presents a Garvey who speaks from the past directly to the present. The result today is that the legend of Garvey functions as an icon of universal black pride and affirmation. Source: NY Public Library, Marcus Garvey, “The Negro Moses,” Robert A. Hill – University of California, Los Angeles

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