(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in December 2008)
Grant, Colin. Negro With a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 544 pages.
Rolinson, Mary G. Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920 – 1927. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 296 pages.
Shelby, Tommie. We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 2005. 336 pages.
As a walking tour guide I often lead tours through Harlem, telling the story of how this historic neighborhood rose to prominence in the 1920s to become the unofficial capital of black America. Among the stops along the tour route is a brown storefront building at 2305 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. (formerly Seventh Avenue). Now an unassuming beauty shop called Salon Ambiance, it was once an office of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and the organization’s newspaper the Negro World. On a recent tour with a group of young white British women, we stopped in front of Salon Ambiance and I launched into my standard abridged history of Garvey and his movement. While I spoke I passed around a laminated photo of Garvey decked out in military regalia with his distinctive plumed hat, riding in the back of a car in a UNIA parade. One of the women stared at the photo and her face grew visibly unsettled as I explained Garvey’s rise to power. I told them that he was born in Jamaica in 1887, that as a young man he had embraced Pan-Africanism, that he had come to Harlem in 1916 preaching a gospel of black pride and self-determination, and that he had built this militant black nationalist organization into one of largest mass movements in American history. After I finished my spiel, the troubled woman softly said, in her lilting British accent, “He sounds a bit scary.”
If Garvey can strike fear into the heart of a genteel white woman eighty years removed, imagine what it was like to see thousands of Garveyites marching in the streets of New York with their Black Cross Nurses, their African Legion paramilitary guard decked out in full military dress, led by a dark, sawed-off, stout Jamaican who dared to tell black people that they were not a group of groveling subservients but a “Mighty Race” of people whose destiny was to rule the world. Well, J. Edgar Hoover also found that image quite “scary.” Within just three years of his arrival in Harlem, Garvey’s UNIA had grown large enough and powerful enough to attract the attention of the United States Justice Department’s newly formed Bureau of Investigation (BOI), headed up by Hoover, the leader who oversaw the agency’s transition into the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
With Negro With a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey (2008) Jamaican-British scholar Colin Grant has filled a sizable void in black studies with a full-length comprehensive biography of Garvey. Until I began compiling an oral exam list on black nationalist thought two years ago, it had not occurred to me that such a book did not exist. David E. Cronon’s Black Moses, originally published in 1960, still holds up as an engaging narrative of the Garvey’s life, but its information is now largely outdated. Tony Martin’s Race First (1976) and Literary Garveyism (1983) are both thorough and noteworthy contributions to the intellectual aspects of Garveyism. The chief source of primary material on Garvey is Robert E. Hill’s massive Garvey Papers Project, published in ten huge bound volumes, with an archive housed at the University of California-Los Angeles. Grant has incorporated these and other resources (including the files of FBI informants who infiltrated the UNIA, the first black agents hired in FBI history) and has provided the most well-synthesized account of Garvey’s life to date.
While Grant’s study focuses on the man himself, Mary Rolinson’s Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920 – 1927 (2007) gives, perhaps, an even better view of the overall structure of the UNIA by providing a closer look at some of the people who decided to join Garvey’s movement in the American South. The separatist racial politics of Garvey’s movement remain as controversial as ever, and many see Garvey’s black nationalism as an outmoded and ineffectual strategy for dealing with the challenges of our contemporary political situation. In We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Solidarity (2008) philosopher Tommie Shelby analyzes black nationalist thought sympathetically, but ultimately looks for less rigid and more politically practical forms of black solidarity.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. was born August 17, 1887 in St. Ann’s Bay on the northern coast of Jamaica. The youngest of eleven children, Garvey grew up in a very literate household. His father was an avid reader, and the family had an extensive library which the young Garvey used to his intellectual advantage. At the age of fourteen, Garvey left school and became a printer’s apprentice, a vitally important experience for the future leader. It was here that Garvey began a lifelong interest in newspaper publishing. After moving to London in 1912, Garvey ended up working for Egyptian-born Dusé Mohamed Ali’s influential pan-African paper, African Times and Orient Review. According to Grant he gleaned just as much from Ali’s numerous other business schemes as he did about the workings of the newspaper industry itself. The one consistent enterprise that Garvey always came back to throughout his life was the newspaper, from the success of the UNIA’s Negro World in spreading the message of the movement, to the bitter editorials in The Black Man which he published in London in the 1930s after his deportation from the United States.
Colin Grant begins Negro With a Hat by relating the story of Garvey’s death. And, in the sort of cosmic irony that would seem too trite were it fictional, it would be a newspaper headline that led to his death. Recovering from a debilitating stroke in his London home in 1940, Garvey was shown clippings announcing that “Marcus Garvey Dies in London.” An old political rival had begun spreading rumors of his death and the premature obituaries were filled with damning and unflattering portrayals of his life. Garvey, distraught over these vicious accounts, collapsed from another massive stroke while reading them. He died two weeks later on June 10, 1940.
In 1914 Garvey first attempted to start The Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA_ACL) in Jamaica when he returned there after traveling for two years in London. The organization’s motto was, and remains, “One God, One Aim, One Destiny.” (The UNIA-ACL technically still exists though its membership is small.) In 1916, like scores of other West Indian immigrants, he traveled to Harlem, which was quickly becoming a thriving black metropolis. Thousands of black migrants from the American South and immigrants from the West Indies were pouring into the neighborhood and creating a vibrant modern urban black culture. In 1918 Garvey set up a new version of the UNIA which grew and thrived. Garvey had already been practicing his skills as an orator while in London on Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. In New York he honed his skills by observing the pyrotechnics of white evangelist Billy Sunday. He also drew inspiration from Harlem’s own plethora of lively public speakers, including the black socialist Hubert Harrison who gave Garvey his first speaking opportunities. Garvey perfected his style and brought it to Harlem’s version of Speakers’ Corner, on 135th St. and Lenox, where he eventually began to draw crowds with his incendiary speeches.
Grant does a remarkable job of weaving Garvey’s ascendance into the historical context of early-20th-century America. Garvey stepped into a perfect storm stirred by Harlem’s growth as a cultural and intellectual capital of blackness, the return of black soldiers from WWI battlefields back to the Jim Crow south, and the continuing white supremacist racial violence carried out on the black community in the South. Garvey’s ideas about racial separation were influenced by the awful violence of the East St. Louis, Illinois race riot of 1917, in which nearly 200 people were killed and thousands driven out of their homes. Led by Garvey’s soon to be rival, the scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) conducted a silent protest march through the streets of Harlem in response to the riots, carrying signs saying “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” By the time of the violence of the Red Summer of 1919 two years later, Garvey had perfected his brand of militant black pride, and had effectively established his movement as an alternative to the NAACP’s peaceful marches and philosophy of integration. It should be noted here that Grant takes his title from Du Bois’s derisive description of Garvey, a clumsy and even off-putting choice. But it does speak to the bitter rivalry between the two leaders and the importance of the differences (and contradictions) in their political philosophies.
With a consistently growing membership, the UNIA engaged in a number of economic enterprises, and Grant gives detailed accounts of these ventures, many of which were unfortunately rife with mismanagement. Of all the Garvey projects, the Black Star Line may be the most definitive statement on Garvey’s enigmatic career. After purchasing an old WWI coal ship, The SS Yarmouth, Garvey planned to rechristen it as the Frederick Douglass and make it the first ship in The Black Star Line, a fleet of UNIA owned and operated ships that would, among other functions, carry people to the African continent. Garvey managed to orchestrate a rousing and raucous launch celebration with thousands of people gathered on Manhattan’s west side at 135th St. near the Hudson River to watch it set sail. But due to complicated issues with the ship’s insurance it was only allowed to sail out of view of the cheering throngs, then docked again at 23rd Street. The Black Star Line was promoted with the idea that those who invested might one day be able to repatriate in Africa (“Africa for the Africans!”)…but Garvey himself never set foot on the continent.
In the end, Garvey was brought low by the Black Star Line, nailed on a technicality by an FBI campaign bent on stopping his movement. He was arrested in 1922 for mail fraud in connection with the sale of stock in the company. Garvey represented himself in the grueling four week long court case, lost the case, and beginning in 1925 he served two years in jail in Atlanta, GA. He was eventually pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge, but deportation was one of the conditions of the pardon and he sailed back to Jamaica from New Orleans in 1927. Still, whatever one might say about Marcus Garvey, Grant’s biography makes it difficult to write him off simply as a charlatan. It paints the portrait of a man who was equal parts sincerity, hucksterism and delusional ambition, illuminating Garvey’s dogged persistence and determination to do something big with his life. Through failure after failure, and setback after setback, Garvey held fast to a single-minded commitment to success.
In some ways historian Mary Rolinson’s Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920 – 1927 provides us with a better understanding of Garveyism as a “mass movement” than Negro With a Hat. While Grant’s work is mostly a focused character study, Rolinson tries to make sense of the motivations and ideas of the people who joined the ranks of the organization by focusing on a particular subset of UNIA members. Grassroots Garveyism provides some rare and insightful research on Garvey’s influence among black Southerners. As she argues, “a closer look at this segment of Garveyites offers not only a glimpse into the elusive intellectual history of rural southern farmers but also a fuller understanding of the dynamics and nature of Garveyism.” There were 1, 176 divisions of the UNIA throughout the world by 1926. Eighty percent of these were in the United States. Of the U.S. chapters Rolinson places 423 of these in the Southern States. Definite numbers are hard to come by, but Rolinson finds records for over 9,000 actual paying members. However, she counterbalances that number with crowd estimates of people who attended pro-Garvey mass meetings all over the South over the course of his arrest and trial, estimates which suggest over 100,000 people may have been in attendance. She culled demographic information about the UNIA members from census records, and her interpretations of the southern UNIA is informed by careful readings of the Negro World for reports of southern activity. The nature of her research meant Rolinson had to rely heavily on conjecture, but she does a commendable job balancing this primary research with informed speculations.
What she finds is that more than a few rural southerners embraced Garvey’s movement in the South. In the process she complicates the standard narrative of the Great Migration, which carries the assumption that the most militant and intellectually engaged blacks moved to the Northern cities, and that radicalization was only possible by moving to the freer spaces of the urban North. On the contrary, she illustrates a rich history of political engagement and radical defiance happening under the radar in the South. The premise of the book, she writes, is to show that “…however busy and burdened this group was, however few records they left behind, and however far their ideology may have deviated from the liberal integrationist framework, these African-Americans had strong impulses to determine and improve their own futures and found ways to do so through organization and independent thought.” For the most part the book delivers on that promise. But still, the findings must be put in perspective. At the end of the day, as illuminating as her work is, it only sheds light on one area of an important but failed political movement.
Which brings us to the overall legacy of Garvey’s movement. The UNIA was without a doubt an institutional failure. The organization itself was by all accounts poorly managed and squandered its mass appeal. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss the importance of the UNIA and Garvey’s career wholesale because of its tactical errors. The apex of the Garvey movement, and its most phenomenal spectacle, came in 1920 when a UNIA convention was held at Madison Square Garden. The convention itself was attended by some 25,000 people, and thousands more turned out to see the UNIA parade wind through the streets of New York. The whole event was staged as an orchestrated coronation of Garvey as the leader of the Pan-African movement, a sort of African president in exile. Grant writes that “as with many of Garvey’s earlier promotions, the idea of African titles unrolled at the convention was meant more in gesture, albeit a grand gesture intended to inspire and unify the Negro world.” And this may be where Garvey’s greatest legacy lies, in precisely these sorts of symbolic gestures. At the end of the day his most significant contributions were mainly in the cultural and psychological realm, rather than at the institutional level. Garvey was not the first emigrationist, nor was he the first to try to cultivate a more positive attitude toward African heritage and the African continent. His African redemptionism carried the all too common vanguardist and elitist attitude of Western blacks towards Africa. Still, he effectively popularized positive views of Africa and blackness, teaching that Africa had a past and present, that it was not just a backward place from which black Americans should be grateful to have been “saved.” Others had been teaching this for years, but none achieved so great an effect. His ability to get so many of the black rank and file to embrace his movement changed the game in black politics and forced other organizations to reevaluate their own strategies in order to reach the black working class.
Racism remains a problem deeply imbedded in American culture through institutional racism and structural inequality, and it is a problem that cannot be willed away with pronouncements of color-blindness. In We Who are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity, Harvard philosopher Tommie Shelby tries to understand how the concept of black solidarity can be used in a way that contests racist policies and politics, but does so without reifying antiquated notions of racial essentialism. I think Shelby speaks for many black intellectuals and activists when he writes that his objective in We Who are Dark is to show that “…it is possible to dispense with the idea of race as a biological essence and to agree with the critics of identity politics about many of its dangers and limitations, while nevertheless continuing to embrace a form of blackness as an emancipatory tool.” Evaluating the work of several important proponents of black solidarity, including the 19th century black nationalist Martin R. Delany, W.E. B. Du Bois, and members of the Black Power Movement, Shelby finds that black nationalist thought has often contained a mix of “classical” and “pragmatic” strategies.
Roughly simplified, the “classical” framework sees black political and national autonomy as the ultimate goal, whether that is achieved through emigration, or through some sort of internal configuration as an autonomous “nation within a nation.” (Martin R. Delany is believed to have coined that phrase, taken up by later nationalists.) On the other hand “pragmatic” nationalism is “based on a desire to live in a just society, a society that need not be, nor even contain, a self-determining black community.” In effect, Shelby shows how black nationalist intellectuals, even those who fiercely embraced “classical” black nationalism, ultimately made “pragmatic” concessions in order to achieve tangible progress and make substantive changes. To be clear, Shelby explains that his use of the term “classical” is different from Wilson J. Moses’ Classical Black Nationalism which posits that the end of classical black nationalism comes with the imprisonment of Marcus Garvey in 1925. Instead his conception of “classical” is broad enough to apply to nationalist thought appearing in later historical periods. He also explains that his conception of “pragmatic” is based more on a colloquial use of “pragmatism” and less on the school of American philosophy associated with Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey.
Shelby’s work looks to emphasis these “pragmatic” aspects of black nationalism. Though he uses the term “nationalism,” to show how this pragmatic political philosophy is situated within an intellectual history of black nationalist thought, his emphasis is really on the idea of black solidarity. Ultimately Shelby is not proposing an alternative nationalist project, as much as he is providing an incisive philosophical analysis of how the black political framework actually functions today and has functioned historically. As he writes, “The concept of solidarity defended in this book is not a radical departure from what many black Americans already accept.” Indeed, most black Americans actually do function somewhere between the racial purity of Garvey and the “color-blind” bad faith of Ward Connerly. Shelby’s form of pragmatic black solidarity is based on the idea that, “what holds blacks together as a unified people with shared political interests is the fact of their racial subordination and their collective resolve to triumph over it.” Ultimately, he argues for a black American solidarity based on the understanding of shared struggle against racism within the American political system, a solidarity that is malleable enough to accommodate differences in culture, gender and sexuality, a solidarity that is open to the realities of multiracialism and interracial cooperation, and a solidarity that is less interested in cultural authenticity, ancient origins, or fantasies of an impractical territorial nationalism.
Today the Harlem streets that the Garveyites walked are now awash in Obama-mania. Weeks after the election Obama signs are still visible in apartment windows. On 125th street, one can choose from a variety of bootleg paraphernalia celebrating America’s first black president. I realize there’s been more than enough tiresome editorializing about the meaning of Obama’s presidency and I won’t add more. Yet I can’t help but ponder the connections between the history of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA, the racism that they and other civil rights organizations (despite their differences) fought so tirelessly against, and the reality that Americans have just elected the son of a black Kenyan father and white American mother to its highest office.
These days it seems Marcus Garvey has become just another name on streets and parks in black neighborhoods, or a generic and ambiguous symbol of black history name-checked by conscious rappers and reggae artists. I hold out hope that the works reviewed here will contribute to a continuing engagement with the details of Garvey’s life and politics, and with the history of black freedom struggles, so that those of us who teach the history of Garvey and the UNIA (and who teach the teachers of this history) will help students know him as more than just a name on a street sign. And hopefully we can take what we’ve learned from Garvey and black nationalists of the 20th century to come up with more creative ways of thinking about black solidarity as we move into the 21st.