Marcus Garvey and Black Solidarity in the 21st Century

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in December 2008)


Books Reviewed:

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.

2 thoughts on “Marcus Garvey and Black Solidarity in the 21st Century

  1. Pingback: The Exodus Cipher: A Brief Look at the Afro-American experience through a Biblical lens | The Hugh-Cipher

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