Marcus Garvey's Crime: (Part Two)




From the moment Marcus Garvey set foot on North American soil in 1916, he became a threat to a system that denied the selfhood of New World Africans. Black people knew this. What other explanation could there be for the exponential growth of the Garvey founded UNIA from thirteen members in 1916 to over four million in 1919?



One of the first government officials to recognize Garvey's threat was J. Edgar Hoover, who used all of the resources of the BOI (predecessor of the FBI) to stop the UNIA and Garvey. On January 12, 1922, Marcus Garvey was arrested on mail fraud and on June 23, 1923, Garvey was sentenced to five years in prison. But was this prison sentence justified?  In "Jailing a Rainbow" Justin Hansford concludes: "Ultimately, the unjust trial and conviction of Marcus Garvey was an attempt to silence and kill the powerful voice of an Outsider."



If Garvey's crime was not mail fraud as the government alleged and if Hansford's hypothesis is correct, then Marcus Garvey's imprisonment was predicated on his attempt to create a counterculture of resistance and his thorough interrogation of Whiteness or White privilege. This system took many forms: slavery, which automatically granted superiority to whites and devalued the worth and talents of New World Africans to Jim Crow laws that denied New World Africans their rights as citizens and to educational and entrepreneurial opportunities. White privilege essentially shackled the bodies and minds of New World Africans while granting untrammelled freedom to whites and honorary whites.


Of course, there were personal success stories within the African American community, but these individuals were often seen as the "exceptions that proved the rule" of Black ignorance and laziness. For whenever, Black communities showed any promise of success, they were decimated by legal or extralegal methods. How else can the catalog of Black communities destroyed by white mobs and race riots during the twentieth century (Tulsa through Rosewood and beyond) be explained?


This insidious system was also maintained by a system of propaganda that conflated the story of America with whiteness and the status quo. But America is not white. And neither is its story. Claude McKay ("America") and Langston Hughes ("I, Too, Sing America") were two of the more famous poets of the Harlem Renaissance  (Garvey's influence on this historical movement has still not been fully acknowledged) who sought to correct the effects of this exclusive metanarrative on the psyche of African Americans.


Marcus Garvey's communal self-help philosophy challenged the narrative that reduced New World Africans to chattel, and reminded African Americans that their story did not begin in slavery, but in the kingdoms of West Africa.

This was, perhaps, Garvey's most egregious crime. The UNIA's philosophy struck at the core assumptions of White privilege: only whites were intelligent, beautiful, and hardworking. The additional challenge that Garvey faced was that many New World Africans believed this propaganda, and were now victims of learned helplessness. This explains Garvey's mission to change the consciousness of New World Africans and his frequent exhortations to "emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. "

Marcus Garvey began a process that has evolved throughout the years. At the core of Garvey's "African Fundamentalism" are the values of pride, confidence that are enhanced by education and industry. Garvey's false imprisonment effectively stopped the momentum of the UNIA's "upliftment of the race." This would have a long lasting effect on the movement not only during Garvey's lifetime, but on his legacy. Garvey's memory has been reduced to repatriation without any reference to the broad political, educational, cultural, and economic aims of the UNIA. As Hansford asserts:  

Both he and his vision were intentionally and unjustly tarnished, degraded, and banished from the American narrative almost a century ago—in large part due to the legal opinion above and the deportation of Marcus Garvey that it effectuated.

Throughout the ordeal of his imprisonment, Garvey maintained his innocence and tried unsuccessfully to clear his good name. When Marcus Garvey died on June 10, 1940, the official records state a cerebral hemorrhage, but I think it was more from a broken heart.


It is for this reason that I have signed an online petition to be presented to President Barack Obama for Marcus Garvey's exoneration. Garvey's crime was not mail fraud, but his challenge to a system that denied the selfhood of New World Africans.


If you would like to join the cause for clearing the good name of Marcus Garvey, please add your name to this petition:




Exonerate Marcus Garvey

To be delivered to President Barack Obama

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