August 8, 2011

Marcus Garvey's Heroism

One of the great pleasures I’ve had over the past five years is teaching a course at MDC where I use the book, Awakening the Heroes Within. After teaching the elementary rules of essay writing, my students and I explore the biographies of historical and cultural figures such as Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, and Dr. Ben Carson and assess the archetypal significance of their life and work. I usually try to steer my students toward writing papers on Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, or Marcus Garvey, but invariably, they end up writing about Nelson Mandela, the Warrior or Pablo Picasso, the Creator. I’ve often suspected the reason why they have not written about Hurston, Baldwin, or Garvey, and I finally had a group with enough courage to tell me the truth. They didn’t know enough about Hurston, Baldwin, or Garvey to write a research paper that would be graded. And they need good grades, especially now since the Florida legislature has imposed new academic standards and has threatened to limit the amount of credits for which the state will pay even though approximately 82% of our students enter our college academically under prepared.

Yet as a teacher who encourages intellectual risk, it’s disappointing when my students refuse to confront an academic challenge. It is even more disheartening that despite Oprah’s efforts, Zora Neale Hurston, a Florida native, remains in virtual obscurity. And in these times of increased hurricanes, Hurston’s, Their Eyes Were Watching God, should be a must read, for she was one of the first writers who explored the metaphorical meaning of a hurricane.

James Baldwin, author of Go Tell it on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time and Blues for Mr. Charlie and one of America’s finest writers, has also suffered a similar fate. These are two great African-American writers who have been relegated to the margins of American cultural life.

It is also painful, but not surprising, that none of my students know anything about Marcus Garvey. In fact, I once taught a class in which Garvey’s great, great grand____ put up his hand and said he knew the name Marcus Garvey. My ears perked up. But when I probed further, he said he really didn’t know much about his great relative’s accomplishments—he only knew that he’d done something. For the first time in my teaching career, I assigned a mandatory subject to a student. He passed the class.

As we neared the end of the semester, my students asked me why I was so interested in Marcus Garvey. I explained that my interest in Garvey was not merely because I am a secular Rastafarian, but the type of leadership that Garvey embodied still holds relevance for us today, and his life holds many lessons for us in the twenty-first century. Garvey, despite his flaws, was one of the first Black leaders in the Western Hemisphere to articulate a vision of greatness for people of African descent, and through the power of his words re-imagined the future of Black people. But words were not enough for Garvey. He put his words into action, faced the adversity that came with being a pioneer, and thus modeled the greatness, integrity, and excellence that he desired to see in the world.

A few weeks later, I showed my students the video, Look for me in the Whirlwind. The film traced Garvey’s birth in St Ann’s, Jamaica (1887) to his death in London, England (1940). What emerged from the video was a figure who from his earliest days was fascinated by the power of words: “As a boy, Garvey imagined himself delivering speeches to adoring crowds. He spent hours reading, and even bet his friends they couldn't pick a single word from the dictionary that he didn't know” (Whirlwind). So, by the time he was forced under the colonial system to leave school, he became a printer’s apprentice and “quickly earned the status of master printer. In the print shop, he learned the power of controlling the written word and published his first newspaper, Garvey's Watchman” (Whirlwind).

Then, using the skills he had mastered in his youth, “Garvey started The Negro World newspaper with a cover price of 5 cents. The paper carried essays, poetry, and articles on Black history and world events… By the end of 1919, Garvey claimed over three-quarters of a million followers and The Negro World was the most popular black newspaper in the United States” (Whirlwind).

Ironically Garvey’s quest began in his adolescence when one of his closest friends and white neighbors, Joyce Rerrie, was told never to speak to Garvey again and she was sent away to England because her father said Garvey was a “nigger”: “[It was] the first time that he heard and became aware of this idea of being black and what it meant.” (Whirlwind).

Then in 1914, Garvey after reading Booker T. Washington’s, Up From Slavery, traveled through Central America, and concluded: “the situation facing black people was a global one…. I was determined that the black man would not continue to be kicked about, as I had seen in Central America, and as I read of it in America. Where is the black man's government? Where is his King and his kingdom? Where is his President, his country, his men of big affairs? I could not find them, and then I declared, 'I will help to make them.' My brain was afire” (Whirlwind).

Thus, Garvey commenced on the monumental task of reversing the negative thinking, images, and stereotypes associated with Blacks in the Americas (I mean this in the widest sense). As Charles Mills, explained: “To begin with, Africa was called the "Dark Continent". And the pictures that, we got of Africa in those days were cannibals running around in the jungles, puttin' people in pots. Garvey changed all of that” (Whirlwind). Estelle James addressed the issue more cogently, “You was oppressed and depressed and disgusted that you were born in the wrong race of people because of your color. Whatever was left, that's what you got. Only what was left. And we were at the lowest ebb at that time” (Whirlwind).

Garvey also began honing his oratorical skills, “And all of a sudden this golden voice from the Caribbean came and stood on the corners in Harlem and began to talk about self-esteem, holding up your back bone, you know, no wish bones” (Whirlwind). In 1920, Garvey gave a speech in Madison Square Gardens to twenty-five thousand people where he told Europeans to give Africa a wide berth because “We are coming home” (Whirlwind).

In abandoning the Eurocentric view of race and color, Garvey dismissed the idea that the history of New World Africans began in slavery. Like all great leaders, he located himself and his people within a historical continuum and realized that if Black people were capable of great things in the past, they could do even greater things in the future: “Be as proud of your race today as our fathers were in the days of yore. We have a beautiful history. And we shall create another in the future that will astonish the world. I can advise no better step toward racial salvation than organization among us. We have been harassed, trampled upon, and made little of because of our unfortunate condition of disorganization. Our racial program of today is a united, emancipated, and improved people” (Whirlwind).

Then, to paraphrase one of his spiritual descendants, Garvey put his vision to reality (Marley). He empowered people of African descent not only with ideas, but also through the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), he funded businesses so that Black people could have a stake in their economic future. This led to many other enterprises, including the ill-fated Black Star Line. At the turn of the twentieth century when North America was divided by racial segregation, Garvey was expanding the level of expectancy for people of African descent and moving beyond the negative self-images.

Long before the New Age evangelists with their chorus of self-acceptance as the prerequisite for psychological wholeness, Garvey announced to his followers, “Always think yourself a perfect being…and be satisfied with yourself” (Whirlwind). Sister Samaad reported on change that Garvey’s words had on his audience, “You would almost see them -- metamorph into something else. You would see it. They'd suddenly get very tall because the smallest man in the uniform still looked like a giant. I can tell you that from experience. They were gorgeous. The black men were gorgeous” (Whirlwind).

Garvey early on realized that success had to be taught, and he used the UNIA to do this: “Garvey's idea of the UNIA was that it would teach success. It was going to be a vehicle to communicate and demonstrate that black people could be successful. This idea of success was now translated into a whole series of commercial ventures, laundries, restaurants, newspapers” (Whirlwind). These are timeless values and principles that have to be taught and modeled within a community by the teachers, elders, mothers, and fathers. Otherwise, hopelessness sets in. 

People within the community may have all the book knowledge and skills in the world, but if they don’t believe that they will be successful when facing adversities that surely will come, they may just conclude, “What’s the point?” and give up. This is one of those timeless lessons that Garvey’s leadership ushered into the Black community. And those who doubt the relevance of Garvey’s message should not be surprised at the length of time that Jamaican economic recovery has taken because of the exodus of the middle class during the seventies. Nor should they be shocked that the current generation of young Black men, who have grown up largely fatherless and listening to the LPs their fathers left behind, have chosen bling-bling over becoming.

Realizing that Black nation could only be healed through the imagination—the same power that held Black people captive would be the same power that liberated them--Garvey never succumbed to the belief (sometimes reflected in American blues) that the troubles of the world can overwhelm an individual. He believed that he was greater than any circumstance and never gave his consent to anything that would lead him to adopt a victim mentality. In the midst of one of the harshest adversities that he faced as prisoner #19359 in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, he urged his followers in song to “Keep Cool. Keep Cool”

From this principled stand that was grounded in his historical viewpoint, Garvey had a real sense of his value. He exuded a sense of integrity that was reflected in his dress (sometimes to excess when he appeared in public like a governor-general and called himself the “Provisional President of Africa”), in his speech and actions. Garvey never acted in a manner that would denigrate himself or his people. Rather, he systematically changed how Black people thought about themselves and from that transformed consciousness taught them how to manifest their vision.

This is not to say that Garvey was not a severely flawed man. His zeal for only race-based solutions and stubbornness were nothing compared to his most serious defect. Garvey trusted no one. In the PBS video, there are some reasons that are given for Garvey’s mistrust of others, but they belong more to pop psychology than to the realm of serious inquiry. There was and is a serious lack of trust in the Black community. It is this lack of trust based on ignorance that continues to tear the Black nation apart. An example of this is found in an exchange between the Jamaican journalist John Maxwell and an African American man over fifty years ago.

Nearly 50 years ago, on my first visit to the United States I was challenged by a black shoemaker in Washington DC, literally within the shadow of the Capitol. He was puzzled by my accent and wanted to know where I came from. When I told him he asked me:

"They got anybody like me where you come from?"
I didn't understand him. Yes, they had shoemakers in Jamaica, I said.

“No man, they got any niggers there?"
I was totally flabbergasted. He and I could easily have been blood brothers; our hair was the same, our skin colour was the same. If anything he was a shade or two lighter-skinned than I. We even looked a little bit alike, I thought. We settled the historical and ethnic questions over a pitcher of beer in a nearby bar. Why, I asked him, didn't he think I was a nigger?
"Because you don't talk like a nigger, man, and you don't walk like a nigger."

Being a nigger, clearly, was a social construct so deeply embedded even in blacks that they could not recognise a fellow soldier even when we wore the same uniform. (Jamaica Observer)
Yet, paradoxically, Garvey’s betrayal came from within his circle of confidantes: “Garvey was betrayed by the few people he trusted to get the Black Star Line afloat. The man he asked to inspect the Yarmouth turned out to be an informant for J. Edgar Hoover. And his hand-picked Captain, Joshua Cockburn, convinced Garvey to pay six times what the ship was worth -- and then took a kickback from the purchase price” (Whirlwind).

Then, the FBI under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover hired some of its first Black field agents who reported all of Garvey’s activities to the Bureau: “Edgar Hoover had long relied on casual informants. But now, in his determination to go after Garvey, Hoover hired the first full-time black agent in the Bureau's history….He was known by a code number. All his reports were signed, ah, "800". That was his code. And his job was to go into Harlem and to infiltrate the Garvey Movement to try and find evidence that could be used to build the legal case for ultimately getting rid of Garvey”(Whirlwind). 

Hoover was determined to stop this “notorious Negro agitator”. Garvey was trapped by the judicial system on one side and by conspirators on the other: “As things spun out of control, Garvey confided in Herbert Bowlin, the owner of the Berry & Ross Doll Company. To Garvey, Bowlin was one of a few real friends. To J. Edgar Hoover, he was Agent P-138” (Whirlwind).

Garvey was ultimately sacrificed to the American system of jurisprudence and he spent several years in prison before he was sent back to Jamaica where he was hounded again by the justice system and he ended up in England where he died.

Garvey’s message still fuels the hope for personal and political liberation. Sister Samaad stated eloquently, “The organization left a legacy of "I am," simply, "I am", with no apology. “ I am." We had never had that up to that time. We belonged to churches where we sang, but Garvey made you stand tall and quiet, looking into the future. And that's a great legacy” (Whirlwind). This legacy is preserved in many ways. Garvey’s visage is preserved within the Jamaican monetary system, but his message needs to be broadened beyond the scope of Rastafari who regard him as a prophet.

For Garvey was also a model of leadership—its glories and pitfalls He diagnosed a problem (the lack of unity among peoples of African descent), acted upon his beliefs (creating an educational and entrepreneurial system that improved opportunity and choice), and his transformational leadership changed the consciousness of his followers from a victim mentality of learned helplessness to economic and educational empowerment. Garvey by his commitment to his beliefs gave himself totally to a cause greater than himself. According to the definition given by Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth, Garvey should also be considered a hero (150). And as Garvey wrote in "African Fundamentalism" :

The time has come for the Negro to forget and cast behind him his hero worship and adoration of other races, and to start out immediately to create and emulate heroes of his own...We must canonize our own martyrs and elevate to positions of fame and honor Black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to our racial history (Marcus Garvey Life and Lessons).

Garvey, Baldwin, and Hurston and all the other Black heroes need to re-introduced into the consciousness of the Black community and American cultural life, so that as we approach another African American History Month, our children will not become caricatures, like those mentioned in the famous Chris Rock skit, who only know the names, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. We owe their memories more respect. And besides, we’re bigger than that.


Hill, Robert, and Bair, Barbara. eds. Marcus Garvey Life and Lessons. Berkley: U California P, 1987.

See also Dr. Julius Garvey's responses to Look for me in the Whirlwind:


This post was first published in Jamaicansrus, 11/28/05: “Marcus Garvey Words Come to Pass.”

Exonerate Marcus Garvey

To be delivered to President Barack Obama

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