Marcus Garvey was arguably the most important international figure in 20th century Black political and cultural thinking and activity. He lived a fascinating, extraordinary life, being born in a small town in rural Jamaica in 1887 and dying in London at the relatively young age of 53.
At the time of Garvey’s birth, Black people throughout the colonial world had yet to experience any sort of ‘independence’. Jamaica for example, together with numerous other countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean region were run as outposts of the British Empire. Economic and social conditions were wretched for the mass of dark-skinned people in these countries. One of Garvey’s enduring legacies and achievements was to encourage Black people of the world to see themselves and their struggles as being interlinked, via the common denominator of African ancestry. This philosophy, in a variety of forms, came to be known as Pan-Africanism.
Garvey first travelled outside of Jamaica when he was 22 years old, visiting and working in Costa Rica. In a few years, he familiarised himself with the economic and social conditions of Black people in many parts of the central America region, including Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Nicaragua. Shocked and affected by the conditions he witnessed, Garvey resolved to dedicate his life to improving the conditions of Black people throughout the world.
After travelling in Central America, Garvey eventually arrived in London, which throughout much of the early 20th century was a base for many African and Caribbean-born political activists, writers, poets and thinkers. It was at this time that Garvey penned one of the first of innumerable articles and essays. The article was titled The British West Indies in the Mirror of Civilisation. “As one who knows the people well, I make no apology for prophesying that there will soon be a turning point in the history of the West Indies; and that the people who inhabit that portion of the Western Hemisphere will be the instruments of uniting a scattered race who, before the close of many centuries, will found an Empire on which the sun shall shine as ceaselessly as it does on the Empire of the North today”[i]. Garvey was 26. The year was 1913.
Garvey’s greatest impact - his years of triumph were 1917 - 1924. He arrived in the United States in 1916, encountering conditions for Black people that were every bit as bad as he had seen elsewhere in the world. Upon his arrival in the US, Garvey headed for and made his base in Harlem, the territory “across 110th Street” that was home to much of New York’s Black community. Here, a wonderful assortment of charismatic holy men, self-appointed preachers, and would-be political leaders all flourished and jostled each other for the attention and support of Harlem’s people. By this time Garvey had already established his Universal Negro Improvement Association in Jamaica some time previously, though it was in Harlem that the organisation grew and grew. As one Garvey biographer noted, Harlem’s “teeming tenements were already jammed to capacity [and] the next few years would see the arrival of many thousands of immigrants from the West Indies and the American South”[ii]. In time, the UNIA was to become the biggest mass movement in the history of Black people. The aims of Garvey's UNIA can be summarised as follows:
1. Black self-reliance by building self-supporting businesses.
2. Black people were encouraged to support each other
3. Pride in one-self
4. Black was beautiful
5. Africa was home for Africans at home and abroad.
Though Garvey’s work took him and his associates to all parts of the United States, it was in Harlem that he and the movement felt truly at home. This after all was the golden age that became known as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’. All Black human life was there, and the photographer James Van Der Zee was there to record it. Van Der Zee, born the year before Garvey, took what has become one of the enduring iconic photographic images of Garvey.
It was perhaps the Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay who came closest to signifying the cultural component of Garvey’s UNIA programme. “The flowering of Harlem’s creative life came in the Garvey era. The anthology, THE NEW NEGRO, which oriented the debut of the Renaissance writers, was printed in 1925. If Marcus Garvey did not originate the phrase, New Negro, he at least made it popular.”[iii]
As well as corresponding with the educationalist, Booker T. Washington, one of the great figures of late 19th century/early the century Black American politics, Garvey crossed swords on numerous occasions with a number of other towering personalities. W E B Du Bois was constantly locked in confrontational exchanges with Garvey, as was C L R James. Garvey frequently passed judgmental comments on many contemporary Black figures in the public arena. Witness for example his 1935 comment on Paul Robeson. “We admire Paul Robeson as an artist, but as a representative of his race he is a poor specimen, in that he always allows himself to be featured in those plays that do more harm than good to his race..."[iv]
Garvey’s influence on subsequent Black liberation movements was colossal. Malcolm X cited Garvey as a major influence on his life and work, as did Kwame Nkrumah. But Garvey was also a poet, as well as writing hymns and songs.
In 1925 Garvey was imprisoned in the United States on what he regarded as a vindictive and politically motivated mail fraud charge in connection with stock shares for one of his business ventures, the Black Star Line. He was given a five-year term, but was released and deported after two years. He campaigned for the rights of Jamaica's poorer people for a number of years, before relocating to London. He died there five years later, in 1940.
In the years following Garvey’s death, he came to be embraced as a prophet of Black redemption and the voice of the sufferer. Rastafarians and reggae singers in particular claimed him as one of their central icons. In this regard, Burning Spear has done more than any other single individual to keep the memory of Marcus Garvey alive and resonating with a variety of contemporary applications.
The following accolade, dating from 1922 summarises much of his achievements. “Garvey has done much good work in putting into many Negroes a backbone where for years they had a wishbone. He has stimulated race pride... He has criticized the hat-in-hand Negro leadership. He has inspired an interest in Negro traditions, Negro history, Negro literature, Negro art and culture.” [v]
Marcus Garvey was very much a maverick and for a time, the organisation he built not only reflected his unorthodox and independent mindset, but also brought together an as yet unsurpassed coalition of activists and professionals. These individuals came from across - and indeed beyond - the political spectrum. In his book, Black Power and the Garvey Movement, Theodore G Vincent touched on this astonishing dimension of Garvey's endeavours. "For a short time in the early 1920s, the Garveyites held together an unprecedented black coalition which included cultural nationalists, political nationalists, opponents of organized religion (atheists, separatists, or simply reformers), advocates of armed rebellion, pacifists, women's liberation fighters, participants in Democratic and Republican machine politics, a smattering of left-wingers, many who wanted no contact with whites, and a small but significant number who wanted the UNIA to cooperate with integrated civil rights organizations to end discrimination and segregation."[vi]
© Eddie Chambers
[i] Marcus Garvey, “The British West Indies in the Mirror of Civilization”, John Henrik Clarke (ed), Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa, New York: Vintage, 1974: 82
[ii] E David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and The Universal Negro Improvement Association, University of Wisconsin Press, 1955, 1969: 39-40
[iii] Tony Martin, Literary Garveyism: Garvey, Black Arts, and the Harlem Renaissance, The Majority Press, 1983: 7
[iv] Marcus Garvey, John Henrik Clarke (ed), Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa, New York: Vintage, 1974: 351
[v] Cary D Wintz (ed), African American Political Thought, 1890 – 1930: Washington, Du Bois, Garvey, and Randolph, M E Sharpe Inc, 1996: 276
[vi] Theodore G Vincent, Black Power and the Garvey Movement, Ramparts Press, Berkeley, CA, 1971