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Garvey's Legacy in Context: Colourism, Black Movements and African Nationalism
August 17th, 2005
By Ayanna Gillian
"From early history to the present, we learn of men and women who have emerged from their environment and so far outdistanced their contemporaries in thought and action that in their day they were apt to be called 'mad, dangerous or fools'. Long after their death, when the truths were espoused or the experiments they conducted validated... then they who have been convinced by experience are prone to admit that the visionary was right and must have been inspired to be so persevering."
These words of Garvey's wife, Amy Jacques Garvey aptly encapsulate the ideology, achievements and mixed public perception of Marcus Garvey. They also underscore the far-reaching and unprecedented nature of his legacy of black self-determinism and the critical importance of black enterprise. It is on the shoulders of Garvey that tenets of political, social and economic self-determination for Africans and the creation of a global African nation were built. In fact the widespread influence of Garveyism as a Pan-Africanist and liberation ideology far outstripped his actual achievements in his lifetime.
Amy Garvey's words are in stark contrast to those of W.E.B du Bois, one of Garvey's contemporaries and main detractors and the founder of the NAACP. Du Bois declared Garvey to be no more than a 'rabble rouser' and a 'non-achiever' whose movement "seemed to be absurd, grotesque, and bizarre." Du Bois and the NAACP dismissed Marcus Garvey as an embarrassment to his race. Du Bois, like many of Garvey's detractors choose to look not only at the failure of some of his business ventures and rumours of fraud in his financial affairs but exhibited clearly the stain of colourism and a disdain many elitist American blacks had for Africans elsewhere in the Diaspora, particularly the West Indies. These contributed in no small measure to this perception and point clearly to the heart of the division within black liberation movements, divisions that continue in different ways to this day.
As controversial and hated as he was respected and revered, criticism of Garvey's unwavering, uncompromising stance on the necessity of the separatist ideology of 'Africa for the Africans' must be seen not only in the context of white hostility to his destabilizing ventures but also in the context of the conflicting liberation ideologies that vied for space and precedence in the Black-American political landscape. Colour, class nationalistic and ideological divisions existed between different groups in the liberation struggles and Garvey often found himself on the wrong side of the establishment - both black and white. His criticism of the bourgeois elitism of the intellectual movements of W.E.B du Bois and his revision of the more passive stance of reform rather than resistance and demonstration taken by Booker T. Washington, certainly earned him the reputation of being a nuisance and a destabilising and dangerous force. What remains clear is that those who were most seen as the 'rabble'- the poor, the black, the angry and the oppressed - were the ones that Garvey felt needed to be roused out of the slumber of non-progressive inaction to create a framework where they could most effectively challenge the existing system. It was the unprecedented rousing of the masses that created the most tremendous force of international black mobilization that modern history has ever seen, a mobilization that has not yet met its peer. It was his insurrectionist, militant political ideologies for which he was so greatly criticised that have ironically been his greatest achievement and raised Garvey to the position of being arguably the most influential black man in modern history.
Marcus Garvey's formative years and environmental context are of greater importance than mere background and biographical information. It is his background and personal history that holds an important key to the nature of his ideology. It is also instrumental to understanding the schism between what would emerge as Garveyism and the more integrationist, reformist approach of W.E.B du Bois at the NAACP. Born in St. Anns Bay in the repressive, anti-black hierarchical, colour conscious society of newly emancipated Jamaica, Marcus' phenotype, black skin colour and social background marked him at the bottom of the social ladder. Although more formally educated that most others of his working class background, Garvey became an apprentice to a tradesman at fourteen and thus began a period of intimate association with the poor, black, working classes in Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica where he observed what appeared to him to be the universal oppression of Africans. His early involvement and organization of workers' rebellions, strikes and liberation newspapers encouraging worker awareness gained him an early reputation as a freedom fighter in some quarters and a nuisance in others.
What is critical here is that Garvey was no 'schoolroom revolutionary' and no out of touch academic. He was immersed from his own upbringing and the beginning of his political awareness in the day-to-day struggles of ordinary black people. It was his realization that the African, "... here there and everywhere... is still the object of degradation and pity the world over, in the sense that he has no status socially, nationally or commercially..." that compelled him, upon his return to Jamaica in 1914 to form the first phase of the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities (Imperial) League, which would later, in Harlem, New York, would become the UNIA, the most influential and formidable black organization of its time.
The importance of Garvey's early context properly situates his developing ideology. His experience of the oppression of Africans from the bottom of the ladder made him not only an observer of the experience but one who was deeply immersed in and understood its workings. He worked and suffered under the conditions suffered by the majority of Africans in the Diaspora. What little privilege his education afforded him, his colour, phenotype and class certainly eroded. His experience in the colonial setting of Jamaica also made him quite acquainted with the destabilizing nature of colourism and blacks who desired white social advancement at the expense of the liberation of their own race. Early on Garvey was uncompromising when he stated, "I had to decide whether to please my friends and be one of the 'black-whites' of Jamaica and be reasonably prosperous, or come out openly and defend and help improve and protect the integrity of the black millions and suffer". It was fundamentally Garvey's experience that created the unique charisma, intensity and revolutionary spirit that could not only conceive the separatist and uncompromising vision for African liberation but compelled the black poor to identify with his movement in a way that they had not been able to fully identify under the likes of W.E.B du Bois and others of the more integrationist movements. His knowledge was based on a hard and horrible experience, a racial experience. His social position and personal history allowed him to identify with the experiences, desires and anger of the black poor and fire their imaginations and participation in a way that was unprecedented.
Central to the ideological basis underpinning Garvey's philosophy, politics and revolutionary program was the primacy of race. For Garvey, the black man was oppressed globally on the basis of race and no other grounds, and thus any program of emancipation would have to be built around the question of 'race first'. Whites, he contended, had built an unconscious and conscious ideology of race preservation and advancement. Wherever whites existed, the prevailing ideology and social structure benefited whites first as a result of their economic and political domination. Thus Africans, in order to survive racist programs of black decimation through white domination had to develop a single minded race first ideology, "In a world of wolves, one should go armed, and one of the most defensive weapons within in reach of the Negro is the practice of 'Race First' in all parts of the world".
Accompanying this idea of 'Race First' was an all-encompassing idea of black self-love and black self-consciousness. By the time the UNIA had become a formidable political and social presence in Harlem, its main media arm, the revolutionary newspaper, 'The Negro World', had already begun to invest in the hearts of African people the philosophy that the African race was mighty and proud and the rightful heirs of the African continent. The UNIA advocated the unity of all African people and was against miscegenation as the dilution of the strong black race. It promoted the beauty of blackness and extolled the glory of the history of ancient Africa. It was Garveyism that was to popularise the messages of Negritude and the black aestheticism of the Harlem Renaissance, give it concrete value and bring it to the wider population.
One must note however that the UNIA arrived on the scene at a precipitous time in the history of the United States. A poor post-war economy, post-war anti-colonial sentiment, a growing Pan African movement, nationalist rumblings on the continent and worker agitation in former and present European colonies led to widespread discontent amongst African and African-descended people. Race riots, Ku Klux Klan activity and the backlash against black soldiers who had fought with the allies in the war made the U.S ripe for race oriented ferment and violent and aggressive protest. The artistic movement of the 1920's known as the Harlem Renaissance and the stirrings of Negritude also provided an intellectual and creative outlet and expression of the increasing political and cultural consciousness of Pan Africanism and back self-love. However it was Garvey and the UNIA that "...focused and vocalised the massive discontent of the back population" that resulted in this renaissance. He popularised ideas that were limited to a growing black intelligentsia. While Booker T. Washington of the oppressive South was a great influence on Garvey with his belief in black self-sufficiency in business and education, the "New Negroes", as this new militant politicised group was called, were no longer content to quietly negotiate for reform. Garvey and the UNIA with their pomp and ceremony, their titles, travel commissioners and ambassadors whom demanded from the imperial powers that they clear out of the African continent or expect the 400,000,000-strong population of Africans to remove them by force, was a strong concentrated threat to the white establishment, not only in its bombastic approach but its precise, well organized networking and popular political and economic support.
Although artists like Paul Robeson, and Claude Mc Kay and others of the time gloried in the 'aestheticising' of blackness, the UNIA provided a practical, workable road map for how black self-love could grow from an abstract concept to one that could provide security, economic enfranchisement, political wherewithal and visibility for the masses whose day to day survival concerns did not leave them the liberty for the abstract and intellectual. It was the uncompromising nature of the UNIA and the clear indication by Garvey that his immediate sympathies lay with the poor black masses and not the self appointed coloureds who had been at the forefront of black movements, that earned him enemies from within this camp as well as from the overarching white power structure for whom integrationist and accommodating 'black-whites' as Garvey called them were quite useful for their own agendas. They feared the organizational skills and overt black focus of the UNIA.
If Garvey was the ideological, messianic figure of black liberation, the UNIA was the machinery whereby its liberation would be wrought. The UNIA was more than an organization that espoused black issues and liberation ideology; it was envisioned almost as a type of parallel government, the seat of legislation, political activism and economic power of the universal black nation. Indeed during Garvey's American period it was the microcosm of the African nation that Garvey hoped to build. The UNIA established the still familiar red, black and green flag of the African nation, lobbied for the liberation of Africa from Colonial rule and advocated the installation of a black government and State, ultimately led by Marcus Garvey himself, that would be established upon the repatriation of blacks the word over. While the idea of the universal black nation being led by American blacks, particularly Marcus Garvey betrays a typical American arrogance and gives a hint of the bombastic self importance attributed to Garvey the concept of the establishment of a universal black state can still be seen as one of the more remarkable of all the UNIA's ideologies. Garvey claimed to have looked about himself and asked, where is the black man's government his country, his state and his advisors? So, he decided that he would create them. While the idea of the universal black community was already well established with the ideas of Henry Sylvester Williams, du Bois and other Pan-African leaders, it was the UNIA that lobbied and worked for its physical and material creation. The separatist ideology was founded on the fact that blacks would not get justice and equality in a land that was built upon its subjugation and demise. The only hope for African rights did not lie in America, contrary to the integrationist ideas of du Bois and Washington; it lay in the ancestral homeland. This idea in itself was a major achievement on the part of the Garveyite movement, not only in its conception but its organizational ability to bring it about.
Despite Garvey's widespread appeal and the radical nature of his ideas, most of his ventures did not fully succeed. This fuelled the fire for his critics within the integrationist and intellectual movements, the U.S Government and the European Imperial Governments. As one historian so aptly stated, "There are few figures of the twentieth century who can be said to have envisaged so much, complete so little and inspired so many" The UNIA's method for liberation was threefold - social reorientation toward a black African, Race First direction; political cohesion and repatriation in the form of a single negotiating body; and eventually a separate and autonomous state and the firm establishment of the economic framework and wherewithal whereby this could be carried out. While the UNIA established many businesses, schools, and civil services to create employment and run the large-scale organization and many were quite successful, the major business enterprise was that of the Black Star Line. It was the embodiment of the belief in black organization, with black capital and black industry. The Black Star Line was to encompass vessels that would carry out trade between Africa, the Caribbean and the United States and establish a black owned shipping industry. The outpouring of support for this venture and the enthusiastic purchase of stock in the company by the impoverished black population baffled U.S government officials.
What emerged out of this venture even more than its success or failure was ordinary people having a stake in a large-scale business venture that was to directly benefit them, not just economically but ideologically. What distinguished Garveyites in this fashion was their belief that the fate of the organization was their own personal fate. The failure of the Black Star Line through mismanagement, inexperience and arguably downright sabotage did not diminish their enthusiasm. In retrospect the failure of the enterprise was not through non-viability, but some historians suggest that perhaps the expertise to fully run such a venture was simply not then available in the black community, "As it was, Garvey launched black business at the most ambitious end of the scale; and then found himself without a sound economic base or skilled workforce to prop up his project". Speculative and dubious as this assertion may be, what is clear is that its failure and subsequent claims of financial mismanagement and fraud, whether caused by hostile factions or not, certainly opened the opportunity for collusion between the 'coloured' Left and the U.S Government to destabilize and discredit the UNIA.
In order to fully understand the opposition to Garvey as a 'rabble-rouser' and 'non achiever' it is instrumental to understand the nature of the conflicting ideologies of the black liberation movement of the U.S – the coloured Left Wing intelligentsia of W.E.B du Bois fame and the New Negro faction of which Garvey was the most shining example. According to Theodore Vincent, "The New Negro phenomena represented the impatience of black youth with the apparent failure of established Black leadership with its 'abject crawling and pleading' to whites". While du Bois in the earlier period was seen as a champion of racial equality, the New Negroes ostracized him for his identification of the black future with the United States. Others, especially Garvey, accused him of being white oriented and part of light-skinned black elite that really wanted to maintain the status quo so they would remain in a favourable position with white rule. Unlike the NAACP, the UNIA did not allow whites to hold leadership position in its inner circle. He once proclaimed,
"Du Bois is of a group that hates the Negro blood in its veins, and has been working subtly to build up a caste aristocracy that would socially divide the race into two groups: One, the superior because of colour caste and the other the inferior, hence the pretentious work of the National Association for the Advancement of "Coloured" people. The programme of deception was well underway for success when Marcus Garvey arrived in America and he fired a 'bomb' into the camp by organizing the Universal Negro Improvement Association..."
Garvey's intimate knowledge of the ideology of colourism made him one of the few at that time to publicly expose the truth of it in the United States where the impression was often given that the situation did not apply the same way that it did in the West Indies. Artists like Claude Mc Kay agreed with du Bois that Garvey was bringing antiquated ideas into the struggle and that he was attempting to implant a West Indian reality on he U.S. It was the issue of colour, class and social mobility that brought to the fore the ideological schism in the movement and the reasons why both met the methods and ideas of Garvey with resistance from whites and some blacks. They were eager to discredit his moves and even more so to see them fail. One can assert that another of Garvey's achievements was to expose this hypocrisy and give voice to the colourism that ordinary blacks in U.S were quite aware was a reality.
By the time Garvey was imprisoned on trumped up charges of mail fraud and eventually deported from the United States, the accomplishments of the UNIA as far as their stated objectives were somewhat ambiguous; Africa still belonged to the Europeans, repatriation efforts were inconclusive and limited, there was still no fixed black state to speak of and blacks in the U.S were still second-class citizens. The Black Star Line, the UNIA's most ambitious venture had failed miserably, and Garvey seemed to have fallen victim to disgrace at the hands of the U.S Government, the NAACP and other hostile black groups. However it is virtually irrefutable that the achievements of Garvey and the UNIA lie in its far-reaching legacy and impact on a number of future black liberation ideologies and groups. Whether we accept Jacques Garvey implication that he was simply too revolutionary for his time, or we concede that the radicalism of his message simply offended the sensibilities of too many who had the power to destabilize his movement, what cannot be gainsaid is that the impact of Garveyism all over the African Diaspora continues to the present day.
The tremendous organizational capacity of the UNIA with membership that numbered in the millions all over the Diaspora, the internationalisation of its message and the influence of its propaganda machine, 'The Negro World' armed the global black community with an ideology only a few short years in the making but with a scope and a fire that made it accessible to those it most desired to reach. Most noteworthy in his time has been his impact on African nationalist movements. The Mau Mau struggles and the rise of Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya have been attributed to Garvey's ideologies. Dr. Kuanda and Col. Mobutu of Zambia and Zaire respectively also made specific reference to the influence of Garveyism on their own independence movements. Across the African continent the wave of Garvey's liberation ideologies were being felt and having an impact on the organization and the race first ideologies that were to infiltrate and impact on the reformist movements in the former European colonies. In the U.S, the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Movement and the Black Power insurgence of the 1960's all exhibited elements of the militarism and organization of the Garveyites. Malcolm X, raised in a Garveyite family is reported to have said that whenever another African country seizes its independence, we know that Garvey is alive. All were focussed on race first ideologies and exhibited the same self-love and black pride that Garvey so unfailingly espoused. Even the non-violent movement of Martin Luther King, an offshoot of the NAACP, acknowledged the debt owed to Garvey in giving the black world a sense of personhood, a sense of 'somebodiness'. Ironically there was a similar ideological conflict between he pacifist methods of M.L.K and the more militant Black Panthers.
Possibly one of Garvey's most enduring and direct legacies has been in the Rastafarian movement, seated in the West Indies, inspired by Ethiopian legacy and now carried the world over. Two significant events charted the course of the populist version of Rasta ideology, the coronation of Ras Tafari as Emperor of Ethiopia, and Garvey's writings in the significance of this coronation to African peoples everywhere. Garvey saw the coronation of this modern emperor as a buffer to European colonization as well as a beacon of hope for Africans in the Diaspora. He also drew from the biblical prophesy of Kings emerging from Egypt, and 'Ethiopia' stretching forth her hands to god to solidify his perspective. Other than the belief in the divinity of Haile Selassie, Ras Tafari Emperor of Ethiopia, Garveyism and Rastafarianism share an almost identical political and social philosophy and agenda. Both see 'Ethiopia' and the rightful home of African people, both suggest a separatist ideology with Rasta shunning the western world as Babylon, similar to the way Garvey saw America as a place where Africans could not know justice and peace. For Rastafarians Garvey, Selassie and for some the Christian figure of Jesus Christ form a triumvirate of divinity and inspiration and Garvey emerges as a messianic figure rather than simply a political leader.
The impact, achievement and success of Garvey's ideology and its accompanying political and economic arm, the UNIA, cannot be measured simply by the success that the organization attained in his lifetime. It cannot even be adequately measured by its ability to meet all of its stated objectives. The legacy of the movement, the ability of Garvey to capture the imagination and properly articulate the anger and discontent of the grassroots black population and suggest concrete solutions for the alleviation of the problems faced, placed him miles ahead of his contemporaries. He closed the gap between ideology and action, between theory and practice and between abstract leadership in name only and continued and unfailing sacrifice. While the seeds had already been planted and the social and political atmosphere was ripe for an explosion of new political ideologies, it was Garvey who tended and directed the growth of black liberation, economic self-determination and political separatism and allowed this new growth to flourish and infiltrate black organizations and movements throughout the Diaspora.
His perceived failures must be seen as a result of mismanagement, inexperience and destabilization by conflicting interest groups, but his ideology – the most enduring legacy - continues to live on in the hearts of black liberation thinkers and activists. Certainly Garvey was a 'rabble-rouser'; it was this 'rabble', their efforts, their conviction and their organization that needed to be roused and that the integrationists seemed to have forgotten about when they proclaimed black love and black freedom. Garvey once indicated that "No one knows when the hour of Africa's redemption cometh. It is in the wind. It is coming. One day, like a storm, it will be here" Indeed Garvey's revolution was like a storm, unexpected yet long awaited, and it is his legacy, long after his passing over that signals the hope for true African liberation and places him firmly in the upper echelons of the most influential figures of the twentieth century.
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