There’s a provocative answer to that question in Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, Or, Africa for the Africans,” which was labouriously compiled by Amy Jacques Garvey:
“I really never knew there was so much color prejudice in Jamaica, my own native home, until I started the work of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. . . . The daily papers wrote me up with big headlines and told of my movement. But nobody wanted to be a Negro. ‘Garvey is crazy; he has lost his head.’ ‘Is that the use he is going to make of his experience and intelligence?’ – such were the criticisms passed upon me. Men and women as black as I, and even more so, had believed themselves white under the West Indian order of society. I was simply an impossible man to use openly the term ‘Negro’; yet every one beneath his breath was calling the black man a nigger.”
Professor Rupert Lewis has written a brilliant biography of Marcus Garvey in which he comments on that statement: “Self-denial, denigration, defining one’s identity according to colonial Britishness – these were the hallmarks of brown and black West Indians’ ambition to escape blackness and what they perceived as Africa’s lack of civilization and its savagery.”
Garvey launched the UNIA in Jamaica in 1914. What has changed more than a century later? The term ‘Negro’ is certainly outdated. But if we substitute ‘African’ for ‘Negro,’ would Garvey’s opinion of the majority of black Jamaicans be significantly different?
RIGHT TO SELF-GOVERNMENT
One of Garvey’s primary missions is summed up in the subtitle of Philosophy and Opinions: Or, Africa for the Africans. Garvey conceived the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League as a global movement that would challenge the European conquest of Africa and assert the right to self-government of black people both on the continent and in the diaspora. ‘Non-Negro’ Jamaicans may have rejected the UNIA. But Garvey found a receptive audience for his unifying message of black power across the globe. Professor Lewis reports that, “Estimates for membership in, and sympathizers of, the Garvey movement range from five to eleven million people.” A century ago, without social media!
Before the UNIA, there was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was founded in 1909 in response to a race riot the year before in Springfield, Illinois. Two black men were arrested as suspects in a rape, attempted rape and murder. Unwilling to wait for trial, enraged whites descended on the jail. When they discovered that the sheriff had transferred the suspects, they went on a rampage. Approximately 5,000 strong, the mob attacked innocent black people in the streets. Nine blacks and seven whites were killed. The estimated property damage was $150,000.00, approximately $4 million today.
Unlike the UNIA, the NAACP was conceived as an essentially interracial movement. Most of its executive officers were white. One of its founders was mixed-race W. E. B. Du Bois, author of the classic The Souls of Black Folk. There, DuBois famously declared, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” Du Bois and Garvey agreed on the problem, but not the solution. Du Bois argued, “Henceforth, the destiny of the race could be conceived as leading neither to assimilation nor separatism but to proud, enduring hyphenation.”
UGLIEST NEGROES IN AMERICA
Garvey was not prepared to live on the hyphen. He advocated separatism. Du Bois called Garvey the “most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and the world.” The conflict between the men was not only ideological. It was also colour-coded. Du Bois described Garvey as “a little, fat black man; ugly, but with intelligent eyes and a big head.” Not to be outdone, Garvey styled Du Bois as “a little Dutch, a little French, a little Negro . . . a mulatto . . . a monstrosity.”
In 1914, the NAACP had 6000 members and 50 branches. Launched that year, the UNIA would soon surpass the membership of the NAACP, which was decidedly elitist. The UNIA was mockingly called the Ugliest Negroes in America. Those ugly negroes knew how to mobilise African-Americans to fight for civil rights. Of the one thousand branches of the UNIA, 836 were in the U.S. Garvey appealed to working-class African-Americans who found hope in his vision of solidarity for racial uplift.
The conflict between DuBois and Garvey anticipated current debates between African-Americans and black immigrants about who is entitled to claim America, which is not just the U.S. Blacks in the Americas all came off the same boat. Tomorrow at 10:00 a.m., William Boone, Professor of Political Science at Clark Atlanta University, will deliver the eleventh annual Marcus Mosiah Garvey Lecture. The title, “Race First and Black Lives Matter,” is a reminder of our collective struggle against racism. Hosted by Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey, the lecture will be streamed live on the museum’s Facebook page, @Garveylh; and on the Institute of Jamaica’s Youtube channel.
Marcus Garvey’s philosophy and its application are certainly relevant in Jamaica today. But who is listening? All secondary and tertiary students should read Professor Rupert Lewis’ definitive biography of Garvey. A national hero whose words are neither heard nor heeded cannot inspire a society that is still struggling to define its identity.