A century ago, Marcus Garvey launched the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities (Imperial) League on Emancipation Day. Garvey was a man who understood the power of symbols. August 1 was the ideal day to make a grand statement advocating the unification of African people across the globe.
Garvey knew that emancipation was a long and difficult process. The road to full freedom was full of potholes. The journey would not be easy. And Garvey acknowledged the difference between physical and mental slavery. He encouraged us to take full responsibility for the process of liberation.
In a famous speech delivered in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1937, Garvey prophetically declared, “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind, because man is related to man under all circumstances for good or ill.”
Bob Marley amplified Garvey’s message in Redemption Song:
“Old pirates yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty
We forward in this generation triumphantly.”
Marcus Garvey’s UNIA-ACL was an unquestionable triumph. By the early 1930s, there were more than 1,000 divisions in 38 countries; for example, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Liberia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Panama, South Africa, Trinidad and Venezuela.
The rapid growth of the UNIA in the US is an eloquent testimony to the empowering appeal of Garvey’s redemptive vision for Black people. In 1917, Garvey established the New York Division of the UNIA with 13 members. From a single seed, the number of divisions within the US grew to 837 – without Internet or social media to spread the message!
Not surprisingly, the growth of the UNIA was much slower in Jamaica. The legacy of mental slavery made it difficult for many African-Jamaicans to identify with a black man preaching the gospel of self-reliance. The UNIA in Jamaica started with 17 members and did not exceed 100 by the time Garvey left for the US in 1916. But the tide did turn. Marcus Garvey’s restored Liberty Hall at 76 King Street has now become a major cultural centre, thanks to the visionary leadership of the curator/director, Dr Donna McFarlane.
On Emancipation Day, Garvey’s legacy was celebrated in fine style. First, there was an enlightening conversation with Queen Mother Mariamne Samad and Dr Simon Clarke who had been members of the Garvey Juveniles in the US and Panama, respectively. Mr Arnold Bertram, historian and former minister of government, moderated the discussion.
Queen Mother Samad, who married a Jamaican, Clarence Thomas, came to live here in 1965. She said it was the single most important decision of her life. Recalling her youth in Harlem, New York, with parents who were committed Garveyites, Sister Samad showed the attentive audience pictures of the black Jesus and angels that had a place of honour in her home. These she donated to the Liberty Hall collection.
Dr Simon Clarke, who was born in Panama, also spoke about the issue of race. There were silver people and gold people, so named after their race and the currency in which each group was paid. Black people were silver and whites were gold. Dr Clarke told a most entertaining story of newly arrived black Jamaicans who joined the gold line at the post office.
That line moved much more quickly than the silver; three gold were served to one silver. Obedient people in the silver line implored the Jamaicans to come over into the ‘right’ line. Dr Clarke still remembers the emphatic way in which they declined the invitation: “We naah move!” And the ‘naah’ was appropriately stretched out to fully express resistance to the status quo.
The second feature of the Emancipation Day celebrations at Liberty Hall was a series of short skits performed by the 47 participants in the summer programme in dance and drama. Four students from the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts were employed to teach: Andre Tucker, Rachel Allen, Ricardo McFarlane and Ellisa Douglas.
The participants were divided into four groups and were guided by the philosophy of adinkra symbols from Ghana. The ‘Sankofa’ symbol means, ‘Return and get it’ and features either a bird with its head turned backwards with an egg in its beak, or a heart. This image signifies the importance of learning from the past.
Two fish biting each other’s tail is the image for ‘Bi Nka Bi’. This literally means, ‘No one should bite another’ and warns against making contention. ‘Osram Ne Nsoromma’, an image of the moon and a star, symbolises love, faithfulness and harmony, especially between man and woman. The fourth symbol, ‘Sesa Wo Suban’, is a star inside a wheel. It represents a change of character. This was particularly appropriate for the skit that featured skin bleachers who were in total denial about their identity.
Marcus Garvey’s inspiring message about learning from the past and looking to Africa in the present to reclaim our collective identity was brilliantly illustrated. The Sankofa bird was in full flight.