Garvey’s Vision

On Sunday 10 June I gave the 3rd Marcus Garvey Annual Memorial Lecture. Convened by the Marcus Garvey Organizing Committee of the Pan Afrikan Society Community Forum, the lecture was held at Birkbeck College, University London. The venue is significant, being the college that Garvey studied at in 1912 during his first sojourn in London. The date was also significant, being the date of his passing in 1940. My talk detailed the influence of Garveyism, Black Power and Rastafari in the South Pacific, especially with regards to the indigenous peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand, the Māori. I approached the inter-connected struggles of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific and the African Diaspora (or Afrikan Outernational) through an optic provided by the hon. Marcus Mosiah Garvey. It is that optic which I want to draw out a little more now. If people have heard of Garvey at all, it might be that they only know the words of the quote “Africa for the Africans at home and abroad”. But what does that mean? What is the vision behind it?

It is the first part of the 20th century. Garvey walks the walk and talks the talk. He agitates for the co-ordinated self-determination of peoples of Afrikan heritage worldwide as a strategy for overcoming the oppression of racism and colonial rule: “One God! One aim! One destiny!” To pursue this aim Garvey and his soon to be wife, Amy Ashwood Garvey, set up the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities (Imperial League) (UNIA-ACL) in 1914 in Jamaica. Five years later, and having relocated its centre of operations to the United States, the UNIA runs paramilitary and auxiliary units, and even a civil service that administers its own exams. The UNIA also issues its own passports to workers migrating into the bigger US cities and operates a parallel court system for its members. The UNIA flies its own flag – the red, black and green; and members sing their own national anthem – Ethiopia, thou Land of our Fathers (being the foundation for the Rastafari anthem) The UNIA has a shipping company, the Black Star Line, and a cooperative, the Negro Factories Corporation, all owned by, staffed by, and servicing its members.

Let’s just think for a moment about the global impact of the UNIA. I use the word “global” deliberately. The UNIA is not simply a North American affair, as many people suppose, even if it is in the USA that its  power develops most prominently.  During Garvey’s lifetime the UNIA has offices in forty countries on four continents – from the Aborigine association in Sydney, Australia to the seaport of Cardiff, Wales to the ports of Honolulu in occupied Hawai’i. The UNIA serves approximately one million members with up to three times as many active participants, and communicates to these peoples through a newspaper, the Negro World, which is sometimes printed in three language editions – English, French and Spanish.  The newspaper is very popular amongst the Afrikan peoples in the settler colonies of South and South West Africa, and through it Garveyism influences the ANC. Here is one member in the early 1930s, proclaiming:

The Red, the Black and the Green are the colors talked about by the young men and women of Africa. It shall bury many and redeem millions. Today in Africa, the only hope of our race is gospel of UNIA – is sung and said as during the period of the French Revolution.

Let us remind ourselves that all this is happening in the age of high imperialism, where the spoils of German and Ottoman empires are being carved up by European powers and where the United States of America is consolidating its imperial and colonial foothold in the Pacific, South America and the Caribbean basin, including Haiti. Yet here is an Afrikan-run organization daring to subvert this global rule, in both practice and in vision!  So let me attend to such a grand vision, and proffer one interpretation; bearing in mind, of course, that there are many interpretations to be had.

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The prime vision: “Africa for the Africans, at home and abroad”.

 The political re-adjustment of the world means this – that every race must find a home; hence the great cry of Palestine for the Jews – Ireland for the Irish – India for the Indians and simultaneously Negroes are raising the cry of “AFRICA FOR THE AFRICANS”, those at home and those abroad.

Whilst our God has no colour, yet it is human to see everything through one’s own spectacles, and since the white people have seen their God through white spectacles, we have only now started out (late though it be) to see our God through our own spectacles … we shall worship Him through the spectacles of Ethiopia.

There are three remarkable interventions that Garvey makes through these famous quotes. In the first quote Garvey situates peoples of Afrikan heritage precisely as a peoples and not as a scattered set of objects, separated by political borders not of their own making, there to be pushed about by other governing forces. Garvey brings into focus what Erna Brodber calls the “continent of Black consciousness”. He situates the peoples of Afrikan heritage within the global struggles against colonial rule. And he defines these peoples as a project to be realised not a passive fact to be received. I.e. Garvey situates the Afrikan peoples within the self-rule/self-determination projects of the Irish, Indians and other colonized peoples. (But in light of the intervening history, we cannot rally round the call of Palestine for the Jews.)

2) While Garvey’s organization speaks of a universal negro association, his vision is that of Afrika and Afrikans as a contemporary global constituency. It is astounding – both in his day and in our day – that such a massively influential organization should self-define not simply as “Negro” but also as Afrikan and intentionally relate – and re-tie – the historical and diverse Diaspora back to the historical and diverse Continent. To me, this means that Garvey’s Pan-Africanism is fundamentally a project of REPARATION for the ills and injustices of Afrikan slavery and its colonial effects on at least three continents. For there can be no real reparation if the breach of enslavement is not repaired – economically, politically, socially, culturally and spiritually. To me, the power of Garvey’s vision is that it brings the past into the present, it brings into focus the fundamental necessity of reparation.

3)      The second quote details how Garvey sanctifies Afrika and Afrikans. Afrika was, in Garvey’s day – as it is today – chided as the Dark Continent, full of violence, suffering and evil. Those who profess the sign of Afrika on their body and skin have so long borne responsibility for that evil, either as a suspicion of “one drop” or a damnation for possessing “all the drops”. Garvey makes use of Ethiopianism, that precious tradition that reaches back to early slavery days, to say that we are all formed in the image of high spiritual agency, and that, therefore, brown and black is as beautiful as white or pink. Garvey’s is a politically aesthetic vision: it is not just how we think but how we feel about our-selves. Garvey makes a bold intervention into journalism: his newspaper refuses to run adverts for bleachers and hair straighteners. His aesthetic vision is as radical now as it has ever been.

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Garvey’s vision is humanist, not reverse-racist or fascist

Sometimes Garvey’s words are stinging. Everyone has a mother and father, and so everyone has diverse heritage. If your heritages are not all Afrikan, then some of Garvey’s words about “miscegenation” might hurt or anger. On the other hand, if all your heritages are Afrikan, you might be bemused that Garvey would want to meet with the Klu Klux Klan. Garvey and Garveyites have always strategically worked in and across a number of extremely dangerous situations, and against political forces out to destroy them. Sometimes Garvey himself cannot traverse these situations successfully, and this is part of the legacy and the learning too. Many of Garvey’s words bear the imprint of these attempts at negotiating different places and different political enemies. It is up to us, as students, to interpret these words and make up our own minds for our own contexts. Nevertheless, one thing is sure: Garvey is not a racist or a fascist. He has been charged as such over and over again but never by people who have studied Garvey in real depth – whatever their colour. Garvey is fundamentally a humanist and sees the redemption of Afrika and Afrikan heritages as a necessary – and crucial – requisite for the redemption of humanity from war, suffering and poverty. Here are two quotes that indicate this; remember his own context of world war and liberation struggles against colonial and racist rule:

I pray God that we shall never use our physical prowess to oppress the human race, but we will use our strength, physically, morally and otherwise to preserve humanity and civilization.

We represent peace, harmony, love, human sympathy, human rights and human justice … Wheresoever human rights are denied to any group, wheresover justice is denied to any group, there the U.N.I.A. finds a cause.

No wonder Garveyism has resonated with diverse peoples who struggle against coloniality and racism. 

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Garvey’s vision is redemptive

 For over three hundred years the white man has been our oppressor, and he naturally is not going to liberate us to the higher freedom – the truer liberty – the truer Democracy. We have to liberate ourselves.

My bulwark of strength in the conflict for freedom in Africa will be the three hundred years of persecution and hardship left behind in this Western Hemisphere. The more I remember the suffering of my fore-fathers [and mothers], the more I remember the lynchings and burnings in the Southern States of America, the more I will fight on even though the battle seems doubtful.

Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa! Let us work towards the one glorious end of a free, redeemed and mighty nation. Let Africa be a bright star among the constellation of nations.

These quotes indicate that Garvey’s vision of Afrikan liberation is redemptive. This means that the pursuit of liberation has two purposes, both at once:

1)      Redemption FROM the ills of slavery, colonialism and racism.

2)      Redemption OF the ancestors who suffered these ills, necessitating a creative retrieval OF the practices that they used to creatively survive brutality.

Garvey certainly is a modernizer. He believes that downpressors do not let go of power themselves, and that it is the downpressed who invariably have to struggle to democratize power sharing. This is no surprise considering the time he is living through: the raging of world war and the stubborn persistence of colonialism and racism. And this is why he is concerned that Afrikan peoples would have to match European and North American countries in their economic, political, perhaps even military capabilities. But Garvey is not just proffering a vision of mimicry, of simply copying the downpressors model. For him, there is ALSO something to positively retrieve from the Afrikan heritage so that the rise of the Black Star might also inaugurate the retrieval of another way to honour humanity and exercise power democratically.  Albert Einstein said that no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. And yet, redemption is perhaps one of the least developed aspects of Garvey’s vision. The creative retrieval of Afrikan practices in a “modern” setting is certainly one of the most often debated issues amongst Afrikan intellectuals, artists and politicians throughout the 20th century. It is also the question that the Rastafari faith has, in honour of Marcus Garvey, made some of the most stunning steps towards fleshing out – for example, Yasus Afari’s meditation on the i-ncient future.

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Finally, Garvey’s vision of confident forward-movement

 If you have no confidence in self you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence you have won even before you have started.

What this means above all is that we must have the confidence to ensure that we approach Garveyism as a “living archaeology”, to use a phrase from the Rastafari band, Midnite. By this I mean that Garvey has to be consistently retrieved and creatively interpreted philosophically and politically for the current contexts. We cannot afford a simple programmatic following. Even in Garvey’s day he was being interpreted. There was, after all, Marcus, then the two “other” Garvey’s – Amy Jacques and Amy Ashwood, then there were Garveyites (a dazzling and diverse array of peoples) and then there was Garveyism, itself a multi-faceted political ideology that everywhere it was planted grew its own special fruits. Yes, Garvey left a legacy of programmes of action that must be seriously investigated. But above all other things, and most usefully, Garvey laid down a living vision of a positive reality.

I imagine the Garveys standing at Kingston harbour envisioning seven miles of Black Star Liners stretching out to the horizon under a sunrise of red, gold and green. Let us imagine the confidence to re-envisage our Atlantic circuit (and then beyond) exorcised of the ills of slavery. Let us imagine a constant positive, sanctified, humanistic Afrikan circulation of peoples, goods, services, ideas and spirits, and one that draws closer together all the continents that bear the imprint of Afrikan heritage (and then beyond). We can, with Mama Afrika as our compass, dare to imagine that time and space can’t displace the heritage that we must redeem for humanity’s sake. We must dispense with the racist colonial practice of dissecting living persons into blood quantums as well as set straight the delusions of colonially induced state-lines.  Then we can imagine instead that we are fully and positively everything that we are and more. And we can then imagine that our redemption of what we are is for the incient future of a sanctified humanity. But above all, we must make the honourable Marcus relevant and living to the embattled Afrikan-and-British youth who are presently surrounded by vampire visions and polytrikians.

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