Wed | Jul 8, 2020

Saluting Jamaica’s first National Hero

Published:Sunday | August 18, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Jamaicans who are from St Ann should be quite proud of the sons of their parish who have made an indelible mark in the world – the parish is home to larger-than-life personalities Robert Nesta Marley and the Right Excellent Marcus Garvey.

Garvey was born on August 17, 1887, at 32 Market Street, St Ann’s Bay, to working-class parents, Malchus Garvey and Sarah Richards. He was the youngest of 11 children.

Though coming from humble beginnings, Garvey was determined to realise his dreams. His background did not stop him from working hard to become a charismatic leader, political activist, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator.

Garvey had his fair share of daunting challenges. A lack of resources and funds resulted in an early end to formal schooling.

However, this did not deter him and his deep desire to learn. Garvey became a champion for the upliftment of black people not only in Jamaica but worldwide.

Through his efforts to uplift the black race, Garvey founded and was the first president-general of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL, commonly known as UNIA), through which he declared himself provisional president of Africa.

Multiple entities

Through the UNIA, Garvey established several businesses both locally and internationally, which included the Negro Factories Corporation and the Negro World newspaper. In 1919, he became president of the Black Star Line shipping and passenger company, designed to forge a link between North America and Africa and facilitate African-American migration to Liberia. He also opened a chain of dry cleaners, a doll-making company, milliners, Black Cross nurses, and many other business entities. Through these business ventures, Garvey hoped to show black people that there were many ways that they could become financially secure and less dependent on colonial authorities and affirm economic self-reliance.

Garvey also tried to uplift people of colour through the humanities in the areas of the visual, performing and written arts. He believed deeply in the use of aesthetics and pageants as a means of encouraging black people to see themselves in a different, more positive and powerful light. This idea was manifested in the many costumes that Garvey would use for various functions including UNIA street parades. Photographic records show Garvey in military and scholarly attire.

Garvey once said: “God and nature first made us what we are, and then out of our own created genius, we make ourselves what we want to be. Follow always that great law. Let the sky and God be our limit and eternity our measurement.”

He also mandated and encouraged the many members of the UNIA to dress with dignity and/or wear uniforms according to the divisions (within the UNIA) that they were assigned to. Many of Garvey’s followers have been recorded expressing how important their UNIA uniforms were to them and how very proud they felt to wear their uniforms as it was a departure from their normal everyday attire, which many times would be subpar. This change lifted their self-esteem. Garvey also introduced the uniforms as a means of visually creating a sense of unity as unity was one of the core tenets of the pan-Africanist movement.

Garvey was also a lover of the visual arts – paintings, sculptures, ornaments, ceramic pieces and antiques. He also believed that the arts should be used by persons of colour to change the negative narratives and stereotypes that were portrayed in the media about black and African people.

These artists could paint pictures and creatures drawings of black people as they are, human and dignified. Therefore, Garvey supported many Jamaican and American painters and sculptors who were heavily influenced by pan-Africanist ideologies.

While many Jamaican artists, such as Robert Cookhorne, also known as ‘African’, and David Boxer, used Garvey’s ideas in their work, others, like Alvin Marriot, used Garvey as a muse and recreated his likeness in numerous sculptures.

The bust of Garvey featured in this article was created by the then general artist of the Institute of Jamaica and sculptor in 1977, Curtis Johnson. Johnson was a student of Kingston Technical High School and the Jamaica School of Art now the School of Art, at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. This bust measures a little over 15 inches tall and features Garvey in his customary suit and tie with a serious expression on his face.

The teachings of Garvey inspire and motivate many across the world – we salute Jamaica’s first national hero.

Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica, Institute of Jamaica. Email: