Wed | Jun 3, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Garvey bust dressed for burial?

Published:Friday | October 27, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Painted and feathered, the defaced bust of Marcus Garvey at the University of the West Indies.

It seems as if the Garvey bust installed on the campus of the University of the West Indies, Mona, has died an unnatural death. It is now wrapped in a shroud made from garbage bags. Like so many victims of violence in Jamaica, the bust has been fatally attacked. Well, perhaps, not fatally. Since it is not made of flesh and blood, the bust may very well survive the assault of vandals.

The paint that was poured over the work of artifice and the feathers that were attached may, in fact, be completely removable. We may soon see a duly scrubbed monument restored to its former 'glory'. But should it be resurrected? Soon after the bust was vandalised, I got a provocative email from one of my wicked friends: "Watson did dun vandalise Garvey's image already, suh ... ."

It's an intriguing proposition. The artist's (mis)representation of Garvey is the original act of vandalism. The defacing of the bust can be seen as a corrective measure, drawing graphic attention to what is essentially a political issue. Who has the power to decide how our heroes should be depicted? The artist? The authorities who commission the work of art? The citizens who claim the right to determine what is acceptable and what is not?

Of course, these questions are not the 'proper' response to vandalism. Nice and decent citizens are supposed to be absolutely outraged that public property, funded by taxpayers through a government institution, could be so maliciously assaulted. It's a cut and dried issue. Or, in this instance, a painted and feathered matter! But is it?




Earlier this month, Dr Julius Garvey came to Jamaica to speak at the symposium hosted by the Centre for Reparation Research and to give a public lecture on the legacy of his father. I made sure to take him to see the bust, which had not yet been defaced. His response was, "This is the face of defeat."

Dr Garvey also observed that the look of despair was such a contrast to his father's powerful words inscribed below the image: "What I write today may live with me, but when I die, my writing lives on; therefore, what you do or write must be so clear as to live on when you are gone, that others who may read it might get a clear conception of what you mean."

Both the original bust and the 'improved' replacement fail to give a clear conception of the meaning of Marcus Garvey. Not just his words, but his entire body of work! Neither image conveys any sense of the grandeur of Garvey's revolutionary pan-African vision: "Up, up, you mighty race! You can accomplish what you will."

When I saw Raymond Watson's second attempt at the Garvey bust, I wondered if the powers that be at the University of the West Indies had bothered to listen to the vocal criticism of the original image that came from all quarters, high and low. The issue wasn't simply that the bust didn't look like Garvey. Though that did matter!

A primary concern was the 'pop-down' picture of Garvey. There was no passion or power in Watson's portrayal of our first national hero. Why would the university administration now approve a similar image that could quite accurately be described as "the face of defeat"? Is this how Garvey is to be remembered forever?




Marcus Garvey had the grave misfortune to read what was supposed to be his own death notice. On May 18, 1940, he saw this obituary in the Chicago Defender. "Alone, deserted by his followers, broke and unpopular, Marcus Garvey, once leader of the greatest mass organisation ever assembled by a member of the race, died here during the last week in April."

Marcus Garvey wasn't even living in the US then. Since 1935, he had resided in London. Garvey was recovering from a stroke when the premature obituary was published. The shock of it seems to have pushed him over the edge. He actually died on June 10. Garvey's death was as extraordinary as his life.

The bona fide obituaries were just as malicious as that bogus one. This is how The New York Times launched its mocking report: "LONDON, June 11 (UP) Marcus Garvey, West Indian Negro, who once set himself up as 'Emperor of the Kingdom of Africa' in New York's Harlem and later appeared before the League of Nations as representative of 'the black peoples of the world,' died here yesterday."

Garvey is dismissed as a con artist and the Universal Negro Improvement Association is seen as nothing but a moneymaking scheme. This is how the Times put it: "The trickle of dues into his 'parent body,' as he began to call the UNIA, swelled into a stream, and Garvey began to dream other dreams than race fighting. He had learned that small sums contributed by many persons may reach an impressive total."

The character assassination executed by The New York Times reflects the racism of white America. A visionary black man must be a crook. Despite his spectacular accomplishments to uplift his race, there was no praise for Garvey. Only the claim of defeat! The University of the West Indies simply cannot afford to be complicit in the devaluation of Marcus Garvey's legacy. It must bury the bust.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to and