For the Reckord | Garvey’s love of spectacle explained at Grounation 2018
Though National Hero Marcus Mosiah Garvey was continually derided for his love of spectacle-filled events, they flowed from a carefully considered strategy. That's what a large and enthusiastic audience heard at the final session in the 2018 Grounation series of lectures, conversations, and performances organised by the Institute of Jamaica's (IOJ) Music Museum.
Held in the IOJ auditorium on February 25, it featured two connoisseurs of Jamaican culture, Dr Honor Ford-Smith and Tanya Batson-Savage, in conversation, followed by an excerpt from Michael Holgate's production Garvey The Musical. Emcee Fae Ellington initially welcomed the audience and later fielded their questions and comments on the conversation.
Ford-Smith listed some of the many types of events that Garvey and his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) organised and staged elocution competitions, variety concerts, pageants, the crowning of queens, parades, ceremonial rites, a range of musical events (orchestral, jazz, choirs, rumba and tap), plays, dramas, acrobatics, public debates, and those involving spectacular clothing and dress. "It was an array all linked to opposing colonial racism," she said.
She continued, "Performance was one of the ways that colonised people were able to create knowledge outside of colonial culture. Denied access to institutions of learning, to literacy, folks passed on knowledge through their bodies, through public action." This included, but was not limited to, music and dance, she said, giving a most enlightening quote from Garvey.
"To organise Negroes, we have got to demonstrate. You cannot tell them anything. You've got to show them. And that is why we've got to spend seven years making noise. We had to beat the drum, we had to do all that we did, otherwise, there would've been no organisation."
Ford-Smith said that the Garvey movement couldn't be understood without paying attention to Garvey's brilliance as an organiser.
"He relied on performance as a teaching tool. It wasn't spectacle for the sake of spectacle. It was spectacle in order to teach; a form of embodied pedagogy."
Performance was also one of the ways used to "destabilise colonial knowledge," Ford-Smith said, quoting renowned Jamaican playwright-educator Dr Sylvia Wynter as stressing the importance of not only destabilising the literature and the heroes, but the very "principles that underlie colonial knowledge production."
Ford Smith said that black people, and "all people of colour," tend to be "profoundly misrepresented," and reminded the audience that some of Garvey's performers (Cupidon, Slim and Sam, Ranny Williams, and others) attacked that misrepresentation by "inhabiting them and overturning them." "In that way," she said, "you can then begin to create new ways of knowing."
Exponents of that strategy, people possessing what she called "the unruly virtues of the spectacular," included one of her favourite actors (by reputation), Cupidon, who often dressed in drag and did female impersonations. Another was Garvey himself, who added a plume to the pith helmet worn by some of the troops in World War 1 and by colonial governors of Jamaica until after independence.
"People tended to characterise Garvey as somewhat of a buffoon, for his theatricalisation of power," Ford-Smith said, "but his response was: 'As far as their [European] society is concerned, if you want to hear about titles, just cross the channel (the Atlantic). White people like titles so much that they pile up millions of dollars for a lifetime so that they can buy a title on the other side of the channel. Why, therefore, should some folks want to be spectacular and do not want the Negro to be spectacular?'"
Ford-Smith said that Garvey's parades prefigured the presence of a black leader, a black general. "The parades were always military in style," she said, listing several dates for the parades in Kingston - 1920, 1922, 1927 and "the really big one" in 1929.
Those parades, she said, were where the story of the nation was told."It was performed and taught to large numbers of people. The parade in Harlem in New York attracted about 50,000 people. We're talking about a lot of people. This was a place to enact a modernist idea of nation ... with a black militant figure, a modern one, ready to rule."
Addressing the importance of women in the Garvey movement, Ford-Smith mentioned the Black Cross nurses in the parades and the many leadership roles that women, including Garvey's wives, Amy Jacques and Amy Ashwood, held.
The energetic 40-minute excerpt from Garvey The Musical, which closed the afternoon session, comprised songs, dance, and a sprinkling of dialogue, and portrayed Garvey as a passionate visionary who taught that black people must unite to manifest their innate power.