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Religion & Culture | How Garvey’s childhood shaped his greatness

Published:Wednesday | October 24, 2018 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
A bust of Marcus Garvey.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Culture Minister Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange at the unveiling of a sign marking the renaming of a road in the Namibian capital Windhoek in honour of Jamaica’s National Hero Marcus Garvey, on July 23.

Much has been written about the unsurpassed accomplishments of Marcus Garvey.

Historians, sociologists and cultural critics have all explored how one man was able to successfully navigate choppy waters and emerge bruised but triumphant. Little, though, has been written on the mind of Garvey.

Concede, we must, that such Herculean feats can only be accomplished by a strong-willed, imaginative and creative personality, but we can glean much more if we explore Garvey through psychoanalytic lens.

Admittedly, though, Garvey was an inimitable, complex figure deserving of much greater study than a single analysis can offer.

According to psychoanalysis, the formative years of a child determine its personality and explain the unconscious energies that determine its mental construct. Object relations theory, the crux of psychoanalysis, state that the child-parent dynamic is critical to personality formation.

Why do we do what we do? How do we handle impediments? How are our ambitions formed? Why are some of us fully integrated and whole while others are split and dysfunctional? All the answers are said to be rooted in our childhood.

Psychoanalysis comes with its own jargon. Words such as 'ego formation', 'id', 'superego', 'transference', 'object relations', 'defence mechanisms', 'narcissism' and sublimation' come to mind.

For the purpose of this article, only a few of these terms are used to provide us with a clearer picture of Garvey.




The relationship of the baby to the primary caregiver, in this case Garvey's mother and father, is vital to understanding the building blocks of Garvey's personality.

According to Rupert Lewis' Marcus Garvey, Garvey's mother was forgiving, caring and passive, and seemingly submissive to her imperious, authoritative, pedantic and strikingly present husband. It is from these influential figures that Garvey's ego was formed.

One can argue that the images of a strong-willed father and demure mother formed young Garvey's mirror stage, a concept that states that children turn themselves into the object that they see or identify with. In Garvey's case this image was his father, the figure that most impressed him. To young Garvey, his father was (as per Lacan), the Symbol, the Real.

Of Malchus Mosiah Garvey, his father, he wrote, "[He was] a man of brilliant intellect and dashing courage. He was unafraid of consequences. He took chances in the course of his life, as most bold men do, and he failed at the end of his career. He once had a fortune; he died poor."




That Garvey's career exemplified intrepidity, risks and daring is hardly arguable. Clearly, Garvey introjected his father's robust attributes.

Conversely, his mother "was always willing to return a smile for a blow, and ever ready to bestow charity upon her enemy".

Garvey's assertiveness and empathy reflected his parents' dissimilar traits. His drive, or libido, he learnt from his father, and his concern for those less fortunate, we could attribute to his mother's sensitivities. Garvey said it best when he spoke of his parents' personalities: "Of this strange combination I was born."

It is from this intriguing union that Garvey held particular expectations. His wife, Jacques, most notably, like his mother, was the tireless, forbearing soul. Without an executive position in the United Negro Advancement Association she still held sway and selflessly kept Garvey's vision alive.

After compiling and editing her husband's Philosophy and Opinions, she conceded, "I weighed 98 pounds, had low pressure and one eye was badly strained."

She later wrote, "The value of a wife to him, was like a gold coin - expendable, to get what he wanted, and hard enough to withstand rough usage in the process."

Garvey's anger with his wife after she returned to Jamaica against his wishes reflected his feeling of abandonment, not unlike the feeling of a child towards his primary caregiver, his mother.




Garvey's impervious ego is well demonstrated in an anecdote he told:

"At 14, my little white playmate and I parted. Her parents thought the time had come to separate us and draw the colour line. They sent her and another sister to Edinburgh, Scotland, and told her that she was never to write or try to get in touch with me, for I was a nigger.

"... I didn't care about the separation because I never thought all during our childhood association that the girl and the rest of the children of her race were better than I was, they used to look up at me. So I simply had no regrets."

It is Garvey's steely, integrated ego that spurred him to unapologetically address political, economic and social concerns. He was able to rally people around a concrete plan for empowerment.

Amid disaffection he brought palpable hope. In psychoanalytic terms, Garvey successfully sublimated the onerous circumstances surrounding him. Through sublimation he turned lead into gold, asking others to do the same. For example, he ingeniously reconfigured how the Bible, used to justify slavery, could be used as a liberating instrument.

In this classic case of defence mechanism, Garvey was protecting the ego of his people from being breached by systemic racism.

According to Lewis, the Bible had to be reinterpreted to ably serve the black race.

Lewis writes that Garvey reoriented orthodoxy by establishing the African Orthodoxy Church.

"He (Garvey) proclaimed a bold concept of visualising the Creator-God as black (in our own image and likeness), the Mother of the Redeemer as a saintly black woman like Madonna of Guadeloupe, and Simon the Cyrenian - the Bearer of the Cross - as a black man.

"Psychologically, this heightened the religious fervour of the supporters, giving them new courage to strive for creative perfection as children of a dusky deity."

Many noted political figures, including Garvey, have been dismissed as narcissistic. Narcissism, a personality disorder, manifests in different ways and levels of severity. The narcissist is said to be self-centred, disaffected and stricken with delusions of grandeur.

However, narcissism, in itself, is not necessarily a destructive trait. According to Dr Honor Ford-Smith, "(Garvey) 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."

She added, "People tended to characterise Garvey as somewhat of a buffoon, for his theatricalisation of power 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?" (The 2018 Grounation series of lectures, conversations, and performances organised by the Institute of Jamaica's Music Museum).

It was Heinz Kohut who introduced the concepts of normal or healthy narcissism, and normal narcissistic entitlement, i.e., a "mature form of positive self-esteem and self-confidence".

Clearly, Garvey's cathexis with his political cause remained noble to the very end; no doubt his stable upbringing laid the foundation for man that never demonstrated wild excess in philosophical views.

Psychoanalysis works towards the full realisation of the human potential or self-mastery. In Jungian terms, this is the development, maturity and integration of an individual's life experience.

That Marcus Garvey attained this elusive state of being is indisputable.

- Dr Ashby is a graduate of the International School of Applied Psychoanalysis and the author of the award-winning audio book 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity'. Email feedback to or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby.