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Why is Marcus Garvey a national hero?

Published:Sunday | August 19, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By Carolyn Cooper

I suppose it would look bad. The leader of the largest organised mass movement of African people in the 20th century disregarded in his country of birth! All the same, given the anxiety in some quarters about the African heritage in Jamaica, it is truly remarkable that the political elite had the good sense to recognise Garvey's heroic stature and honour him accordingly.

Born in 1887, only 22 years after the Morant Bay Rebellion, and 53 years after Emancipation, Garvey grew up in a Jamaica that was still trapped in psychological bondage. As a child, he would probably have heard the denigrating mantra, 'Nutten black no good.' He might even have been asked, 'How yu so black an ugly?' As if he had anything to do with it.

Garvey grandly rose above the hateful definitions of blackness in Jamaican society and prophetically affirmed, "We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind." Many of us sing along with Bob Marley, who popularised Garvey's words in his Redemption Song. But do we fully comprehend the profundity of the exhortation to free the mind?

Garvey made that liberating statement in 1937 at a meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia. By then, he was almost at the end of his tumultuous life. He died less than three years later in London. Like many Caribbean migrants of his day, Garvey caught the spirit of exploration. He went to Central America when he was 23, then to the United Kingdom, returning home in 1914.

In August that year, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica. He went to the United States in 1916, and by 1917 had launched the New York Division of the UNIA with all of 13 members. After three months, there were 3,500 dues-paying members!


Without access to Facebook and Twitter, the UNIA grew exponentially. Almost 1,000 UNIA divisions were established within seven years. Garvey was soon described in messianic terms. The headline of a 1920 article published in the New York World loudly and, perhaps sceptically, proclaimed: "The Moses of the Negro Race Has Come to New York and Heads a Universal Organization Already Numbering 2,000,000 Which is About to Elect a High Potentate and Dreams of Reviving the Glories of Ancient Ethiopia."

At the heart of Garvey's vision of a universal movement of black people committed to self-improvement was the expectation that the colonised African continent would be liberated. Garvey asked himself some unsettling questions: "Where is the black man's government? Where is his king and his kingdom? Where is his president, his ambassador, his country, his men of big affairs?" His answer: "I could not find them, and then I declared, 'I will help to make them.'"

You have to admire Garvey's nerve. A lesser man might have quailed at the prospect of taking on such a superhuman mission. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were only two independent African countries: Ethiopia and Liberia. The rest of the continent had been captured by European squatters. Lion-hearted Garvey, girded with his philosophy of African fundamentalism, militantly declared, "Africa for Africans, at home and abroad."

Garvey saw parallels with the struggles of other oppressed groups who were demanding the right to self-government. In a speech delivered at Liberty Hall in New York in 1920, Garvey related why he'd started his career as a street preacher, spreading the good news of African redemption: "Just at that time, other races were engaged in seeing their cause through - the Jews through their Zionist movement and the Irish through their Irish movement - and I decided that, cost what it might, I would make this a favourable time to see the Negro's interest through."


Despite the global reach of Garvey's UNIA, and his overarching vision of economic enterprise, his wings were clipped when he was arrested on bogus charges of using the mail to defraud. Imprisoned, he took flight, writing The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, with the sustained editorial oversight of his second wife, Amy Jacques.

Deported in 1927, the indomitable Garvey launched a newspaper, The Blackman (1929-1931), then The New Jamaican (1932-1933). Perhaps Jamaica wasn't ready for the black man. In his first editorial, for The New Jamaican, Garvey spoke the plain truth: "Jamaica is a fine country from a natural viewpoint - it is a terrible country from economic observations. To consider how the people of Jamaica live, that is, the bulk of the population, is to wonder if we, at all, have any system of economics. We shall endeavour to enlighten the country on the possibility of creating a better order of things for everybody through a system of education in economics -a thing not generally known nor taught in Jamaica."

Eighty years later, things have not changed 'to dat', despite political Independence. We still haven't got the economics right. In frustration with Jamaican politics, Garvey once described the island in an issue of The New Jamaican as "the place next to hell". Despite the almost hellish circumstances in which he sometimes found himself, Garvey was always self-assured. An article published in The Daily Gleaner on January 19, 1935, quotes Garvey: "My garb is Scotch, my name is Irish, my blood is African, and my training is half-American and half-English, and I think that with that tradition I can take care of myself."

This afternoon at 3 p.m., Professor Tony Martin, a distinguished pan-Africanist scholar, will deliver the third annual Marcus Garvey Lecture at Liberty Hall in honour of the 125th birthday of our first national hero: 'If Garvey Dies, Garvey Lives: The Enduring Relevance of Garvey's Ideas'. This lecture will certainly silence those cynics in this "place next to hell" who object to the teaching of Garvey's philosophy in our schools. Claiming Garvey's legacy for our children is full freedom.

Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com/. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.