Hail to the chief

By Jeremy Taylor

Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey,
by Colin Grant
Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-536794-2, 530 pp

Marcus Garvey in 1924

Marcus Garvey in 1924. Photo courtesy Oxford University Press

Colin Grant tells the story of a railway worker called Isaac Rose who went to hear Marcus Garvey speak in Jamaica’s Edelweiss Park one Sunday morning in 1927. He had been a boyhood friend of Garvey’s, but he found his friend transformed. As “six uniformed bodyguards made an arch with their swords under which Garvey walked to the stage,” Rose recalled:

Garvey wore a black pants and a white sash with three different colours on it across his chest, and a regalia, a robe over him. It yellow. And he had something like a crown on his head. Not even the King of England dressed like him. So knowing him as I know him and never seeing him dressed like that I said, “Me Ass, look Marcus!” . . . People felt proud of him. Proud! . . . Garvey was a prophet, a man sent from God.

In Garvey’s regalia, detractors saw comedy and megalomania. He was the “Negro with a hat”, in W.E.B. Du Bois’s scornful phrase — the hat being a magnificent plumed bicorne that Garvey wore on big occasions, and which appears on this book’s jacket. But his supporters saw something else: a black man with divine powers of prophecy and oratory, arrayed like a king. Grant argues that Garvey deliberately created a black iconography with its own ceremonies and costumes, not so much to mimic the white world as to create a parallel universe in which African-Americans could exist on their own terms. (Something similar had happened with the underground masques and courts of Trinidad’s plantations a century earlier.)

At issue was the future direction of African America. The prevailing wisdom, represented by the academic activist Du Bois and his National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), held that black Americans could be assimilated into the mainstream on equal terms. Garvey disagreed. He quickly came to the conclusion that black Americans would always be treated as inferiors, and that to move forward they needed to take matters into their own hands. If the whites wanted America, let them have it. African-Americans would build their own world based on their own values, dignity, freedom, self-esteem, and right to exist. Africa was the real motherland. “Negroes” did not need white validation: they could do and be whoever they wanted. The only thing holding them back was themselves (an opinion still common in the Caribbean ninety years later).

This brought Garvey into constant conflict, not only with the American authorities, who had no time for uppity blacks, but with other black organisations (Du Bois called him “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor”). In the long run, Du Bois’s prediction was more accurate than Garvey’s; but Garvey was perhaps the right man for the time.

For his genius was to make people feel good about themselves at a time when that was barely possible. The vehicle was his oratory, which everyone agrees was extraordinary. Short and unprepossessing, he did not look like a great speaker: but when he began to talk, he got inside people’s heads and expressed what they didn’t know they thought. “Speaking was his great gift,” says Grant, “and Garvey generated such excitement that no admirer would risk failing to catch a glimpse of him. It was this ability to articulate the ‘submerged thoughts of an awakening people’ that sustained Negro belief in [him].”

In 1916, when Marcus Mosiah Garvey arrived in New York, you could still get lynched in the South for being black. You could be re-enslaved — seized on some improvised charge, thrown into jail, convicted, and sent to a mine or a farm to work at the owner’s pleasure. The Ku Klux Klan was growing fast, thanks in part to D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation, released the previous year. “It wasn’t safe to be black in South Carolina, nor in Illinois, Mississippi, or Washington . . . Just walking in the wrong part of town, at the wrong time of day, death could take you away,” Grant notes. Being successful or middle-class was no protection.

When a wealthy black merchant, Anthony Crawford, got into an argument with a group of white competitors, the sheriff placed him under arrest and locked him in the local jail for his own safety, only for the jail to be stormed by the mob. Mr Crawford was captured, strung up on a tree and his body shot through with hundreds of bullets. The Charleston News and Courier reported that he was “the type of Negro who is most offensive to certain white people”, and that Crawford was “getting rich for a Negro, and he was insolent along with it.”

That was in 1919, during America’s horrendous “Red Summer.” Black American soldiers had returned home after serving in the First World War, expecting perhaps a little gratitude or respect, and finding none. Instead, there was an obsession with the Russian revolution of 1917 and the fear that “reds” might be infiltrating American society. Jobs were drying up as industry contracted after the war. Petrified black families were threatened or burned out; there were roundups and deportations. In the face of segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence, people were cowed, disillusioned, despairing. Between 1910 and 1940, 1.5 million packed their bags and moved north.

So there was a ready audience for Marcus Garvey in Harlem. Born in rural Jamaica in 1887 and hardened by his father, he already had a priceless education based on experience. He had learned about colour the hard way; and he had the instincts of a preacher. Grant quotes Garvey’s first wife, Amy Ashwood:

Marcus was barely seven years old when he began to play the role of priest, guiding his flock composed of his village playmates . . . preparing his own “divine service,” his own hymns and prayers and . . . a rousing sermon.

He had worked on elocution and his Jamaican accent, read the dictionary, learned printing, and had been fired for supporting a strike. He had joined the National Club, “Jamaica’s first nationalist political organisation,” and produced the first of many newspapers, Garvey’s Watchman. He had worked in Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, and had seen for himself what exploitative hard labour meant. He had spent time in England, working on the London docks, hanging out with the African Times and Oriental Review, and had discovered Booker T. Washington’s seminal Up from Slavery — “and then my doom — if I may so call it — of being a race leader dawned on me.” Black people everywhere, he concluded, must unite to escape their present conditions and move forward.

Back in Jamaica, he had formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) “to establish a brotherhood among the black race, to promote a spirit of race pride, to reclaim the fallen and to assist in civilising the backwards tribes of Africa.” He started fundraising, something he was always good at.

In 1916 he sailed to America and set up in Harlem. His initial aim was to replicate Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee College in Jamaica; but as he began to understand the state of things in America, his focus changed. He established a branch of the UNIA in Harlem, and set off to visit thirty-eight states, lecturing and raising money. He made a name for himself among Harlem’s “stepladder” sidewalk speakers as a confident and powerful orator.

The UNIA grew rapidly and started to set up models of black entrepreneurship: a restaurant, a laundry. It offered black Americans life insurance policies and funeral grants. It launched its own paper, the Negro World, which refused the usual ads for hair straighteners and skin lighteners (“Take the kinks out of your mind, instead of out of your hair,” Garvey admonished his readers). Within an astonishingly short time, the UNIA had a large following in Harlem, was boasting branches in twenty-five states, and was spreading through the rest of the diaspora.

Garvey’s imagination leaped far ahead of organisational capacity. In 1919 he set up the Black Star Line to link America with the Caribbean, Central America, and West Africa: the thought of a black-owned steamship company with vessels commanded by black captains added to the buzz and the swelling sense of pride that Garvey was creating.

But the first boat the Black Star Line acquired was a rotting tub for which the UNIA in its eagerness paid far too much. The organisation couldn’t handle the inflow of funds from Garvey’s fundraising, and there were rows over the accounts. Various people had hands in the till. The Bureau of Investigation, the FBI’s predecessor, was taking a keen interest in everything Garvey said and did, and was waiting for him to make a mistake. Someone shot him in the leg and then mysteriously died while in custody.

Garvey ploughed on. In 1920 he staged the first Convention of Negro Peoples of the World, which ran for a month, opening with a procession to Madison Square Garden. Garvey wore his plumed bicorne and robes, and was followed, according to Grant, by marching bands, hundred-voice choirs, UNIA’s Black Cross nurses and uniformed legions, UNIA divisions with their banners, the crew of the first Black Star steamer, and five hundred automobiles. Before a crowd of twenty-five thousand, he was elected Provisional President of Africa. The mayor of the Liberian capital Monrovia became Potentate Leader of the Negro Peoples. Garvey assumed a turban with gold tassels and scarlet robes. During the month, a Declaration of Rights was presented, a government in exile was formed; a vanguard would sail to Africa to start preparations for the great future homecoming.

All this had happened within three or four years of Garvey’s arrival in New York. But over the next two or three years things unravelled. Garvey’s autocratic style, management failures, various blunders, a chorus of black and white criticism, all eroded the movement. Garvey reacted angrily to criticism and disagreement, purging old friends and loyalists, sniffing betrayal all around. In Africa, Liberia announced that it would not be accepting any crazed Garveyites from New York, and any who arrived would be sent straight back home. The movement began to sink into the very factionalism and feuding that Garvey had identified as the real enemy of the race.

Then in January 1922 Garvey was arrested and charged with the frivolous offence of mail fraud, to wit, using the postal service to solicit the purchase of stock for another Black Star vessel which it did not yet own. The prosecution presented an empty envelope in which the offending document was said to have been transported.

When his trial finally came up in 1925, Garvey made the tragic mistake of handling his own defence, with predictable results: he was sentenced to five years in jail and a $1,000 fine. He served two humiliating years in the Atlanta federal penitentiary. Eventually his sentence was commuted, and he was promptly deported from New Orleans, never to return to America.

Back in Jamaica, Garvey tried to revive the UNIA, and started Jamaica’s first modern political party, the People’s Political Party, in 1929. It advocated land reform, an eight-hour work day, a minimum wage, and the building of such civilising institutions as libraries, a university, and an opera house. But it also advocated the impeachment and imprisonment of corrupt judges: Garvey was sentenced to three months in the Spanish Town jail and a fine of £100 for insulting the judiciary.

Harassed in Jamaica and blocked from the other West Indian islands, Garvey returned to England: “I left Jamaica a broken man, broken in spirit, broken in health and broken in pocket . . . and will never, never, never go back.”

Poster for Marcus Garvey's memorial service

Poster announcing Garvey’s memorial procession and service in New York, held in the month after his death in London. Photo courtesy Oxford University Press

In London his star faded rapidly. C.L.R. James and George Padmore heckled him at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. He started another paper and continued to speak, but in 1940, after suffering a stroke, he read a report of his own death in the Chicago Defender (a story inaccurately filed by Padmore), followed by unkind obituaries. A few days later he was dead. His vow never to return to Jamaica did not hold: in 1964 his remains were taken back to Jamaica and re-interred, and he was declared Jamaica’s first National Hero.

Colin Grant’s solid biography is welcome: apart from the tireless advocacy of a few scholars like Robert Hill and Tony Martin, and the respect of the more conscious corners of the reggae world (Bob Marley lifted “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery” from a Garvey speech), Garvey has not been well served in recent years. Grant, a radio producer with the BBC and an “independent historian,” has obviously spent a long time with Marcus Garvey over the years. But Negro with a Hat is not likely to be the last word.

For one thing, while Grant is very good on context, the man himself is often obscured. His physical presence, the sound of his voice, the sight of him in action, don’t come across. Nor does Grant offer a reassessment. He is so anxious to be objective in his writing and cautious in his judgments that when he confronts the question of how much of Garvey was saint and how much was charlatan, he concludes lamely that this is “a little difficult to characterise.”

Grant also has a strange habit of skating over significant moments in Garvey’s career. In 1922, for example, Garvey held a two-hour meeting in Atlanta with the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. This was one of the events which dismayed his supporters and damaged the UNIA. Why did he do it? It could be argued that Garvey, uniquely, saw a convergence of interests: if assimilation was no longer the goal, and there were plans for mass migration to Africa, the Klan should be happy — wasn’t this what they wanted too?

Grant introduces this event very briefly, then abandons it for fifteen pages. When he gets back to it, he merely cites a partisan report which claimed, explosively, that Garvey actually made a deal with the Klan: he would be allowed to do business in the south in exchange for breaking up organisations (such as the NAACP) which were opposed to the KKK. Is that credible? Can any weight be attached to it? Has no other detail from that bizarre encounter ever emerged? Grant simply doesn’t say: he moves on as if it was of no significance for his subject.

He does the same with another bizarre episode, when A. Philip Randolph of the socialist Messenger, a rival of Garvey’s, received a parcel containing a severed human hand and a threatening note ostensibly from the Klan. The text hints that Garvey himself may have had something to do with it.

The [New York] Times concluded that the threatening letter was “thought to refer to a controversy between Randolph, in his publication, and Marcus Garvey, self-styled President of the Provisional Republic of Africa” . . . Randolph later voiced his suspicion in the Messenger that the “Klan had come to the rescue of its Negro leader, Marcus Garvey.” Garvey was scandalised. But despite his protestations of innocence, others recalled a speech Garvey had made . . . a month before, when he is said to have advised . . . Randolph “and others who disagreed with him” to “get another job,” as he, Garvey, “could not be responsible for anything that might happen to them because they might come up with a hand or a leg or a broken head.”

Again the matter is not pursued. Grant neither dismisses the insinuation nor investigates it further.

More detail on various other points would have been welcome: on the various ships of the Black Star Line, for example, Garvey’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, his playwriting, how he came to be writing lyrics to a pop song while in jail in Atlanta. And I’d love to know where he got that hat.

But Grant is rock-solid on Garvey’s fundamental importance, whatever his mistakes and failings. Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana acknowledged his debt to Garvey; Malcolm X’s parents met at a Garveyite rally in Canada; even C.L.R. James (belatedly) saluted Garvey as a thinker. His passion fed into the civil rights movement and the Harlem Renaissance; his prophecy is cherished still among Rastafari. Martin Luther King put it well: Garvey was “the first man of colour to lead and develop a mass movement. He was the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny. And make the Negro feel he was somebody.” Perhaps a new biography will reawaken interest and debate in a fascinating and complex man.


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2008

Jeremy Taylor was born in the United Kingdom, and has lived in Trinidad for over thirty years. He is a writer, editor, broadcaster, and publisher. Many of his essays and reviews are collected in Going to Ground (1994).