Marcus Garvey was written by Rupert Lewis (2018) and was published by The University of the West Indies Press in the Caribbean Biography Series. Rupert Lewis is a Jamaican author, editor and professor of Political Thought. This biography is Lewis’ most lauded work and is deemed to be seminal work on Garveyism. This book revisits Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s contribution to Pan-Africanism and the ideologies he founded in the early 20th century by journeying through moments in Garvey’s life that shaped his contributions. We are given a detailed view of the Caribbean, the United States, and the wider African diaspora, in terms of our culture, identity, and the influence of colonialism and revisionism. The pages of the book are entwined with major themes such as; identity, resistance, racism, and revival. It was profound that Garvey’s birth was amidst a time where a tone of psychological enslavement and socio-economic injustice was set, following the aftermath of the Morant Bay Rebellion on October 11th, 1865. Jamaican identity was stifled for decades due to the fear of resisting against oppression.
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots” (Marcus Garvey, 1920). Identity is a key feature that is highlighted and discussed considerably by Lewis in ‘Marcus Garvey’. Garvey’s ideas of identity formed when he lived in England; it was there that he met his friend to be Duse Mohamed Ali who migrated to England from Africa, Egypt to be precise. In 1913, the duo wrote articles for ‘The African Times and Orient Review’ where they wrote about colonialism, oppression and African identity. The government of the United Kingdom suppressed and eventually shut down the paper due to its inspirational nature to the black community, they banned its distribution from her colonies India and African States in 1918.
Garvey preached this idea of identity to those of the African diaspora populous to try to free them from mental slavery. Garvey saw the widespread denial of oneself as a defining factor of identity, in accordance with British colonial way of thinking. He wished to rid the notion that Africa was a continent of the uncivilized. Garvey told the population to embrace their blackness and not run away from it, saying, one shouldn’t have the ‘ambition to escape blackness’ (Marcus Garvey, p9). Blackness in the context of this book is the mental state stemming from one having the feature of black or brown skin due to being a descendant from African slaves/ natives.
The history of the Caribbean is plagued with racism and this book discusses Garvey’s experience of it quite astutely. Marcus Garvey had accepted racism to be the white truth. Garvey from the young age of fourteen saw his white friend distance herself from him on the orders of her father. It was here Garvey’s eyes where opened to the reality of racism and acceptance of social divide. Racism is the institution responsible for the displacement, dehumanization and discrimination of the black populous. Racism was Garvey’s central focus, doing everything in his power to distance himself from the white populous; case being his ‘back to Africa’ campaign. Following his extensive travel across Europe, Garvey became aware of the harsh realities under which Negroes lived.
Garvey did all that he could in his travels to eradicate the mental slavery and racism he saw oppressing the blacks; writing for newspapers, creating newspapers, making speeches and even going so far as to found the anti-colonial Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA). Lewis noted that the intensity of racism Garvey experienced in Jamaica grew after he formed the UNIA in 1914. He also detailed a society facing a color prejudice epidemic. Garvey was the first of his kind to attempt a global eradication of racism, he put it as such: “We must canonize our own saints, create our own martyrs, and elevate to positions of fame and honour black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to our racial history…I am the equal of any white man; I want you to feel the same way.”(Marcus Garvey, 1921).
It could be argued that Garvey’s main goal was the revival of African thought and pride; this made him a teacher and leader to the black masses. He became the premier Pan-Africanist during his time. Pan Africanism promotes the unity of the peoples of African heritage (descendants of the African slave trade) in an effort to revive their ancestral heritage. Historically, Pan-Africanism is a political and social movement. The main goal of Pan Africanism, and thus Garvey’s goal, was a unified African nation from the bones of the broken African continent. The group consisted of people from the African diaspora. Pan Africanism at its core is the celebration and unity of the divided African race under on flag, under one nation and one rule. Garvey made it his duty to instill blacks with positive attitudes towards their past. Garvey ultimately failed in his movement.
This failure was a result of Garvey’s goal to move blacks to Africa in droves; a goal expressed in his famed New York speech saying he sought to do this migration in sets through his 1919 project. This project was ‘The Black Star Line’ (BSL). The B.S.L. displayed the seriousness of Garvey, and arguably the extremity of Garvey’s stance which posed a problem for the United States government. Hence the government of the United States deported Marcus Garvey to Jamaica on the grounds of fraud and evasion. While Garvey did fail in his goal, he inspired others towards the desegregation of the Negro race and a vision of freedom.
‘Marcus Garvey’ teaches the reader about the Caribbean and the struggles and tribulations that one would face in a world that was against them. Early in his career Garvey came to see that blacks everywhere where victims of discrimination and racism, it was evident in his travels and even in Jamaica, his country of birth. It was in Kingston that he saw the conditions and hardships of his fellow blacks faced and the “mental slavery” which they were subscribed to. It was there that Garvey decided to become a social activist, champion to the people and later evolve into the global civil rights movement activist.
The recurring struggle, faced even by this educated, hardworking and charismatic black man or ‘negro’, truly highlights the social conditions of society at that time. Garvey was well read; he took after his father in that way, from a young age he read books from his father’s collection. While in England he educated himself extensively on African history, with a distinct interest in the history of the region prior to the transatlantic slave trade. Garvey exhibited the hardship of a black man through his failures. For instance his first newspaper, the Watchman, was short lived largely because the system was constantly against him. While working as an employee for the publication ‘African Times and Oriental Review’, he encapsulated his mind in the African people’s captured motherland and her exploitation from European powers throughout history. Garvey read Booker T. Washington’s works one of which was ‘Up from Slavery’ which one could say called Garvey to action. Garvey was active in the printer’s strike in 1908 and despite the failure of the strike Garvey stood united with printers alike in Kingston, Jamaica.
This was more than likely Garvey’s first form of active resistance. Garvey later formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association and its sister organization the African Communities League which both aimed to improve the life of the average black person. To the large crowd in Harlem, New York in 1920 Garvey pitched his plan to form a sovereign state for neglected and displaced blacks. Reason being, segregation and racism towards the Negro population and hegemony were too much to take. As a result of his famous New York speech the UNIA saw massive growth and support spanning in the high thousands garnering attentions from blacks globally. From Garvey’s expanding platform he began to tour the United States in an effort to accumulate support and uplift the black community which resulted in the inspiration of many prolific black activists, Garvey’s speech style can be seen in the likes of Malcolm X’s cadence for example. Garvey through his fame expanded his organizations and as was mentioned earlier he was deported from the United States and he later died in England 1940. Garvey’s legacy, the UNIA still exists today.
Author Rupert Lewis does an exceptional job of crafting this biography in a coherent way; keeping its content understandable and clear to the reader. The overall composition of the book successfully sticks within its domain from chapter to chapter, each focusing on particular facets of Garvey’s life. The information gathered were factual and demanded attention from the reader due to its pointed nature. This can be seen, for example, in chapter one where Lewis focuses on the early life of Garvey, where he spoke to the Pan-Africanist’s upbringing; his mother, his father and his early travels. Furthermore, in this example while all the information was factual Lewis wrote the chapter in such a way that it could be likened to reading a novel using expression and adjectives to characterize the real life figures.
This enhanced the readability of the book as a result the attention and interest of the reader was maintained. Rupert Lewis is a prominent educator and has written numerous books on the Pan-African movement and lectured at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica in the Department of Government, holding the position of Associate Director of the Centre for Caribbean Thought, alongside Associate Dean for Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Social Sciences. All of Lewis’ expertise leads to him understanding the subject matter and mind-set of students to blend into a masterfully written biography. This writing style suits the University of the West Indies ‘Caribbean Civilizations’ course exceptionally well.
To conclude Marcus Garvey was a hero for the black masses and was arguably the needle that pushed the stone of the civil rights movement. Author Rupert Lewis painted a dynamic of Garvey that humanized the figure in an understandable and readable way. The book most certainly is an essential read for the Caribbean Civilizations course and does a tremendous job at helping a student to understand its themes.
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