Black History Month: The making of Marcus Garvey
Years before Obama and Black Lives Matter, the seminal figure of global black politics was there to speak up for the oppressed. Dan Carrier talks to his biographer
21 October, 2021 — By Dan Carrier
Marcus Garvey. Photo: LoC George Grantham Bain Collection
WHEN Bob Marley wrote the lyrics to his hit Redemption Song, he took parts of a speech made by a man who had lived 50 years before his birth in the singers small Jamaican hometown.
It was Marcus Garvey who first said true freedom called for black people to “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, None but ourselves can free our minds”, a phrase that epitomised his approach to politics and race in the early 20th century and which the reggae legend put to music.
Garvey was born in St Ann’s, Jamaica.
“It is what Jamaicans call the bush,” says historian Colin Grant, author of The Negro In The Hat, a biography of Garvey. Garvey’s mother was a seamstress and father a stone mason. From these humble origins, Garvey would become a seminal figure in global black politics.
“Garvey grew up in a poor household – but his father had a collection of books. He loved reading and would learn three new words each day, and then use them in conversation with his father at night.”
The family were members of a Baptist church, and listened to non-conformist sermons. Baptists were virulent abolitionists, which further influenced his early years.
“He desired to better himself,” says Colin. “He knew there were better opportunities in the capital, Kingston, but was also aware that the fact he spoke with a heavy country dialect would work against him, so he took elocution lessons.”
The shadow of slavery hung over the island – Garvey was born around 50 years after it had been outlawed in Jamaica, and was the grandson of slaves. “He was very clear about this – he knew he was a product of this vile system and he wanted to change it,” Colin says.
Aged 14, Garvey entered the printing trade – and as well as design and typesetting, he wrote articles. His first role at a Kingston newspaper ended badly. “He joined a firm as a manager as the printers went on strike,” says Colin. “He sided with the workers.”
Garvey spent time in Costa Rica and Panama, setting up newspapers and having run-ins with authorities over causes he championed.
In 1912, he moved to London, studying law at Birkbeck College, Holborn, and spent endless hours in the British Museum’s Reading Room.
He left for Harlem in 1914, considered then the black capital of America, and Garvey became a sought-after orator. He established the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities and took to the streets to spread his message.
“When he spoke he could be heard blocks away,” says Colin. “It wasn’t just his delivery, but what he said – rise up you mighty race, see what you can achieve. Many felt it was as if they had been given a voice for the first time.”
It also attracted the attentions of the FBI, who noted his dream of leading black Americans back to Africa. They kept tabs on him and employed dirty tricks. In the early 1920s, desperate to find a way of stifling Garvey, the FBI created a trumped up charge of mail fraud. Garvey was given five years.
Other black American leaders saw him as a firebrand harming the cause of civil rights.
“He ran a working-class organisation. The African American elite, led by his nemesis WEB Dubois, were involved in bottom down organisations. They were a 10 per cent who were going to integrate into American society,” explains Colin.
In Harlem, Garvey developed the idea of a return to Africa as a radical rallying call. To do this, he created a shipping company, the Black Star Line, not solely as a tool for repatriation, but as a moral-boosting business. Garvey believed such a company would send an important message.
“It was his great ambition,”says Colin. “He wanted to be the head of a grand fleet of ships going across the Atlantic to Africa. It was a great propaganda tool. People could become shareholders – and they did in huge numbers.”
While recognising the emotive power of saying black Americans could build a new, free state in Liberia, Garvey was also pragmatic
“He knew that until you could replicate the comforts of Harlem in Monrovia, not many would go there to live. It was a rallying call.”
Garvey later moved back to London, where he continued to campaign, though his influence in the USA was sapped by his exile. He died in 1940, and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, though his body would later be repatriated to Jamaica, his resting place becoming a landmark.
And 81 years after his death, his philosophies have the same power as when he wrote and spoke for so many. “The Black Lives Matter movement would have resonated with him,” says Colin.
“He was saying the same points – he saw a world that was skewed against black people, saying we have been a scapegoat, targeted by the police, not allowed equality of opportunities. His greatest triumph, in my mind, was the fact he said way before Barack Obama ‘Yes We Can’. This should be acknowledged.”
• In conversation with Colin Grant – ‘Negro with a Hat’ is a Camden Black History Season event at Swiss Cottage Library, 88 Avenue Road, NW3 3HA on Thursday October 21, 5-7pm. The event, which will also be live-streamed, is free but register via eventbrite. The event will be filmed and later available on https://writersmosaic.org.uk/