Marcus Garvey Look for me in the Whirlwind

by Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/2/2009

The recent television documentary on Marcus Garvey once again shows that the handling of our national and international heroes can never be left to those whose desires appear to be to serve the interests of their paymasters. Stanley Nelson, the producer and director, and Marcia White, the scriptwriter, for the documentary have done a grievous harm to the African community at home and abroad by their portrayal of Garvey. They have not presented Garvey to us, they have tried to undermine Garvey and their work harks back to the deliberate attempts by the federal government and some elements of the African American middle classes to discredit Marcus Garvey in the 1920s.

A growing number of so-called black intellectuals and artists believe that the best way forward is to ride on the backs of their own people. They seek to emasculate the noblest defenders of our human rights, to disestablish the reputations of our best thinkers, and to thrown bleach onto the memories of our most ardent activists for justice. Marcus Garvey, as the central figure in African history over the past one hundred years, has not escaped the hammer of misinformation and misrepresentation.

The recent television portrayal had all the makings of a useful historical documentary. It had the benefit of Julius Garvey and Marcus Garvey, Jr., the two sons of Marcus Garvey, Sr., and three leading Marcus Garvey scholars in Tony Martin of Wellesley, Bobby Hill of UCLA, and Rupert Lewis of the University of West Indies. However, regardless of the experts, a documentary is the brainchild of the producer and director. You can make the necessary editing cuts to create the impression you want to create. While any film that did not bring in the words of the Garvey sons or Rupert Lewis or Tony Martin would be considered anemic and not authoritative, using Bobby Hill, the keeper of the Garvey papers, as the expert consultant to cast dispersions on Garvey was meant to invalidate anything said by the other authorities.

The truth of the matter about Garvey is simple. By the time the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League held its huge meeting in August 1920 at Madison Square Garden, Garvey had become a household name among African people in the Americas. Ten years earlier he had lit the fires of African self determination and political self assertion in scores of speeches to thousands of people from the back of a train in the Limon province of Costa Rica. In the United States, he had surpassed the leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in his popularity. By the force of his personality and character he had demonstrated that the NAACP missed the real feelings of the African people in America. So when 25,000 people assembled in the huge Madison Square Garden under the banner of the UNIA and ACL the event brought more attention to Garvey than ever before. It was the beginning of the FBI’s attempt to sully his name with African American people. From that moment forward the United States government and his enemies outside of the UNIA and ACL would do everything in their power to dishonor Garvey’s operation. They would plant articles in papers against him, sow seeds of distrust among members of the organization, create opportunities for those who wanted to curry favor with the white establishment to reveal any inside information they had on the organization, and try to set up the officers for criminal activities. What was worrisome to the national government was the fact that an African, without the support of the white media, had ascended to such heights in the popular imagination of the African American people as to be able to call together more black people than the white president. Garvey was the pre-eminent spokesperson of the race and no one in any other organization could compete with him for the public mind. What Stanley Nelson has to do in his documentary is to "problematize" Garvey. This angers me because the only people who believe that they have to "problematize" their heroes are soulless people without any sense of historical purpose or reality. Garvey was not fighting against some fantasy; he was dealing with the everyday reality of black life. Was he human? Of course, he was human, but was he guilty of some heinous crime? No! What Garvey was guilty of was becoming the most courageous African public figure in our history. This was the crime and the government went out of its way to create a case against him.

At Madison Square Gardens, Marcus Garvey was elected president-general of the UNIAACL, the Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World was written and disseminated, the formal leadership structure was proposed and accepted, chapters were established with commissioners for each chapter, and demands were made. Among the demands made by the Garvey movement was that black school children should be taught African history. I certainly wish Marcia White had taken some Afrocentric classes in African history. She would not have written the script the way she did.

Perhaps one of Marcus Garvey’s greatest gifts was his ability to identify the values and the cultural motifs that resonated with the African people. He produced several cultural symbols that galvanized the membership. An anthem was created called the Universal Ethiopian Anthem, a flag of the colors red, black, and green was made and presented to the members, and small industries were created as places for workers to make a living. Furthermore, Garvey dispatched representatives to Liberia to investigate the possibilities of colonies in West Africa.

The failure of the Black Star Lines in l921 was an ominous sign but it was the constant criticism of the African American middle class that led to infighting and disaffections. This gave the government the opportunity to sow discord among the leadership. When Garvey was indicted in 1922 the judge was Julian Mack, who claimed to be a member of the NAACP. Garvey appealed and in l925 he lost his appeal and was sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. After a strenuous campaign on the part of Amy Jacques Garvey, who published Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey in l923 and 1925, to raise money for legal expenses, he was released from prison and sent to Jamaica.

The fact that a documentary about Garvey does not emphasize the conspiracy against the rise of a black messiah but rather attempts to show that Garvey was some type of egomaniac goes to demonstrate how far away from the truth Nelson manages to get. All black leaders who create a mass following will be called names in a white racist society that profits in keeping African people from considering their own heroes as heroic. In my mind, any person who puts his or her life on the line for the sake of their people must be considered heroic, full stop.

African symbol