A few days ago some celebrated the birthday of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, a central figure in Rastafari ideology, a Jamaican national hero, a pioneer and spokesperson for Black pride and Black identity. As a high school history teacher I have had opportunities to ask students if they knew who Marcus Garvey was, all kinds of students, some from Jamaica even. From what I've experienced, I've found that very few know about Garvey, and even those who do, know little about his impact. I imagine that this is both bitter and sweet. Bitter in the sense that "no one remembers old Marcus Garvey" as Burning Spear once sang. Sweet in the sense that maybe we have reached a point where the African Diaspora is not in as crucial a state of affairs and thus has allowed many black people to live comfortably in the West. Needless to say, it is my belief that Marcus should always be remembered and I take a quote from the man himself, "a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots." Still, as another reggae song goes, "dem never love poor Marcus!"
Marcus Garvey was a man in a different period of time, he personally experienced and struggled against racial hatred and prejudice along with other Africans in the West, and any shadow of Civil Rights was still decades away into the future. It was a time when black people were still being lynched on trees in the American South. Yet, Marcus Garvey stood firm against all this injustice and made no reservations on his mission to liberate the minds, bodies and souls of the African Diaspora. Garvey strongly advocated education, empowerment, racial pride and racial unity. He restored the dignity of black people and called for them to be self-sufficient and take leadership roles in their communities. He inspired Africans at home and abroad with his gift for expression, passionately proclaiming words that still resonate today such as, "Up, up, you mighty race! You can accomplish what you will." He urged black people to see God through "black spectacles" to know that they were beautifully and wonderfully made in God's own image, giving them a spiritual sense of equality and godliness long withheld from them by white people. He founded the UNIA with a constitution clearly declaring the necessary rights due to all black men and women. His ideas on repatriation and his Black Star Liner company inspired the Rastafari movement and African consciousness and his pronouncement of the coming of a great black king in Africa turned their heads toward the coronation of H.I.M. Selassie I in Ethiopia. Marcus Garvey was clearly way ahead of his time and nobody could ever doubt his greatness. He had a very strong character and with this also came a very strong opinion.
However, Marcus's strong persona rubbed some people the wrong way. While both were proponents of Pan-Africanism, Garvey didn't have many kind words for American civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois and they were bitter rivals with different ideas on how to help black people, somewhat like a much more pronounced MLK and Malcolm X disagreement. Garvey didn't have kind words for H.I.M. Haile Selassie I either, which some people find odd considering the two are almost tied together as one in Rastafari philosophy. In fact, they both make up part of the Bobo Shanti concept of the holy trinity. Marcus even had gone to the belly of the beast and met with leaders of the KKK to discuss the separation of the races, needless to say this was extremely controversial. He considered their open hatred of black people to be honest whereas he held every other white person as a potential Klansman... sad, but perhaps true. Finally, everywhere he went, the government despised Marcus. He was not beloved in Jamaica, and when he went to the United States he was eventually put in prison over some supposed charges of fraud... almost surely a racist tactic. Certainly Marcus had his flaws, as does any man or woman upon this earth. Not everyone was fond of him, including other black activists. However, time will judge him as a progressive man, a courageous man and someone who awakened the consciousness of black people and shook the rest of the world into realizing that times had to change. The wonderful things that Marcus Garvey did far outweigh any mistakes he made or criticism he received.
As a Rastaman and a firm believer in racial equality and justice I consider Marcus Garvey a hero of mine. It is not always an easy fit, because some of my ideologies as a historian do not match his own, and I am a white male, far from the experiences that drove Marcus' philosophies and opinions. He was a separatist, I believe in cooperation of the races and integration. He abhorred any interracial relationships, I could not agree with that as a general statement. Some of his judgments seem more problematic than helpful as if he occasionally lacked faith in the general goodness of human beings. So, I can't say I agree with everything Marcus Garvey advocated, some of it seemed very unreasonable and eccentric, but maybe it was necessary at the time, maybe it was the right way. That of course is my personal take on Marcus, for it is necessary that I approach him different than a black man or woman. I could never separate Garvey from Rastafari nor could I deny him. Ultimately, the key to overstanding Marcus is to know that he lived in a world quite different from mine today, after all he passed on in 1940 in an age where any national or worldwide progress for people of African decent was still at a relative standstill.
Yes it can be rough, it can be harsh... but I love Marcus Garvey for what he taught me, for what he did for the betterment of my black brothers and sisters, and for the way in which he made the world listen to his message. I don't think Garvey gets enough respect outside of the Rastafari culture. In fact the last popular reference to him was seeing his face on rapper Ludacris' t-shirt in his music video "Pimpin' All Over The World". I'm not too sure Marcus would appreciate going along for that ride and he certainly would never allow the use of the n-word in his presence. Rather, I think ones should read his speeches, his poems, and his collected writings in his Philosophies and Opinions. His memory should be honored and his ideas should be learned and discussed for the sake of education and progress. The struggle will never be over until there are equal rights and justice for all people throughout the world and Africa is restored to its proper glory as the cradle of humanity. Happy Earthstrong to the Right Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey! Hold them, Marcus! Teach them, Marcus!
Love & Respect,