Marcus Garvey

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Marcus Mosiah Garvey, 1887-1940

Marcus Garvey remains a vitalising, inspiring force today. He touches Jamaicans closely because he raises questions of race and social commitment with which they still have to come to terms. His message is as relevant now as it was in the 1920s and 1930s, when he formed the People’s Political Party. As an independent and predominantly black nation, Jamaicans now have the power to reach decisions on issues he raised. A study of his life and times shows that he has been urging us to assume a larger role in the scheme of things. He has deepened and enriched our knowledge of ourselves, of our past and our potential as a society. We become aware, also, of a prophet, a man who throughout his life lived his message; and did so through triumph and disaster, in the face of derision and oppression, of imprisonment and of rejection. From the beginning he was driven by a passionate concern for the African-Jamaican people, and indeed for all peoples of African origin throughout the world. He reminded African-Americans of their background of slavery and of having been let loose in the world without a cent in their pocket or land to settle on that they could call their own. From the beginning they had to fight their own way up to where they are today. Some have done well but the great majority remained propertyless and almost helpless. If they were to improve themselves they had to focus on personal success. In revering Marcus Garvey as a national hero, Jamaicans pay tribute also to a leader who pioneered a role for Africa and Africans in world affairs. His vision was of black United Nations governed by black leaders. Garvey had a profound respect for books, education and scholarship. He was a philosopher as well as a man of action, a thinker who arrived at his conclusions by analysing the West Indian experience. He grew up in Jamaican colonial society at a time when, as Rupert Lewis points out: Colonial ideological policy consistently debased Africa as well as people and things African. The future, the coloniser claimed, belonged to Europe. Hence colonial subjects were made to identify progress with the ideals of their master. In the process of the formation of Jamaica as a nation the negation of Africa and blackness has been constant. And so has the resistance to [this negation] by black people. (Lewis: 1987)

The Jamaican people identify with Garvey as one who built their self-esteem, challenged them to affirm their racial identity and reunited them with Africa as homeland. That this should be so is a measure of the cultural and social revolution that has been taking place in Jamaica. This evolution is radically changing the Jamaican self-image to one of assertiveness and racial equality. It has projected Jamaica onto the world stage politically and has moved increasing numbers of black people into leader roles in their country. By examining some of his major statements and reflecting on his method of reaching conclusions, we come to understand the magnitude of Garvey’s achievement and the quality of his mind. We need to do this because those in the centres of white power and influence in Jamaica, in the United States and Europe saw Garvey as a formidable threat and used the means in their power, the law included, to obstruct and vilify him. They projected the image of a black racist subversive, a rabble-rouser, a confidence man and trickster. The Jamaican upper and middle classes of the 1920s rejected his challenge “to formulate a program of racial preservation and to develop a settled racial outlook”. In them the terrified consciousness of the sugar-and-slave plantocracy period still lingered. Some kept their distance, not because they disagreed with Garvey’s philosophy, but because they feared victimisation if they were seen to be supporting the challenge to the status quo. In the words of a Jamaican peasant, Marcus Garvey was “not a...
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