“…until you’ve been beaten up and called every racist name under the sun by the very people who are supposedly there to protect you, until you’ve experienced firsthand what it’s like to live in a community where there are police cars and vans on practically every street corner and where young black males are several times more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than their white counterparts, then it’s hard to imagine the level of hatred I felt towards Thatcher and her cronies. . . .”
– Stephen Thompson.
Stephen Thompson, author of No More Heroes and Toy Soldiers takes a detailed look at the life of the famous Jamaican National Hero and founder of Universal Negro Improvement Association, Marcus Garvey.
There’s a famous painting in Jamaica that adorns schoolrooms the length and breadth of the island. It features the faces of six men and a woman. Collectively known as the National Heroes, they gaze down at the school children like disapproving deities. I used to be one of those children, and I distinctly remember having to stand up in class each morning to sing the national anthem while staring at the faces of this revered septet. With their dour expressions and funereal clothes, they seemed an altogether frightening bunch, especially Marcus Garvey, who had the look of a man not to be messed with, a man who had clearly lived his life without fear.
I was ten years old when I moved to England from Jamaica, but it wasn’t till my late teens that Garvey and I crossed paths again. At this stage in my life I was spending a lot of time around Rastafarians, for whom Garvey is nothing less than a prophet, and it was through them that I began to learn about his messianic attempts to improve the lot of black people the world over. Fascinated and inspired, I began to dig a little deeper into his story, in the process of which I came to reject much of what I had come to understand about myself as a black man. This was by no means a pain-free process, for it involved the slaying of some deep-seated and extremely negative belief systems, but in view of what I gained, I see now that the effort was worthwhile.
“For someone in my situation, that is to say an unemployed black teenager loafing about Hackney with little prospect of escaping its mean streets, Britain had indeed become, as Hanif Kureishi so memorably described it at the time, ‘an authoritarian rat hole’.”
I came to some semblance of political awareness during the 1979 general election. I remember watching coverage of the voting on TV – mostly for the entertainment value – as the two main parties went toe to toe in the battle for ideological supremacy: left versus right, socialism versus capitalism, collectivism versus individualism. Labour’s defeat was acutely felt in our household. Although no-one in my family had voted, Labour was ‘our party’, and to see it routed in so humiliating a fashion was hard for us to bear. We just couldn’t understand the defeat. Traditional Labour supporters had deserted the party in their droves, even in some parts of inner city London, which had always been left-wing strongholds. I was barely into my teens at the time, but even I could sense that we had undergone a profound sea change in British politics.
By the mid-80s, left-wing politics in England was officially dead. Under pressure to reform its outdated policies, the socialist movement had been reduced to little more than a rabble. By the end of the 80s, free-market economics, also known as Reaganomics, was the only show in town. Making money and keeping as much of it for yourself as possible, became the order of the day. Of course, there was a downside to all this rampant capitalism. If the 80s gave birth to the ‘yuppie’ and the ‘ordinary’ share owner, if it witnessed the fire sale of state assets and ushered in a culture of private education and private health care, if it created overnight millionaires at a rate not seen before or since and sparked a national obsession for owning property, then it was also a decade of mass unemployment, record levels of homelessness, numerous recessions and many other types of social, political and economic instability. And if the situation was bleak in the south, then it was doubly so in the north, whole swathes of which had simply been abandoned by an increasingly centralised and autocratic government. For someone in my situation, that is to say an unemployed black teenager loafing about Hackney with little prospect of escaping its mean streets, Britain had indeed become, as Hanif Kureishi so memorably described it at the time, ‘an authoritarian rat hole’.
Like millions of people all over the country, I suffered bitterly under the Tories during the 80s. I felt the effects of their draconian policies, especially in the area of criminal justice. Until you’ve been the victim of the notorious “sus laws”, until you’ve been beaten up and called every racist name under the sun by the very people who are supposedly there to protect you, until you’ve experienced firsthand what it’s like to live in a community where there are police cars and vans on practically every street corner and where young black males are several times more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than their white counterparts, then it’s hard to imagine the level of hatred I felt towards Thatcher and her cronies. I’m not for one moment suggesting that the problems that existed in Britain’s black communities in the 80s were all the result of external forces. Many of them were self-created. I was unemployed for years after leaving school, not only because there were so few jobs, but also because I left school without sitting my exams. I chose to abandon my education. No-one forced me. But my dropping out of school was no cause for being bludgeoned about the head with a truncheon by some racist cop drunk on power and looking for a way to enliven his shift. I hated the police, just as I hated their Tory paymasters. But what could I do to escape their tyranny? What could any of us do? There was no-one around to help us, no-one to whom we could take our grievances, which is why so many of us took to rioting in the streets. Labour, the supposed champions of the oppressed, were in the political wilderness. The Liberal Party was a sideshow, an irrelevance. Throughout the 80s and much of the 90s, Britain was, to all intents and purposes, a one-party state, and it was for this reason that I turned my back on politics. There was simply no party worthy of my support, and so I chose to abstain from the electoral process. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I haven’t a cast a vote in a general election since 1987, but, in recent years, I’ve begun to take an interest in politics again. If Joseph de Maistre was right when he said that a nation gets the government it deserves, then I must accept my portion of the blame for the fact that in Britain the lunatics have now taken over the asylum. For me, political apathy is no longer an option. I have to get involved.
“I find the notion of a black press depressingly reductive; but, as Garvey knew, we need one, and probably will for a long time to come.”
Something similar must have happened to Marcus Garvey when, at just fourteen years of age, he arrived in Kingston from his village in St Ann. Shocked by the abysmal circumstances of the city’s labouring classes, he quickly got involved in Jamaica’s fledgling social reform movement. In 1907 he participated in the famous Printers’ Union strike – he was an apprentice printer at the time – and was sacked for his troubles. But he would not be cowed. Soon after losing his job he set up his first newspaper, The Watchman, in which he constantly criticised the colonial authorities and generally made a nuisance of himself. It seems he was a great believer in the power of the press. In his life-time he launched no fewer than eight newspapers, with varying degrees of success. Consisting almost entirely of polemical editorials, they were expressly intended to focus public attention on the oppression of the black race and to stir the downtrodden into action. In terms of their historical significance, these publications, in my view, situate Garvey in his proper position as one of the founding fathers of the black press, the need for which, it seems to me, is as important now as it was in Garvey’s time. It’s for this reason that The Voice manages to find readers in today’s overcrowded newspaper market. I wish it were not so, for I find the notion of a black press depressingly reductive; but, as Garvey knew, we need one, and probably will for a long time to come.
As a child, I spent a lot of time dreaming about travelling abroad. Such was the prosaic nature of my daily existence that I would sit and fantasise about being in different countries, amongst different people, leading a different type of life. As an adult I’ve been able to fulfill those dreams, but I’d be lying if I said the experiences have all been positive. In the early days of being on the road, I often felt lonely and depressed. As a coping mechanism, I would try to ignore my feelings, will myself into having a good time, only to discover that this was like closing my eyes and pretending I was blind. I couldn’t keep it up. It was years before I finally realised that my travelling halfway around the world to sit at the foot of a plunging waterfall was a futile attempt to escape myself. Emerson puts it best: “At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated by beauty and lose my senses, I pack my trunks, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.”
As a young man, Garvey did a lot travelling by himself. One particular trip saw him spend an entire year, from 1910 to 1911, journeying through Central and South America. In contrast to the modern traveller, he didn’t go to that part of the world to stare at ancient ruins or to trek through rainforests, but to see for himself exactly how the black population was living. As ever, his interest was in the ordinary folk. To get amongst them, and also to earn some money to support himself on the road, he took whatever work he could find, often the most menial. In Costa Rica, for example, he was employed as a time-keeper on a banana plantation. Oddly enough, despite his lack of means, he somehow managed to launch a series of political journals aimed at highlighting the problems he encountered. In Costa Rica he published La Nacion and The Bluefields Messenger, and in Panama he put out La Prensa. These journals, whilst short-lived and practically unread, were the precursors to his later, more successful publishing ventures. Other destinations on his tour included Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, and Venezuela. He saw many things on his travels, much of which offended his conscience, but he was particularly sickened by what he witnessed on a visit to the Panama Canal construction zone. He arrived to find the labourers, which included hundreds of his countrymen, virtually on their knees from hunger and exhaustion. Determined to help, he immediately returned home and began petitioning the colonial government to do something for the Jamaican workers. When that came to nothing, he took matters into his own hands and set up the Universal Negro Improvement Association. I can well imagine the fire that had been lit inside him. This was precisely my feeling during a trip I made to India in 1999. Wandering around Delhi, I found that I could scarcely move for beggars. Here were people without dignity, people who, their spirits broken by poverty, appeared, at least to my scornful, judgmental eye, like some kind of sub-human species. I was disgusted to see human beings living like that and enraged that no-one seemed to care about them. The well-to-do Indians, chatting away on their expensive mobile phones, simply stepped past them, or over them, as if they didn’t exist, even those who were lying motionless on the pavement as if dead. A good many of these destitute were emaciated old people and half-starved children, some without arms and legs. I just couldn’t understand how any society could allow its most vulnerable citizens to undergo such hardships. I knew I wasn’t being rational, that mine was an over-emotional response to what was a complex historical situation, but that’s how I felt and I make no apologies for it. I always had such a strong reaction to other people’s suffering. And yet despite my anger, I did absolutely nothing to help these people. I hurried on past them like everyone else. I found ways to assuage my guilt, I rationalised, but deep down I knew that my failure to act had devalued me, for impoverished is the life that is not, even in a small way, spent in service to the greater good. Here’s how Garvey put it: “The ends you serve that are selfish will take you no further than yourself; but the ends you serve that are for all, in common, will take you into eternity.”
I don’t have too many fond memories of growing up in Jamaica. The main problem was my grandmother, a proper task master who insisted that I would eat only by the sweat of my brow. This meant I had to look after animals, fetch water, plough soil, sow crops, gather firewood, run endless errands, cook, clean, and generally be at my ruler’s beck and call. I came to hate her and longed to get back to London, to a life of comparative ease and one that offered some kind of future. When my mother finally brought me back, after five long years in exile, I felt a sense of relief such as I have not known since. It pains me to say it, but the experience has definitely clouded my view of Jamaica in particular and of the Caribbean in general. I visit Jamaica often, and can testify to the fact that a lot of the people who live there would give anything to get away, not only for economic reasons, but also to experience something of the outside world, to expand their limited horizons. Of course, most never get the chance, but that doesn’t stop them from dreaming, they never lose hope. V.S. Naipaul has been vilified in certain quarters for articulating this yearning, but it seems to me that he’s revealing what many people living in the Caribbean feel but would not necessarily admit. Here he is speaking of his own childhood in Trinidad. “I had no great love for the place, no love for its colonial smallness. I saw myself as a castaway from the world’s old civilisation, and I wished to be part of that bigger world as soon as possible.”
Marcus Garvey had a similar attitude towards the land of his birth. He knew from an early age that he would have to leave Jamaica in order to fulfil his ambitions. That’s why he eventually settled in the US – which was inevitable given the nature of his politics – and why he had two stints living in Britain. Without question, America was the making of him as a political leader, but in terms of how he developed his ideas, his first trip to the ‘mother country’ was crucial.
“I hadn’t realised, for example, that there were black people living in Britain long before the arrival of the so-called Windrush generation.”
Garvey first arrived in England in the summer of 1912, the same year that Scott and his party perished in the South Pole and more than fifteen hundred people went down with the Titanic. He remained in England for two years, doing manual work on the docks in Liverpool, Cardiff, and in London. In London he met up with his older sister, Indiana, who had come over to work as governess to the children of a white Jamaican family. As ever, his days were full. When he wasn’t at the docks he was studying law as an external student at Birkbeck College or hanging out at Speakers Corner, where he often took to the soapbox to preach about black oppression. He also spent time in the public gallery of the House of Commons, listening keenly while the MPs debated such thorny subjects as the “colonial question”. Socially, he started mixing with a small group of black intellectuals who had set up home in England. Chief among these was the Sudanese-Egyptian journalist, Duse Mohammed Ali, founder of the Africa Times and Oriental Review, a left-wing magazine with a tiny circulation whose scope encompassed much of the “Third World”. Inspired by the issues covered in the magazine, Garvey began to study African history, paying particular attention to the exploitation of African peoples by European colonisers. Among his reading matter was a book called Up From Slavery, a ground-breaking work that, inter alia, advocated black self-reliance. Written by Booker T. Washington – founder of the famous Tuskegee Institute, which, at the time, was the world’s only black-controlled educational establishment – the book so impressed Garvey that for the rest of his life he took pains to acknowledge how much it had influenced him, how much it had changed and improved him. “I read Up From Slavery and then my dream – if I may so call it – of being a race leader dawned”. His own writings – collected by his second wife and published posthumously in three volumes under the title The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey – did not inspire me to become a race leader, but, as I intimated earlier, they made me look at myself in a completely different light. “The black skin is not a badge of shame, but rather a glorious symbol of national greatness”.
As I read about Garvey’s exploits in England, it began to dawn on me how little I knew about black history. I hadn’t realised, for example, that there were black people living in Britain long before the arrival of the so-called Windrush generation. How come I hadn’t known about this? How come I hadn’t learned about it at school? I had been taught about Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Nelson, about Henry VIII and Mary Queen of Scots, but absolutely nothing about Mary Seacole, the Jamaican nurse who spent the better part of her life in England and whose contribution to the Crimean War effort stands comparison with that of Florence Nightingale, or about the eminent writer, Ignatius Sancho, who was painted by Gainsborough, no less. Does the marginalisation of such figures from Britain’s official history constitute deliberate “whitewashing”? I suspect so, but I could no more prove it than I could the existence of life on Mars. But I do know this: to have any idea where we’re going, we must know where we’ve been, to shape our future, it is important that we become acquainted with our past. ‘The history of a race,’ Garvey said, ‘is the guide-post of its destiny.’ It’s up to us to seek out and claim our history, we must pursue it to the endth degree, lest it, and therefore we, become lost. Not everyone is a fan of Black History Month, but surely even the cynics must accept that it’s founded on sound principles.
A combination of things prompted Garvey’s return to Jamaica – the warm weather, a yearning to be re-united with his friends and family, but most of all an intense desire to expand the UNIA. As soon as he was back on home soil he embarked on an island-wide lecture tour with the aim of promoting his organisation among the masses. The tour proved to be a great success, and before long he was being invited to speak at some very prestigious functions. In that time he also published the influential pamphlet, The Negro Race and Its Problems, which drew heavily on the teachings of Booker T. Washington. Indeed, he had become so immersed in Washington’s ideas that he booked a passage to America with the intention of seeking an audience with the great man, only for Washington to die before he could get there.
Washington’s death had a profound effect on Garvey, but with typical pragmatism, he used it as a galvanising force and resolved to establish the UNIA in the States. This, he hoped, would not only give him the chance to continue the work of the man he called “the great sage of Tuskegee”, but also to improve on it, to take it a stage further. Economic independence from whites was central to Washington’s ideology, but in Garvey’s opinion, this was merely a starting point on the road to freedom. More was needed, much more. “If Washington had lived he would have had to change his program. No leader can successfully lead this race of ours without giving an interpretation of the awakened spirit of the New Negro, who does not seek industrial (economic) opportunity alone, but also a political voice.”
In 1916 Garvey arrived in the US penniless and virtually unknown, but within three years he had become the most famous black man in the country and arguably the world. He arrived to find black Americans in the midst of an unprecedented social upheaval. With the country at war, black men, previously ignored, were suddenly much in demand. Thousands were sent off to fight, and those that remained, the vast majority of them living in the southern states, were encouraged to migrate north to form part of an industrial labour force decimated by war-time conscription. Each week they arrived by the thousands, only to find that there were not enough jobs to go round. In New York, for instance, where Garvey had set up home, unemployment amongst blacks was running at almost eighty per cent. For the lucky few there was factory work and derelict accommodation, for the unfortunate many there was homelessness and near-starvation. For a man of Garvey’s energy and political opportunism, these were promising circumstances indeed. Scarcely had he set foot in the country than he was out and about speechifying. His gift for oratory was put to good use on the mean streets of Harlem, and very quickly he began to receive invites from a variety of left-wing organisations to address their meetings and rallies. Within fifteen months of arriving in the States he had lectured in Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, St Louis, Detroit, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Nashville. Meanwhile, the UNIA chapter he had established in Harlem, had gone from strength to strength, and by the end of 1917 had over a thousand members.
Black Americans – or African Americans in the modern parlance – have made significant strides since Garvey’s day. They are well-represented in all areas of society and have a well-established and ever-burgeoning middle class that now constitutes one of America’s most important socio-political demographics. But problems remain, mostly to do with young, working-class black men. It would be interesting to know what remedies Garvey would propose for, say, the glorification of gun crime to be found in gangster rap, or the disproportionate number of blacks in America’s prisons. I recently saw a debate on US TV concerning these very subjects, and was shocked by the tone of defeatism. Had Garvey taken so pessimistic a view of the ills affecting the black race in the early part of the twentieth century I dread to think where we might currently be.
By 1922 Garvey was operating at the summit of his powers. In that year the UNIA held the first of its annual conventions, which opened with a parade down Harlem’s Lenox Avenue and was attended by a crowd of twenty-five thousand. It was during this convention that the delegates, many of them wearing military garb, declared Garvey provisional President of Africa, much to the surprise of those within the African independence movement who denounced the gesture as patronising. By this stage Garvey had also launched The Negro World, a weekly journal that promoted his increasingly pan-Africanist ideas. Never one to shy away from a fight, he was by now poking his nose into every corner of black American politics. He campaigned against lynching, Jim Crow laws, the denial of black voting rights, and other, subtler forms of racial discrimination. In this way he quickly established himself as a political heavyweight, both in America and abroad, at the head of an organisation now boasting over two million members and some forty-odd chapters worldwide. Whichever way you look at it, this was an incredible achievement for a man from of his background, an achievement that remains unsurpassed by any black leader. The success of the UNIA effectively established Garvey as the voice of his race, every bit as important to black people as Gandhi was to Indians, and yet these days, outside of academic circles, he scarcely rates a mention. Much of this, I believe, was down to his politics, which, to say the least, were controversial. For instance, he had hardly set foot in the States before he was urging black Americans to travel to Africa to ‘clear out the white invaders’. In the eyes of some of America’s leading black intellectuals, he was practically a demagogue. W.E.B Dubois, founder of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples), called him a “rabble rouser” whose movement “seemed to be absurd, grotesque, and bizarre”. But Garvey was unconcerned by such attacks. He was a man on a mission, constantly dreaming up bigger and better schemes to advance his cause, which is how he came to be mixed up in the world of big business.
“Did J. Edgar Hoover, then of the Justice Department and later head of the FBI, really orchestrate Garvey’s downfall in the same way he later used dirty tricks against Martin Luther King and Malcolm X?”
It remains a source of wonder to me that Garvey was able to raise the incredible sum of ten million dollars from the UNIA’s rank and file to set up the world’s first black shipping line. That most of the money came from small investors gives some idea of the scope of the UNIA’s membership. It says a lot too about the faith they had in their leader: after all, these were poor folk, dirt poor in many cases, and yet they sent in their nickels and dimes. The Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company was founded with the intention of establishing trading routes between Africa and the United States. Through the company Garvey bought two steamships, Shadyside and Kanawha, not only as trading vessels, but as a means of repatriating diasporic blacks back to Africa. In the latter venture he had some very surprising allies. He held secret meetings with the Ku Klux Klan, who, for obvious reasons, supported his attempts to persuade black Americans to repatriate to Africa. When news of these meetings broke it caused a storm amongst black activists in America and around the world. Garvey, not for the first time in his life, came under severe attack but, with typical bullishness, he sought to justify his actions. In an interview in The New York Times he said: “I regard the Klan, the Anglo Saxon clubs and White American societies, as far as the Negro is concerned, as better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together. I like honesty and fair play. You may call me a Klansman if you will, but, potentially, every white man is a Klansman, as far as the Negro in competition with whites socially, economically and politically is concerned, and there is no use lying about it.” In the end, his repatriation programme ran aground. The Black Cross Navigation Company ran out of money and was wound up with crippling debts. Following allegations of financial impropriety, Garvey, whose business practices had for some time been under the scrutiny of the federal government, was convicted on fraud charges and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. It was a spectacular fall from grace, and one from which he never fully recovered.
The details of Garvey’s conviction remain unclear. Was he fitted up by the US government, as he himself claimed and as so many of his supporters believed? Did J. Edgar Hoover, then of the Justice Department and later head of the FBI, really orchestrate his downfall in the same way he later used dirty tricks against Martin Luther King and Malcolm X? The conspiracy theorists certainly think so. What we do know is that in 1927, after two years in the Atlanta State Penitentiary, and having become a cause celebre, Garvey had his sentence commuted by President Calvin Coolidge, which, without being a total exoneration, does seem like some sort of acknowledgement of wrong-doing on the part of the US administration. At any rate, Garvey was free, but his followers scarcely had time to break out the Champagne before he was deported. Back in Jamaica he was given a hero’s welcome. He was met in Kingston by a brass band and a cheering crowd, and after a defiant speech, in which he reiterated his innocence and condemned the American authorities as racist, he marched with his supporters to the UNIA headquarters where a lavish reception awaited him.
Garvey never returned to America. Cut off from his powerbase, his decline was inevitable. For a time he continued his political activities in Jamaica, but for a man of such international standing, he must have felt humiliated to be once again confined to the backwoods of the Caribbean. In 1928, determined to regain his place on the international stage, he went on a short lecture tour of Europe, during which he was invited to address the League of Nations in Switzerland. On his return to Jamaica he founded the People’s Political Party, Jamaica’s first modern political party. It campaigned on such issues as workers’ rights and free education and aid for the poor, and a version of it – the People’s National Party – survives to this day. In that year he also launched The Blackman, a daily propaganda sheet for his political views, and was elected as a local councillor. His was a welcome voice in the council chamber, but he soon lost his seat because of his continued absence from council meetings while serving a short prison term for contempt of court. In 1930 he was re-elected to the council, unopposed, along with two other PPP candidates.
So, what with council business, running the local chapter of the UNIA and overseeing his newspaper, he was more active than ever, but amongst Jamaica’s political establishment his standing was far from high. Forever the troublemaker, he simply made too many enemies among the island’s great and good, which only served to increase his popularity with ordinary Jamaicans. And that, in a nutshell, was Garvey’s great strength – he was a man of the people. It is a quality all politicians seek to cultivate but few have naturally. Martin Luther King had it, Malcolm X had it – even our own Bernie Grant had it, which is why he was so despised by Labour’s apparatchik. When I was growing up, I used to rejoice whenever Bernie Grant got into trouble, for it usually meant he had said something in defence of black people, usually black youth. When he died, my friends and I felt a sense of dis-empowerment, for who now would speak on our behalf, who would stand up for us within the corridors of power? Dianne Abbot? Paul Boateng? They were not one of us. They were too ‘white’, too posh. Bernie Grant, by contrast, spoke with a thick Caribbean accent. We could relate to that. Listening to Bernie Grant was like listening to our parents. But more than anything, he was our man because he was not afraid to speak his mind. In the immediate aftermath of the Broadwater Farm riots, he was reported to have said, ‘The police got a bloody good hiding.’ Such a remark would have been controversial at the best of times, but given that PC Blakelock had been hacked to death during the riots, it was nothing short of explosive. Grant vehemently protested his innocence, claiming that his words had been taken out of context, but the controversy dogged him to his grave. The affair had echoes of another case involving another outspoken black leader. Following President Kennedy’s assassination, Malcom X said, “The chickens have come home to roost.” He was accused from all quarters of being insensitive, of trampling on the Kennedy’s grief, but the fact of his insensitivity in no way detracts from the truth of the sentiment he expressed. The same can be said of Bernie Grant’s comments. What happened to PC Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm riots is, I believe, a stain on the conscience of the black community that will probably never be removed. But Grant was right – assuming he’d been accurately quoted – the police did get a good hiding, and it’s one that had been long overdue.
By 1935 Garvey had had enough of Jamaica. In the spring of that year he decamped to England for good, accompanied by his second wife Amy and their two sons; four-year-old Marcus Jnr., and two-year-old Julius. With financial assistance from the UNIA, the family rented a small flat in Talgarth Road, West Kensington. For the next three years Garvey devoted himself to writing and giving speeches, but all was not well at home. Amy wasn’t happy with the British way of life, and when her youngest son fell seriously ill she used it as an excuse to take the boys back to Jamaica. Though she and Garvey maintained a regular correspondence, the marriage was effectively over.
It saddens me to think that Garvey spent his final years in loneliness and obscurity. I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for him to have scaled such heights only to be brought so low. He soldiered on as best as he could, writing and lecturing and what not, but slowly his foothold in international politics began to slip. Towards the end of his life he was reduced to sloganeering at Speakers Corner, where he attracted tiny crowds and a good deal of hostility from a new generation of black radicals. Most notable among these was C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian Marxist and author of the seminal Black Jacobins. “Today,” wrote James in 1938, “he [Garvey] is a staunch supporter of the British government and makes Tory speeches about Africa, to the great annoyance of revolutionary British workers.” Such attacks marked the beginning of the end of Garvey as a political leader. His final years were marked by frustration and disillusionment, and in January 1940 he suffered a stroke at his flat that left him paralysed and bedridden. With the help of a physiotherapist hired by the UNIA, his condition improved a little, but by the summer of 1940 a rumour started going around that he had died alone and in poverty. Letters of condolence poured in, while the Jamaican newspaper, the Gleaner, carried the front page headline: “Garvey is dead”. Garvey was so incensed by this premature obituary that he suffered a relapse and promptly died. He was just fifty-three.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey was buried on June 14, 1940, just as the Nazis were invading France. In a modest Catholic ceremony, attended by a handful of mourners, he was laid to rest in the catacomb of St Mary’s Chapel on the Harrow Road in North West London. Almost a quarter of a century later, in October 1964, his body was disinterred and transported to Jamaica, where he received a state funeral and was declared Jamaica’s first National Hero.
“In America, his political offspring include the Black Panthers.”
Throughout his life, Garvey often found himself on the wrong side of the political establishment, both white and black, and his criticisms of the black bourgeois elite, directed mostly at W.E.B Dubois, earned him the reputation for being a dangerous and destabilising force. After his death, there was a clamour to discredit him, the consensus being that he had talked a great deal without accomplishing very much. From a literal point of view, his critics were right. He had spoken about “Africa for the Africans”, but when he died Africa was still under European control. Like Booker T. Washington, he had preached the importance of black enterprise as a means of social advancement, yet today, almost eighty years after his death, black nations remain amongst the poorest in the world. But to judge him solely in terms of tangible achievements is, I believe, to do him a huge disservice, for his impact was less on the material well-being of a people and more on its collective consciousness. In both thought and deed, he inspired millions of black people around the world to stand up and demand their freedom. In Africa, entire nations were founded on his guiding principles. Jomo Kenyatta, the first Prime Minister of self-governing Kenya, was said to have been a card-carrying member of the UNIA and a dedicated reader of The Negro World. Kwame Nkrumah, who oversaw Ghana’s transition to independence, honoured him thus: “Long before many of us were even conscious of our own degradation, Marcus Garvey fought for African national and racial equality.” In America, his political offspring include the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, whose father, indeed, worked for the UNIA. Even Martin Luther King owned to being influenced by a man who, politically at least, was his polar opposite. In 1965, speaking to a crowd at Jamaica’s National Stadium, King was fulsome in his tribute. “You gave Marcus Garvey to the United States of America, and he gave to the millions of Negroes a sense of personhood, a sense of manhood and a sense of somebodiness.” In his autobiography, A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela recalls giving a speech at New York’s Yankee Stadium a few years after he had been released from Robben Island. The predominantly black crowd had gathered in their thousands, and Mandela began by reminding them of the unbreakable bond that existed between black South Africans and black Americans. There was, he told them, a kinship between the two, inspired “by such great Americans as W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, and Martin Luther King.” Garvey, of course, was a Jamaican, in my opinion the greatest of them all, but I don’t suppose anyone in the crowd saw fit to quibble the point.
Stephen Thompson was born in London to Jamaican parents. His first novel, Toy Soldiers, a semi-autobiographical account of his adolescent years, was published in 2000 and described by Hanif Kureishi as ‘beautifully written, painfully honest and deeply affecting’.
His second novel, Missing Joe, about the Windrush generation, was published in 2002 to critical acclaim.
2007 saw the publication of his third novel, Meet Me Under The Westway, a satirical account of life in London’s theatre land. His most recent novel, No More Heroes, is about the London Underground bombings in 2005.
He is a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester and is the editor and publisher of the online literary journal, The Colverstone Review. His awards include an Arts Council New Writers Bursary and a Hawthornden Fellowship.
*Thoughts expressed in this work are entirely those of the author.
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