The coming to Harlem of Garvey…was more significant to the Negro man then the World War, the Southern exodus and the fluctuation of property values…The cotton picker of Alabama, bending over his basket, and the poor ignorant Negro of the Mississippi Delta, crushed beneath a load of prejudice , lifted their heads and said, 'Let's go to Harlem to see this Black Moses.
--Hickey and Edwin, 21
Garvey was a sort of Black Messiah in Harlem, addressing the very issues many black Americans had envisioned they would overcome when through migrating: oppression, uprootedness, and identity. For many immigrants to Harlem, he represented the fulfillment of their concerns for success and happiness free from white control. What set Garvey apart from his counterparts and predecessors was his uncanny knack at connecting with the masses of black people; the common element that Dubois sought to uplift through his trickle down notion of class uplift and that Washington undershot through ignoring the realities of black suffering under white control. Taking elements of the best of Washington's self-help agenda and paralleling the political militancy of Dubois, Garvey's message was one of a complete disavowal from the rifts(better word) white America struck between the races.
He believed the break between black and white America was beyond mending, and thus his creation of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) doubled as the foundation of a new nation and responded to the specific hurts, joys and above all, the aspirations of common black America. Rather than intellectualizing about how to uplift these individuals, he sought to draw out the core issues around which he would develop his program from the masses themselves. About his political agenda for black Americans, Nathan Huggins, a Harlem Renaissance historian writes:
His message was simple and unambiguous: black people were a good and noble race. They were beautiful people with a grand history which had been hidden from them by their white oppressors. They were an enslaved people, true enough, but theirs was a servility of mind-the effects of the brainwashing of the colonial system-not of nature. Once black men and women rid themselves of self-hatred, and asserted their natural nobility, they would overwhelm white oppression and come into their just inheritance. Their destiny was grand: to return Africa to the Africans.*
Note in this quotation what were the most simple and fundamental components of Garvey's agenda. They were not accommodating the white interest in quelling the Negro problem or looking to the already educated, already successful to lead "the rest" out of their backwardness. Rather, Garvey addressed the fact that black people in America had been fundamentally separated from their history, a fact which he firmly believed, hampered any efforts at success they might seek to build anywhere in the world. It was this lack of origin in which to root one's identity that Garvey believed had to be restored in order to free black people from the "servility of mind" that Huggins discusses here. Further, he took the narrative of their inherent depravity and replaced it with one of "natural nobility" seated in a grad legacy of triumph and strength. His primary method of conveying this message was through his newspaper, The Negro World. Hickey and Edwin describe the means and ends of this newspaper in this manner, saying:
"[The Negro World's] pages not only gave news of Negro affairs in the United States, but also described regal splendor in ancient Africa to which the American Negro could refer with pride. He wrote, sometimes in fanciful detail, of the heroism of such slave dissidents as Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, of the battles of Zulu and Hottentot warriors against their European rulers; he recounted the histories of Moorish and Ethiopian conquests, and the exploits of Toussaint L'Ouverture against the French in Haiti" (Hickey and Edwin, 27)
The significance of this description is that through his newspaper, Garvey sought to address the self-hatred he understood afflicted black people throughout the world because of oppression from the history of European conquest, by simply filling the spiritual and psychological void their uprootedness had left to them. In addition to stories of a powerful and pristine Africa, he tantalized, bedazzled and inspired black Americans with a vision of replanting themselves in the continent of their ancestry. In order to fully understand Garvey's significance, one must understand the centrality of Harlem in giving the spirit of his dream tangible flesh. The usefulness of this newspaper in Harlem was that it enabled him to reach the common man with an empowering message that instilled hope into the otherwise dim prospects of life under the pressure of white oppression. His organization, the UNIA, published this manifesto in The Negro World to concisely and efficiently convey the thrust of his program:
"We are decendants of a suffering people…We are descendants of a people determined to suffer no longer…We shall now organize the 400,000,000 Negroes of the world into a vast organization to plant the banner of freedom on the great continent of Africa."(Hickey and Edwin, 27)
Garvey's plan for black expatriation or more closely, for repatriation and/or return to their land of origin, he believed would usher in a sort of eschatological fulfillment of God's plan for not only the people who left but also for the continent as a whole. While his notion of Africa definitely conjures a monolithic notion of the true diversity in the very language and spirit of his imaging (the very notion of repatriation implies a return to one's country of origin, yet Africa exists as a continent), the usefulness of this image was its power in establishing a common ground between the diverse elements of the African diaspora, complete with their diverse concerns and locales. Through his imaging of Africa and with the aid of the writers of the time, he was able to create a new set of values in from which to derive inspiration: Africa and its people saying:
Sons and daughters of Africa, I say to you arise, take on the toga of race pride, and throw off the brand of ignominy which has kept you back for so many centuries. Dash asunder the petty prejudices within your own fold; set at defiance the scornful destination of "nigger" uttered even by yourselves, and be a Negro in the light of the Pharaohs of Egypt, Simons of Cyrene, Hannibals of Carthage, L'ouverture's and Dessalines of Haiti, Blydens, Barclays and Johnson's of Liberia, Lewises of Sierra Leone, and Douglass's and Dubois's of America.
To study the history of the Negro is to go back into a primitive civilization that teems with the brightest and best in art and the sciences…The glories of the past should tend to inspire us with courage to create a worthy future. (Clarke, 86-7)
His vision, program and focus all centered on improving the lives of the black masses. Garvey constructs his charge to Negroes in America through seating his conversation in a context of African, West Indian, and American thinkers who have achieve success, intellectually, militarily and rhetorically. More so, he goes on to say that it was only through studying and drawing inspiration from this past that black Americans could ever have "courage to create a worthy future. He was also convicted that it was only through ridding oneself of self-hatred through being willing to associate oneself with even the "worst" elements of that race that would facilitate healing and wholeness for black people.
For lack of this factor he criticized most other "race leaders" of the time saying: "Representatives and educated Negroes have made the mistake of drawing and keeping themselves away from the race, thinking that is degrading and ignominious to identify themselves with the masses of the people who are still ignorant and backward; but who are crying out for true and conscientious leadership". (Clarke, 84)
In this quotation we see his critique of such persons who think they can be "degrad[ed]" or contaminated by being around average black people. He insists even that these masses are "crying out for true and conscientious leadership," yet the people who purport to advocate the Negro cause do not want anything to do with the folk people of their race. Because he sensed in the agendas of such leaders a fundamental disconnect from the masses, to people about whom these leaders claimed to care, Marcus Garvey made no apologies for his criticisms of them. Conversely, and perhaps most important for our conversation, Garvey fused in his person the most visionary elements of collective/communal Negro thought, melding interests in the material and psychological well-being of black Americans, while not becoming unfocused or distracted with minding white morality and acceptance. Additionally, to further root his program, Garvey employed the use of Christianity and its language of prophetic restoration to the weary, invoking the help of an Almighty God to help the black race to fight its battles.
Not by might, |
Nor by power,
but by my spirit saith the Lord of Hosts.
God of the right, our battles fight.
Be with us as of yore.
Break down the barriers of might
We rev'rently implore.
Stand with us in our struggles for
The triumph of the right
And spread confusion ever o'er
The advocates of might.
And let them know that righteousness
is mightier than sin.
That Might is only selfishness
And cannot, ought not win.
Endow us Lord, with faith and grace
and courage to endure
The wrongs we suffer here apace
And Bless us evermore.
Christianity, for this program, enabled Garvey not only to reach the masses of black people through a paradigm with which they were already familiar, but also enabled him to address the entire person. His movement became not just ethical and aesthetical, but also of spiritual import to black people internationally in all their complexities and particularities. With this prayer, he foregrounds his entire movement with supplication for the aid of the Spirit of "the Lord of Hosts" who, he implies, exists in the midst of his efforts, because these efforts advocate the cause of the oppressed. Through making references to sin and righteousness, he rewrites the narrative of blacks as sinful with out a narrative about a righteous struggle for freedom with the "courage to endure".
This effort to view black Americans as inherently able and valuable through the lens of Christianity not only had a profound impact on his effectiveness in mobilizing over 1 million Negroes in Harlem alone to join his association, but had a profound impact on the way churches in Harlem approached their communities, helping them to similarly derive their approaches from their congregations as well as lending new language to their project of uplift.
He was able to speak with such a collective voice through his move to ground his conversation in Africa, placing there a sense of common ancestry and essential essence for black people. Through this approach, he was able to argue for the strength in the sheer numbers of African diasporic people throughout the world, that when united would be able to realize the legacy and matured essence of their mother Africa.
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