Charting the Significance of Marcus Garvey and Grassroots Garveyism

Komozi Woodard
Komozi Woodard

This is the second day of our roundtable on Adam Ewing’s book, The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement and Changed Global Black Politics. We began with introductory remarks by Stephen G. Hall on Monday. In this post, Komozi Woodard praises Ewing’s work for capturing the significance of grassroots Garveyism in the African Diaspora.

Komozi Woodard is professor of American history at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. He has also worked extensively as an activist and journalist. His research interests include African American history, politics, and culture, emphasizing the Black Freedom Movement, women in the Black Revolt, US urban and ethnic history, public policy and persistent poverty, oral history, and the experience of anti-colonial movements. He is the author of A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka and Black Power Politics and co-editor of The Black Power Movement, Part I: Amiri Baraka, From Black Arts to Black Radicalism; Freedom North: Groundwork; and Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle.

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It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of Adam Ewing’s The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement and Changed Global Black Politics. This book represents the dramatic paradigm change underway in Africana Studies that in turn informs significant changes in American historiography. The old scholarship and Cold War historiography was dismissive of Marcus Garvey and the phenomenal global reach of Grassroots Garveyism; thus, Marcus Garvey and the UNIA were either ridiculed or minimized. The Cold War academy routinely dismissed the claims of the UNIA as a mass movement until the file cabinets holding the membership records of the UNIA were accidentally found in a Harlem office building that was being demolished. Then the new biographers went to work; however, that first generation of scholarship was stuck in the quicksand of the ideological battles from the 1920s framing the issues in terms of Black Nationalism versus Communism– or race versus class. On the one hand in Race First, Tony Martin was a pioneering revisionist who condemned and corrected the dismissive work on Marcus Garvey and the UNIA. On the other hand, Judith Stein summed up the significance of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA as a mass movement that failed because of its business ethos. Tragically that framework blinded students to the vast and complex conversations about ideology, organization, politics and political economy that took place under the big tent of Grassroots Garveyism.

Hubert Harrison
Hubert Harrison

Fortunately, Adam Ewing’s work benefits from several important interventions in this scholarship: intellectual, ideological and geographical. Intellectually, Jeffrey B. Perry’s work on Hubert Harrison–Marcus Garvey’s editor of the Negro World—was a giant step in this paradigm change. The criminally neglected Hubert Harrison was the working-class intellectual renowned as the Socrates of the Harlem Renaissance. And, Harrison was at the center of a crowded circle of Harlem intellectuals in that golden age of Black Radicalism.1

Ideologically, in Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America, Winston James took another giant step by situating Marcus Garvey in the context of an important strain in the Black Radical Tradition propelled by Caribbean intellectuals. Geographically, the international and chronological dimensions of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA were interrogated in an important volume edited by Michael O. West and his colleagues, From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black Internationalism Since the Age of Revolution.

Since Adam Ewing explores and explains the rich findings in the new scholarship, this book is ideal for teachers and professors because in addition to the works I just mentioned. It also summarizes the dramatic rethinking of Booker T. Washington that is underway right now. Prior to this book, my students would have to consult a library of scholarship to begin to appreciate the global scope of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA. And, there is so much misleading interpretation in that library. By contrast, Adam Ewing’s judgments are sound. In other words, Ewing connects the dots in this vast literature and concentrates that voluminous body of knowledge into one book focused on Marcus Garvey, mass movement and global black politics. Finally, Marcus Garvey and the UNIA is receiving the kind of serious scholarship that they deserve.

UNIA-1924

I salute Adam Ewing for this important work on Marcus Garvey and Grassroots Garveyism. And, I would enthusiastically recommend the book to teachers and professors who need an informative and reliable introduction to the scholarship on Marcus Garvey and that Age of Grassroots Garveyism. Indeed, this book will also be helpful for students of Malcolm X and the Black Power Generation. It explains the rich foundations of Black Power Politics. For today’s activists, the book also demonstrates what poor people’s movements have done in terms of organizing locally, regionally and globally in the 20th century.

  1. See Jeffrey B. Perry, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918.

Comments on “Charting the Significance of Marcus Garvey and Grassroots Garveyism

  • The global fabric of Grassroots Garveyism is not only rich and complicated but also congested with numerous dimensions. Thus, unpacking the many intellectual threads is worthwhile.
    Consider these few threads. When I taught American urban and ethnic history, I stumbled upon a moment in Chinese American history that paralleled the Black Star Line; in the same period that the Black Star Line failed in New York, in San Francisco Chinese American banks also failed in their shipping line. The Anglo-American shipping industry has such a political and economic stranglehold that oppressed nationalities–no matter what their business acumen–were severely challenged in their attempts to outflank their encirclement in that industry of transnational transportation. In other words, we need to step back and understand the larger framework of Black business experiments in the 1920s. The work on the Chinese American steam ships suggest that business experiment was a component part of their group identity formation with an eye toward modernism.

    There are also ideological threads linking Grassroots Garveyism to Afro-Orientalism. In the world of communist politics, the Comintern debates in the communist international involved what they called the National Question; and in those conversations Sultan Galiev argued that the colonial peoples rather than the European working class were the vanguard in the revolution against imperialism. Sultan Galiev was speaking for the Muslim rebellions against empire with an eye toward not only the 1916 Dublin Rebellion against the British Empire but also the numerous revolutions stirring in India, China, Egypt and so forth. Tragically, that argument was so controversial that Stalin had him removed from the known world.

    Thus, the insights that Marcus Garvey’s intellectual circles were thinking about were also shared by other colonial subjects resisting western empires. Those conversations anticipated the later intellectual developments in the hands of thinkers like Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Mohammed Babu, Nelson Mandela, Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong.

    During Marcus Garvey’s golden age, Cyril Briggs and Harry Haywood developed the African Blood Brotherhood that saluted the Irish rebellion in 1916 as a strategic blow to the British Empire. When I talked to Harry Haywood about Grassroots Garveyism, he stressed that before he became a communist that he was a Black Nationalist in the UNIA; and during his work in the 1920s and 1930s on the African American National Question and the South African National Question, he and his Left colleagues mined the organizational and political genius of Grassroots Garveyism as they developed their Marxist theory of Black Self-Determination.
    Harry Haywood first attempted to articulate those insights with Langston Hughes in the early 1930s in the anti-lynching front, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights. However the best mass articulation of that program was developed in 1936 in the Chicago conference that Harry Haywood organized at an armory, the National Negro Congress. (This was parallel to the Spanish National Congress organized by Latinos on the West Coast.)
    At that 1936 congress, Richard Wright presented the paper that his South Side writing workshop developed, “Blueprint for Negro Literature,” in an attempt to flesh out the cultural dimensions of African American nationality and Black self-determination. And, out of that same workshop Margaret Walker articulated its poetic and epic dimensions in her “For My People.” Her college roommate Elizabeth Catlett articulated the visual dimensions in thier collaborative work. That thinking might be read alongside the latter thinking of Mao Zedong at the Yenan Talks on Art in the 1940s; the Chinese Revolution was also fleshing out the cultural dimensions of self-determination in national liberation. Indeed, Mao Zedong sent a message of support in 1936 to the National Negro Congress in Chicago. [See A Nation within a Nation]

    In brief, the new paradigm in Black Freedom Studies and Black Power Studies is an epic global project that might propel us beyond the Gramsci framework toward the rediscovery of the rich Grassroots intellectual tradition that produced Malcolm X, including his mother Louise Langdon Little [see Erik Mc Duffie’s outstanding scholarship on this subject].

    Adam Ewing has joined cutting edge scholars like Michael West, Ula Taylor and so many other young lions in mining the rich resources not only in the Black Revolt but also in the Bandung World including the Bandung West struggles that joined the Congress of African People and the African Liberation Support Committee to the Young Lords and the August 29th Movement as well as the American Indian Movement and so forth.

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  • Give thanks in the works deeds and words of the yesteryears warriors; their external and especially internally used traducers of humanity; cause with self opposition in “family” and beyound our noble shores , we the servant “leaders” shall not truly know our strength, nor to whom , we are empowered, when we faint not.
    A Soldier of high Agape, Professor, T.A. ODUNO

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