Chasing Garvey’s Ghost

This is the fifth 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 followed by comments from Komozi Woodard, Paul Hébert, and Reena Goldthree. In this post, Frank Andre Guridy praises the book’s broad geographic scope but raises questions about Ewing’s decision to craft a “story about Garveyism without Garveyites.” 

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Guridy Headshot 2014
Frank Andre Guridy

Frank Andre Guridy is Associate Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and Visiting Associate Professor of History at Columbia University. He specializes in sport history, urban history, and the history of the African Diaspora in the Americas. He is the author of Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), which won the Elsa Goveia Book Prize from the Association of Caribbean Historians and the Wesley-Logan Book Prize, conferred by the American Historical Association. He is currently at work on two book projects: Assembly in the Fragmented City: A History of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and When Texas Sports Became Big Time: A History of Sports in Texas after World War II (Under contract with the University of Texas Press). 

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In 1961, Max Roach, the legendary jazz drummer, recorded “Garvey’s Ghost” on his album Percussion Bitter Sweet. With Abbey Lincoln’s haunting ululation joining trumpeter Booker Little and saxophonist Clifford Jordan soaring over the polyrhythmic drumming of Roach and Afro-Cuban drummers, Carlos “Patato” Valdés (congas) and Carlos “Totico” Eugenio (cowbell), the composition, like other Roach-Lincoln collaborations, became a powerful cultural manifestation of the early 1960s black freedom struggle. The tune consciously invokes the spirit of Marcus Garvey, leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the largest black mass movement of the 1920s, to craft a new song of rebellion for a new era of black mobilization. The driving percussion of Roach, Valdés and Eugenio echoed the transcultural quality of Garveyism, which was comprised of an eclectic mix of cultural and political practices, ideologies, and beliefs of people of African descent throughout the diaspora. Moreover, the composition’s foregrounding of African drumming sonically refashions the Garveyite message of “Africa for the Africans” in a way that the racial uplift politics of the movement often did not accommodate. In this sense, “Garvey’s Ghost,” remakes Garveyism in ways that the iconic leader and his adherents may not have anticipated.

ewingAdam Ewing’s The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Changed Global Politics, like Roach’s “Garvey’s Ghost,” also seeks to re-imagine the iconic “Back to Africa” movement. In elegant prose, Ewing revisits what many historians consider the largest black mass movement in history. He joins the ranks of scholars, myself included, who have attempted to chase Garvey’s ghost; to historicize a phenomenon that clearly moved black people across the diaspora in ways that are often difficult to document. The book offers an impressively crafted narrative that puts the UNIA at the center of global Afro-diasporic mobilization during the 1920s. Ewing boldly confronts the challenge of documenting a phenomenon that is at once everywhere and nowhere; a movement with a transnational impact that is hard to concretize given the skewed nature of the historical evidence. Notwithstanding its widespread circulation and the broad appeal of the Pan-African vision of the Negro World, the UNIA newspaper, its formulaic manner of reporting complicates the source problem further. While Robert Hill’s pioneering labors with the Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers series have done much to address this problem, sorting through the notorious bombastic quality of Garveyite discourse and the corresponding anxieties it created among ruling elites remains a serious challenge. Ewing addresses this conundrum by smartly giving us a narrative of Garveyism without Garvey, arguing that the movement continued to be impactful even when the UNIA as an organization was in decline. He writes: “the lasting legacy of Marcus Garvey would be forged not in the radical moment of 1919-20, nor in the grand theatrics and ostentatious scheming that made Garvey famous, but in the sustained commitment to movement making—locally rendered, globally framed” (108). The text’s broad geographic scope, which takes the reader from the U.S., to the Caribbean, to Southern, Eastern, and Central Africa is refreshingly reminiscent of the classic Pan-African histories of W.E.B. Dubois, C.L.R. James, George Shepperson, Vincent B. Thompson, and Immanuel Geiss. Indeed, one of the strengths of the book is Ewing’s decision to center the story of the UNIA away from the Americas to the African continent. In this way, the book is consciously indebted to the rich Pan-African scholarship that was central to the evolution of Black history writing.

Ewing’s interpretation of Garveyism’s influence in Africa relies on the circulation of the “myth of the American liberator,” the notion that diasporic blacks would return to the homeland to spearhead the overthrow of European colonial rule (166). Like Robert Trent Vinson’s The Americans are Coming: Dreams of African American Liberation in Segregationist South Africa (Ohio University Press, 2012), Ewing’s book underscores the impact of Afro-diasporic identifications in African anti-colonial formations. In the Central and East African contexts, following the work of historians of colonial Africa, Ewing highlights the ways elements of the UNIA’s message resonated with the Western-educated African elite, who were often marginalized by variations of Frederick Lugard’s colonial system of “indirect rule.” Ewing’s research on Garveyism’s influence on religious movements in Central Africa using the archives of the Public Record Office in London, and the National Archives of Zambia and Malawi, offer tantalizing, but fleeting evidence of the ways African religious leaders might have found inspiration in the UNIA’s project. His research most convincingly underscores the tremendous anxiety the circulation of the Negro World generated among British, French and South African colonial officials. To be sure, Garvey’s ghost, not the presence of Garvey himself, prompted decisive action by European colonial officials, leading them on concerted, but often futile campaigns to suppress the circulation of the Negro World.

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Marcus Garvey

And yet the chapters on Garveyism in Africa are also perhaps the weakest parts of the book, precisely because they illustrate the drawbacks of Ewing’s decision to craft a story of Garveyism without Garveyites, the people who actually did the hard work of “organizing, networking, and consciousness raising” (6). Historians of the UNIA in other parts of the diaspora have sought to address the challenge of gauging the impact of the movement in other contexts where robust black organizations had already existed. For example, Jorge Giovannetti’s 2006 essay in Small Axe situated Garveyism in Cuba within a wider range of organizations created by British West Indian migrants on the island during the 1920s. He showed how the UNIA in Cuba “fit within the religious tradition of many islanders from the British Caribbean colonies” even as it had to “coexist with other ideological forces not necessarily in harmony with its values and beliefs.”1 In Cuba, as elsewhere, UNIA organizers had to figure out ways to create spaces, not only because they found themselves in a society that was fearful of autonomous black mobilization, but also because there was an already existing network of Afro-Cuban “colored societies” with longstanding organizing traditions that existed outside of the structure of the UNIA. Indeed, the existence of an active network of Afro-Cuban associations has led some historians to argue, erroneously I believe, that Garveyism remained a marginal “West Indian” phenomenon in Cuba. Garveyites shared spaces with black organizations in Cuba, as I found in my research, but they were, like the Watch Tower movement in Central Africa described by Ewing, often competitors for the attentions of black constituents. Garveyites, like many social movements, used bombast and exaggeration to enhance their legitimacy and at times, The Age of Garvey overlooks this well-known tendency, even as Ewing acknowledges that “UNIA officials were prone to wild overstatement, embellishment, and at times outright fantasy” (159). Still, Ewing’s desire to view Garveyism as the main catalyst of 1920s Black politics leads him to inflate the influence of the UNIA on emerging anti-colonial movements in Africa without actually demonstrating that precise influence in a convincing manner.

Herein lies the pitfall of studying Garveyism without Garveyites. Without the organizers themselves, all we are left with are traces of Garvey’s ghost. The point here is not to sound like a curmudgeonly historian who sanctifies empirical evidence as “proof” of a movement’s impact, but it is, rather to call out the depth and breadth of Afro-diasporic collectivity and mobilization. It is to argue that the UNIA was but one of a dizzying array of grassroots religious, political and mutual-aid organizations that provided spaces for black people and “vocabularies of agency” in the decade following the brief political openings generated by World War I. Thus, the challenge of historicizing Garveyism involves looking beyond the shadow cast by its leader to illustrate the ways black subjects creatively constituted communities within and, often, beyond the influence of the UNIA. To be sure, Garvey and the UNIA had a profound impact on Black “freedom dreams,” but the movement was also influenced by competing black organizations that offered their own visions of community and their own organizational practices.

In the end, perhaps one of the takeaways from The Age of Garvey, is not “how a Jamaican activist changed global black politics,” but rather, how black people, whether it was Harry Thuku in 1920s Kenya, or Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and the musicians who recorded “Garvey’s Ghost” in the 1960s United States, changed global politics and Black diasporic cultures by refashioning Garvey into a source of inspiration for more capacious visions of liberation than those offered by the movement itself. As Ewing himself points out, Garveyism gave “subaltern blacks… usable materials for political engagement” (6). Perhaps the next phase of Garveyism research can build upon Ewing’s insistence on the importance of studying the movement apart from its leader, not just in the period of its organizational decline, but also after Garvey’s death in 1940. How did the Jamaican government straight jacket his legacy when it declared the previously disregarded prophet a “national hero” in the early years of independence? How did the Rastafari and reggae artists remake the image of Garvey to counter this officialist vision in the 1960s and 70s? Or, how did Garveyism become an iconic movement which we still seek to understand today? Pursuing lines of inquiry such as these may enable an even greater appreciation of Garveyism’s profound impact on Afro-diasporic cultures and political engagement.

  1. Jorge L. Giovannetti, “The Elusive Organization of ‘Identity’: Race, Religion, and Empire among Caribbean Migrants in Cuba,” Small Axe 10 (2006): 1-27.

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