The Age of Garvey and the Reconstruction of the Global Garveyist Frontier

Stephen G. Hall
Stephen G. Hall

Over the next few days (November 23-30, 2015), we are hosting a roundtable on Adam Ewing’s The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement and Changed Global Politics (Princeton University Press, 2014). Several scholars will offer reviews of the book and on the final day of the roundtable, Adam Ewing will provide a response.

We begin with an introduction by our moderator Stephen G. Hall, Assistant Professor of History at Alcorn State University. He specializes in 19th and 20th century African American historiography, intellectual, social and cultural history as well as American history. For the past ten years, he has taught a wide variety of courses in his areas of expertise. He is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. In addition, his scholarly work has appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly, the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography and the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. His current book project, “Global Visions: African American Historians Write About the World, 1885-1960,” explores historical writing about and activism concerning the Diaspora among African American historians.

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*This forum is a good example of the ways in which scholarly collaboration can lead to important scholarly work, which can open new vistas of thought and engagement. At a very early stage of working on my current book project, “Global Visions: African American Historians Engage the World, 1885-1960,” I was casting about trying to think more broadly about the intersections between historical production and global organizational activism in the Diaspora. I had the good fortune to read portions of Keisha Blain’s dissertation at Princeton and stumbled upon references to Adam Ewing’s dissertation at Harvard titled “Broadcast on the Winds: Diasporic Politics in the Age of Garvey, 1919-1940” (2011). After reading the dissertation in its entirety, I recognized immediately its importance as a model for the complex shape that Diasporic politics could take in Africa, the African Diaspora and beyond. When I broached the idea of this forum to Keisha Blain, it seemed as though we were similarly and singularly convinced of its importance and the idea took root and blossomed into the current forum.

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In life or death I shall come back to you to serve even as I have served before. In life I shall be terror to the foes of Negro liberty, if death has power, then count on me in death to be the real Marcus Garvey I would like to be. If I may come in an earthquake, or a cyclone, or plague or pestilence, or as God would have me,then be assured that I will never desert you or make your enemies triumph over you… If I die in Atlanta my work shall then only begin, but I shall live in the physical or spiritual to see the day of Africa’s glory. When I am dead wrap the mantle of the Red, Black and Green around me, for in the new life I shall rise with God’s grace and blessings to lead the millions up to the heights of triumph with the colors that you well know. Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of slaves who have died in American and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for liberty, freedom and life. –Marcus Garvey

The evocative imagery of life, death and resurrection deployed in Marcus Garvey’s “Whirlwind Speech,” written during his imprisonment in Atlanta, stands in as metonym for the prophetic possibilities of racial redemption. Here, Garvey evokes metaphysical sensibilities to sketch out a panoramic view of racial possibility and signal the transnational breadth and depth of its affiliations. More than a Black Moses or a Negro with a Hat, Marcus Garvey and the global movement he constructed “with countless millions” represented, as Adam Ewing shows us, first and foremost an organic political movement whose influence permeated the deepest recesses of the black global world. Sketching out this complex genealogy requires looking beyond the obvious. The pomp and pageantry of Garveyism serves as the outer layers of an intricately woven package of ideology and symbolism born of black struggles in the Atlantic World. These struggles were informed by Pan-African and bourgeois sensibilities embedded in Ethiopianianism and Civilizationism, which enabled through a wide range of social, political, cultural, intellectual and ideological practices the outlines of a broad Diasporic black consciousness. Appreciating these complexities not only requires a shift in our scholarly gaze, but a realization that Garveyism is more than an embodiment of Marcus Garvey’s persona but a broader intellectual and political moment; a milieu.

Adam Ewing
Adam Ewing

Adam Ewing’s The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement and Changed Global Politics is based on a magisterial doctoral dissertation, “Broadcast on the Winds: Diasporic Politics in the Age of Garvey, 1919-1940” (Harvard University, 2011) Currently an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, Ewing’s scholarly work focuses on the Global Black Diaspora. His work has appeared in Callaloo, Race & Class and in Transition. This work explores the evolution and spread of Garveyism in the Global Diaspora during the interwar years. It represents a important addition to the growing body of scholarly which views Garveyism as an important organic movement and influence for subsequent political, nationalist and Pan-Africanist activity in the Black Diaspora.

Ewing’s use of The Age of Garvey, a Hobsbawnian moniker, appropriately marks the interwar years as more than moment of isolationist angst or modernist escapism. In short, it was a moment to remake the world. This moment was also framed by a larger movement to develop self-consciousness, self-determination, and to seize the untold possibilities of reclaiming and reimagining the geopolitical landscape. A landscape left in ruins by the horrors of the Great War which featured the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire and Czarist monarchy in Russia. In a moment defined by the clamoring of ethnic minorities for recognition and the world in ruins, the seeds of Garveyism were sown and “broadcast on the winds.”

Blowing to the corners of the Black Diaspora, especially in Africa itself, the seeds of Garveyism found fertile ground in the imagined and real ascendancy of Diasporic blacks posed to lead the race in fashioning a Provisional Government of Africa in exile replete with an African Legion and Black Cross Nurses. Its executive functions bolstered by shipping–the Black Star Line and a factories operation– the Negro Factories Corporation. When these enterprises were dashed on the shoals of a resurgence colonialism and omnipresent consular surveillance and diplomatic intrigues, the work was refashioned and reborn in silent and careful ways through local nodes at the organic levels. It is this phase of the Garveyist project, where Ewing argues occurs during the interwar years, 1919-1940, the power of Garvey’s ideas and the practicality of his political program came to symbolize a broad program of mass movement and political activism that shaped responses to all forms of subjugation and discrimination leveled at people of color around the world. Here, we can see the durability and resilience of Garvey’s political ideology which transcended the organization’s heyday in the early 1920’s and outlived Garvey himself.

Building on the work of Robert Hill, Tony Martin, James Campbell, and Robert Trent Vinson, Ewing sketches out the remarkable contours of the Age of Garvey, stretching across the temporal space of the interwar years and territorial space from the Americas through the Caribbean to the shores of Eastern and Southern Africa. Ewing’s reconstruction of what he terms the “Garveyist frontier” takes the reader on a panoramic tour of the nodes and nodules of Pan-Africanist interests and organization around the world. These engagements are intellectual and ideological as much as they are organizational or overt or subtle organic engagement with colonialist or imperialist structures. Ideologically, Garveyism universalized the notion of “Africa for the Africans” building on older notions of providential and redemptionist visions of Africa. It also engaged in a complex process of class leveling, which placed organizational power in the hands of working class people around the world. A clear representation that the organization’s sustainability depended on its ability to reflect the organic realities of the environments where it existed and thrived. Lastly, women played an important role in all facets of the organization’s work. As Keisha Blain’s work shows, women such as Amy Jacques Garvey and Mittie Maude Lena Gordon carried the work forward in dynamic ways before, during and after Garvey’s demise.

Territoriality, both in the Americas and Africa, mobile workforces carried the word and work of the UNIA from the Gulf of Mexico throughout Latin America into the British Caribbean to the Hispanic and French Caribbean. In Africa, the networks stretched along the eastern coast and throughout Central and Southern Africa. Garveyism offered important tools for Africans to dismantle the colonial system in Africa, especially in the Anglophone and settler colonies. Ewing introduces the reader to and reinterprets the actions of a host of actors on the anti-imperialist terrain offering fresh and intriguing assessments of black organic politics. Here we see the direct action of John Chilebewbe and the African Watchtower Movement, the work of Enoch Mgijima, Nonentha Nkwenke, and Wellington Butelezi in South Africa or Simon Kimbangu and the KImbanguist Movement in the Congo. All of these individuals were part of the millennial movements and Independent Christianity, which caused convulsions in Africa during the interwar period. Garveyism also had a substantial impact on the early development of both the African National Congress (ANC) and the Industrial and Commerical Worker’s Union (ICU) in South Africa. In East Africa, we are introduced to Harry Thuku’s East African Association. When these movements raised the ire of colonial authorities, Native Welfare Associations worked quietly and silently to further the aims of the Garveyist project. All of these sensibilities, in different ways and using varied methods, spoke to the popularity of Ama Melika Ayeyza ( the Americans are coming) and larger eschatological and millennial sensibilities predicting the end of white rule in Africa and the triumph joining together of Africa and the Africa Diaspora. These ideological constructs were regularly evoked in Garvey’s whirlwind speech and the symbolism of the UNIA throughout its existence.

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This forum on Adam Ewing’s book, The Age of Garvey offers a critical opportunity to expand the boundaries of the Garveyist frontier even further than Ewing demonstrates and suggests. The impressive assemblage of scholars here craft vistas of possibility to push our understanding of Garveyism to new heights. In tomorrow’s post, Komozi Woodard (Sarah Lawrence College) points to the historiographical interventions created by Ewing’s text. Building on the work of Jeffrey Perry, Winston James and Michael O. West on the West Indian contribution to black radical politics in the Americas, Woodward situates Ewing’s work as an important intervention in the new historiography on Garveyism, focusing on its role as a serious ideological and organizational construct. Conversant with the broader reinterpretation of Booker T. Washington both in domestic and international contexts, embedded in the work of Michael Bieze and Andrew Zimmerman, these new historiographical interventions deepen our understanding of Garveyism’s place in the larger and longer stream of black global politics. On Wednesday, Paul Hébert (Independent Scholar) similarly points to the ways a decentralized Garveyism, in the interwar years, effectively understood that localized conditions on the African continent were fertile sites for the growth and maturation of subsequent liberatory constructs in Africa. On Thursday, Reena N. Goldthree (Dartmouth College) encourages readers to look at both the “roots’ and “routes” of the Black Atlantic in an effort to tease out the complexity of Garveyism’s global reach. She argues that Ewing’s work is part of a “third wave” of scholarship on Garvey, transcending biographical and organizational studies by focusing on the movement as an organic political construct and its implications for black political activism outside of UNIA frameworks.

Other forum participants point to other dynamic aspects of Garveyism ranging from symbolism to gender. On Friday, Frank Guridy (Columbia University) urges readers to understand Garveyism beyond “The Ghost of Garvey,” a physical and metaphysical engagement with Garvey’s real and imagined presence. Guridy argues this approach neglects the black activists and organizers on the ground who created and fashioned a durable legacy for the movement which transcended the interwar years. A legacy which transformed the misleading characterization of Garvey as the leader of a “Back to Africa” movement in his time to an originator of modern black political formations in the African Diaspora in the 20th century. On Saturday, Asia Leeds (Spelman College), while recognizing the potency of the Garvey movement in the United States, Caribbean and Africa, points to the need for further exploration of the movement’s political work in Costa Rica, especially in Limon, a central area for West Indian migrants from the British Caribbean. She also urges more attention to Garveyist projects in Panama and Central America, in general. Perhaps, more important she urges scholars to move beyond “the Anglophone world and the British empire” to examine the Garveyist frontier in the French Caribbean and Francophone Africa. On Sunday, Keisha Blain (University of Iowa) encourages readers to explore “the silences of women” in the Garvey movement. Using her own pioneering insights and building on the work of Ula Taylor and Erik S. McDuffie, Blain points to the need to discuss the central role of Garveyite women in framing the UNIA’s message and leaving an indelible stamp on every aspect of the movement. These insights not only enrich our understanding of Ewing’s important text, but sketch out untold possibilities in understanding the complex interplay of global organic black politics and its impact on  every aspect of Diasporic life.

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