Conclusion: Roundtable on The Age of Garvey by Adam Ewing

Adam Ewing
Adam Ewing

This is the final 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, Reena Goldthree, Frank Guridy, Asia Leeds and Keisha N. Blain. In this final post, Ewing responds to the reviews and offers concluding remarks. On behalf of the AAIHS, thank you all for participating in this exciting roundtable. We hope you’ll continue the conversation in the days and weeks ahead.

In April 2016, Ewing and Ronald Stephens will be hosting a conference on Global Garveyism at Virginia Commonwealth University. Robert A. Hill will deliver the keynote address. The conference will feature the scholarship of many of the participants in this roundtable and will result in the publication of an anthology entitled Global Garveyism: Diasporic Aspirations and Utopian Dreams


Reading through a series of engaging posts about your work, written by a talented and accomplished group of scholars, is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. I am grateful to Keisha N. Blain and Stephen G. Hall for conceiving of this forum, and for giving The Age of Garvey this platform. I am also grateful to all of the contributors—Blain, Hall, Komozi Woodard, Paul Hébert, Reena Goldthree, Frank Guridy, and Asia Leeds—for their thoughtful interrogation of the book. Thanks are due to the African American Intellectual History Society for hosting this conversation, and for what the Society has done, in a short period of time, to create such a vibrant space for commentary, debate, and reflection.

9780345379757I did not set out to write about Garveyism. From the moment I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in high school, my gaze had been fixed on the so-called “heroic phase” of the black freedom struggle. When I entered my PhD program, more than a decade ago, I proposed to write a dissertation about a remarkable grassroots organization—a dynamic model of local politics, I thought—that had worked briefly and creatively on the west side of Chicago during a period that overlapped with SCLC’s disastrous Chicago campaign. John Dittmer, Charles Payne, and Barbara Ransby had shown me a way to write about the black freedom struggle that emphasized “local people” and the organizing tradition. Scholars like Komozi Woodard, Jeanne Theoharis (and Woodard again), Martha Biondi, Thomas Sugrue, and Robert Self were at the time making a powerful case for northern- and urban-focused Movement histories. James C. Scott had introduced me to subaltern studies, and Robin D.G. Kelley had beautifully illustrated how these lessons from South Asian historiography might intrude upon and reshape our understanding of African American politics.

My interest in Garveyism started with a graduate research paper in a class taught by my advisor, the great (and now appropriately honored) Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. I was drawn to the subject because I wanted to understand how the movement had grown so spectacularly, how Garvey and his followers had crafted a grand, global politics that so effectively empowered the types of local people, the types of grassroots politics, that fascinated me in Chicago. I loved what Lawrence Levine had written about Garvey—that the appeal of his message was rooted not in its novelty or in its unparalleled insight, but because Garvey “preached it in the right syllables.”1 Here was a way of thinking about politics that shifted the focus from the boldness and vision of a leader, or a leadership cadre, to the back-and-forth exchanges that take place between those with leadership aspirations, like Garvey, and the communities they intend to mobilize. Here was a way of identifying Garvey’s brilliance not in his ability to articulate a “New Negro” consciousness per se, but in the way his New Negro movement catalyzed things that were old and enduring—community memories, debates, beliefs, expectations, and political engagements.

But surely a political figure and a political movement of this importance had been well covered in the scholarship! This was my introduction to the remarkable fact noted by Komozi Woodard in his post: the virtual silence on Garveyism in what Woodard calls the “Cold War academy.” Before the twenty-first century—before books by Ula Y. Taylor, Mary Rolinson, Claudrena Harold, Colin Grant, and Robert Trent Vinson—only two monographs on Garvey and Garveyism were published by academic presses, neither one especially complementary of the movement or especially accurate (despite this, and much to my chagrin, they remain frequently cited by non-specialists). One had to look elsewhere: to the miraculous work being done by Robert A. Hill and the editors of the Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers Project; to the writings of Amy Jacques Garvey, Tony Martin, Rupert Lewis, Theodore Vincent, Emory Tolbert, Randall Burkett, and other scholars who published their groundbreaking scholarship with independent presses. The historiographical trajectory of Garvey studies is a case study in the continuing vitality of—and unfortunate necessity for—the type of independent black scholarship that hearkens back to the days of George Washington Williams, Carter G. Woodson, and Arturo Schomburg. And it suggests that, despite the transnational turn, the academy still has a ways to go before it can produce the type of pan-African histories spun by W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, and George Shepperson.

k10375One of my hopes in writing The Age of Garvey was indeed, as Reena Goldthree suggests, to help inaugurate a new wave of Garvey scholarship. By the time I got to work on my project, several scholars were “chasing Garvey’s ghost,” as Guridy puts it: in the American rural south (Rolinson and Jarod Roll) and urban south (Claudrena Harold); in Liberia (Ibrahim Sundiata), South Africa (Vinson), Namibia (Gregory Pirio), and Zimbabwe (Michael O. West); in Cuba (Guridy, Marc McLeod, Frances Peace Sullivan), Panama (Carla Burnett), Belize (Anne Macpherson), Costa Rica (Ronald Harpelle, Leeds), Puerto Rico (Reinaldo L. Román), Trinidad (Daniel Dalrymple), and other sites in the greater Caribbean region; and in explorations of Garveyite women and the gendered contours of the movement (Taylor, Michele Mitchell, Barbara Bair, Kate Dossett, Natanya Duncan). I wanted to track Garveyism to different places—to Kenya and Zambia and Malawi and the Congo—but I also wanted to theorize Garveyism as a global politics, to develop a way of thinking about the movement that would capture its impact both locally and in the broader sweep of colonial governance and anti-colonial activism, racial discourses and pan-African imaginaries. I wanted to articulate a way of thinking about the global consequences of Garveyism that non-specialists would find impossible to ignore. This requires, I came to believe, telling a story that is not bracketed by the rise and fall of Marcus Garvey, nor by the institutional history of the UNIA, but one that follows the spread of Garveyite people and ideas to the corners of the earth, and then examines the impact of those people and ideas on local political projects and arrangements of power. It requires writing transnational, diasporic histories that are mindful of roots as well as routes; that recognize, as the anthropologist Jacqueline Nassy Brown reminds us, that diasporic ideas like the ones spread by Garveyites must ultimately be articulated “through place and localness.”2

The success of Garveyism encourages us to think differently about political mobilization and engagement more broadly—to route our stories not along the axis of organizational growth and decline, not by following the exploits of exemplary leaders and intellectuals and artists, but rather by pursuing the movement of ideas and associations in space and by observing how they settle in place, how they are made local, become embedded, are thickened and negotiated. The aim of The Age of Garvey is not to inflate the influence of the UNIA on African politics, as Guridy suggests, nor to overstate the influence of Garveyism in interwar black politics (although, to Guridy’s point, I did title the book The Age of Garvey), but rather to highlight the trajectories of Garveyism’s spread. Indeed, one of the propositions of the book is that the influence of the UNIA—as a corporate body—must be deemphasized if we are to fully understand the legacy of Garveyism. This is precisely because of what Guridy notes: The existence of the UNIA amid a dizzying array of local Afro-diasporic organizations, beliefs, and traditions. The idea here is to follow the spread of Garvey’s and Garveyites’ ideas and their transformation on the ground, to watch them blossom (in often unexpected ways) in trade unions, immigrant protection societies, religious bodies, millennial revivals, welfare societies, and elsewhere. This perspective greatly extends the scope with which we can understand the legacy of Garveyism, but it also insists that we acknowledge that the “capacious visions of liberation” imagined by readers of the Negro World and by admirers of Marcus Garvey do not belong to Garveyism alone. It also suggests that in many parts of the diaspora, Garvey’s ghost—or, at least, his projected spirit—was of more consequence than Garvey himself could ever be.

As Stephen G. Hall points out in his wonderful introduction, and as all of the forum participants observe, The Age of Garvey is marked by many silences. Like Hall, one of things impressed upon me by the responses is how much further the boundaries of Garveyist scholarship might be pushed. Along with Reena Goldthree and Asia Leeds, I’m curious to know how Garveyism might be tracked in Uruguay and Brazil, in Haiti and Senegal. (I’m also excited to read Leeds’s forthcoming book on Costa Rica.) There is much to learn about Garveyism in Canada, and about the ways in which Garveyism was made manifest on the docks of Liverpool, Cardiff, Marseilles, and other European ports. I’m curious about how future scholars might pursue Bobby Hill’s suggestion that Garveyism be viewed as a site of West Indian ethnogenesis, and as a device for tracking a Caribbean diaspora to the far-flung corners of the world. And, as Komozi Woodard, Paul Hébert, Leeds, and Keisha Blain make clear, there is also much to learn about the afterlives of Garveyism in the years following the Second World War—among black nationalist women, in the global Black Power movement, in Liberia, and elsewhere.

Casa de la Cultura Marcus Garvey in Puerto Viejo, Limon, Costa Rica (courtesy of Michael O. West)
Casa de la Cultura Marcus Garvey in Puerto Viejo, Limon, Costa Rica (courtesy of Michael O. West)

A more problematic silence in The Age of Garvey, as Goldthree observes and as Blain highlights in her piece, surrounds the contributions of women to global Garveyism. I do have some explanations. My strategy to narrate the rise and fall of the organizational UNIA in the Americas in sweeping and rather cursory terms—and to embed that history in a much larger narrative of global race politics—silences the voices of many Garveyites, women and men alike. When I do turn to a more careful examination of American Garveyism in Chapter Five, the movement’s gender politics and the contributions of Garveyite women, particularly Amy Jacques Garvey, Maymie De Mena, and Henrietta Vinton Davis, are at the center of the analysis. The near total absence of African women in the story is unquestionably a problem that needs to be remedied, but a problem that springs from my archival sources—colonial archives, missionary papers, newspapers—that elide the voices of women. To the extent that gendered articulations of Garveyist politics emerge in the record, in both central and eastern Africa, they are highlighted. It remains for future scholars—perhaps embedded at one site, and engaging in oral history and other forms of historical reconstruction—to uncover these stories. If we have learned anything from the study of Garveyism in the Americas, as Blain points out, it is that women played crucial roles as leaders, members, and theorists every step of the way. There is no reason to think that it was any different in Africa.

Nevertheless, all of this rationalizing falls a little flat against Blain’s broader point: That The Age of Garvey leaves the reader with “the impression that the primary actors ‘who enabled Garveyism’s global spread’ were men.” Indeed, the silences in my archives should have pushed me to more vigorously clarify the agency and leadership of women in the movement. Why not, as Blain suggests, follow Amy Ashwood Garvey, as well as Marcus, in charting Garveyism’s pan-African genealogy? Why not, for that matter, follow Ashwood Garvey to London, as Natanya Duncan is now doing? I am eagerly awaiting Blain’s own book, which in a manner reminiscent of Erik McDuffie’s groundbreaking work on black women communists, will chart the breadth of black nationalist women’s global vision in the years following the collapse of the UNIA in the United States.

Another big thanks to all of the participants in this forum. It’s bizarre for me to imagine people simply reading my book, let alone engaging with it in this manner. And it’s exciting to think where the study of global Garveyism, emerging from the shadows of the Cold War academy’s neglect, might go from here.

  1. Lawrence W. Levine, “Marcus Garvey and the Politics of Revitalization,” in Black Leaders in the Twentieth Century, eds. John Hope Franklin and August Meier (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1982), 118.
  2. Jacqueline Nassy Brown, Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 6.
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