Marcus Garvey: A New Biography on the Jamaican Black Nationalist

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Marcus Garvey was recently published by the University of the West Indies Press. 

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The author of Marcus Garvey is Rupert Lewis,Professor Emeritus of Political Thought at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. For fifty years he has been a public educator on Marcus Garvey and the Garvey movement. He is the author of Marcus Garvey: Anti-Colonial Champion (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1992) and Walter Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998). Along with Patrick Bryan, he edited Garvey: His Work and Impact (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1994). He is also the co-editor (with Maureen Warner-Lewis) of Garvey: Africa, Europe, the Americas (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1994). Professor Lewis has served as member of the Council of the Institute of Jamaica and as Chairman of the African-Caribbean Institute of Jamaica and Jamaica Memory Bank. He is also Chairman of the “Friends of Liberty Hall – The Legacy of Marcus Garvey,” comprising a multimedia museum, library, an outreach project in downtown Kingston and a journal 76 King St. He is a member of the Jamaica Reparations Commission appointed by the Government of Jamaica which began work in May 2009. Follow him on Twitter @gbgandad.


This biography of Marcus Garvey documents the forging of his remarkable vision of pan-Africanism and highlights his organizational skills in framing a response to the radical global popular upsurge following the First World War (1914–1918). Central to Garvey’s response was the development of organizations under the umbrella of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, which garnered the transnational support of several million members and sympathizers and challenged white supremacist practices and ideas. 

Garvey established the ideological pillars of twentieth-century pan-Africanism in promoting self-determination and self-reliance for Africa’s independence. Although Garvey traveled widely and lived abroad in New York and London, he spent his early years in Jamaica. Rupert Lewis traces how Garvey’s Jamaican formation shaped his life and thought and how he combated the British colonial authorities, as well as fought deep-rooted self-doubt and self-rejection among Jamaican Black people. Garvey’s much neglected political and cultural work at the local level is discussed as part of his project to stimulate self-determination in Africa and its diaspora.


Keisha N. Blain: What type of impact do you hope your work has on the existing literature on this subject? Where do you think the field is headed and why?

Rupert Lewis: This book on Marcus Garvey is published in the Caribbean Biography Series by the University of the West Indies Press. It is intended to introduce Marcus Garvey and the movement in a succinct way to a new audience of persons with a passing knowledge of Garvey.  My hope is that the extensive work already available on his American years will be complemented in this work by the Caribbean component of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. While Garvey’s work from 1916 to 1927 in the United States is the uncontested organizational and financial core of the movement, the scholarship requires greater representation of the movement outside of the United States.

His Jamaican years from 1927 to 1935 included his foray into developing a political party, advocacy of land reform and secondary and tertiary educational institutions, and diversification of the island’s agrarian economy. He also stood for judicial reform and was imprisoned in 1929 for his criticism of British judges. Garvey supported the labour uprisings in the Caribbean in the late 1930s and his followers were leaders of the new wave of anti-colonial struggle. During his years imprisoned in Atlanta, from 1925 to 1927, he wrote poetry.  In Jamaica, he wrote seven plays and numerous skits, which were performed in Kingston, Jamaica.

In terms of where the field is headed, there are two aspects: scholarship and activism. A solid body of scholarship has emerged over the past fifty years.  However, there is still much more work to be done. The organizational, political, cultural, diplomatic, and entrepreneurial initiatives the UNIA undertook need exploration.  There is impressive scholarship on women in the Garvey movement and this will continue. There is also the growth of regional studies, particularly in the Southern areas of the United States. However, more attention needs to be placed on the Garvey movement in Africa and the Caribbean.

On the activist side, Garvey had his eyes set on the liberation and development of the African continent. As such we need to critically examine the stewardship of Africa’s political leaders. We should also reflect more profoundly on Marcus Garvey’s philosophy regarding the centrality of Africa to the empowerment of African people everywhere.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain is a historian of the 20th century United States with broad interdisciplinary interests and specializations in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies. She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.

Comments on “Marcus Garvey: A New Biography on the Jamaican Black Nationalist

  • Hello Keisha,

    Marcus Garvey is a transformative figure, and his collective efforts pre-date every other twentieth-century movement in every region. Malcolm X’s father was a big adherent and this obviously affected Malcolm’s stridency and anger over the bombing of their home and his father’s apparent murder, both precursors to what happened to Malcolm and his family in February, 1965.

    In case anyone is interested, we have posted four Garvey-related items on our African American History website at: http://africanamericancollection.com/images/jim-crow/

    Thank you for hosting this exceptional resource and looking forward to reading Professor Lewis’s new book.

    Kit Southall
    Senior Curator
    Mark E. Mitchell Collection

    • Thanks for sharing!

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