Work that Must Be Done: Rethinking the Longer Legacy of Garveyism (Paul Hébert)

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Paul Hébert

This is the third 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 and Komozi Woodard’s review on Tuesday. In this post, AAIHS blogger Paul Hébert emphasizes the strengths of Ewing’s work, highlighting its emphasis on the international dimensions and legacies of the Garvey movement.

Paul is a recent graduate of the doctoral program in History at the University of Michigan. His dissertation, “A Microcosm of the General Struggle: Black Thought and Activism in Montreal, 1960-1969,” examined how black Canadians, West Indians, Africans, and African Americans living in and passing through Montreal contributed to the development of schools of Black Power thought and action that were not simply reflections of Black American radicalism, but intellectual and activist movements that responded to specific local dynamics.

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Theodore G. Vincent, writing in the introduction to the 2006 reprint of his 1970 study of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Black Power and the Garvey Movement, notes that the international dimensions of Garveyism were often overlooked both by Garvey’s contemporaries and by people looking back at the movement during the Black Power era when Vincent wrote his book; “Garvey’s global perspective,” Vincent writes, “seemed less important during the Cold War,” when “internationalism was conceptualized in East versus West terms, whereas Garvey thought internationally along a South-North axis.” 1

But to overlook Garveyism’s “global perspective” is to overlook one of the defining characteristics of a movement whose principal goal was the redemption of Africa and the liberation of Black people worldwide. As scholars such as Winston James 2 have pointed out, the New Negro movement, in which Garveyism played a crucial role, drew in no small part on the experiences and energies of the West Indian diaspora in Harlem, revealing again the extent to which Black political and cultural movements are often inherently transnational phenomena. In his new study of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA, The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement & Changed Global Black Politics, Adam Ewing extends the historiographical trajectory of the study of Garveyism outwards to show how, by looking past the grandiose visions and spectacle with which Garveyism is too often associated, we can see how Garveyism provided inspiration, a vocabulary, and an organizational infrastructure to Black activists around the world doing the often mundane and unglamorous work of political mobilizing and organizing.

For a wide-ranging movement that was central to the development of twentieth-century Black radicalism, Garveyism is still under-studied by historians. Ewing points out that while scholars working in the years since Tony Martin’s 1976 study of Garvey and the UNIA 3 was published have demonstrated that Garveyism was a diverse movement that “encouraged [blacks] to organize against large and intractable systems of power,” the “elision of Garveyism from mainstream academic discourse persists.” In working to remedy this, Ewing has written an important, wide-ranging and detailed study of UNIA and UNIA-inspired activism which does not focus on the large-scale projects and the theatrical trappings with which Garveyism is often associated—the Black Star Line, the plans for a Liberian colony, the pageantry, titles, parades, and uniforms—but instead brings to light the activism of Garveyites working in local contexts in a variety of sites.

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As Ewing argues, a preoccupation with the theatrics that marked one part of UNIA history obscures the important political work that Black activists were able to do inspired by Garvey’s message and using the organizational infrastructure his movement developed. Instead, this book is about the work done by Garveyites during the movement’s “second period,” when internal and external dynamics forced Garveyites to radically transform the movement from a centralized one focused on large-scale visions to a more organic one focused on local political struggles. Internally, the failures of the Liberia plan and the Black Star line and the incarceration of Garvey undermined much of Garveyism’s mass popularity in the United States. Externally, these crises came against a backdrop of important shifts in the political climate. In the aftermath of the First World War, Garveyism embodied the radical possibilities that had seemed to open up for Blacks and other colonised peoples; as the 1920s wore on, however, reactionary politics seriously limited the possibilities for radical change, forcing Black activists to re-evaluate their approaches. Garveyism was thus re-conceived as a movement that inspired and organized Black people worldwide as they engaged in what Ewing calls “a sustained and more informal project of organizing, networking, and consciousness raising.” By focusing on the political work undertaken in a Garveyite framework after the movement’s glory days, Ewing undoes the idea that Garveyism suffered a downfall after its leader was imprisoned; rather, after a period of crisis, Garveyism transformed itself into a decentralized movement in which anti-racist and anti-colonial activists undertook their specific local struggles against a backdrop of international Black unity.

The most important element of this transformation was that it opened up space for African activists to draw on both Garveyite ideas and connections and to draw on their own particular “deep wells of political knowledge and wisdom” to advance their anti-colonial politics. As Garveyism became increasingly decentralized and authority moved away from the movement’s Harlem headquarters to be taken up by local actors, Garvey began to see Africans, and not African-Americans, as the principal agents in Africa’s redemption. Ewing argues that historians have failed to properly credit Garvey for understanding that an effective politics of African liberation needed to grow out of, and respond to, local conditions. Thus, while he dedicates one chapter of the book’s second half to how the Age of Garvey unfolded in the United States, the bulk of Ewing’s focus is on how Garveyite ideas and the connections created by Garveyites in South Africa, Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia and other African colonies contributed to the development of inter-war African anti-colonial activism. Garveyite activists in Africa shaped UNIA ideas to suit local dynamics by focusing on self-help and downplaying the kinds of radical discourses that would have been difficult to sustain under colonial rule, and, in doing so, opened up what Ewing calls a “tenuous space for the practice of diasporic politics.” As these activists worked for African freedom, they often built on overlaps between the Garvey movement and independent African churches such as the Watchtower Movement, whose own Garveyite roots, Ewing argues, hint at the extent to which Garveyism was able to penetrate colonial African consciousness in a way that no other pan-African movement rooted outside the continent was able to do.

Ewing’s reframing of Garveyism as a movement that had some of its most significant political effects not in the Caribbean or the United States but in numerous African locales has important implications for scholars of political movements in Africa and the African diaspora. By shifting the lens away from Harlem and the years when the UNIA enjoyed its greatest popularity in the United States and documenting how Garveyites drew on Marcus Garvey’s conceptual framework but adapted it to fit their own particular circumstance, Ewing undoes the idea that Garveyism can be understood as a unified political ideology. Garveyism was not an ideology, Ewing maintains, but a “method of organic mass politics” that, even as it was based on certain “fixed assumptions” about Black identity and history, had to remain flexible enough to allow Black people to understand and militate against the specific modes of oppression they faced on their own terms if it was going to serve any practical purpose. This is an important lesson not only for scholars of Garveyism, but for scholars of Black transnational politics more generally; as I read this book, I realized that my own careless description of Black Power as an “ideology” throughout my dissertation was something I needed to re-think, especially given that much of my research focuses on the idea that Black Power took specific shapes in specific places.

At the same time that Ewing portrays Garveyism as more political method than unified ideology, he also also reminds us how a politics that unfolds in a diasporic setting can allow activists scattered in various locations to create a common sense of purpose and identity. Garveyism was built on pan-African concepts and ideals and emerged at a time when Black activists were drawing on nineteenth-century pan-African thought to create what Ewing calls “a roughly shared vision of racial redemption and freedom.” Later-period Garveyism was a politically diverse movement that was shaped from below, but Garvey’s vision of Black unity allowed Garveyites in far-flung locales to understand the local struggles in which they were engaged as an organic part of a global struggle against imperialism and white supremacy, and to develop what Ewing calls a “global metalanguage within which local political identities … were conceptualized and negotiated.”

Ewing ends his book with a list of some of the political and cultural legacies of Garveyism, referencing, among others, the role the movement played in the personal history of Malcolm X, Amy Ashwood Garvey’s role in organizing the Fifth Pan-African Congress, Amy Jacques Garvey’s public appearances with Kwame Nkrumah and at the Bandung Conference, and the influence of Marcus Garvey on Rastafari and reggae. Scholars interested in the history of the Garvey movement beyond its mass popularity may be rewarded by examining its longer legacy as a conceptual framework for later generations of Black activists working in the decades after the Second World War. The intellectuals of the Black Power era were well aware of the connections their movement shared with Garveyism. Theodore Vincent’s book, which I mentioned at the beginning of this post, was a history of Garvey and his movement that explicitly tied the UNIA’s concepts and work to those of Black Power, and which set out to show Black Power activists how their activism was part of a longer history of Black radical thought and action. This hearkening back to Garveyism by Black Power was, perhaps not surprisingly, a key intellectual touchstone in the West Indian manifestation of the movement. In The Groundings with My Brothers, Walter Rodney, one of the chief theoreticians of the West Indian Black Power movement, calls Garvey “one of the first advocates of Black Power” and “the greatest spokesman ever to be produced by the movement of black consciousness.” 4 As I pointed out in a recent post on this blog, Abeng, one of the first and most important West Indian Black Power newspapers drew great inspiration from Garvey and featured his work prominently in almost every issue.

Besides examining how Garveyism helped provided a conceptual framework and a sense of history to the Black Power movement, historians might unearth evidence of how the UNIA’s organizational infrastructure facilitated Black political mobilization later in the twentieth century. One brief example: In 1969, West Indian and other Black students at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Canada, occupied the university’s computer center in protest over the administration’s mishandling of charges of racism made against a biology professor. The protest ended in the destruction of the computer lab and the arrest of nearly a hundred students, and had important aftershocks in both Canada and the Commonwealth Caribbean. As Montreal’s Black community mobilized itself to deal with the after-effects of the protest and to discuss the often-unacknowledged racism they encountered on a regular basis, Montreal’s UNIA hall hosted regular weekly meetings for the city’s Black activist community. 5

Decades after what is generally seen as the “downfall” of Garveyism, the UNIA provided Black activists working on an international scale critical organizational support. Ewing’s book is an important step in helping us understand how moments such as this were built on vital yet still under-researched Black political movement.

  1. Theodore Vincent, Black Power and the Garvey Movement. Black Classic Press, 2006, x.
  2. Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America. Verso, 1998.
  3. Tony Martin, Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The Majority Press, 1986.
  4. Walter Rodney, The Groundings with My Brothers. Bogle-L’Ouverture Press, 1996.
  5. For the UNIA in Montreal, see: Leo W. Bertley, “The Universal Negro Improvement Association of Montreal, 1917 – 1979.” Ph.D., Concordia University, 1980.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Paul Hébert

Paul Hébert is an independent scholar who received his PhD from the University of Michigan. He is currently working on a book manuscript based on his dissertation, “A Microcosm of the General Struggle: Black Thought and Activism in Montreal, 1960–1969.” Follow him on Twitter @DrPaulHebert.

Comments on “Work that Must Be Done: Rethinking the Longer Legacy of Garveyism (Paul Hébert)

  • I’m following the debate on Ewing’s book with interest, and enjoyed the pieces by Woodard and Hébert. In the latter connexion, I wish here only to make a correction that is small in this context, but which looms larger in others. It concerns Nkrumah. He positively did not attend the Bandung Conference. There is also no indication Amy Jacques Garvey was an Bandung. Her biographer, Ula Taylor, does not seem to place her there. On Nkrumah, however, I can be categorical: he was not there, even though Nkrumah biographers and scholars of Bandung alike have imaginatively placed him there. There is even a picture, which has been reproduced in more than one published location, purporting to show Nkrumah at Bandung; in fact, that picture is from a later meeting of non-aligned nations in Belgrade. Nkrumah was invited to Bandung; he wanted to go. But the British colonialists, who (like the US imperialists) opposed the conference, threatened to delay Ghana’s independence if Nkrumah attended. The compromise was to send a three-man (they were all men) Gold Coast delegation to Bandung, but Nkrumah was not part of it. Thanks and keep up the excellent work!

    • Professor West, thanks for your comments and the clarification re: Amy Jacques Garvey, Nkrumah and Bandung. It is especially interesting to think about how badly the British wanted to prevent Nkrumah’s presence at the conference if they were willing to threaten to forestall Ghana’s independence in order to do that.

  • Addendum: I failed to mention the very fine introduction to the debate by Stephen Hall; it’s a wonderful road map.

  • Why no mention of Bobby Hill’s life-long scholarship on Garvey?

    • Thanks for your comment, and for making an excellent point. Seeing as I brought up Abeng’s foregrounding of Garvey, one thing I might have thought more about including is how Professor Hill’s role with Abeng preceded his vital contributions to Garvey/UNIA scholarship.

  • This is excellent scholarship on Garvey. It must be emphasized that as a large Pan-Africanist movement, the UNIA-ACL, had uneven impact on various African societies and societies that African people lived. In the Caribbean Basin, the UNIA-ACL was in some places the incubator of nationalism, other places it was the ally of ongoing anti -mperialist, anti-colonial forces, and yet other areas, the organization was the center for African/Black Consciousness. In the US Virgin Islands, the UNIA was an incubator for reformist politics among the African Caribbean population. It did not last long as the reformist policies of the New Deal accommodated the demands of the masses. Garveyist influences re-emerged in the 1960’s onward in many English speaking Caribbean societies due to the impact of the Black Power Movement, Black Consciousness, Caribbean Nationalism, and Rastafari. Rastafari had a profound impact in the mid to latter 1970’s when Roots Reggae was dominant. Garvey’s name, ideas, philosophy, and message were transmitted by artists such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Burning Spear. Groups like the Mighty Diamonds, Third World, Culture, and Black Uhuru promoted the Garvey tradition to extraordinary levels. It is difficult to convey how massive these cultural artists were at the specific era–the 1970’s to early 1980’s. Indeed, among many people in the English speaking Caribbean, Garvey has been elevated to near deity status. The dismissive attitude by US mainstream academia is itself dissed by many people who see the Garveyist tradition as formative for modern Caribbean political development.

  • Thank you so much for these insightful comments and for underlining how one of Garveyism’s most enduring legacies was its central role in the oppositional cultural politics of the 70s-80s. I’m especially interested in your argument about the uneven and diverse nature of the impact of Garveyism, notably how it was an inspiration for reformist ideas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Another part of that dynamic might be reflected in how Garvey became an official National Hero in Jamaica — while many opponents of the Jamaican government saw that move as a cynical ploy on the part of the state, it also speaks to the importance of Garvey for West Indian national identity.

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