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REMEMBERING GARVEY : The UN International Decade for People of African Descent

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Monday, August 17 would have marked 128 years since the birth of Marcus Garvey and June 10, 75 years since his death. 2015, the start of the Decade for People of African Descent, as proclaimed by the United Nations, is a fitting time to reflect on the life and work of Garvey. The theme for the decade is “People of African Descent – recognition, justice and development.” In making this proclamation, the UN recognized that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected. Despite the achievements of black people over the years, the declaration reminds us that there is a lot left to be done.{{more}} Here is where we need to reflect on the vision of Garvey, a man who founded his Universal Negro Improvement Association in Jamaica and took it to the United States, where it blossomed into an organization fighting for the rights of black people the world over. In fact, in the 1920s, there were some 1,000 branches of his organization scattered over 40 countries and colonies, including St Vincent.

Perhaps this decade gives significance to one of Garvey’s sayings; ‘Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again!” Despite a climate favourable to some extent to the ideas of Garvey as he went about building his organization, the task was a mammoth one, fought against all kinds of odds. The First World War left blacks dissatisfied; the Bolshevik Revolution had lifted the hopes of colonial people everywhere in combating imperialism. The partition of Africa had taken place. Blacks in the US were seething under racism and were victims of lynching. In the Caribbean, the labour movement was in the process of formation and the black and coloured middle class was struggling to be part of the electoral process.

Garvey’s achievements were considerable. In those days when global communication constituted a stumbling block, he was able to mobilize blacks the world over, primarily through his newspapers and a vision that touched the hearts of an oppressed people. The colonial administration in St Vincent and the British Caribbean took note and was becoming alarmed. On August 6, 1919, the Administrator of St Vincent informed the Governor of the Windward Islands, based in Grenada, that Garvey’s ‘Negro World,’ was ‘extensively sold’. He stated further that “It is unmistakably anti-white in tone and in a recent leader of the issue of 14 June 1916, it openly counselled negroes to turn to Lenin and the Bolsheviks for assistance against the real oppressors such as Lloyd George, Wilson and Clemenceau” (leaders of Britain, the US and France)

The local organizer of the St Vincent branch was described as pushing anti-white propaganda and it was believed that “attempts have been made to secure members of the Police as subscribers to the paper.” Of equal concern was that the leaders were organizing workers, advocating increased wages or refusing to work during the cotton season. In fact, 30 labourers, led by two men named Sutton from Stubbs, appeared before the Governor making demands for increased wages. The base of the St Vincent UNIA was among workers, with the two leaders, REM Jack, a schoolteacher, and Horatio Huggins, a shoemaker. This is important because when Garvey visited St Vincent in 1937, the riots of 1935 had already taken place and McIntosh’s Workingmen’s Association had captured most of the seats in the Legislative Council. It was this group that hosted Garvey at his two lectures, delivered on his way south to British Guiana and on his return going north. Although McIntosh was not a subscriber to Communism, the ideas coming out of the Bolshevik Revolution certainly had an impact on him, seen by the fact that he kept a photograph of Lenin in his drugstore.

The ‘Negro World’ was eventually banned, something that seemed to have had a great impact on readers. REM Jack wrote the Administrator, pleading to allow him access to a copy, which he was going to use privately, not lending it to even his best friend and not making reference to anything he read there at any of his meetings. As was to be expected, his request was denied.

Garvey placed emphasis on discipline and education and the role of black people in their own liberation. Knowledge was in his view power, but involved blacks understanding themselves. His mission, as he stated during one of his addresses at the Carnegie Public Library, was to help his race to find and know itself. As reported in one of the newspapers, he stated that “The best help that a man can give another man is not money, but to help him to know who he is and to understand that success does not lie without him but within.” He emphasized that help for the ‘negro’ has never come from without and “will never come from without.” He argued that “No man must blame his downtrodden condition purely on external circumstances, the fault lies always in himself…Life is no empty dream, life is reality.”

It is of interest that the UN Declaration refers to Blacks as a distinct group, but the global dimension that informed Garvey’s vision is lost. One of the challenges that came for us with Independence was that of redefining ourselves outside of the colonial context. Many of us are at war with our black identity, as can be seen with the growth of bleaching. We seem to want to exist outside of ourselves and still feel comfortable living with the colonial stigma and mindset. Garvey would be so disappointed. To him knowledge was power and should reflect an understanding of ourselves, based on our historical experiences, with an aim geared not only at survival, but at shaping our future. Is the UN Declaration going to mean anything to us? That is the question!

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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