Learning from Marcus Garvey

Learning from Marcus Garvey February 19, 2019

Never forget that intelligence rules the world and ignorance carries the burden. Therefore, remove yourself as far as possible from ignorance and seek as far as possible to be intelligent.


Reading much Marcus Garvey is an education in difference.

The millions of African-Americans were not just Martin Luther King, Malcom X, or Alice Walker: the sort one is encouraged to read in a left-of-center grad school. The joy of reading African-American literature, theology, and philosophy is the diversity.

Nobody can speak “for the race” . . . Any race . . . Even assuming race exists as a category. Marcus Garvey is too brilliant to be ignored, too controversial to be made a monument, and too flawed to be a saint. He is an interesting leader, entrepreneur, original thinker, and flawed.

Most of us are flawed without the genius.

Garvey was born and formed in the British Empire, Jamaica and London, and came to America forming a movement millions of African-Americans joined. I have read a good bit of Garvey, but his thought, and success, is hard to summarize. Leaders I admire from Washington to DuBois had quarrels with him, verbally violent.

As a kid, my reading dismissed him as a black segregationist, someone who gave in to white supremacy and wanted to separate the races, moving the brightest and best to Africa. This was a parody and a good reading of the Autobiography of Malcolm X soon ended that summary execution of Garvey. Marcus Garvey liked being black, beautifully black, and wanted black business, a black steam line, black nations, black armies, black power.

Why wouldn’t African-Americans listen to that voice?

After all, even if one did not (actually) intend to go to Africa, the notion that Africa was a black man’s continent was deliciously subversive in a colonial age. The idea of black money going to black businesses is sound, especially when Jim Crow made African-American money and bodies unwelcome in white establishments.

Marcus Garvey, like Frederick Douglass, was not willing to wait for his rights, but unlike Douglass, had no interest in the American dream. He did not think that the white supremacy, deeply enfolded in our Founding, could be teased out or that it was worth teasing out. Why would a proud man bother?

We have no animus against the white man. All that we have, as a race desired is a place in the sun. Four million people are too numerous not to have a place in the sun. (Applause and cries of “Hear, hear!”) If 60,000,000 Anglo-Saxons can have a place in the sun, if 60,000,000 Germans can have, a place in the sun, if 60,000,000 Japanese can have a place in the sun, if 7,000,000 Belgians (groans and hisses) can have a place in the sun, I cannot see why, under the same principles, 400,000,000 black folks cannot have a place –a big spot in the sun also. (Great applause.) If you believe that the Negro should have a place in the sun; if you believe that Africa should be one vast empire, controlled by the Negro, then arise, and sing the National Anthem of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

This is tough stuff if you are an integrationist. Garvey is not asking to be allowed to be a minority, especially a model minority. He wants a place in the sun.

“Good for him,” I am tempted to say, even if I hope for something different for the United States. Marcus Garvey called out lynching and mob rule that murdered African-Americans. He was not polite about it and that was better still. Certainly Garvey was on to something when he pressed for black heroes:

Sojourner Truth is worthy of the place of sainthood alongside of Joan of Arc; Crispus Attucks and George William Gordon are entitled to the halo of martyrdom with no less glory than that of the martyrs of any other race. Toussaint L’Ouverture’s brilliancy as a soldier and statesman outshone that of a Cromwell, Napoleon and Washington; hence, he is entitled to the highest place as a hero among men. Africa has produced countless numbers of men and women, in war and in peace, whose lustre and bravery outshine that of any other people. Then why not see good and perfection in ourselves?


If one faced “Jump Jim Crow,” then a balm was in these words:

Your first allegiance shall be to your God, then to your family, race and country. Remember always that the Jew in his political and economic urge is always first a Jew; the white man is first a white man under all circumstances, and you can do no less than being first and always a Negro, and then all else will take care of itself. Let no one inoculate you for their own conveniences. There is no humanity before that which starts with yourself. “Charity begins at home.” First to thyself be true, and “thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Even though I am by training and inclination a W.E.B. DuBois man, there is something magnetic in a person who claims Christianity for the black man and refuses to leave the cross of Christ to one race. “Our beaming standard is the Cross of Christ . . .” Said this man of Christian Aksum, brave enough to defend Christian Ethiopia against the fascist threat.

My hopes are good, in Christ, the Lord; On Him I rest my cares of heart; He will so bridge the Heavenly Ford To show the way ere I depart.

Read some Marcus Garvey.


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