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Endlessly Misunderstanding Marcus Garvey

(AP Photo)

“Moreover, as an avid reader of self-help books and prolific advocate for the prosperity gospel, Garvey would find demands for a black agenda to be insulting.”

Marcus Garvey is the patron saint of the black intelligentsia. As such, his canonization precludes probing thinkers from astutely critiquing his philosophy. Any attempt to portray him as less than a prophet is greeted with vituperative condemnation from his numerous acolytes. Few, however, have demonstrated the patience to explore his complicated worldview. Although his name is synonymous with decolonization and anti-imperialism, a close reading of Garvey reveals him to be the black equivalent of Rudyard Kipling. Apparently, Garvey’s radical black nationalism has obscured his imperialist sentiments. Unknown to those too enervated to engage in a serious analysis of Garveyism, he was a distinct product of Western civilization.

Like many of his white contemporaries, Garvey’s perceived Western civilization to be the greatest expression of human excellence. His objection was not to Western philosophy but rather to the racism blacks encountered in the Western world. At no point did Garvey recommend the undoing of Western culture. However, his disciples mistakenly tend to conflate his criticisms of anti-black racism as a justification for, say, the decolonization of education. Such silliness is aptly espoused by popular promoter of African history, Kwaku: “[Garvey] advocated self-pride, confidence, enterprise, and decolonization of the African mind and peoples across Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and far-flung places, such as New Zealand and India, which all had UNIA-ACL chapters.” Kwaku is partially correct; Garvey favored most of these things, except for academic decolonization.

Decolonizing education is a political project to obliterate the Western canon. Proponents of decolonization are uninterested in diversifying the curriculum; their focus is to present an unbalanced reading of history by emphasizing atrocities committed by Western countries, as if evil is unique to those of European descent. Despite the popularity of invoking Garveyism to justify left-leaning ventures, his ideas have no relation to the present movement to decolonize education. As historian Clarence Earl Walker lucidly writes: “Garvey had no appreciation of folk culture, whether that of black Americans or Jamaican peasants; his standard of civilization was the aristocratic culture of the British Empire, not the blues of Bessie Smith.”

Accordingly, when proponents of Garveyism begin to engage in a meticulous examination of his ideas, he will prove not to be a palliative—but, rather, a harsh tonic.

On the other hand, embracing Garveyism is an explicit affirmation of imperialism. Fans of Garvey seem unable to grasp that he had no qualms about empire-building; he, after all, sought to create a black empire that could rival the prowess of Western powers. Being a keen student of world history, Garvey displayed a sophisticated understanding of great power politics. What is even more fascinating is that based on his perception of history, the evidence suggests that had he been alive, Garvey would neither extol the notion of systemic racism nor recommend reparations for African Americans. On the issue of slavery, for instance Garvey’s position was exceptionally realistic: 

Slavery is a condition imposed upon individuals or races not sufficiently able to protect or defend themselves, and so long as a race or people expose themselves to the danger of being weak, no one can tell when they will be reduced to slavery. When a man is a slave, he has no liberty of action; no freedom of will, he is bound and controlled by the will and act of others; as of the individual, so of the race. The great British nation was once a race of slaves. In their own country, they were not respected because the Romans went there, brutalized and captured them, took them over to Rome and kept them in slavery. They were not respected in Rome because they were regarded as a slave race. But the Briton did not always remain a slave. As a freedman, he went back to his country (Britain) and built up a civilization of his own, and by his self-reliance and initiative he forced the respect of mankind and maintains it until today.”

Moreover, as an avid reader of self-help books and prolific advocate for the prosperity gospel, Garvey would find demands for a black agenda to be insulting. Additionally, due to the intense racism of his era, he thought that it was impractical for blacks to have confidence in the state. Further, as someone who argued that the human mind is unlimited in what it can achieve, Garvey should be the sworn enemy of his leftist admirers, who advocate for the welfare state. Evidently, Garvey’s ability to provide therapeutic relief is more appreciated than his actual philosophy.

Lastly, it is quite curious that the very pundits who endlessly decry white nationalism are unable to recognize that Garveyism is primarily a philosophy of black nationalism, undergirded by racialism. To this point, Walker artfully reminds us of Garvey’s radicalism: “Garvey’s nationalism in particular was essentially volkish, a return to a primitive tribalism in which membership in the group or nation was based on purity of blood.” Accordingly, when proponents of Garveyism begin to engage in a meticulous examination of his ideas, he will prove not to be a palliative—but, rather, a harsh tonic.

Lipton Matthews is a Jamaican writer. He has recently also contributed to Mises Wire and The Federalist. He can be reached by email at lo_matthews@yahoo.com 

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