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21 April 2010

Book Review: Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and His Dream of Mother Africa

Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and His Dream of Mother Africa
by Colin Grant 


Growing up in Jamaica, Marcus Garvey is a familiar figure to me, as he is featured on the half-dollar bill and the fifty cent piece. But since you learn Jamaican history in elementary school and I moved to Jamaica in junior high, I really had no idea who he was or why he was important (the same with George William Gordon and Noel Newton Nethersole, who were on the 10 and the 20 dollar bill respectively).

So I read this book. And I learned a lot. But it was a haul. This tome suffers from either piecemeal construction by the author or horrible editing. Or both. People are introduced and then reintroduced, often using the exact same phraseology and, sometimes, within pages of the first introduction. While this was handy for someone with the sieve-like brain I possess, it made one question the scholarship and accuracy of the book as a whole.

But learn about Garvey I did. Poor Jamaican. Self-taught. Eventually settled in Harlem where he created an empire called the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)in the early 20th century. Just how he managed such a feat is rather glossed over and unclear but he was apparently a dynamic and emotion-tapping speaker (though the only description of a speech is an early one where his voice was squeaky and weak so that's what stuck in my mind). The main tenet of the UNIA (and of Garvey) was not integration but resettlement in Africa. America, Britain, etc., were white countries. The black man would never be treated equally so why not create an empire of negros to stand on solid footing independently. With this philosophy (and with his suspected charlatanism and flamboyant mannerisms and style) he irrevocably crossed the other main leader of blacks in America at the time, W.E.B. DuBois of the NAACP. DuBois wanted equality and integration and often bemoaned Garvey's very existence, as it took members away from his group and, often, caused legitimate politicians and governments to lump any quest for Negro equality into the Garvey circus, which may have slowed DuBois' quests for equality down considerably.

Garvey's downfall began when he cited that he and the KKK had similar agendas; negroes belong with negroes and not with whites. His alliance, if it can be called that, with the Grand Imperial Wizard of the KKK lost him much support. He also aligned himself against Halie Selassie during the Italian-Ethopian war after Selassie fled for exile, which, to Garvey, was evidence of his traitordom towards the black cause. Halie Selassie was revered by most as being one of the first black leaders of a large African nation, one of the main goals of many black movements of the day.

Garvey was finally indicted for mail fraud, served a two-year prison sentence in Atlanta and was then summarily deported to Jamaica (all under the watchful eye of a BOI (the early FBI) lieutenant J. Edgar Hoover) He felt penned in by Jamaica (and was also indicted there, for libel) and moved to London, where he ended where he began; on a ladder on a street corner in Hyde Park.