Global Garveyism: Mapping Those at Home and Those Abroad

Note: This post was originally published on the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog (aaihs.org)

Later this month, April 21-23, Virginia Commonwealth University will be hosting a symposium on “Global Garveyism,” and inviting about twenty Garveyism scholars to campus for a series of panels and roundtable discussions. The aim of the symposium is to critically examine the extraordinary success of Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey’s Harlem-based, globe-spanning mass movement during the interwar years and beyond. Papers will explore aspects of the movement’s resonance and reach in Central, West, and South Africa, in Central America and the Caribbean, in the United States and Canada, in Australia. The symposium is also an effort, in a broader sense, to catalyze the momentum that has been growing around Garvey Studies in the academy since the beginning of the century—an effort to, after several decades of neglect in academic circles, demonstrate Garveyism’s centrality in the numerous narratives and historiographies where the movement has been passed over and marginalized.[i]

The study of Garveyism, perhaps more than any other subject, reveals the lingering tensions that prevail from the uneven acceptance of African American history within the predominantly white academy. It remains rather remarkable, as historian Steven Hahn noted in 2009, how little professional scholars know “about what is acknowledged to be the greatest mass movement of people of African descent in the twentieth century.”[ii] Indeed, forty years ago, responding to this perplexity, and pushing back against the tendency to dismiss Garvey as a boorish oddity, Garvey scholar Tony Martin opened his masterpiece, Race First, with the simple observation that “no one could have organized and built up the largest black mass movement in Afro-American history, in the face of continuous onslaughts from communists on the left, black reactionaries on all sides, and the most powerful governments in the world, and yet be a buffoon or a clown, or even an overwhelmingly impractical visionary.”[iii]

And yet until recently Martin’s common sense invocation was met with resistance in the American academy. Before the turn of the century, only two books on Garvey, the UNIA, and Garveyism were published by academic presses: E. David Cronon’s Black Moses (1955), which argues that Garvey sold “an unrealistic escapist program of racial chauvinism” to “the ignorant black masses”; and Judith Stein’s The World of Marcus Garvey, in which Stein argues that the “methods and visions” of the UNIA were shaped by “the fatalism of the powerless” and “the utopias of hustlers and charlatans.”[iv] In influential histories of the interwar period, Garvey and the UNIA continue to be briefly summoned, as Hahn observes, to serve as foils, and to be quickly “marginalized, dismissed, or derided.”[v] In recent years a rash of excellent and well-regarded scholars have misidentified the UNIA as the United Negro Improvement Association—a dispiriting measure of the extent to which academics remain disinclined to give Garveyism serious consideration, and a measure of the extent to which they are empowered in this course.

Part of the reason for this neglect can be attributed to the nature and the timing of African American history’s integration into the white American academy. Bracketed within what Hahn calls a “liberal integrationist framework”—and what Komozi Woodard calls the “Cold War academy”—historical work on the black freedom struggle long emphasized African American connections to—rather than alienations from—the nation-building project of the United States. The types of transnational and diasporic visions that animated the work of George Washington Williams, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Claudia Jones, George Shepperson, and many others—the types of framings that allow us to glimpse the contours of Garveyism in its proper, global context—were quieted within the academy. (Extra-national perspectives have, of course, been recently “discovered,” with insufficient acknowledgement of the pioneering work in this field by black scholars.)

With the study of Garveyism neglected in the American academy, the history of the movement was for many decades preserved by publications in independent presses, by West Indian scholars like Martin, Rupert Lewis, and Amy Jacques Garvey, and by participants, past and present, of the Garvey movement.[vi] Robert A. Hill’s Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers Project, which has been building a miraculous archive of Garveyism since the 1970s, operates out of UCLA, but remains powerfully reminiscent of the preservationist efforts of Arturo Schomburg and a host of legendary African-descended archivists who have kept alive a countermemory of African diasporic history against the pressures of erasure imposed by the global guardians of white supremacy.

The failure of scholars to properly reckon with the legacy of Garveyism has generated layers of mistrust between the professors and graduate students who study the movement and the activists and organizers who continue to carry the banner of the UNIA and imbibe the lessons of the movement. Because of this, a properly realized subfield of Garvey Studies must not only integrate the study of Garveyism creatively and critically into the mainstream narratives of American academic discourse, but must also find a way to bridge the divide between Garvey scholars working inside universities and outside of them. The Global Garveyism Symposium will be hosting a community forum that seeks to spark these conversations, led by Garvey historians, intellectuals, and activists without university affiliation. Just as scholars have long relied on non-academic experts of the movement to better understand the contours—and track down the documents of—the Garvey movement, there is much at these types of forums for scholars to learn. There is so much more work to be done.

[i] In addition to several excellent essays and chapters on the movement, a number of books on Garvey, Garveyism, and the UNIA have been published since the turn of the century. See Ula Yvette Taylor, The Veiled Garvey: The Life and Times of Amy Jacques Garvey (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Mary G. Rolinson, Grassroots Garveyism: The UNIA in the Rural South, 1920-1927 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Claudrena Harold, The Rise and Fall of the Garvey Movement in the Urban South, 1918-1924 (New York: Routledge, 2007); Tony Martin, Amy Ashwood Garvey: Pan-Africanist, Feminist and Mrs. Marcus Garvey No. 1; Or, A Tale of Two Amies (Dover, MA: The Majority Press, 2007); Colin Grant, Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); James G. Spady, Marcus Garvey: Jazz, Reggae, Hip Hop and the African Diaspora (Philadelphia: Marcus Garvey Publishers, 2011); Robert Trent Vinson, The Americans Are Coming! Dreams of African American Liberation in Segregationist South Africa (Athens, Ohio University Press, 2012); Adam Ewing, The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement and Changed Global Black Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[ii] Steven Hahn, The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 117.

[iii] Tony Martin, Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976), ix.

[iv] E. David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1955), 203; Judith Stein, The World of Marcus Garvey: Race and Class in Modern Society (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), 6.

[v] Hahn, Political Worlds, 119.

[vi] For landmark and pioneering work on Garveyism published outside of the American academic mainstream, see Amy Jacques Garvey, Garvey and Garveyism (1963; New York: Octagon Books 1978); Theodore G. Vincent, Black Power and the Garvey Movement (Berkeley, CA: Ramparts Press, 1971); John Henrik Clarke, ed., Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa (New York: Random House, 1974); Martin, Race First; Randall K. Burkett, Garveyism as a Religious Movement: The Institutionalization of a Black Civil Religion (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1978); Emory Tolbert, The UNIA and Black Los Angeles: Ideology and Community in the American Garvey Movement (Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, UCLA, 1980); Tony Martin, The Pan-African Connection: From Slavery to Garvey and Beyond (Dover, MA: Majority Press, 1983); Rupert Lewis and Maureen Warner-Lewis, eds., Garvey: Africa, Europe, and the Americas (Kingston: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1986); Rupert Lewis and Patrick Bryan, eds., Garvey: His Work and Impact (Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1988); Rupert Lewis, Marcus Garvey: Anti-Colonial Champion (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1988).