I was formally introduced to Marcus Garvey through a small but ambitious black newsmagazine I used to write for called Accent L.A. Garvey was a perfect cover subject for us — one of those important but underexposed black figures that deserved more notice than history, or the media in the early ’90s, seemed willing to give him. He appeared on the cover of our monthly (well, we aimed for monthly, but funds didn‘t always cooperate) in his most familiar pose: dressed in gold and purple regalia and feathered neo-Roman helmet, stern and impassive, eyes deliberately cast above those of the observer. I’m embarrassed to say that I don‘t really remember the accompanying story, but the mere fact that we granted Garvey such prominence, giving him the space ordinarily accorded to more modern heroes of the age, like Denzel Washington or Ice-T, felt victorious. I still knew little about Garvey, but at least he had taken up official residence in my consciousness of black history. Not much progress, but some, and I reasoned that some is certainly better than none.
After viewing Stanley Nelson’s new documentary, Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind, I know that Garvey would have strenuously disagreed with that. Everything and not a whit less was his credo, his wonderfully gluttonous contribution to black people everywhere who were used to getting by on scraps.
Nelson finally gives those of us who are historically challenged a full portrait of the uncompromising black leader of the early 1900s who cast the nationalist paradigm that has been borrowed in one way or another by every black leader who followed. The Jamaican-born Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) crafted the first and biggest black independence movement in history by awakening the sleeping giant of black self-esteem and giving it a public voice with slogans like “Up, you mighty race,” and a public presence with resplendent uniforms and regular military-style parades down New York‘s Fifth Avenue. What sounds overwrought today was nothing less than radical in 1915, when the tactics of leading race men like W.E.B. Du Bois were aimed, as they always had been, at integrating the Negro into the American mainstream; Garvey was the first to declare that black people could not, should not rely on the kindness of whites, and were more than capable of doing for themselves. He demonstrated that self-esteem was not only plausible, but profitable: Between 1917 and 1921, the UNIA operated a popular newspaper, the Negro World; established the Negro Factories Corporation, which ran grocery stores and several other businesses; and launched the Black Star Line, a shipping company that generated $600,000 in profits before collapsing in 1922. And from his base in America, Garvey managed to set up 500 UNIA divisions worldwide that at their peak boasted some 750,000 members.
Remarkably, Garvey fired up this collective imagination at probably the lowest moment in black history since Reconstruction — during World War I and its aftermath, when America was shedding its innocence along with the blood of its soldiers, and racial tolerance was so low that lynchings were commonplace and urban riots erupted as blacks attempted to carve a place for themselves in the rock of industrialization. In such a poisonously repressed atmosphere, Garvey had the gumption to complain about it — loudly. “Where is the black man’s government? Where is his king and his kingdom? Where is his president, his country, his men of big affairs?” he huffed in one of his best-known quotes. “I could not find them, and then I declared, I will help to make them.”
Yet it was Garvey who ultimately hastened his own demise. He had plenty of enemies, among them the United States government, which came to view his black independence movement in Africa as a real threat to the colonial powers that were redrawing boundaries there after the war; the Justice Department started an intelligence division expressly to monitor Garvey, enlisting the services of a young attorney named J. Edgar Hoover for the job. But Garvey‘s real undoing was a native stubbornness and unwillingness to heed any counsel but his own. Whirlwind paints him as a charismatic but isolated and autocratic figure, given to visions of grandeur and self-aggrandizement and too often surrounding himself with people who were loyal but not necessarily competent. When Hoover arrested Garvey on a minor mail-fraud charge in 1921, Garvey ignored the advice of lawyers and insisted on representing himself in court. The following year, out on bail, he made a fatal tactical error when he met with the head of the KKK — that was the true American government, he reasoned — and drew fresh condemnation from Du Bois and other black leaders who saw the meeting as proof that Garvey and his followers were fanatical, dangerous and probably insane. With popular opinion turning against him, Garvey was eventually sentenced to five years in the Atlanta State Penitentiary for bilking one man out of a grand total of $25. President Calvin Coolidge, afraid that the perpetually afflicted Garvey — he was sickly his whole life — would die in prison and become a martyr, pardoned him and then promptly had him deported back to Jamaica in 1927. Though UNIA lived on, the movement was effectively over. Garvey traveled to England, but never once made it to Africa, the continent that had so inspired him. He died in London in 1940, a largely forgotten man.
Stanley Nelson, who also directed 1999’s acclaimed documentary on the black press, Soldiers Without Swords, knew little of Garvey when he started the project, but was compelled by what he saw as a classic rags-to-riches-to-ruin American story — immigrant has a vision, works hard, makes good, falls from grace. But capturing the essence of Garvey‘s movement and the essence of the man equally was a challenge: The director turned up few living eyewitnesses to the movement or anyone who could speak about Garvey from experience. “He’s a fascinating character, complex and complicated, but we really struggled to tell his story personally,” Nelson says in a telephone interview from New York. “We wanted to know, what was it about him, about the times, that made his movement catch on like it did? But it was very tough to draw a picture of him.” Nelson concluded that this was true partly because Garvey gave so much of himself to the movement — the movement was him, and vice versa. “Frankly, it appeared there was not much personality there. When he closed his door at night, that was it. One of the most moving moments of the film for me is Garvey‘s son trying to recall what his father was like at home, and talking about how he never laughed.”
True, the film is most stirring not when it’s focusing on UNIA‘s big ambition and pageantry, but on Garvey’s small frailties: the disaster of his first New York speaking engagement, in which he was so nervous he literally fell on his face; his modest circumstances and sole recreational activity, described by his son, of arranging and rearranging his African art collection at home; his death by heart attack, which came as he sat in a chair reading a false report in a London newspaper about his death the day before. Garvey was felled in the end not by one of his several ailments, or the demands of his work, but by a broken heart.
The one thing that everyone does seem to know about Marcus Garvey is that he failed. The failure was precipitated by his own arrogance, but that‘s hardly all of it — all black separatist movements in America have failed, from the Nation of Islam to the Black Panthers to MOVE. Such movements couldn’t be allowed to succeed: If they had, they would have condemned America as the racist, eminently undemocratic society it was, and in many ways still is. Garvey forced America to clarify its intentions toward its black populace, though the only thing it proved in quashing the Universal Negro Improvement Association and like organizations was that it could neither live with the stain of black rejection nor live up to the challenge of black inclusion. Garvey‘s greatest legacy was that he tried to navigate his way — our way — out of this existential hell not on a raft down the familiar Mississippi, but in a grand ocean liner called the Black Star Line, which sailed to ports around the world that we had never seen before. He literally made us captains of our own destiny. The glory was brief, over nearly the moment it began, but the effect on the black imagination was far-reaching and eternal. Today much of that imagination remains unrealized; Nelson, for his part, believes that “the movement is not dead, but merely sleeping.” And though Accent L.A. folded years ago, I’ve always believed it will rise again. For that stubborn and unfounded belief I surely have Garvey, and the whirlwind he left in his wake, to thank.