Africa for the Africans: The Garvey Movement | The Nation


Africa for the Africans: The Garvey Movement

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Marcus Garvey rides through the streets of Harlem, New York City. August 1922.

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The movement for a Republic of Africa--run for and by black people--grows strong on the streets of Harlem.

When a German society petitions a black man in America to use his influence against the use of black troops on the Rhine (as appears from an article in the International Relations Section this week), Americans cannot dismiss that man as a joke. Marcus Garvey and his movement have been criticized, probably justly, for unsound methods of finance. They have been denounced by colored critics for failing to assert social equality and by radical critics for lack of economic understanding. They have been ridiculed by white men who do not see that the foibles of their own racial consciousness are reflected in this Negro movement. But the movement goes on—a vigorous proof that the Negro no longer answers to Mr. Dooley's -definition of a "docile people easily lynched."

The visitor to the thriving Negro section of the Harlem. district in New York any time during the month of August would have been aware that something unusual was going on. At the corners newsboys hawked the Negro World—"all about Marcus Garvey and the great convention." Cigar stores sold Marcus Garvey cigars. At certain hours parades drew thousands to the streets. A long one-story building, Liberty Hall, was filled all during the month with hundreds of delegates during business sessions and jammed to the doors every night. And this convention was an army with banners—red, black, and green—borne by delegates from three continents. Its leading functionaries on great occasions wore resplendent robes and at all times bore resounding titles: Potentate, Provisional President of Africa, Chaplain General, and the like. The man responsible for all this was Marcus Garvey, a West Indian Negro, not long in the United States, who asserts that in four years his Universal Negro Improvement Association has reached a membership of 4,500,000, about 45 per cent from the United States, the remainder from Africa, Central and South America, the West Indies, Canada, and Europe. Reduce this high estimate as much as you like, yet it still remains an unprecedented fact that representatives of all the principal Negro groups of the world have come together in an organization which raises the cry of "Africa for the Africans!" and proposes to found a great Negro government, an African Republic, which they vow to realize if it takes five hundred years.

This is a new thing for Negroes, but in strict harmony with many a slogan old or new which white men have used. "Self-determination of all peoples," "a white Australia," "100-per-cent Americanism"-how are they different in principle from Garvey's cry "Africa, the selfgoverning home of the Negro race"? Any phenomenon among the colored population, like the U. N. I. A., white persons at first incline to regard as a huge joke, while the better-off colored people look upon it as something which they must shun in defense of their respectability. So there are educated and conscientious colored people who live within five minutes of Liberty Hail but have never been in it, and yet believe that the whole movement is disreputable, dishonest, and disgraceful to their race, and that Garvey, whom they have never heard, is a smart thief or a wild fanatic. But the stubborn fact remains that a man of a disadvantaged group, by his almost unsupported strength and personal magnetism, has founded so large a power in the English-speaking world as to add to the current vocabulary of that language a new word, "Garveyism."

And still honest people have honest doubts which we may consider under various heads:

1. Is a Republic of Africa, controlled by black people, possible? Friends of the movement say that the idea may unite the Negro groups of the world in large industrial cooperation and commercial enterprise, even if the dream of African empire is not realised for many generations. Colored people have similar problems wherever they live in large numbers among white people, and it will help them to have financial and economic strength such as the Jews have maintained throughout the world for centuries, even without territory and without sovereign or national power. As for the future, it is a very large assumption to deny the possibility of African freedom. Ten years ago it seemed impossible to get the Germans out of Africa. Something happened, unpredicted and unbelievable. Are the British and French empires less mortal than Germany seemed ten years ago? If ever the British Empire goes to pieces, the chances for a Negro state will be good. And the longer that empire holds the better the chances for such a state when the empire does break up, for the culture of the native African will be more advanced.

2. Garvey's emphasis on racial consciousness as a bond to unite Negroes of all nations is not a retrograde movement. Possibly the idea of race may vanish in the future. But how far in the future? The comfort, convenience, and protection of hundreds of millions of Negroes cannot wait on that millennial jubilee. We might as well console a Negro who is about to be burned in Texas by prophesying to him that a thousand years from now his kind will not be burned because the constantly inflowing stream of white blood will have so lightened the skins of his group that nobody will know whom to burn. Race is now and will be for ages one of the deepest lines of human demarcation. And a race must have power and cohesion or perish. There is no such thing as the inalienable right of the individual against the established government, and when one race monopolizes the power and the functions of government, the other race or races are under the power of the governing race, even in the most advanced democracies and republics. And so interdependent are the interests of nations today that whenever any race holds power anywhere on earth the nationals and members of that race who live under the government of other races receive more respect and better treatment than the members of a race who have not the indirect backing of a racial government. That explains the queer fact that a brown-faced Japanese, who is regarded as a dangerous rival and almost feared as a potential enemy, can travel without Jim Crow in Mississippi and register at the best hotels of New York or Atlanta, while a native Negro who is citizen and whose skin may be many shades lighter than that of the Japanese, but who has no appeal from the local white juries, will be jim-crowed in Mississippi, told that "all rooms are taken" in New York, and kicked out of the lobbies in Atlanta. And this same Negro can be drafted to fight that Japanese. 3. The parades, regalia, ceremonials, and rituals of the Garvey movement form the outside, the least important side, of his organization. The desire for them is primarily human, not Negro. The writer does not happen to share it, but he understands it. Garvey's ritual is infinitely less absurd than that of the Ku Klux Klan and is neither secret nor sinister. Garvey is a Britisher and frankly wishes to use British social institutions. He is President-General of the organization; there are also a High Potentate from Liberia, a leader for the American Negro contingent, a head for the African Legion or military organization, and other high officers. What really troubles many white observers is not the ritual but the fact that in it the Negroes are striving to express their own racial pride rather than bow down to the white man. Formerly the Negro accepted the white and straight-haired God of the white man; when the white man wrote a prayer for the health of his own king and the perpetuation of his own supremacy, the black Christian simply repeated, reinforced, and abetted 'the white man's supplications. But here come black Garvey and his followers praying for their own sovereignty, idealizing their own kind, pigmenting their God, and the thing sounds outrageous to some white men and ridiculous even to the Caucasianized section of the Negro race. But is not some such racial pride necessary to the strength of the race?

4. An expert in business procedure would doubtless find many weaknesses in Garvey's business methods, not because it is Garvey's movement, certainly not because the people are colored, but for the same reason that one would expect to find risk and waste and some unfit and misplaced officials in any new, very large, and fast-growing organization. These things are remediable if the head and heart of an organization are right. Nearly everyone who looks into the face and listens to the words of Marcus Garvey becomes convinced of his honesty and his utter sincerity, as I am. But colored Americans of large business experience have held aloof hitherto and have lent no aid toward systematizing this tremendous enterprise of their race, and its greatest need seems to be better talent in its management. Nobody knows this better than Mr. Garvey. All the more reason why the financial transactions of the movement and its various subdivisions should be above the very breath of suspicion.

The United Negro Improvement Association is a membership organization, and if it received not more than one dollar per member a year from one-tenth of the number claimed it would have about the largest net income of any Negro institution. The U. N. I. A. holds the majority of stock in the Black Star Line, which is said to own three vessels. The creation of a steamship line, even in embryo, is one of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century Negro. The U. N. I. A. is also the basis of various other business organizations, one of which is the African Communities League. I take it that this League is simply a legal device for doing business which could not be done under the charter of the U. N. I. A., especially under British law. There is also a Negro Factories Corporation. A safe development of these business enterprises will mean more to the Negroes of the Western Hemisphere for some generations to come than will the hope of the Republic of Africa.

5. It is a serious question whether a big international race movement like this Garvey movement will not have a harmful influence on the domestic struggle here, if only by sapping the energies and consuming the resources of American colored folk. Yet in so far as international race power grew, it would strengthen the Negroes in the United States and everywhere else. There is no essential antagonism between Negro civil rights in Texas and Negro political rights in West Africa. There is no reason why the same individual Negro may not have a membership in the Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and yet talk consistently in an "interracial congress" in Atlanta, Georgia.

6. Will the Garvey propaganda -introduce a dangerous color division in the ranks of the colored American group itself? Garvey emphasizes and idealizes black; accepting the white man's challenge at its face value, he calls for black racial integrity and the preservation of "type." Now, it happens that what is called "the American Negro" consists of every shade and grade of human being from a white person with a drop of African blood in his veins to the fullblooded Negro. American race prejudice has welded this group into one. In the West Indies it is different: the British there have created a gulf between the light-skinned colored people and the darker ones, making both easier for the British to control. It is perhaps one of Garvey's mistakes that when he sees colored Americans contending for exact citizenship equality between the two races, he suspects them of trying to bring about amalgamation between whites and blacks. Amalgamation is hardly subject to group control; it is almost as independent of individual will as is the cooling of the sun. The leaders of the U. N. I. A., including Garvey himself, declare that the organization draws no distinction among the Negroes of the world.

Whatever may be said by way of criticism, this movement of the colored masses is anything but a joke. Neither Garvey nor any other human being could ever build up such a movement among the masses if it did not answer some longing of their souls. His particular movement may fail; the new racial consciousness of the Negro will endure. The deepest instincts of the scattered scions of the Negro race, like those of every race, call for group life, group propagation, and group power. That this is a white man's country, that other races must be kept out, or if already in must be kept in their place, is the viewpoint, the belief, and the will of nine-tenths of the native white people of the United States, even the most cultured and the most religious. It is but natural that such a pervasive feeling in their environment is answered in the soul of colored folk by a striving after self-preservation and self-perpetuation. And there is a laissez-faire majority in both races who are always worried and anxious enough, but who are willing only to "wait on the Lord" and see what will happen from decade to decade. And,, of course, "nature and time" would gradually but very slowly and very wastefully solve this problem and all other earthly problems by the creeping processes of destroying and uniformizing. But the horrors of a thousand years while waiting on Nature would be a disgrace to human intellect and genius.

Out of the colored people must come their own salvation. They must be a race and a power. The preparation for it could never have started too early, and cannot start earlier than now. The earlier the start, the less waste and the fewer horrors. It may take a hundred years or five hundred, a thousand years or five thousand, but four hundred million people can never be expected either to perish or forever to renounce their right to self-direction.

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