This review originally appeared in the March 31, 1984 issue.
THE MARCUS GARVEY AND UNIVERSAL NEGRO IMPROVEMENT ASSOCIATION PAPERS.
Edited by Robert A . Hill. University of California Press.
Volume I: 1826-August 1919. 579 pp.
Volume II: 27 August 1919-31 August 1920. 710pp. $38.50 each.
The most common misconceptions about black politics stem from the supposed division of black political thought into mutually exclusive nationalist and integrationist tendencies. Although the dichotomy helps us understand some of the points of contention among black leaders, it obscures the important common assumptions and vocabulary unifying Afro-American political history.
If we abandon the view that black political thought has developed along two separate historical lines, we can see the ideological continuities that link the pioneering protest leader Frederick Douglass and the pre-eminent accommodationist Booker T. Washington, or Washington and the prototypical black nationalist Marcus Garvey, or even Garvey and Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. It may be difficult for some to connect Garvey with Jackson, because the former is usually identified as the leader of a back-to-Africa movement while the latter presents himself as a symbol of blacks’ entry into mainstream politics. Yet the simplistic notion that there is a vast historical and ideological gulf between them is based on a misreading of the historical significance of both Garvey’s movement and Jackson’s campaign.
Black nationalism is usually seen as a recurrent, extreme departure from the political mainstream rather than as a continuing manifestation of cultural distinctiveness. In part, that mistaken view is a product of the racial controversies of the 1960s and the adoption during that decade of black nationalist ideas by militant activists. During the late 1960s and early 1970s. however, it became apparent that black nationalism was a complex tradition with conservative as well as radical undercurrents.
Misconceptions about black nationalism have been especially evident in the literature on Marcus Garvey, a gifted orator and organizer whose meteoric career displayed many facets of the black nationalist tradition. Arriving in New York City in 1916 with the modest goal of raising money for an industrial school in his native Jamaica, Garvey was caught up in the militancy of the years after World War I, when many blacks refused to endure the widespread racial violence that culminated in the riots of 1919. Other leaders, such as A. Philip Randolph in The Messenger and W.E.B. Du Bois In The Crisis, spoke out against racial injustice, but none attracted as much organized support. By the early 1920s, Garvey would later boast, his Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) had “enrolled more members throughout the world than almost all other Negro organizations put together.”
In recent years, Garvey has been at the center of a debate between historians who see black nationalism as a militant tradition and those who argue that its rhetoric conceals accommodationist or conservative attitudes. The case for Garvey’s militancy, and his contemporary relevance, was presented most forcefully in Theodore Vincent’s Black Power and the Garvey Movement and Tony Martin’s Race First. In contrast, Wilson Moses’ The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 portrayed Garvey’s movement as the culmination of a nationalist tradition stressing racial uplift through the adoption of the Protestant work ethic and Victorian moral virtues rather than the rejection of dominant white values.