Recently I had a series of discussions with people on Twitter and in real life about Marcus Garvey’s status as a Black leader. I was surprised to find that not everyone respected him or his ideas as much me. Why was I surprised? No idea. His ideas have long been misunderstood as simple back-to-Africa rhetoric couple that with his flamboyant style of dress and his consultation with White separatists and there’s no denying he was and remains a bit of a puzzle.
I’ve said this time and again. When evaluating controversial figures in history, it’s important to evaluate the unique set of circumstances that shaped their philosophies. And Garvey came of age in an intellectual and political sense at a very unique and crucial time in Black American history. There was a World War, a Great Migration, and a Renaissance in Harlem. Black politics were evolving. These things influenced him. Some say that because he was an immigrant, he was unable to truly grasp the unique plight of Blacks in America. Yes, he was an immigrant, but that I believe, gave him a very unique perspective on the so-called promise of American freedom.
As Garvey came of age, working and lower class Blacks were leaving the South for northern urban centers in search of greater economic opportunities and equal rights under the law. They found the same racial prejudices, hostile and exclusionary labor unions and a hard time securing jobs. Economic hardship pushed them into the most desolate areas of northern cities. In Harlem, there was a great contrast between middle class Blacks and lower class Blacks. This led to disillusionment and politics became an outlet for Blacks who were frustrated by the reality of life in the North. These were the people that were most affected by the politics of Marcus Garvey. They may have truly felt like men without countries and thus been drawn to Garvey and his constant call for the sons and daughters of the Diaspora to reclaim Africa.
As mentioned before, rising tensions, static economic conditions and discrimination in this period had driven working class African Americans to aggressive politics. The ideas and philosophy of Marcus Garvey proved to be the spark needed to ignite the African American working class who were growing increasingly wary of trying to create a way in a biased system. Marcus Garvey came to Harlem in 1916 and in 1918 began organizing the largest mass movement of Blacks to date. He preached self-development, self reliance and “Africa for Africans” at home and abroad. His belief that African people are one people regardless of location and that Black people the world over should support Africa and African independence formed the back bone of his “Back to Africa” movement.
In preaching economic self-reliance and a sense of self-pride and relation to Africans the world over, Garvey offered Black Americans something they had never had before, a sense of belonging and an existence without discrimination. This propagated a strong sense of racial pride and finally the Negro in America felt that he was no longer a man without a nation.
I won’t deny that his plan was… flawed. But let’s not deny his legacy.