Essay: Negro with a Hat – Colin Grant (Marcus Garvey)

The fabled story of Marcus Garvey, the charismatic and tireless black leader who had an miraculous rise and fall in the late 1910s and early ’20s, makes for an fascinating read. Garvey has found an engaging biographer in Colin Grant. Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica in 1887, he grew up with strong admiration for British culture and ‘had sung the British national anthem ‘to the king with more fervor, more luster than anyone else.’ ‘ Garvey was a self-taught person (an autodidact), and he also learned the printing trade in Jamaica. After spending years in London, where he attended law classes at Birkbeck College, Garvey returned to Jamaica and eventually traveled to the United States. At this point, his goal was to replicate in Jamaica an institution similar to the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington. Booker T. Washington’s successor, Robert Moton, ended these plans. Garvey’s other disappointment, from the British Empire, came partly from the treatment of Jamaican soldiers by the British during WWI. By the end of the war, his Pan-African outlook had been shaped or reshaped. He was soon well-known in Harlem, with a sizeable following, a newspaper and other businesses. Colin Grant, a British subject of Jamaican parentage, writes that ‘the genius of Garvey lay in his early ability to reach out to both native and foreign-born groups of African descent’.
Toward the end of ‘Negro With a Hat’, Garvey is quoted as having said: ‘We were the first Fascists. … When we had 100,000 disciplined men, and were training children, Mussolini was still an unknown, [and] Mussolini copied our Fascism.’ The ‘we’ that Marcus Garvey was referring to was his Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.), an organization that spread like wildfire to black communities across the United States, the Caribbean and Central America, acquiring hundreds of thousands of members, maybe even into the millions. This quotation about Fascism, shed light on the befuddlement of both Du Bois and J. Edgar Hoover, neither of whom knew what to make of the anti-union, non-Socialist, non-Democrat, non-Republican organizer and orator with a ‘haunting and melodious voice.’
Garvey was an exponent of something new, like other world fascisms, from the leftover fruits of World War I. Just as Mussolini wanted a new Roman Empire, Garvey envisioned an African empire. He would speak of the black man’s ‘place in the sun.’ For Garvey, a place in the sun meant the reconquest of Africa. He also believed that different groups should live apart from one another, basically making him a supporter of segreagation. This is why he seemed willing to give America over to the Ku Klux Klan, a move that cost him the support of many African-Americans. Garvey had conceived of the Black Star Line as a fleet of ships that would serve black communities across the African diaspora. Even Du Bois, admitted the idea was ‘original and promising.’ Eventually his plan failed owing to an array of errors involving bad luck and micromanagement.
Although features of the U.N.I.A. can be described as fascist, Garvey appeared to not contain any anti-Semitic bias until after his mail fraud trial in 1923, where he felt that a Jewish judge, prosecutor and shipping agent were responsible for his plight. Garvey represented himself in the ridiculous case, involving the improper selling of shares in the Black Star Line. Unfortunately he was found guilty. Colin Grant writes, ‘the case turned on an empty envelope’ bearing a Black Star Line stamp; that was the ‘only proof’ offered by a chief prosecution witness. But Hoover had been determined ‘to secure a conviction.’ Garvey served time in an Atlanta prison and was subsequently deported to Jamaica. Garvey was never able to bounce back since his stint in prison, even though he continued to organize new efforts, they all failed. He spent his last years in London, watching his influence decrease, until dying of a stroke in 1940.
Grant’s book is not all politics, ideology, and lawsuits, which he was involved in often. It is also a compelling social history that is set out to show that Garvey was misunderstood. With wit and compassion, Colin Grant chronicles Garvey’s amazing life, from the failed businesses, to his misguided talks with the Ku Klux Klan, to his two wives named Amy, to the premature obituaries that contributed to his tragic death in 1940. All of these different elements make this book a fantastic read, both timeless and universal. Colin Grant could have spent more time discussing Garvey’s early conversion to Roman Catholicism. Nonetheless, ‘Negro With a Hat’ is a really good portrayal of a great man’s life. Overall the author represented Marcus Garvey’s achievements and downfalls in an enticing way, keeping the reader wanting to learn more about this big name in black history. In my opinion the author, Colin Grant, tells Marcus Garvey’s story fairly and accurately, making this an achievement that Garvey might have even appreciated.

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