Last weekend, I spoke at the Blackness in Britain conference on biographies of Marcus Garvey for children. I examined three biographies from different perspectives: the American Jules Archer’s biography in Famous Young Rebels (1973), Trinidadian Therese Mills biography in Great West Indians (1973), and Eric Huntley’s Marcus Garvey: A Biography (1987). Each biography took a uniquely national perspective on the Jamaican-born leader; helping kids understand the impact of Garvey on Black Power, African politics, and pan-Africanism might be best served by looking at multiple biographies.
Jules Archer’s biography is in a book of young rebels that includes mostly Americans (one somewhat odd exception of a Famous Young Rebel is Mussolini). Archer’s story of Marcus Garvey likewise starts and ends with Americans. “The parade began in Harlem” (43), is Archer’s opening line. Although “in August, 1914 . . . [Garvey] founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association” (48) in Jamaica, he soon decided that Jamaicans were “apathetic” (48) due to “malnutrition and illiteracy” (48) and “he needed a larger base of operations to make his dreams flourish” (48). This he could only find in the US. Archer filters Garvey’s success and failures through the eyes of two other famous black leaders, Garvey’s contemporary WEB DuBois, who attacked Garvey’s Back-to-Africa scheme as “a stale revival of old African colonization schemes, all of which had died of ‘spiritual bankruptcy and futility’” (49); and 1960s radical Eldridge Cleaver, who wrote that “‘The practical prospect of Garvey’s actually physically transporting blacks back to Africa turned most black people off’” (55). Archer wants to redeem Garvey as a “famous young rebel,” but by his choice of lenses through which to view Garvey, i.e. American blacks both in Garvey’s own time and during the Civil Rights movement who are critical of Garvey, Archer’s biography suggests his inability to succeed in America as other than symbolic figure.
Like Archer, Therese Mills was writing in the midst of a Black Power movement when she published Great West Indians in 1973, but hers was not an American movement. “By mid-February 1970, Black Power exploded onto the [Trinidadian] national stage, erupting in social and political convulsions such as the country had never known in its recorded history” according to Mark Fraser of the Trinidad Express. As news editor for the Trinidad Guardian, Mills had a particular interest in the Black Power movement and in honoring the leaders of the West Indies, black and white. But even though her book was produced as a supplementary reader for primary school history classrooms (“Introduction” iv), and therefore might tend toward a conservative view of history, Mills made choices about who to include that suggest she was not untouched by the influence of Black Power. She decided to “omit all the former and current Heads of State” (iv)—which included her own embattled prime minister, Eric Williams, and it is significant that many of her subjects were connected with a history of revolution and anti-imperialism. In addition to Garvey, Mills profiles Cuffy, Paul Bogle and George Gordon. Great West Indians, for Mills, are those that highlight the cultural and intellectual strengths of the West Indies, and those who increase a sense of unity. Mills’ biography is the only one that does not mention Black Power—perhaps because it was causing such ructions in Trinidad at the time. Much of the unrest was due to unemployment among youth, and even though Mills’ biography of Garvey does not mention contemporary events, her prose suggests that she believes Garvey’s message was one that would still resonate among the youth of her West Indies too: “During his years in Kingston Garvey saw much poverty. Always, it seemed, poverty and bad conditions were the lot of the black man” (28). The bulk of Mills’ biography is set in the West Indies, not in the US or in England as the other biographies are. Although it mentions Garvey’s travels, Mills’ biography suggests that everything Garvey did concerned the people of Jamaica and the broader West Indies: “Finally, he returned to Jamaica to enter politics and to form the People’s Political Party. Among its aims were self-government for Jamaica, higher wages, more employment, the establishment of a Jamaican university, and protection of the rights of the individual” (31). In many ways, Garvey’s aims for Jamaica were similar to the young Black Power protestors of the February Revolution.
Archer’s biography and Mills’ biography were written during the Black Power movement, and responded directly to the effect that movement was having on the people in their respective nations. I want to look at one more biography which came out after the Black Power movement, but still within the context of contentious racial politics, and that is Eric L. Huntley’s Marcus Garvey: A Biography. The 1980s were a difficult time for black people in Britain, where Huntley had been living for over twenty years. He and his wife Jessica had founded Bogle L’Ouverture Press in the late 1960s to publish and publicize the thinking of radicals in Britain and the Caribbean, including Walter Rodney and Bernard Coard. The Huntleys’ commitment to Black Power ideals was only strengthened by their life in Britain. They had been part of the protests against the New Cross Massacre in 1981, and seen the riots in Brixton that same year. The Huntleys were interested in connecting Black British youth to their past and to the global African community, and this makes Eric Huntley’s biography of Garvey different from the others I have discussed here. In telling Garvey’s history, Huntley also tells a history of Jamaica. The stories that Garvey learns about as a young boy are not those of an enslaved past, but of those who fought the powerful: “Quaco, Chempong, Nanny, Paul Bogle and William Gordon” (2) as well as the Maroons “who had escaped from slavery and set up communities of their own” (2). These historical figures provide Garvey, and by extension the reader of the biography, with positive role models and an image of African people that is neither patronizing nor pitiable. In addition to writing a biography that will teach readers about history and improve their own self-image, the biography (unlike the others I discuss) makes an effort to put Garvey into an international context. It spends more time than other biographies on Garvey’s travels in Latin America and the Caribbean; the United Negro Improvement Association is described by Huntley as a world organization (rather than the primarily American organization described by Archer, for example): the UNIA, writes Huntley, had “the aim of uniting all the Negro people in the world” (18). Huntley’s biography concludes with the international influence that Marcus Garvey had, which “reached into every corner of the world in which African people lived” (32). Huntley devotes paragraphs to Garvey’s influence on Kwame Nkrumah, and Ghanian independence; on South Africa’s Steven Biko; and on Maurice Bishop of Granada.
Each of these biographies is different in their focus. Garvey was a complex figure, with wide influence, and should be considered from multiple angles—especially when using him as a heroic figure for children.