Levine captures this phenomenon much more precisely and in depth



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However, our concern here is Black Nationalism, and it is within the activist tradition that Black Nationalism moved, literally and figuratively out of the Caribbean, north to the United States, through the vision of Marcus Garvey. It is essential to note that Garvey did not revert to the resistance stage of Black Nationalism, but proffered Black Nationalism in its transitional state to a Black population within the U.S that was itself beginning to explore the concept of Black Nationalism to a greater extent.1

What needs did Garvey Nationalism fulfill amongst the Black population in the United States? Both Moses and Dawson in their works analyze Black Nationalism and prominent Black nationalistic leaders as “romantic, self determinate, spiritual, and revolutionary.”2 Such analyses, while in some ways fundamentally flawed, allow us to further refine and develop Black Nationalism as an aggregate and control-oriented activity.

To view Garvey Nationalism as attempting to aggregate self-determination, especially in the 1920–1940s in the United States, does begin to answer our question. We can envision and even quantify this need of self-determination through an understanding of Black demographics during the period. Moses in his academic description of Black migration parenthesizes the need as something well beyond simple pursuit of employment:

The dominant pattern of black mass behavior from 1876 to 1925 was migration (and enthusiasm for migration) out of the Old South Black Belt. The rhetoric of this migration was often reminiscent of ante-bellum black nationalism, with its talk of escape from the land of bondage and quest for a promised land.3


Levine captures this phenomenon much more precisely and in depth:

Thus the music and dance of the country and city, of white and black, of the folk and the commercial music hall, of the church and the street corner, met and amalgamated. At first the musical variations were shuttled back and forth from North to South and city to country by the migratory patterns of so many southern blacks….


Jones envisions this self-determination in more individual terms as the basis of “primitive blues and primitive jazz”:

The old shouts and hollers were still their accompaniment for the arduous work of clearing land, planting, or harvesting crops. But there was a solitude to this work that had never been present in the old slave times…. Each man had his own voice and his own way of shouting—his own life to sing about.4


Creoles like violinist Paul Domingues…were expressing perhaps the basic conflict to arise regarding the way the ex-slave was to make his way in America. Adaptation or assimilation?5
And this seems to me an extremely important idea since it is just this bitter insistence that has kept what can be called Negro culture a brilliant amalgam of diverse influences…. There was always a border beyond which the Negro could not go, whether musically or socially. There was always a possible limitation to any dilution or excession of cultural or spiritual influences…it was at this juncture that he had to make use of other resources, whether African, subcultural, or hermetic. And it was this boundary, this no man’s land that provided the logic and beauty of his music.6
Garvey’s Black Nationalism and most forms of Black Nationalism that have followed in the United States sought to capture the spirit of that movement, its energy and escapism, and mold it into a nationalist form of self-determination:

Africa calls now more than ever. She calls because the attempt is now being made by the combined Caucasian forces of Europe to subjugate her, to overrun her and reduce her to the state of alien control that will mean in another one hundred years the complete extermination of the native African…. we have pledged ourselves to bring the manhood of our race to the highest plane of human achievement. We cannot, and we must not, falter. There is absolutely no turning back. There must be a going forward to the point of destiny. Destiny leads us to liberty, to freedom…that will make us a great and powerful people.7

Holistic Voices

At this stage it would appear prudent to begin a categorical analysis of Garvey’s development of Black Nationalism and supplement that with a categorical analysis of the Black community’s support, or lack thereof, of that development. To begin such an analysis, we need simply start with the following categories: romanticism, self-determination, spiritualism, and revolution. We might change the name of a few select categories to make them more derogatory as many commentators on Garvey have done. Alternatively we may change a few select categories that appear pejorative; such as romanticism to love, as Robin Kelley has done in his analysis of the radical nature of Garvey’s Black Nationalism in his recent work Freedom Dreams. While I fully agree, especially in the context of how the Black community interpreted Garvey’s political thought, that Black love is a more viable and explanatory category than romanticism; I believe that attempts at categorization, while revealing on one level, obscure essential understandings on another level. The other reason to shy away from constructing a categorical understanding is that we need to link Garvey’s Nationalism to previous Black Nationalistic understandings in a way that has not yet been achieved. Most emphatically, Garvey himself never attempted such a compartmentalization.

So Negroes, I say, through the Universal Negro Improvement Association, that there is much to live for. I have a vision of the future, and I see before me a picture of a redeemed Africa, with her dotted cities, with her beautiful civilization, with her millions of happy children, going to and fro. Why should I lose hope, why should I give up and take a back place in this age of progress? Remember that you are men, that God created you Lords of this creation. Lift up yourselves, men, take yourselves out of the mire and hitch your hopes to the stars; yes, rise as high as the very stars themselves. Let no man pull you down, let no man destroy your ambition, because man is but your companion, your equal; man is your brother; he is not your lord; he is not your sovereign master.8
In his leadership, Garvey harkens us back to the early maroon community leaders. He is imbued with both political and spiritual energy and attempts to imbue his followers with that same energy. Garvey’s speeches consisted of political arguments founded upon a particular conception of God. In Garvey’s conception, God was Black and redeemed Black people and a Black empire—if Black people sought to redeem themselves. As Moses argues, Garvey’s conception of religion falls close to his Catholic upbringing.9 Not having been raised in the tradition of Black churches, Garvey understood the energy of spiritualism somewhat differently than the Haitian maroons or even Dessalines, his activist Black nationalistic predecessors. Even Dessalines, who adopted Catholicism as the official state religion, understood spiritualism as energy within the physical world. Garvey didn’t follow such an understanding.

To be fair to Garvey, two centuries of being required to operate within Western tradition, had affected the worldview of most Blacks within the Diaspora. Spiritual energy was seen primarily as having only a psychological force. Garvey, however, still perceives of spiritualism beyond the psychological, and understands the connection between moral energy and political energy:

The call to Africa is still more than the indefinable cry of an oppressed people, more than the interpretation and the inspired utterances of a bold and inspired leader, whom the Negro acclaims, who spreads discomfiture among the ranks of Negro oppressors; the Call to Africa is the voice of the Omnipotent. Let my people go, that they might serve me. The Call to Africa is the Omnipotent in the act of delivering His people from bondage…. Three hundred years of unparalleled horrors reaching down to the atrocities of the Belgian Congo and still intolerable conditions prevailing to this very moment could not but move the Heaven of Justice to vindicate her Cause…. Slowly and surely the arm of Omnipotence has been outstretched to bring justice to the Negro. His is now passing through the Red Sea wall. His day of victory is at hand.10
Garvey’s synthesis of politics and spiritualism, while it is developed on the level of existence similar to the early maroons and Dessalines, avoids the direct physical connection between spiritualism, leader and group. The early maroon leaders and Dessalines were associated with a spiritual energy; this energy was directly transmitted through leaders to the group, affording the group spiritual and physical protection. As many commentators have concluded, this understanding of spiritualism is part of most African traditions. What abounds in Garvey’s speeches is an interpretation of the Old Testament. However, that interpretation is more indirect and impersonal than the spiritualism of early Black leaders, the maroons, Dessalines, even Douglass. For Garvey, spiritualism is primarily psychological—the correct spiritualism uplifts the race through developing ambition, lifting the race from an imposed inferiority that is the cause of laziness, individuality and depression:

I believe with Napoleon. When some one asked him “on what side is God?” he replied. “God is on the side of the strongest battalion.” Napoleon was right. He had a true concept of God. God is really on the side of the strongest peoples because God made all men equal and He never gave superior power to any one class or group of people over another, and any one who can get the advantage over another is pleasing God, because that is the servant who has taken care of God’s command in exercising authority over the world.11


This particular passage comes from a speech entitled “God as a War Lord.” In the speech, Garvey envisions an active God who is a “bold Sovereign—A Warrior Lord,” as well as a “God of Peace.”12 Like the Old Testament construction of Blacks held in bondage, Garvey constructs a warrior God. However, Garvey’s similarities with the worldview of Blacks held in bondage ends with his depiction of God. Man is alone, stands alone, whether he is righteous or not, to determine his own fate upon the planet. Neither God nor spiritualism imposes upon humanity a directly intervening force.

In Garvey’s conception, spiritual existence simply acts to honor already existing power. Where they have value to the oppressed is in helping them to understand that all men have an innate power that they simply need to develop; in fact, have a mandate to develop as God’s servants. In Garvey’s understanding, spiritualism is power, and God who nurtures power in humanity intervenes only to recognize power. Garvey’s conception is obviously hyper-rational, relegating morality useful only in the cultivation of power. Garvey’s concern is with the aggregation and control of power—power based upon a religious psychology that envisions all groups, classes and races as equals and places them in direct and indirect competition to take up “God’s command in exercising authority over the world.” What is not being aggregated, that which Garvey has no interest in aggregating, is any sense of right or righteousness. In this Garvey’s synthesis of power and spiritualism is, as Kelley argues, radical. It is also, in comparison to most Black understandings, pared down in the area of spiritualism.

While Garvey’s worldview lacked a fully developed understanding of Black spiritualism, Marcus Mosiah Garvey developed Black Nationalism to a degree not previously achieved, especially in connection to the Black masses. This is primarily due to his synthesis of politics and Black love, or what many of his commentators have referred to derogatorily as romanticism, narcissism or megalomania. Garvey, as E.U. Essien-Udom describes him, was a Pan African Nationalist.13 Although he held understandings of Africa that were similar to those of previous Pan African leaders, most notably the responsibility of Blacks throughout the Diaspora returning and uplifting Africa into modern civilization, there are distinctions to Garvey, especially in his synthesis of power and Black self love. In some ways, this is best understood in terms of who Garvey understood as an asset in uplifting Africa and who he understood as a detriment in this endeavor:

It is hoped that when the time comes for American and West Indian Negroes to settle in Africa, they will realize their responsibility and duty. It will not be to go to Africa for the purpose of exercising an over-lordship over the natives, but it shall be the purpose of the Universal Negro Improvement Association to have established in Africa that brotherly co-operation which will make the interests of the African native and the American and the West Indian Negroes one and the same, that is to say, we shall enter into a common partnership to build up Africa in the interests of our race…. The Negro has had enough of the vaunted practice of race superiority as inflicted upon him by others, therefore he is not prepared to tolerate a similar assumption on the part of his own people…. It will be useless, as before stated, for bombastic Negroes to leave America and the West Indies to go to Africa, thinking that they will have privileged positions to inflict upon the race that bastard aristocracy that they have tried to maintain in this western world at the expense of the masses. Africa shall develop an aristocracy of its own, but it shall be based upon service and loyalty to the race.14


In the remainder of his speeches, Garvey does much to develop this dichotomy between selfish, jealous, bombastic elitism and brotherly love within the masses. It is a dichotomy that drew popular sympathy, if not direct support from the Black community. This dichotomy, however problematic, exposes two popular sentiments within the Black community. The first sentiment is the connection to Africa and the peoples of Africa, which Garvey develops throughout his speeches. As we have previously determined, such connections were not made in early forms of Pan African Nationalism, including those developed by Cuffe, the infamous American Colonization Society, Delaney or Crummell. The UNIA with Garvey as leader, as Kelley argues, is the first to construct understandings of Africa as the motherland. In fact this is a primary construction within Garvey’s famous “Africa for Africans” speech.15 While Kelley picks up this argument in context to gender, another essential context lies in Garvey’s distinctive vision of Pan African Nationalism. Garvey presents an Africa and African people that can be embraced exactly because they are Africa and African, as opposed to being an escape or a place upon which to imprint frustrated elitist ambitions.

While Moses argues against many commentators’ perception of Garvey as a mass leader based on the fact that Garvey did not see all Africans returning to Africa, it appears through the construction of his dichotomy that Garvey is actually seeking to discourage elites (or those with elitist aspirations) from returning to Africa, not the masses. This understanding is consistent with Garvey’s bitter conflicts with U.S. Black and West Indian leadership and his understanding of their shortcomings. The ignorance that Garvey attacks appears to be limited to the ignorance of elites. He appears to believe that the problems he finds within the masses can be addressed through adherence to a correct religion and the development of self-confidence and Black self-love.

The second sentiment is that of Black abhorrence of exploitation. We have previously encountered the strength of this sentiment in the actions of the Haitian Black masses toward Toussaint L’Overture. As C.L.R. James claims, the Black masses were willing to throw over Toussiant when they suspected that he was not firmly behind the ending of their exploitation. This, after all, historically is the leading reason for the development of Pan African Nationalism from its earliest conception up to Garvey. In previous conceptions, that abhorrence of exploitation is only articulated in one sense—the escape from exploitation by the United States as a racist society. In Garvey, the articulation of part of the Black experience becomes more complete in the sense that it is not only articulated as an abhorrence of being exploited, but also as an abhorrence of exploiting others.

Yet Garvey’s conception of Black Nationalism is aborted much in the same way as is Dessalines’ earlier attempt at popular Black Nationalism within the activist tradition. The abortion of Dessalines’ form of Black Nationalism takes place due to an elite faction of privileged landed mulattoes who both fear and loathe Blacks and Black political control of the island, and an upwardly mobile faction of middle-class blacks who seek expanded wealth. Garvey’s Nationalism falls due to bitter friction between himself and other non-nationalistic Black and West Indian leaders, who have also been accused of being middle-class aspirant, and certain factions within the Anglo American population who fear the development of widespread Black political power. In both cases, these factions conspired to keep proponents of Black Nationalism landless and leaderless.

Still, Garvey struck a chord by institutionalizing these two sentiments. That chord continues to reverberate within Black Nationalistic thought and Black political thought. That chord was incorporated into the Black Nationalism developed through the Nation of Islam by two leaders within the Black activist tradition—Elijah Muhammad and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X). It is to this development of Black Nationalism that we now turn.

In both form and spirit, the Nation of Islam took up Garvey’s grassroots philosophy and organization methods, which appealed to the Black masses. One could literally say that Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, took his message to the streets and recruited his followers from the streets, expanding on Garvey’s theme of developing the masses and severely critiquing Black elite leadership. Muhammad, like Garvey, recognized that those most capable of articulating and developing Black Nationalism in the context of Black achievement would come from the faction of the population that most opposed other formulations of achievement. Malcolm X rewarded this recognition, after first being recruited by the Nation of Islam in prison, by becoming one of the most prolific and popular leaders within the history of the Black community in the United States. Maybe more important for our inquiry is that Malcolm X, like Marcus Garvey, reconstructed Black Nationalism philosophy as an essential component within the popular worldview of the Black community. This has not been achieved since by any Black Nationalistic leader; and it is not simply due to the supposed impracticality of Black Nationalism, but because no Black Nationalist leader has had either the resources or intellectual energy to achieve such a conception on the community level.




1 Moses, 1982: 127–129.

2 Moses, 1982: 125, 129; Dawson, 2001: 90–131.

3 Moses, 1982: 127.

4 Jones 1963: 61.

5 Jones 1963: 79.

6 Jones 1963: 80.

7 Wintz, 1996: 216

8 Garvey, 1967: 58.

9 Moses, 1982: 133.

10 Garvey, 1977: 134.

11 Garvey, 1967: 33.

12 Garvey, 1967: 33.

13 Garvey, 1967: xvi.

14 Garvey, 1967: 32–33.

15 Kelley, 2002: 27.


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