I will help to make them
here is the black man’s government? Where is his king and his kingdom? Where is his President, his ambassador, his country, his men of big affairs? I could not find them, and then I declared, ‘I will help to make them.’”
These are the words of Marcus Garvey. For all his ambition, political acumen, and fiery oratory, Garvey may be best remembered for his uniforms. Featuring shiny buttons, epaulets, and a hat resembling that worn by Napoleon Bonaparte (plume and all), Garvey’s was a serious uniform, and, judging by every portrait I’ve seen of him in it, he was quite aware of its seriousness. He knew as well that uniforms tend to instill pride in their wearers, as do parades for their marchers, and rallies for their participants. He worked all of these avenues to bring to his followers a sense of self-esteem and, importantly, entitlement. Believing that black people the world over had been convinced that they were unworthy of land, wealth, and self-governance, even civil rights, in the early twentieth century, Garvey made it his mission to remind black men and women of their honorable heritage and inspire them to move on toward a glorious future based on international unity.
PBS’s Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind, part of their “American Experience” series, presents the many sides and struggles of Marcus Garvey. The documentary follows a general trajectory, describing a bit about Garvey’s childhood in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. Born in 1887, he was raised by a strict father (who once left him alone at the bottom of a grave to teach him—perversely—self-reliance) and an encouraging mother (she believed he was destined for great things, even wanting to name him “Moses”). As a child, the documentary reports, Garvey played with a young white girl; but as they entered adolescence, her father sent her away to school to avoid further contact with him. At this point, apparently, 14-year-old Garvey “discovered” racism and vowed to do something about it.
In 1914, inspired by his reading of Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, Garvey established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) and African Community’s League (A.C.L.), both dedicated to racial unity, economic independence, moral melioration, and educational achievement, but within two years, he had run into money trouble—a kind of trouble that would plague him throughout his career—and he headed for the United States, where he soon settled in Harlem.
There, he restarted the U.N.I.A., based at first on support from New York’s West Indian immigrant community. In order to publicize his extensive plans for black education and self-employment, he founded a newspaper, The Negro World, and in order to finance them, he started a shipping company, the Black Star Line, and the Negro Factories Corporation (started in 1920), which developed grocery stores, a restaurant, a laundry, a moving van company, and a publishing house. During these years (1919-1922 or so), Garvey was also busy touring; giving speeches; opening chapters of the U.N.I.A. all over the U.S.; marrying his “soulmate,” Amy Ashwood; and surviving an assassination attempt (which, for his followers, only made him seem more clearly “chosen” to lead them). It wasn’t long before he caught the attention of the FBI; in 1919, the Bureau assigned a young Justice Department operative, one J. Edgar Hoover, to gather damaging information on Garvey, a scheme which meant hiring the first African American agent to go undercover and befriend and betray Garvey (and so, the strategy behind COINTELPRO was instituted). Eventually, Garvey and his organizations would be undone—he would lose all his money, be jailed for mail fraud, rejected by black U.S. leaders (W.E.B. Du Bois called him “dictatorial, domineering, inordinately vain, and very suspicious”), and deported to Jamaica in 1927. Though he and his second wife, his former secretary Amy Jacques, would have two sons (both interviewed briefly for this film), Garvey would die a broken and lonely man, in 1940, in London.
Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind tracks most of the events in Garvey’s remarkable life, using standard documentary devices—talking heads (mostly historians who opine on the man’s psychology or, more usefully, establish historical contexts for his actions and reactions, as well as some eyewitnesses, who recall the thrill of seeing Garvey when they were children), artfully blurred dramatic reenactments, and a few of those period-music-accompanied slow zooms on old photographs that Ken Burns has made famous. The American Experience website includes materials cited in the film, including transcripts of key primary documents, such as Garvey’s autobiographical statement, “The Negro’s Greatest Enemy” (written while he was in New York’s Tombs prison) and the Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World, which was drafted and adopted at U.N.I.A. Convention held in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1920, which also elected Garvey “Provisional President of Africa.” This extraordinary text begins with the following preamble: “Be it Resolved, That the Negro people of the world, through their chosen representatives in convention assembled… protest against the wrongs and injustices they are suffering at the hands of their white brethren, and state what they deem their fair and just rights, as well as the treatment they propose to demand of all men in the future.” Such protest, as we know, continues in less unified forms to this day.
The documentary paints a multi-faceted portrait of Garvey, without final answers as to why and how he happened when he did. He emerges as a fascinating and frustrating figure, at once vain and inspirational, authoritarian and enigmatic, self-absorbed to the point of driving friends and supporters away, and yet so dedicated to his greater cause that many people around the diasporic world—Africans, African Americans, West Indians—were moved to support him with whatever meager means they had (one woman remembers her father investing the family’s food money in the Black Star Line, much to her mother’s chagrin). To capture such a “whirlwind” would be impossible; but Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind provides a provocative introduction to this compelling, complex man.