Colin Grant: Negro With A Hat

“Marcus Garvey’s words come to pass
Marcus Garvey’s words come to pass
Can’t get no food to eat
Can’t get no money to spend…”
–Burning Spear, Marcus Garvey 

Colin Grant: Negro With A HatSo what and who, exactly, was Marcus Garvey? It all depended, apparently, on who you asked. To the faithful–who, from the early part of the twentieth century to about 1940 were legion–he was equal parts Black Moses, visionary, and prophet without honor. To his detractors–who were just as numerous, and highly vocal–he was a charlatan, a mountebank, or (in W.E.B. DuBois’ memorable phrase) simply the “negro with a hat.” Colin Grant takes on the unenviable task of sorting out the mess that was Garvey’s life and legacy, wisely leaving some loose ends to the reader’s imagination and judgment.

The life contained in this book is a study in contradictions. Marcus Mosiah Garvey was, in no particular order, a one-time Anglophile, a conservative who’d do Stanley Crouch proud, and a staunch Roman Catholic. He was also, however, an IRA supporter, a Black nationalist who made common cause with the KKK, a one-time Zionist turned anti-Semite, and a man who proudly claimed to have invented Fascism before Mussolini. For all his talk of self-reliance and entrepreneurship, he seems neither to have had much of a head for business, nor the sense to take the advice of those who did; numerous business ventures foundered amid a fatal blend of good intentions, poor planning, and intramural squabbles. 

But then again, the author also captures what made Garvey such a captivating and compelling personality. If the man’s ego was titanic, it was also the one thing that gave him the confidence to buck the prevailing wisdom on race, politics, and the place of African-Americans in American society. The gift for rhetoric was bound to a sense of history–not to mention a sense of possibility–that would go on to influence the likes of Malcolm X (whose parents were fervent UNIA supporters), Martin Luther King, Jr., and Kwame Nkrumah. But if Garvey were only an orator, his place in history would probably have been far from secure; it was the audacity to act on that rhetoric that galvanized the faithful, gave pause to those less daring (i.e. DuBois), and frightened the hell out of many of the rest (including J. Edgar Hoover).

There’s plenty here to give the reader a creeping sense of deja vu. The rancorous infighting among black leaders, the debates over what makes an “authentic” African-American, the mistrust that accrues to the “other” (all the moreso when the other is one of your own), and even something as mundane as beauty products aimed at African-Americans (hair straighteners and skin-lightening creams, natch) all remind the reader that we’ve been here before. Similarly, other parts of the story remind us that for as far as we’ve come, we’ve still got a long way to go; if lynching is no longer the commonplace that it was a century ago, recent events in Jena, Louisiana and Jasper, Texas remind us that some wounds aren’t as close to being healed as one would think, or like.

Grant’s work deserves to stand alongside Jon Lee Anderson’s biography of Che Guevara and Michael Eric Dyson’s work on Martin Luther King; each attempts–and succeeds, in great measure–to strip away the layers of mythologizing that have accrued to their subjects. It’s one thing to reduce someone to a t-shirt or a slogan; it’s quite another to present them warts-and-all, with the flaws and contradictions intact. It’s a measure both of author and subject when the end result of all that examination serves to magnify the person portrayed rather than diminishing him.

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