Black Caribbean-American politics after Marcus Garvey
published: Sunday | August 27, 2006
August and September mark the first anniversary of the 'Katrina' crisis in the United States (U.S.), the time when Louisiana became a failed state. Neither the state nor the federal government was able to protect the lives of the citizens. Spike Lee's documentary, When the Levees Broke, follows the theme that the largely-black state of Louisiana failed because of the mixture of politics, bureaucracy and racism
In June 2005, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution apologising for failure to enact laws that would have prevented the lynching of African Americans during the days of open racism in the United States. U.S. Congressman, Charles Rangel, led the movement for this apology. Rangel also leads the movement in the U.S. Congress to exonerate Marcus Garvey from trumped-up charges of mail fraud.
In February this year, congresswoman, Barbara Lee of Oakland sponsored a Bill that was passed by the Congress designating the month of June as Caribbean-American Heritage Month, to recognise the contribution that Caribbean-Americans have made to the U.S. President Bush has now declared this into law making June 2006 the first Caribbean-American Heritage Month.
It is a far cry from the days of Garvey in the 1920s, and in a way, recognition of Garvey's own contribution. Garvey remains the U.S.' most-famous deportee. He was also the most unjust since millions of people had signed a petition against his deportation including nine of the 12 jurors who had conspired to find him guilty in the fraud case. The Universal Negro Improvement Association has been campaigning for his full pardon ever since. The St. Ann Homecoming and Heritage Committee has joined the campaign.
Barbara Lee estimates that between 1820 and 2002, 68 million people from the wider Caribbean migrated to the U.S. This makes the Caribbean the source of the earliest and largest black immigrant group. Caribbean migration accounts for the current growth of the black population of the U.S. There are 2.6 million people from the wider Caribbean living in the U.S. Jamaicans are among the top three and the largest English-speaking migrants from the region. Among the English-speaking Caribbean migrants, Jamaicans have progressed the furthest politically, but their level of representation is below potential. Their potential is greatest in New York and Florida.
Caribbean people do not face the same powerlessness that Garvey faced when there were relatively few of them in the country and African-Americans, who made up the greater part of his constituency, had no voting rights and practically few other rights. The Caribbean population in the U.S. is now much larger, better organised, better resourced, more educated and conscious, and enjoy more respect and freedom than blacks did in Garvey's time. Fittingly, The Sons and Daughters of Jamaica Inc. is having a 5K run/walk today in New York to honour Marcus Garvey.
We must, as our Prime Minister and UNICEF Ambassador Harry Belafonte say, clear Garvey's name. But we must also build on his message of equality and opportunity. Edward Seaga has written that Garvey was arguably the most important Jamaican in the country's history. Garvey is certainly regarded as one of the 100 most important black persons of the 20th Century. Garvey was the most important spokesperson of what we call today, identity politics. He felt that black people were as capable as any other in building their own nations, governments, and enterprises. But they had to believe they were and re-educate themselves from much of the ensemble of Western teaching.
Within Garvey's tradition has come many other messages. Myrlie Evers-Williams, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples and wife of slain civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, said black men and women must stand up and take care of their families. Marley said we must emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. Orlando Patterson said that slavery had disfigured both the slavers and enslaved so that emancipation must apply to the systems and ways of thinking of both. Bill Clinton said, "White racism may be black people's burden, but it is white people's problem". Na'im Akbar spoke of breaking the chains of psychological slavery. He meant that people who have experienced slavery must adopt new work ethic, parental responsibility, community harmony, and self-esteem. Malcolm X urged self-help and community-based enterprises.
Beyond Black Power
The radical American Black Power movement of the 1960s is long dead. Today, the 'race first' teaching of Garvey, the anti-Jewish rhetoric of Luis Farrakhan, the revolutionary violence advocated by Frantz Fanon, and the anti-integrationist views of Malcolm X no longer represent the leading themes of the Black Diaspora. In fact, Blacks are not the role models for immigrants to North America and Europe. Almost a quarter of Indians who migrate to the US are more likely to go to college than Black Americans are. East Asians like Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans do better in schools in America.
As nations re-brand, races must re-image themselves. Garvey's Back to Africa theme does not carry the logic today that it had before. Black people must go forward in the world under globalization. North America and Europe remain hot spots of globalization, but so too do China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Chile, South Korea, and Indonesia. The 'model minority' was a term invented in the 1960s to describe Asian Americans because they excelled in education, income, family stability, and had low levels of crime. Black Americans and Jamaicans are too often identified with drugs, gangs, and 'gangsta culture'. This is not the African American or Jamaican that Garvey envisioned. Granted, both suffer from stereotyping. It is time to reinvent Garvey, not simply to pardon him, and in doing so, pursue a politics of identity of which he would be proud.
Happily, this has started. The Jamaica Diaspora movement is founded on such a philosophy. Caribbean-American Heritage Month provides a new opportunity to showcase the best of the Caribbean people, past and present. The spirit of Louise Bennett provides a new catalyst. Miss Lou depicted the lively Jamaican personality and its social malaise in a Jamaican dialect that made us laugh at ourselves even as we learnt about ourselves. Caribbean-American heritage reflects her ironic idea of'colonization in reverse'.
We do not want to take over the United States only to take it along the same course of multiculturalism that we enjoy in the Caribbean. As proof of our power to do so, Barbara Lee, not of Caribbean origin, successfully lobbied the US Congress and President to declare a Caribbean-American Heritage Month. Yet, she was the only member of Congress to vote against giving the President sweeping powers of elective tyranny to act as he saw fit against anyone or any nation believed to be responsible for the September 11 attacks. The vote was 518 to 1. Now, those same politicians have approved her resolution probably because of the strong and growing presence of Caribbean people in New York, and especially a critical electoral state like Florida.That might provide the same logic for the US President and Congress to exonerate Jamaica's National Hero, Marcus Garvey, in time for our celebration of National Hero's Day.
Robert Buddan is a lecturer in the Department of Government at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Email Robert.Buddan@uwimona.edu.jm