Editor’s note: This is the first of many conversations with interesting people that we’ll publish from time to time in Commentary or on our Op/Ed page. Our inaugural conversation was conducted, by email, over several days, with Adam Ewing, assistant professor of African-American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of “The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement & Changed Global Black Politics.” Todd Culbertson, editor of the editorial pages, handled our end of the discussion.
The Times-Dispatch: Professor Ewing, tell us something about yourself. Why did you choose to concentrate in African-American-Studies? What brought you to Virginia Commonwealth University?
Prof. Ewing: When I was growing up in Toronto, Canada, I was drawn to the drama of American history. I was particularly drawn to stories about the efforts of politically marginalized groups to creatively confront their marginalization. I found in African-American history — and in the history of the civil rights era in particular — a wealth of stories to engage this curiosity. I was deeply moved by “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and I became fascinated with the rhetoric and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr.
When I arrived at graduate school my horizon was widened to include the histories of Africa and the African diaspora, and I began to consider interdisciplinary topics like colonial and post-colonial studies. This broad geographical and thematic focus is perfectly aligned with African-American Studies, which brings together scholars working across numerous fields and provides exciting points of exchange. In our department we have faculty working in the fields of psychology, public health, sociology, anthropology, genetics, philosophy, literary studies, and history. It’s an exciting place to be.
I was also drawn to VCU by the university’s commitment to blending top-notch research with student-focused teaching and community engagement. VCU, more than any other university with which I’ve been affiliated, takes its role as a resource for community development and enrichment seriously. And Richmond is a great city in which to do this work. My family has really enjoyed it here.
The Times-Dispatch: Your book focuses on Marcus Garvey and his mass movement. His career resembled a comet, yet his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had profound implications for liberation movements not only in the United States but also in Africa. Please give a brief review of his life, then discuss his impact on race relations in general and on African-American attitudes as manifested in the United States.
Prof. Ewing: Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican-born printer, activist and entrepreneur who traveled to the United States in 1916 and quickly established himself as a leader of the burgeoning “New Negro” movement, which was bubbling up in Harlem amid the ferment of the First World War. Pledging to liberate Africans from imperial rule by uniting the scattered members of the race, Garvey launched a series of dramatic projects, most famously the UNIA’s transoceanic steamship company, the Black Star Line, as well as plans to spark an emigrationist movement to Liberia.
He hosted a series of spectacular international conventions in New York that drew tens of thousands to the city and the attention of the world. But at the height of his power Garvey’s personal fortunes took a dramatic tumble. The Black Star Line slid into bankruptcy, and his Liberian colonization plans were thwarted. After an exhaustive effort by the then-Bureau of Investigations (spearheaded by a young J. Edgar Hoover) to undermine his movement, Garvey was indicted on a rather slender charge of mail fraud, convicted, imprisoned and ultimately deported. Garvey tried to revive his fortunes in Jamaica, and later in London, with diminishing results. By the time he died, in 1940, he was politically irrelevant.
The standard narrative of Garvey’s movement is overshadowed by the rather dramatic story of Garvey’s own rise and fall. But the central argument I make in my book is that Garveyism’s legacy is better understood if we pay more attention to the places that Garveyism was carried, and to the eclectic political projects that it spawned — not only in the United States, but across North America, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, and Africa.
In the United States, during the 1920s — a period of racial retrenchment that also saw the flourishing of the revived Ku Klux Klan — Garveyites established local divisions throughout the country, including almost 50 in Virginia. From these containers of political organizing came a new generation of activists who — after the decline of the UNIA in the early 1930s — played leading roles in the civil rights, labor and black nationalist organizations of the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s and the 1960s. Garvey’s influence on black nationalist organizations like the Nation of Islam is well understood. Elijah Muhammad, as well as both of Malcolm X’s parents, were Garveyites. But Garvey also did much to pioneer the mass politics that labor and civil rights organizations would later borrow.
His global anti-colonial politics — and his outreach to all peoples of color — anticipated the Third World liberation struggles of the post-World War II era. And his message of uncompromising black pride anticipated the cultural politics of the Black Power era.
The Times-Dispatch: You mentioned the global scope of Garvey’s movement. As the “wind of change” swept across Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, many of the leaders of the newly independent countries embraced a Pan-African vision — Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Guinea’s Ahmed Sekou Toure come to mind. The leaders rose from liberation movements influenced by Pan-African thought. The Organization of African Unity is an expression of the intellectual trend. What is the status of Pan-Africanism today? Please describe relations between African-Americans and their peers in Africa.
Prof. Ewing: Since the rise of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana in the 1950s the epicenter of Pan-Africanist politics has shifted to continental Africa. There it remains beset by difficulties common to any project that seeks to unite large numbers of people divided by nation, ethnicity, religion, occupation, age, gender and belief. Nevertheless, in 2004 the African Union recognized the African diaspora — peoples of African descent who live outside of Africa — as the AU’s sixth region. Ghana has made a concerted effort to position itself as a bearer of the Pan-African tradition, hosting PANAFEST, promoting “roots” tourism and celebrating Nkrumah’s legacy.
And generally speaking, the spirit of Pan-Africanism — the notion that peoples of African descent share a history, a common culture and a common future — continues to hold great appeal and to generate economic, political, cultural and social cooperation. The paradox of Pan-Africanism is that while the ideal is likely unachievable, the pursuit of Pan-Africanist connections remains remarkably generative. This will continue to be the case so long as blackness is stigmatized and peoples of African descent are subjected to similar types of marginalization.
The Times-Dispatch: Earlier in this conversation, you said that by the time of his death in 1940, Garvey had become politically irrelevant. Yet, as the discussion has suggested, he influenced thought and culture in Africa and in the African diaspora. Could you give a recapitulation of the ways in which Garvey’s legacy lives? We have just commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Selma March, one of the seminal events in the Civil Rights Movement. What does the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s — and beyond — owe to Garvey?
Prof. Ewing: One of the things I try to do in my book is to make a distinction between the life of Marcus Garvey and the life and afterlives of Garveyism. Garvey was politically irrelevant in 1940 in the sense that he had lost the mass support for his movement that had made him so formidable in the 1920s. But Garveyism was something much bigger and more profound than Garvey himself. Garvey’s personal genius was to translate a very old tradition in African diasporic thought — pan-Africanism — into an accessible and modern mass politics. As his ideas of black pride, diasporic unity, spiritual prophecy and economic cooperation spread across the globe, they gave an organizational focus — and a greater scope — to political traditions long familiar to Africa, the greater Caribbean and the United States.
After his death, these traditions were refashioned and re-imagined by a new generation of activists, many of whom had grown up in, or were inspired by, the UNIA.
This is to say that while Garvey was an inspirational figure and a brilliant organizer, what made him special was his ability to connect with the deep-rooted traditions of political engagement that characterized black life. These traditions — a deep and prophetic religious culture, ideas of community solidarity and self-sufficiency, pride in black history and black culture and a fierce determination to overcome racial barriers — were all apparent in the struggles of the civil rights era, just as they were discernible during the bleak moments of the early 20th century. What Garvey did was to provide an organizational container for black people all over the world to project these traditions onto a broader and more impactful canvas.
Garvey often warned his followers that they must prepare for the next moment of political opportunity. When that moment came in the 1950s and 1960s, women and men in Montgomery, on college campuses, in the Mississippi black belt, and elsewhere, were ready. Garvey deserves much more credit for this than he is typically given.
So the civil rights struggle owes a lot to Garvey. But more importantly, Garvey was elevated by the political traditions that he gave voice to, and by the people who were carried to new places by his message. This is the reciprocal relationship we often forget when we elevate charismatic, often male leaders — Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, etc. — at the expense of the foot soldiers of the movement, the majority of whom were women. What is so valuable about studying Garvey and Garveyism is not only what we can learn about Garvey’s life, ideas and leadership, but what it teaches us about the vitality and complexity of black life in America and elsewhere.