Marcus Garvey’s Africa

The historian Robert Vinson explores Garvey's influence in South Africa in the 1920s and 1930s.

Marcus Garvey (Wiki Commons).

I have had the opportunity to review College of William and Mary History Professor Robert Vinson’s remarkable new book, The Americans Are Coming! Dreams of African American Liberation in Segregationist South Africa. Vinson details both physical and intellectual journeys between South Africa and the United States in the decades before apartheid. His characters are sailors and preachers, political leaders, teachers and conmen. His work reveals the intellectual history of the African diaspora during critical years that saw the tightening of white supremacy, massive dislocation and urbanization and remarkable political creativity in both the United States and South Africa. Over the course of a month, Vinson and I exchanged emails about his book, beginning with a discussion about the man who was perhaps the era’s most important black political leader, Marcus Garvey.


How was Marcus Garvey important in African history?

Vinson: Marcus Garvey was important to African history in several ways. He led the largest black-led political movement in world history, and his movement’s “Africa for the Africans” slogan exemplified its primary mission of African politico-economic independence, black control of religious, educational and cultural institutions and an audacious worldview that linked the destinies of Africa and its diasporas. Of course, Garvey was part of a centuries-long history of diasporic blacks that sought re-connection with, and return to, the African continent. For continental Africans, Garveyism became a vehicle to express popular discontent with white rule, to animate and, in some cases, reinvigorate their political organizations, their trade unions, etc., to create and control black-led churches and schools and to spark a prophetic liberationist Christianity that placed godly black people at the center of a divinely-ordained historical drama that would lead to African redemption. It is so ironic that Garvey’s extensive travels throughout the Atlantic World did not include Africa (though it should be noted several colonial states in Africa banned him), since Garveyism became such a vital ideology that linked continental Africans with diasporic blacks as they constructed transnational racial identities in their attempts to eliminate the global color line. Garveyism was also an important bridge between the post-1890 African resistance movements and nascent Pan-African movements associated with diasporic blacks like Henry Sylvester Williams and the post World War Two anti-colonial and Pan-Africanist movements exemplified by future African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Jomo Kenyatta, all of whom were influenced by Garvey and Garveyism in their respective youths. For historians of African history, Marcus Garvey and Garveyism illustrates how African history can be fruitfully studied beyond continental borders, how Africa and Africans should be more central in African Diaspora Studies and how African American and Caribbean history remained linked to African history long after the Atlantic Slave Trade.


It’s notable that Africanist scholarship has generally failed to note the vitality your book reveals, and that you’ve sketched here. Why do you think this is? And how do you explain the contrast with African American history, which, as Robin Kelley and others have long argued, has always been attuned to Atlantic crossings? Is this simply a matter of diaspora vs. homeland? Or does it speak to the political culture of African history and politics?

On one level there is a diaspora vs. homeland dynamic at work here, complemented by, and related to, how the fields of African American history and African history have developed in the academy. In many ways, African American history has been informed and animated by centuries-long African American engagement with Africa. These include cultural, linguistic retentions, spiritual and naming practices, etc., the gradual transition from ethnic to racial identities and the making of a people known now as African Americans, the perpetual search for ancestral rootedness in Africa (including continual African American journeys to West African slave dungeons/castles) while buffeted about in an often hostile American homeland, back-to-Africa movements, and a general sense among some African Americans that the general fate of African Americans is tied in some fashion to the perceived state of Africa (oftentimes hostile whites justified slavery and Jim Crow by claiming blacks came from ‘barbaric’ Africa, are thus inferior and should be grateful to slaveholding/dominant whites for ‘civilizing’ them). Of course, Robin Kelley, Earl Lewis and others rightly pointed out in the 1990s that the then increasing interest in African Diasporas were part of a much longer popular and academic African American engagement with Africa (that included the work and practice of people like W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter Woodson, J.A. Rogers, Katherine Dunham, George Washington Williams, Lorenzo Turner, William Leo Hansberry, etc.) were attuned to African history, both on its own terms, and as an essential component to African American history, culture and politics. Garvey and others simultaneously exhorted diasporic blacks to lead the charge in ‘redeeming’ contemporary Africa, to restore the continent to its former glories. So, yes, Africa was central to the identity of diasporic blacks, particularly African Americans. Instead of being peripheral, inferior 2nd class citizens in hostile homelands, they were leaders of a divinely ordained mission to restore Africa to its former glories. Oftentimes, part of that mission involved actual return to Africa. In the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans reveled in the newly independent African nations; African independence helped fuel black freedom fighters, including King (his Birth of a New Nation speech after his return from Ghanaian independence celebrations is my favorite speech of his), Malcolm X (his African tours and the formation of his OAAU, patterned after the OAU), or those, like Pauli Murray, who offered tangible skills to the African nation-building project. African American multi-level engagement with Nyerere’s Tanzania and with anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements in southern Africa also show that Africa has loomed large in African American consciousness than diasporic blacks in the consciousness of Africans in the era of the Atlantic Slave Trade. So all of this history has informed African American historical scholarship that has often been organically transnational (without using that trendy word) in outlook, particularly with Africa. It is why in the 1990s, I could go to Howard for graduate school to study Africa and the African Diaspora and African American history in an integrated, holistic way whereas at other schools that had a firmer sense of separation between Africa and other parts of the world, I would have been trained very well as an Africanist, and might have had African American history as a cursory secondary field, but l would have had to declare very clearly where my allegiances truly were-Africa or African American. Jim Campbell has talked about his graduate student days when senior scholars expressed incomprehension that he wanted to build a bridge between African and African American history. Fortunately for me, I studied with Joseph Harris, oft-cited as the godfather of modern African Diaspora studies, who himself had been a student of Hansberry’s. At Howard, an African American institution, there was a wide open space, resulting from all that I described above, that accepted as normal and natural that I would want to write integrated histories of Africa and Afro-America.

Conversely, I think African history/studies has been borne from experiences of continental Africans who had their own particular concerns in the Atlantic Slave Trade era that they often did not perceive as having direct connection with African Americans. Though continental Africans who lost loved ones in the Atlantic Slave Trade never forgot their kin, most of course could not know where those loved ones ended up, much less have a sense of the Americas and the people eventually known as African Americans. This is not to deny that some diasporic enslaved folk and their descendants did find their way back to the continent, helping to establish Liberia and Sierra Leone while others were engaged in Atlantic World Trade, etc., but it was not until the colonial period that there would be sustained African engagement with diasporic blacks, particularly African Americans. And even then, African kin, ethnic, local, or regional identities, their general political fortunes and their sense of rootedness were not tied to African Americans to the same extent that African Americans felt linked to Africa. Of course, as my work, and the work of others show, African identification with African Americans could be very strong — here too is the supreme importance of Garvey and the UNIA in fostering these linkages –, particularly as the 20th century progressed and African American cultural production and general achievement is beamed around the world in print media, oral transmission, film, television and other forms of mass entertainment. But Africa obviously is a huge continent that dwarfs the US and there are so many local, regional, national and continental issues that draw people’s attention. I understand some Africanists who resist the diasporic turn by noting correctly that Africa has such a varied and dynamic history on its own terms, that it remains understudied in its own right, and that funding, publications, and general institutional support should not be unduly influenced by the level of engagement with diasporic peoples. Nor should African Studies Centers find themselves competing for scarce funds with African American / African Diaspora / Africana programs that tend to elide Africa and Africans themselves.

The different levels of engagement of African Americans with Africans vis-a-vis African engagement with Africa is illustrated well in Saidiya Hartman’s book, Lose Your Mother. She discusses the coastal Ghanaians who were obviously aware of the streams of African Americans coming back to the slave dungeons, but she noted that many were puzzled by the desire to remember slavery or their slave histories. Some local Africans were alternately offended and amused by what they considered African American self-absorption and victimization when they — Africans — had very pressing immediate concerns and could not imagine having the material wealth needed to travel back across the Atlantic and stay in five star hotels.

Unlike the genesis of African American history, modern academic African historical scholarship derived largely from the works of early 20th century anthropologists, colonial officials and scholars of empire and colonialism, some of whom relied on collected oral histories of African peoples or travel narrative of European explorers, slave traders, missionaries, adventurers, etc. Most of this work was continental based. But as the vast post-1965 African Diaspora continues to fan out across the globe, the academics within this diasporic stream will lead the charge in placing Africa and Africans at the center of African Diasporic studies and placing African history in dynamic global contexts.

US-based Africans like Emmanuel Akyeampong and Paul Zeleza write extensively about the experiences of the post-1965 African diasporic communities outside of Africa. These scholars are obviously well placed to write about processes that reflect their own experiences-this personal interest animates their scholarly interests in ways very similar to African Americans writing about Africa. These scholars, defined by the processes of diaspora apparent in Atlantic Slave Trade diaspora, and aided by the hegemonic nature of the US, the US academy, and publishing industry, will be the vanguard of these new dynamic histories.


It’s remarkable the extent to which Garveyism was able to build these intellectual bridges across the Atlantic. How do you explain its apparent success? Was it a matter of context — it took root here, but not there? Or was it the content of Garvey’s (and others’) ideas? The confluence of events at the end of the 1910s and World War I?

Garveyism was successful because it was within a longer genealogy of black-nationalist and Pan-African intellectual exchange, and organizational activity as well as a general black mobility around the Atlantic World, from enslaved people to labor migrants, to sailors, missionaries, students, entertainers etc. Garvey’s eloquent articulation of an African antiquity that disseminated ‘civilization’ beyond the African continent, his vision for a regenerated, redeemed independent Africa, and his claim that diasporic blacks, linked with western educated Africans, were a providentially designed liberationist vanguard, his fierce assertion that Egypt and biblical Ethiopia represented classical African antiquity, and his prophetic jeremiads that warned of an imminent apocalypse for white racists for their profoundly un-Christian behavior were familiar ideas for so many of his followers around the world. Most Garveyites had some familiarity with the ideas that became associated with Garveyism, particularly the emphasis on black psychological liberation as a necessary precursor racial advancement and the importance of building autonomous black religious, cultural, educational, fraternal, and socio-economic (particularly mutual aid) institutions. As Wilson Moses shows in much of his work, all of these ideas had circulated, albeit unevenly, around the black world. I am thinking now of David Walker’s Appeal, the prophetic religiosity (i.e. Nat Turner) and broad diasporic nature of slave revolts (i.e. Denmark Vesey), in Harriet Tubman leading hundreds of black out of slavery to the Promised Land, among Caribbean-born intellectuals like Edward Blyden and many diasporic religious leaders like Henry McNeal Turner, in the fierce anti-lynching campaigns of Ida Wells in the U.S. and England, in the pioneering Pan-African activity of the Trinidadian Henry Sylvester Williams and in the writings of West African intellectuals like James Africanus Horton and J. Casely Hayford.

So, it was the enduring attractiveness of these ideals, made more so by the many manifestations of brutal racism along the global color line, that is one factor in Garvey’s success.

But there was something about Garvey himself that mattered — otherwise anyone else could have harnessed these same ideas to similar effect. Garvey’s unique genius was to take familiar ideas, and repackage them to fit the immediate post World War I world — and having the good sense to radicalize a rather staid initial UNIA program that centered on a Jamaica Tuskegee, and to instead build on the more aggressive political program of mentors like Hubert Harrison so that he and the UNIA became the political vanguard of the transnational New Negro movement. Garvey’s personal charisma, passionate oratory, visionary boldness, and unerring ability to articulate the deepest fears and highest aspirations of his listeners mattered. More so than anyone else of his era, he crystallized and channeled the frustrations, the despair, the anger and the dreams of so many blacks who had hoped that the close of World War I would usher in a more racially and economically egalitarian world, where American Jim Crowism and European colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean would end. That envisioned world had motivated many blacks to participate in the war effort. That envisioned world was one reason the Japanese pushed for a racial equality clause in the League of Nations charter. What the denial of that clause meant, what the continuance of European colonialism meant, what Red Summer and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan meant to blacks was a firm denial of their individual and collective freedom dreams. So 1919, as Barbara Foley notes, was an explosive year and Garvey seized this moment better than any of his more learned and more experienced peers like W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and Hubert Harrison. With righteous indignation, he framed white supremacy in global terms and moved beyond the language of protest to be bold enough to offer an institutional solution to the global color line and the problem of presumed black inferiority.

An underrated quality of Garvey was his use of history, not just for his personal knowledge, but also for the projection of a usable past that provided context, lessons and inspiration to his followers. Because he had some sense of relevant historical precedents-including a fascination with the historical development of European empire-building — he used the language of nationalism, empire and racial destiny to imbue his movement with a sense of dynamic progress and promise that electrified his followers. He learned from his mentor Robert Love many things, but particularly the importance of printing a newspaper to disseminate his views widely and to use as a common site where his far-flung followers could be in conversation and collaboration. His multi-language Negro World traveled throughout the world particularly by black sailors, and young Africans memorized its contents and spread the word orally. Again, within the longstanding tradition of ships being central to back-to-Africa movements (i.e. Paul Cuffee, Chief Sam) the Black Star Line stood for a while as a powerful symbol of black economic power and as a tangible vehicle for diasporic blacks to return to and regenerate Africa. It failed, yes, but part of the reason it failed is because Garvey ordered the BSL ships to stop frequently in ports so that it could be the effective propaganda vehicle it was, to sell more stock, to enroll more members and to encourage the idea among many followers that Garvey was the new Moses primed to lead blacks to the Promised Land, either in Africa or in improved conditions in their respective homelands. Even as some followers melted away after the Black Star Line fiasco, Garvey’s conviction and jailing and the interminable UNIA infighting, Garvey intimate understanding of the importance of propaganda was part of his effective portrayal of himself as a Christ-like martyr; notions that his followers in particularly Central and Southern Africa came up with on their own as well. And even though Garvey was not as deeply religious as some of his followers, he adroitly understood the importance of religion, particularly biblical prophetic language and imagery, and the central place of African sites like Ethiopia and Egypt in the minds of so many blacks worldwide. This prophetic religiosity was another key component for bringing so many diverse constituencies in the black world under the broad Garvey/UNIA tent.


What do you want readers to take away from The Americans Are Coming!?

For one, that Garvey and the UNIA presided over the largest black-led movement in world history, bigger than the American Civil Rights movement. The book demonstrates the influence of African Americans and Caribbean peoples in energizing African politics, religions, trade unionism, education and print media AND the crucial facts that Africa was the primary site of the action and Africans were the active agents in adapting malleable Garveyist ideas to varied local contexts. The book places African, African American and Caribbean history in transnational contexts, seeks to re-center Africa and Africans in African Diaspora studies, and demonstrates that Garvey and Caribbean-born maritime communities in South African port cities were part of an important Caribbean diaspora as well. I hope readers see The Americans Are Coming! as a tangible example of truly transnational history that highlights the circulation and connection of people, ideas, institutions across national borders and thus moves beyond comparative history that often separates historical subjects in abstract parallel universes instead of in dynamic, interactive connection with each other.

I hope readers see the importance of Africa to Garvey and Garveyites. We see that importance, for example, in prophetic Garveyist thought, as in the Psalms 68:31 quote that appeared on the Negro World masthead, “Princes Shall Come Out of Egypt and Ethiopia Shall Stretch Forth Her Hands Unto God,” in the passionate assertions of ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian civilization, in the clarion calls for African redemption, the persistent attempts for diasporic re-settlement in Liberia and present-day Namibia and the vigorous and sustained correspondence between diasporic Garveyites and Africans. While many are aware of Garvey’s engagement with Liberia, I hope my book reminds us of Garvey’s extraordinary reach throughout the African continent, in southern Africa surely, but also throughout central Africa and East Africa as well. While it remains important to pay close attention to the rapidly shifting fortunes of the remarkable Garvey and the American UNIA, we can better appreciate the kaleidoscopic nature of the many articulated Garveyisms by looking carefully how Africans used Garveyism as a perceived common language to forge Pan-Africanist ties to diasporic blacks and to fight against a global color line, and also adapt Garveyist thought and action to local contexts. The Americans Are Coming! is part of a recent wave of exciting scholarship on the Garvey movement written by a newer generation of scholars like Claudrena Harold, Mary Rolinson, Ramla Bandele, Natanya Duncan, Adam Ewing, and others, but none of us could have done much without the foundational work and mentorship of pioneering Garvey scholars like Rupert Lewis, the recently deceased Tony Martin, and the incomparable Robert A. Hill, whose multi-volume Marcus Garvey and UNIA papers represents only a fraction of his global pursuit and collection of Garvey-related primary documents.


Do you see a role for Pan-Africanist ideas like Garvey’s today?

Yes, certainly. Just as Garvey drew upon pre-existing Pan-Africanist ideas to forge his UNIA, African anti-colonial leaders like Nkrumah, Azikiwe and Kenyatta drew inspiration from this Pan-Africanist geneology to help forge new African nation-states, which in turn inspired diasporic Pan-Africanists like Malcolm X. As you know in expert detail, Pan-African ideas animated both the South African anti-apartheid struggle and the global anti-apartheid movement. But Pan African ideas are particularly relevant today because many of the political, socio-economic, educational, penal, etc. conditions that have historically generated Pan-Africanist thought and action are still in existence. There is tremendous movement and interaction among diverse groups of black peoples today, from the post-1965 African diaspora, and the continuing Caribbean diaspora particularly to the United States and Europe, and a growing African American diaspora in Africa, all of which facilitates deeper interactions, connections (and conflicts) between diverse black peoples who often share, along with their many other identities, a heightened racial consciousness borne from broadly similar historical and contemporary experiences with various forms of white supremacy. Despite very demonstrable examples of black advancement and achievement, black institutions like my alma mater Howard, which has been such an important crossroads for black peoples worldwide, and as an incubator of Pan-Africanist thought, are struggling to stay afloat financially. In some ways, Howard is a metaphor for the black world; a symbol of black achievement and pride against the odds, but also reflective of the very fragile state of much of the black world today. True, the vast majority of the world is in struggle mode. But as long as black peoples collectively remain in such perilous conditions, and there remain substantive evidence that at least some of this fragility is due to historic and contemporary racial exclusion, discrimination, hostility and indifference, there will be a role for Pan-Africanist ideas as a generative ideology to seek the alleviation of these conditions on a global scale.

Further Reading

The black son shines

Masauko Chipembere’s first solo album is a remarkable achievement and a timely musical reminder of the circular nature of pan-Africanist consciousness.