Thursday, May 29, 2008

The "Secret Garveyism"

Last week UCLA professor Robert Hill came to Nassau to speak on the topic "Secret Garveyism" at the College of the Bahamas. Unfortunately, I had a prior commitment and was unable to make it. For those like myself who missed this opportunity, a recent article in the Nassau Guardian gives the basic gist of the lecture:
The 'Secret Garveyism'

Guardian National Correspondent

UCLA professor and prominent Caribbean scholar, Robert Hill, introduced an audience on Thursday to a Marcus Garvey that perhaps many of us have never known.

For decades after his death in 1940, the world has been most familiar with the military Garvey, the "Africa for the Africans" Garvey. And people of African descent have celebrated the Garvey who established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914, a vehicle for pride amongst blacks living in a time when crushing racial prejudice seeped into the psyche and tortured self esteem.

Yet during his lecture given at the College of the Bahamas' Michael H. Eldon building, and jointly hosted by BACUS and the college's School of Social Sciences, Hill presented images of a multifaceted Garvey, one far too big to be stuffed into one chest of history. In Hill's presentation "Marcus Garvey's Mission," the historical and controversial figure emerged as yes, a soldier for black pride, and a gentleman but most of all a thinker, a scholar.

Hill argued that Garvey's foundation was his huge emphasis on acquiring and retaining knowledge. The "Africa for the Africans" Garvey came much later, after years of extreme self discipline in his personal quest for knowledge.

To encounter this Garvey, Hill took the audience to St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica, where Garvey was born and grew up. Faced with the options of becoming a cow herder or a wharf man in a rural town, Garvey chose to read, to escape the limitations of his environment through books.

"I was born in the country town of St. Ann's Bay," Garvey recalled in a speech he gave in 1935 before embarking on his exile to England. The speech was recorded in a Jamaican newspaper. "Naturally, as a little black boy I grew up there and I saw the limitations of society. If I had elected to remain in the town with the limitations of the town I would have gravitated towards becoming a cow boy or a wharf man or a laborer. But I was saved from accepting that because my father, after dissipating what wealth he had, left us as the residue some good books, and in my tender years I went to the shelf and I read."

Arguing that so many have either wittingly or unwittingly chosen to separate Garvey's pedagogy of imbibing knowledge with an unquenchable thirst from his African pride-infused ideology, Hill called for a refocus on this intellectual foundation of Garveyism.

"That is Garveyism - the secret Garveyism - that most people never know about," said Hill. "All they know about is the man with the plumes. All they know about is this man who was preaching back to Africa ... it's a much more complex and pertinent story than this pastiche that Garvey has been reduced to."

It is this focus on attaining knowledge that will prove timeless, that can empower generations of people across racial lines. Garvey's roots in education became the springboard for his frequent discourses on pride in identity among people of African descent. Such a springboard continues to be relevant for a new generation whose identities may be lost in a sea of materialism, ultimately resulting in waves of crime.

"How many little Bahamian boys grow up here and they look at the society and the society says these are your limitations, and what do they then do do?" asked Hill. "[Do] they accept the limitations or do they challenge those limitations?"

Garvey used education to challenge his limitations, and his influence went far beyond the island of his birth, settling in The Bahamas in the 1920s. Decades later the spirit of challenging limitations lived on in Bahamians who have made the world recognize their tiny home. Hill acknowledged a few of them at the beginning of his lecture, urging their countrymen to learn more about them.

"I'm extraordinarily proud to be received by you ... I feel that I'm encountering here in The Bahamas something of the ancestors of the great Dr. W. E. B. DuBois. Part of DuBois' ancestry comes from The Bahamas," he said. Hill also noted that the mother of James Weldon Johnson, the father of the Harlem Renaissance, was from The Bahamas. He mentioned that the country was the birthplace of theater great Bert Williams, and highlighted the accomplishments of Sidney Poitier and the Golden Girls. One of Garvey's own mentors - Dr. J. Robert Love, a Grant's Town native who became the first black man to be elected to the legislative council in Jamaica - was also from The Bahamas.

Garvey's tradition has the fuel to continue, as Hill pointed out in Lesson One of a mail correspondence course that he began in 1936 called the School of African Philosophy. In 1987 Hill published the transcripts of the lessons in a volume entitled "Marcus Garvey Life and Lessons" for the centenary of Garvey's birth.

The school began with 25 lessons on varied topics of African nationalism and the UNIA. But foremost was the very first lesson on "Intelligence, Education, Universal Knowledge and How to Get it." In the lesson Garvey instructs students, among other things, to read four hours each day.

"Lesson number one is not about reclaiming Africa," said Hill. "Lesson number one is not about African colonization. Lesson number one is not about Africa for the Africans at home and abroad. It is about intelligence, education and universal knowledge and how to get it. You only get to Negro nationalism after you pass intelligence and universal knowledge. That is what we have lost touch with. That is the Garvey that we have ... almost erased. We have to find a way to get back to that process that Garvey himself followed that enabled him to emancipate his mind from mental slavery."

While fielding questions after the lecture, Hill told the audience what he would tell someone who asked about this Garvey.

"I would say, how many hours are you prepared to read?"

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