Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey is an assistant professor at McGill University. His forthcoming book is Cross-Border Cosmopolitans: The Making of a Pan-African North America, 1919-1992.
One hundred years ago, messianic fervour gripped black communities in Canada and the United States, spreading to the Caribbean, Central and South America, Africa and Europe. This messianic moment and racial renaissance was a response to European colonialism, Great War disillusionment, virulent anti-black racism and widespread lynchings (or ethnic cleansing) of African-Americans.
In January, 1920, Jamaican Marcus Mosiah Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) – a Pan-African movement that advocated black pride, black unity, self-determination and “Africa for the Africans” – honeymooned and raised funds in Montreal and Toronto. Garvey arrived in Montreal from New York at Christmas, 1919, with his bride, Amy Ashwood, co-founder of the Jamaican UNIA. The couple held two rallies in Montreal on Dec. 26, before travelling to Toronto for three rallies at Occidental Hall from Jan. 5 to 7. They returned to Harlem with $8,000 raised for the UNIA.
Garvey’s visit in winter 1919-20 was not his first time in Canada, or Montreal. In 1916, Edgerton Langdon, a Montreal resident of Grenadian origin, visited Harlem and heard Garvey speak. Edgerton Langdon became a fast convert and invited Garvey to Montreal in winter, 1917, helping to spread Garvey’s gospel of black pride in Canada. That year, Langdon’s niece, 20-year-old Louise Langdon, immigrated to Montreal. She, too, became a believer in Garvey’s philosophy of black pride and self-determination. In 1918, at a Garvey conference in Montreal, she met African-American Earl Little. They married in May, 1919. The union produced seven children, one of whom was Malcolm Little, who, in adulthood, replaced his surname with “X.”
Despite his meteoric rise, becoming arguably the most influential black leader in the history of the Atlantic world, Garvey has not received his due as a serious messianic figure. Sociologist St. Clair Drake reminded us that Garvey, who arrived in the U.S. in 1916, came “in the fullness of time” and that black people were ready for “racial salvation.” Moreover, that Garvey’s global movement had “apocalyptic overtones” endeared the Jamaican-born organizer to the masses who yearned for a deliverer of sorts.
Garvey chose the U.S. as his base, but he adopted a continental strategy to enact his global movement, inspiring notions of messianic salvation throughout the Black world. Leo Bertley, Dionne Brand and Carla Marano have shown that black people in Canada, especially in Montreal and Toronto, elevated Garvey and helped sustain the UNIA. From 1919 to 1922, more than 30 chapters sprouted from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, and one in four black people (5,000) joined the UNIA.
In August, 1920, Garvey’s UNIA organized the first of its many spectacular Negro Peoples of the World conventions at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Dr. Abraham Thomas of Toronto, and Ms. Georgie O’Brien and Dr. D.D. Lewis of Montreal were the three Canadian delegates, along with others, who signed the Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World (also known as Declaration of Independence). This 54-point self-determination manifesto rivaled the U.S. Declaration of Independence and French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The delegates, who wanted a sovereign and united Africa governed by black people, elected Garvey provisional president of Africa and president general of the UNIA. They spoke of “human rights” and agreed to facilitate black economic development, end lynchings, promote black history, capitalize “Negro,” and adopt red, black and green as the universal tricolours for African descendants, among other objectives.
Garvey’s detractors often mischaracterized his ideas to make him look foolish. One common falsehood trafficked in Canada and the U.S. was that Garvey’s “back-to-Africa” campaign sought whole-scale abandonment of diasporic lands to repatriate all black people. Garvey encouraged some of his followers to return to a decolonized Africa and nation-build, but he appreciated that they deserved to reap the fruits of their enslaved ancestors’ labour, which hastened the development of Western Europe and the Americas. The logic behind the back-to-Africa philosophy was that Garvey believed black people will never be free and safe from persecution and domination until Africa is free from (neo-)colonial rule, united and capable of leveraging its vast natural resources to develop economically, militarily, and diplomatically to defend itself and its children scattered abroad.
Western governments – Canada, the U.S., and European metropoles with colonies in Africa and the Americas – trembled, because Garvey’s program of black unity and self-determination would upend a racist and exploitative world order. European powers banned Negro World, the UNIA’s newspaper, from their colonies.
Government infiltration and sabotage undermined the UNIA. As early as October, 1919, J. Edgar Hoover, head of General Intelligence at the Bureau of Investigation in the U.S., tried to frame and deport Garvey. Hoover considered Garvey “an exceptionally fine orator,” reaffirming his messianic aura. Hoover’s experience surveilling black leaders such as Garvey in the 1920s informed his counterintelligence strategies during the civil rights and Black Power eras of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly his obsession with neutralizing messianic black activists.
In 1927, the U.S. deported Garvey after releasing him from federal prison, where he spent more than two years on trumped-up charges of mail fraud. He visited Canada in the late 1920s and 1930s, trying in vain to use the Dominion as a beachhead to reclaim his massive following in the U.S. In January, 1940, at the age of 52, Garvey, the autodidact who emerged from the Jamaican peasantry, died penniless and alone in London after suffering two strokes.
Garvey has had a profound impact on world history. Garvey and Canada, after all, gave humanity Malcolm X. Garvey was a visionary, realist, and an exceptional propagandist for black pride and the psychic and spiritual liberation of black people. He achieved what others considered impossible: He organized the black masses in the Atlantic world. He was not a buffoon as his adversaries suggested. (Some scholars have promoted similar insolent tropes.) Although human and naturally fallible, Garvey’s meteoric and messianic rise, as well as his hard-nosed integrity and staunch commitment to global black liberation, inspired many, including Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister and president of Ghana. Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh also drew lessons from Garvey’s Black Nationalism or “Africa for the Africans.”
That neo-colonialism in Africa and anti-black racism globally persist without any signs of reversing vindicate Garvey’s program of racial redemption, however ambitious or polemical to our contemporary sensibilities.
No black leader before or after has electrified the Black world to the same extent, while giving hope to common folk for whom an entire global system was created to oppress racially, disparaging their origins in perpetuity.
“Look for me in the whirlwind of the storm ... with God’s grace,” Garvey assured his followers, “I shall come and bring with me countless millions of Black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for liberty, freedom and life.”
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