People are always quoting Garvey at me...most of the time out of context. But that is the problem with dead heroes - we hang on their last words of instructions...even if they were given more than 70 years ago, and would in any other circumstance by now require updating.
Commentary Jamaica Magazine

CARIBBEAN UNITY: Part III: Unity is Strength

People are always quoting Garvey at me…most of the time out of context. But that is the problem with dead heroes – we hang on their last words of instructions…even if they were given more than 70 years ago, and would in any other circumstance by now require updating.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey is the most quoted of all of Jamaica’s national heroes. He was a visionary, a leader and to his enduring respect also a pragmatist. He saw the condition of black people in the US, which at the time very much mirrored that of old segregated South Africa. He witnessed the hardship of black people being treated as second class citizens; shut out from political power and denied access to decent housing or opportunities for good education.

However, this was a time before Martin Luther King and the successes of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. This was a time before Ghana became the first independent black State in Africa and it was at a time before numerous Caribbean nations gained independence and their inherent right to self-determination. On any assessment it must be indisputable that the world has changed since the time of Garvey’s experiences, and so without doubt Garvey’s perspective and message would have by this time altered too.

Therefore, the problem I find with some people who choose to quote Garvey is that they often do so to support their own extreme argument, as if to say “Marcus Mosiah Garvey would have agreed with me if he were still here”. Well, I think not…for all good leaders have to change with the times to maintain contemporary relevance, and with this outlook Marcus Garvey would not today be preaching exactly the same message which informed his views in the 1920/30s.

For instance, a very distinguished person (whom shall remain nameless) in discourse with me countered with a point that Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s response when he was asked the question ‘are you an African or a Jamaican?’ replied ‘I will not give up a continent for an island!’ This was of course an excellent response for its time.

However, to use that quote today runs into intellectual difficulty. Let’s examine why; for people of African descent outside Africa, Africa is a continent consisting of over 50 countries. Therefore if you chose Africa, you do not get a whole continent – you
still have to choose a state within that continent. There is no “Passport of Africa”. The people in North Africa look very different to the people in central Africa, or for that matter, the inhabitants down South. In today’s context therefore Garvey’s above response becomes nonsensical. Consequently, it is often a disservice to the memory of Garvey’s wit and powerful intellect to ‘misquote’ Garvey out of context of his time.

Another famous quote attributed to Garvey was the statement of ‘Africa for Africans and Europe for the Europeans’. Now, in this age, when we aspire to racial tolerance in an era of globalisation such a statement would simply be politically incorrect. You may reinterpret the quote to re-qualify what it should mean in today’s context, but in the end the dilution process of successive reinterpretation will eventually distort the authenticity of the original message.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey was a great leader of black people of his time, but fortunately we are no longer in those times. At that time in history disenfranchisement on the basis of race was the way of life, and it is during this time that Garvey emerged as a prominent leader to descendants of dispossessed and displaced Africans. His essential message of leadership was for black self-empowerment in political and commercial terms.

Other noted leaders such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela argued for equal justice regardless of race. Their message was of racial tolerance, universal observance of human rights and political harmony based on social justice. The values of these messages remain contemporary for our time.

Today’s people of the Caribbean are predominantly of West African descent, but we are also comprised of people originating from India, China, Great Britain, Ireland and Europe. Today’s Caribbean people are a multicultural assimilation. This is why the establishment of a ‘Caribbean Day’ is proffered as a beacon for the global unity of people from the Caribbean regardless of racial origin.

For the benefit of all Caribbean people wherever we may be, the proclamation of an International Caribbean Day is commended to our leaders in CARICOM.

‘International CARIBBEAN DAY’ – the case has been made!

Hamilton Daley is a practising Attorney-at-Law in Jamaica and Solicitor-Advocate in England. Email: [email protected]

About the author

Hamilton Daley