Colin Grant is the son of Jamaican parents who moved to Britain in the late 1950s. He spent 5 years studying medicine before turning to the stage. He has written and produced numerous plays and is currently a producer for BBC Radio. In his new book, Negro with a a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey Grant looks at one of the most controversial figures in African-American history. Both worshiped and despised, Garvey led an extraordinary life as the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association which had branches in more than 40 countries. In the article below Grant looks at Garvey through a modern lens, comparing him to Barack Obama.
During an outbreak of the unique American pastime of lynching in the 1920s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sent for its secret weapon: Walter White. The NAACP operative was so fair-skinned that he could travel to the South incognito, infiltrate the lynch mobs and investigate their actions without fear of molestation or loss of life. Nonetheless, this unenviable task exacted a psychological toll on his delicate mind. In his later years, White would recall how petrified he was of being uncovered by hateful, bigoted Southerners who had refined their own pseudo-scientific tests for unmasking blacks ‘passing’ for whites. Caught in conversation with one such man, White was bid to hold out his hands so that his finger nails might be examined: ‘Now if you had nigger blood,’ said the smiling Southerner, ‘it would show here on your half-moons.’ Walter White survived the inquisition; his cuticles did not betray him.
In some regards, Barack Obama has pulled off a similar coup. He has campaigned in such a way to allow Democrats, especially white ones, to cast their votes in a color-blind manner. His simple strategy has been to avoid focusing on color or black issues. Clearly, for a man who aims to represent the whole nation, it would not be prudent to do so. “Race” is the fear word, the corollary to Ronald Regan’s “socialism”, that must not be mentioned lest it ostracize potential supporters. The racial terrain is difficult and vexing, but, so far, the man with lambent eyes and a powerful and persuasive rhetoric has negotiated the landscape with consummate skill. Can he maintain that stance? It will surely require some adjusting as the political juggernauts roll towards South Carolina. Barack Obama must hope that the black electorate embrace him, more fully than they have thus far, as one hundred percent African-American and one of their own. Peculiarly, it was the same dangerous test faced by the most extraordinary black leader of Walter White’s generation: Marcus Garvey.
A superb orator, Garvey made his name atop the soap boxes in Harlem’s Speakers’ Corner in the unseasonably warm spring of 1917. His melodious and haunting voice fired an audience like no other before him. He had arrived penniless and unheralded, and yet in a few years Garvey was presiding over a mass movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, with hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of members and branches scattered across America. As a character in Ralph Ellison’s satirical novel, Invisible Man says, ‘Garvey must have had something. He must have had something to move all those people! Our people are hell to move! He must have had plenty!’ To date, Senator Obama has a compelling and simple message – an ‘audacity of hope’ that aims to unify the country. But just like his Jamaican-born predecessor, Obama’s most obvious strengths (his powers of oration) are turned against him by the rival camp who criticize him as a glib phrase maker lacking in substance.
There are parallels in the way that both men seemed to come from nowhere to establish an ecstatic and devoted following in an astonishingly short time. Both men departed from the more traditional route to the black electorate. To his critics (largely an older generation of African American race leaders) Obama must appear, just like Garvey, as an undeserving interloper – one who turned comfortably in his cot as they rode the freedom buses, stoically taking beatings and being thrown in jail. Half of all African-American congressmen have made it plain that they favor Obama’s rival. That these representatives belong to a group that calls itself the Congressional Black Caucus underlies the fact that the oft repeated talk of ‘unity’ amongst African Americans was always a myth. Maybe it would help if Obama appeared blacker – not just politically but physically.
In South Carolina, Democrats will perhaps get a truer glimpse of Obama’s color. The Kenyan-American’s undeniable pigment should work in his favour but it is not certain. In the 1920s, Hubert Harrison, a sometimes ally of Marcus Garvey observed that ‘every Negro who has respect for himself and for his race will feel, when contemplating such examples as Toussaint L’Ouverture …and Marcus Garvey the thrill of pride that differs in quality and intensity from the feeling which he experiences when contemplating other examples of great Negroes who are not entirely black.’ If black voters today are more sophisticated than their predecessors, it is still doubtful that they will declare in the color-blind manner of their white compatriots. Obama can not afford to play down his colour but equally he must not be so appealing to blacks that he alienates whites.
As has often been cited, the idea that the white electorate will not vote for a black man is so last century (not withstanding the “Bradley effect” whereby voters store away their prejudices when the pollsters knock on the door only to unpack them in the privacy of the ballot booth). Nonetheless, given the extent to which American society is still racially stratified in 2008, Barack Obama is presented with a perfect conundrum that is near impossible to solve. The senator must ponder the lasting success of a strategy which calls to mind the ever-so-shy hero of the children’s book Winnie the Pooh who, in covering his eyes, believed he could not be seen.