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 honor of W. E. B. Du Bois’s birthday, which is tomorrow, Grant has taken a closer look at the relationship between Du Bois and Garvey.
A great excitement swirled around the garden reception for W.E.B Du Bois in the grounds of the royal governor of Jamaica’s official residence. On 3 May 1915, the island’s representative men assembled to honor the Harvard-educated African American, feted by the local papers as a scholar who certainly ‘belonged to the aristocracy of intellect in America’. A stocky dark-skinned black man was one of the last in line to extend a proud hand of welcome. Du Bois later recalled his ‘remarkable intensity’ but other than that, little impression was made on him by the man who was destined, over the next decade, to become his nemesis: Marcus Garvey.
Garvey was delighted to count himself among the chosen to be presented to such an eminent, noble-headed figure. At the time, Du Bois’s titles included “editor of the prestigious Crisis magazine” and “founding member of the NAACP” – an organisation backed by wealthy philanthropists, which boasted a membership of several hundred thousand. Garvey, by contrast, could count on a fluctuating membership of about fifty friends and associates who were requested to bring along their own chairs to meetings. Du Bois, then, was a long established race leader, whilst Garvey dreamed of becoming one.
On the surface, they would appear to have been natural allies, most notably in their love of learning. Garvey was largely self-educated; he’d managed to scrape together enough time and money to take some lessons in law at Birkbeck College in London. Modesty, though, was not one of his virtues. Later in his career, when advertising his talks, he often billed himself “Professor Garvey, late of London University.” Where Du Bois could show admirers his framed, embossed university qualifications, Garvey, with his love of parade and pageantry could only display his gowns. For all of his public ostentation, privately Garvey, like Du Bois, was a man of conservative, Victorian taste. Both men saw the arts and culture as tools for edification. When Du Bois wrote that Claude McKay’s highly peppered tale of fecund Negro life, Home to Harlem left him feeling like he ‘needed to take a bath’; Garvey similarly complained that McKay’s work as ‘damnable libel against the Negro’; for both men, art was to be put in the service of the race. They also shared a fierce hatred of the injustice meted out to black people – views which they espoused in their journals; and it seemed both, very quickly, were convinced that the other was the very worst type of Negro.
One of the key difficulties for the future rivals, when they squared up to each other a few years later, was that the cursory handshake on the governor’s lawns was the closest contact they would ever achieve. Soon after arriving in New York in 1916, Garvey planned to launch himself onto the public, giving his first lecture at St.Mark’s Church in Harlem. Unheralded and unknown, he had no entrée into African American circles but he did possess a great store of confidence and chutzpah; the twenty-nine year old Jamaican set his sights on wooing arguably the greatest African American leader of the time (a would-be mentor, old enough to be his father): W.E.B Du Bois.
Like so many hopeful supplicants to the court of Du Bois, the young Jamaican immigrant made his way downtown to the offices of the Crisis, next door to the NAACP. Du Bois was out of town, and the Jamaican caller had to settle for leaving a short, deferential note inviting the celebrated editor ‘to be so kind as to take the “chair”’ at his first public lecture. Later Garvey would recall how his disappointment was offset by the peculiarity of what he had witnessed in the NAACP offices: the stark absence of coloured staff among the officers of a supposedly coloured organisation. He claimed to have been perplexed and ‘unable to tell whether I was in a white office or that of the NAACP’. The question of color vexed both men, but entwined and unspoken was also a discomfort over their respective classes. At some level, Du Bois was embarrassed by what he perceived as his rival’s gauche uncouth bombastic nature. Critics of Du Bois would say that he was merely jealous of the younger man’s great powers of oratory and common touch. Whereas Garvey tapped into the dreams and aspirations of the great mass of working class black, the so-called ‘cow-tail and hoe-handle brigade’; Du Bois, primarily and unashamedly, spoke to the ‘talented tenth’ of the race who were going to integrate mainstream society and achieve, in David Levering Lewis’s memorable phrase, ‘civil rights by copyright’. Again though, Garvey would not have disagreed with the assertion that black men and women were just as capable of erudition as their white counterparts.
Perhaps the conflict between them came down to style and presentation. ‘Meeting Du Bois was something of a personal disappointment,’ Claude McKay observed, ‘he seemed possessed of a cold, acid hauteur of spirit, which is not lessened even when he vouchsafes a smile.’ This stiffness did not compare favourably alongside the Ciceronian orator, Marcus Garvey, whose audience marvelled at the ‘music of his mouth.’
Garvey’s career in America took off quickly in the space of a couple of years. And Du Bois looked on in dismay at the calibre of people who began to make their way to Liberty Hall, to savour something of the energy, excitement and theatrics of the ecstatic meetings. It must have been galling for a man (Du Bois) who believed himself the great advocate of the race to see his supremacy so dangerously challenged.
In 1920, when Garvey led 25,000 of his supporters from Harlem to Madison Square Garden to witness his coronation as ‘provisional president of Africa’, Du Bois was apparently spotted in amongst the crowds, squirming in his seat. When Du Bois was interviewed about the ‘purple-robed champion of Africa’, he could barely disguise his alarm: ‘It may be that Garvey’s movement will succeed. I shan’t raise a hand to stop it.’
In fact, quietly and behind the scenes, Du Bois was doing everything within his power to derail the movement. With forensic gusto, he laid before the readers of the Crisis the inept financial shenanigans of Garvey’s failing shipping enterprise, the Black Star Line; Du Bois also believed the fantasy of the back-to-Africa movement had to be checked; and, exploiting his good relations with the Liberian authorities, encouraged President King to spell out in the pages of the Crisis his antipathy to Garvey’s romantic and flawed dream of a new African empire.
Du Bois would argue that many of Garvey’s setbacks were self-inflicted – none more so than his little understood negotiations with the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. That one act spelled the death knell for the Garvey movement in America and released Du Bois from any sense of cordiality and restraint. Garvey was, intoned Du Bois ‘either a lunatic or a traitor.’ By the time of that extinguishing editorial, both race leaders had descended into a furnace of hate. If Du Bois considered Garvey a dangerous and embarrassing demagogue, then Garvey was equally clear about his rivals motives; Du Bois was the ‘unfortunate mulatto who bewails every drop of Negro blood in his veins’.
Perhaps hatred is easier to maintain in the abstract. Physical distance was undeniably a factor. Garvey had established himself in the heart of the pulsating, vibrating, dirt and detritus of Harlem; whilst Du Bois luxuriated in the comforts of mid Manhattan. If they had managed to reach out to each other, then the two men with superabundant energy and race pride would surely have been a force for good.
Almost a decade after that first introduction in Jamaica, their paths crossed briefly at a hotel in Cincinnati. Du Bois, joined by Wendell Phillips Dabney, was waiting by the elevator in the foyer when the doors opened and ‘stout dark gentleman, gorgeously apparelled in military costume’ stepped out. ‘Ye Gods,’ exclaimed Dabney in a later account, ‘’Twas Garvey. He saw me, a smile of recognition, then a glance at Du Bois. His eyes flew wide open. Stepping aside, he stared; turning around, he stared, while Du Bois, looking straight forward, head uplifted, and nostrils quivering, marched into the elevator.’ The two men never spoke. The doors closed comfortably and the editor of the Crisis ascended. ‘Du Bois & Garvey Meet!’ Screamed the headlines of the Cincinnati Union the next day, ‘No Blood Is Shed!