Saint or charlatan?

In the 1920s Marcus Garvey rose from obscurity to become the most famous black man on the planet. So

As the title of Colin Grant's gripping and sympathetic biography spells out, the chap in the chapeau is Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887-1940): Jamaican-born printer, publisher, editor, poet, orator, political theorist, sometime director of a commercial line of passenger ships, key prophet of the Back to Africa movement and, in the eyes of some, reincarnation of John the Baptist. There is no call for squeamishness about using the term "Negro" when discussing his astonishing career, provided it be spelled with the appropriate capital letter, as it was very much Garvey's own favoured term. "Set at defiance the designation of 'nigger' uttered even by yourselves," he rebuked his readers in an early work, "and be a Negro in the light of the Pharaohs of Egypt, Simons of Cyrene, Hannibals of Carthage, 'Ouvertures and Dessalines of Hayti [sic] . . . who have made, and are making history for the race." Garvey was a proud man, and, for him, Negro was a proud word.

He had good cause for pride. After an impoverished childhood and wandering early manhood, Garvey suddenly found himself, for a brief, heady period in the 1920s, far and away the most famous Negro in the world - a title that was soon to be taken from him by Paul Robeson (he criticised the great actor for taking what he saw as demeaning, stereotyped roles) and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. (Garvey had initially hailed him and spread the belief that Selassie might be the legendary African leader hinted at in holy scripture; he then turned angrily against him for what he saw as Selassie's cowardice in the Italian-Abyssinian war.) Nowadays, it seems a fair bet that most white folks - to use another racial idiom of Garvey's glory years - will barely have heard of Garvey, save perhaps as a figure who keeps being namechecked by reggae artists. In his stirring song "So Much Things to Say", Bob Marley vows never to forget that "they stole Marcus Garvey for rights". And yet, for a couple of decades after his death, almost everyone, black folks and white folks alike, forgot the lost prophet.

The process of rediscovery only began a quarter of a century after Garvey's death, when his mortal remains were respectfully taken from St Mary's Catholic Church in Kensal Green, north-west London, and reburied in Kingston, Jamaica. Edward Seaga, later Jamaica's prime minister, made it official that Garvey was now to be regarded as the country's first national hero. The dead prophet's former enemies came to rue their earlier hostility: as an angry young Marxist, the Trinidadian historian C R James had dismissed Garvey's ideas as "pitiable rubbish"; in his mature years, he eulogised the same man as one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century. That sentiment would be echoed by many intellectuals in the new nations of Africa, and by countless Americans during the years of Black Power and afterwards.

In the American academies and among the less formal students of black history, Garvey's life and thought are the raw materials for a whole industry, but many of its products remain unread save by interested parties. One problem, as Colin Grant notes, is that commentators on Garvey - today, just as in his lifetime - are split into opposing camps: those who want to revere him as a saint, and those who want to revile him as a charlatan. One of the many virtues of Grant's monumental biography is that it brings Garvey's reputation away from the heat of infighting and into the cooler air of mainstream history. Grant writes with the quiet authority of a historian who has done a colossal amount of research, much of it in primary sources, and knows the smells and tastes of his period as if he had lived through it. He is slow to pass judgement, but when he does so, the verdict carries real weight.

Although Garvey's Jamaican origins are of some importance to understanding his character, the larger part of Grant's narrative here, well over 300 pages, is devoted to the period of his American exploits, from March 1916 when he arrived in New York, poor, unknown and without prospects, and headed straight for Harlem, to December 1927, when he was deported after serving two years for fraud in a brutal jail in Atlanta - the Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, so to speak, of his generation. By then every Harlem resident knew his prison number, 19359, and many used it as a lucky lottery number. The years in between had been, by any reckoning, a decade of dazzling accomplishment.

With bewildering rapidity, Garvey rose from being a so-so street orator to a public speaker of supernatural eloquence, with a voice "like thunder from Heaven", capable of filling Madison Square Garden and holding every spectator rapt, even the ones who had come to mock. He founded a black newspaper that soon became the most influential of its then-thriving kind. He transformed his pan-African organisation, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, into a thousands-strong body that soon rivalled its more moderate counterpart the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). He decided that what the Negro race really needed was its own fleet, which he named the Black Star Line, and managed to persuade countless thousands of African Americans that this was their dream, too. People who could barely afford canned food would buy shares, and (though the story ended in tears) they lived to see Black Star Liners being sailed under black captains, and were thrilled. No wonder Garvey could ride in triumph through Harlem in a great open car, sporting quasi-military finery and a tricorn with white feathers.

As with so many world-historical figures, Garvey needed luck as well as talent. He had the right message for the right audience, especially after 1919, when the black population of the United States, keenly aware of the exceptional gallantry with which their brothers had just fought in a white folks' war, reasonably expected President Woodrow Wilson and others to arrange for a little payback. Not only did those rewards not come, but conditions actually grew worse. Spurred on by the success of D W Griffith's Birth of a Nation (read it and wince, film buffs), the previously dwindling Ku Klux Klan made a horrifying comeback, and an epidemic of lynching broke out across the South. Meanwhile, in the fine old tradition of compounding injury with insult, the authorities - with J Edgar Hoover among the leading villains - set about branding outspoken blacks as obvious reds. Grant's account of this red scare period, a full-scale dress rehearsal for the McCarthy era, is particularly thoughtful. In reality, considered in the terms of the conventional left-right spectrum, Garvey is impossible to place: in later years, he was accused of being far too conservative.

One of Garvey's main rhetorical themes - Grant wittily calls it "tough love" - was that the Negro was his own worst enemy. (With enemies like Hoover and the KKK, however, it is fair to say the competition was pretty stiff.) He was certainly not always his own best friend. More often than not, he would alienate the very people who should have been his most potent allies, such as the formidable W E B Du Bois, the patrician, Harvard-educated leader of the NAACP, clearly a good deal more intelligent than Garvey, but without a shred of Garvey's powers to sway a crowd. Worse still, when the whole Black Star Line business fell ingloriously to pieces and he was brought to trial on charges of fraud, Garvey made the fatal error of acting as his own lawyer, even though his legal training amounted to a few night classes at Birkbeck College when he had lived in London as a young man. He went to jail, and though he made fitful attempts at launching a second act to his career he was a broken man. He returned to England, fell ill, lived long enough to read premature accounts of his death by a stroke, and then died a real, cold and lonely death.

A truly remarkable tale, and Grant does not squander an ounce of its dramatic potential: at times, his history reads like a first-rate novel. His Garvey is neither saint nor charlatan, though often a good deal closer to the former than the latter. (Was Marcus indeed "stolen for rights", as Marley sang? It seems likely.) Garvey's enemies were baffled to find that the collapse of the Black Star Line did little to diminish his popularity, even among people who had been financially stung. Those humble folk saw what slicker, nastier people could not: that the commodity Garvey had actually obtained for them was not a few dodgy boats, but a timely burst of self-respect.

He was a dreamer and a boaster, no doubt, but, whatever his enemies maintained, he was no scoundrel. Grant's book is a fine and valuable monument to his memory.

Kevin Jackson is the author of the BFI monograph on David Lean's film "Lawrence of Arabia". He is currently writing a biography of John Ruskin

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God