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Racism, Colonialism, Gender Roles and Education in the Life of Marcus Garvey

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Marcus Mosiah Garvey Junior was an exceptional writer, advocate for black rights and political activist during his time on earth. Most of his noteworthy actions were captured by that of Rupert Lewis, a retired professor and former teacher of political thought at the University of the West Indies. Professor Lewis being one of the leading scholars on the life and work of Marcus Garvey with more than fifty years of dedicated material on both him and his various movements, documented his journey through the University of the West Indies Press 2018 biography entitled Marcus Garvey, a book that carries readers through the highs and lows of the journey one man faced in order to deliver equality, justice and a sense of self-empowerment for black people around the world. From his birth to lower income class parents, to the spark that developed in Garvey from his brief exposure to journalism to the creation of a massive world-wide movement the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL), this biography explores the themes of racism, colonialism, gender roles as well as education which all assisted in shaping the life of Marcus Garvey.

Racism was encountered throughout every step of Garvey’s life. Due to the history of the Caribbean with race being the centrefold of all actions and motives, blacks still had an issue identifying their place in the world as people rather than property. For Garvey, being shunned from his white playmate as child did not take a toll on him as his self confidence and education through his love for reading books like his father superseded his emotional reaction to senseless things such as racism, and as such developed one of the pillars of his life mission of seeking the social and political equality of all black people in comparison to their white counterparts. Perhaps one of the most difficult terms to come to be, was the fact that Marcus Garvey was being racially profiled by his own people. Due to the impact of early colonisation most Jamaicans during that time period aimed to be associated with white culture and therefore most of them identified with the British stamp that they were given. When Garvey attempted to establish the UNIA in 1914 the criticism met by his own countrymen was enough to discourage anyone. Garvey quoted “I never knew there was so much colour prejudice in Jamaica my native home until I started the work of the Universal Negro Improvement…”. The idea that people were willing to define their identity based on the ruling monarch of their country was baffling especially given the brutal treatment persons of colour faced as well as not being able to own land nor even exercise their right to vote. Vocal Jamaican writers such as Raphael Morgan published articles in local newspaper feeling that Garvey’s comments on his homeland were bound to damage the people and the country’s economy (Daily Gleaner 1916 Oct 4). In order to correct this backward mentality, Garvey sought it enlist the help of Robert Russa Morton who according to Garvey was to assist in waking up the sleeping native Jamaicans and awaken them to their possibilities (Lewis 12).

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Racism from people of his own colour was not only local but was met overseas as well. Founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), Du Bois only crossed paths with Garvey due to the Death of Booker T Washington, who was contacted by Garvey before his death in an attempt to bring the UNIA to the states. W.E.B. Du Bois was the most vocal and forward person on the Garvey hate train and although the two were similar in the missions to liberate black people, the two differ. Garvey was dark-skinned and wished to move all black people to Africa, while Du Bois who was of lighter complexion held a strong belief that for black people to advance, the integration of blacks with whites was keen in the race’s upward progression. It is assumed that the colour of Garvey’s skin played a role in the hatred he received from Du Bois who described Garvey as a little fat black man; ugly, but with intelligent eyes and a big head. Du Bois use of Garvey’s skin colour in order to emphasise the insults made towards him can be seen as a form colour prejudice, however, Du Bois is not the only one guilty of such. Garvey’s main issue with Du Bois was not only because of his initial disdain for him, but it was also for his stance that the only way the black race could elevate itself was by race-mixing. This brings about the question was Marcus Garvey a racist? Garvey shared a similar quality with as Ku Klux Klans President Warren G. Harding who in 1921 stated that “racial amalgamation there cannot be” (Kendi). Garvey believed in keeping the purity of black line which did not involve mixing it with the white blood. This perspective held by that of Garvey can be attributed to the fact that he grew up under seeing the deprivation of his people by the whites and recognizing that regardless of the how much advancements the black man made in society, the white and would forever use race to decipher the standard of living.

Colonialism, second to theme of racism was one of the strongest themes of the biography and played a major role throughout Garvey’s life. Colonialism is defined as a practice of domination which involves the subjugation of one people to another (Stanford) and was the basis on which the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) was established. Growing up in Jamaica Garvey had become aware of the loyalty to which Jamaicans served the Queen, but it wasn’t until the world was on its cusp of its first war did the strength and severity of this loyalty dawn on him. Black Jamaicans as Rupert explains were a product of British commercial military and missionary incursions into Africa. These series of incursions resulted in the long reign of Slavery that trained the members of the Caribbean community to shed their African identity through the means of violence and Bible scriptures and replace it with that of the colonial britishness that created a spectrum of aspiring black men alike – to be white. Having furthered his studies in England at Birkbeck college primarily focusing on African studies, Garvey had easily separated himself from the post-colonial Caribbean identity as he was able to witness the first-hand treatment of negros around the world. This allowed him to identify the difference between the valuing versus the exploitation of a race, which despite their loyalty to their monarchies through continuous service in both military and other areas, black people were continuously disregarded as relevant human beings of society. Garvey’s belief in the advancement of black people and that there were ways to achieve such advancement through the usage of developed platforms to bring across these messages assisted in the fuelling of his race agenda despite the successful mission of colonialism that overpowered Jamaican and other members of the Caribbean.

The roles each gender played within society was also a constant theme in the biography with the first occurrence being seen with Garvey’s own parents. Gender roles are typically based on the different expectations that individuals, groups and societies have based on their sex and the society’s values and beliefs about gender (Blackstone). Garvey’s parents Marcus Garvey Snr. and Sarah Jane Richards both had jobs appropriated to their lower class ranking and fitting to their roles in society based on their genders. His father was a well-read knowledgeable man, though a brick layer by trade and was described by Garvey’s second wife as a silent, stern and strong person who was often addressed as ‘Mr Garvey’ even by his own wife. His mother a housekeeper and a cook who attended to middle class families was quite the opposite as she was described by Garvey himself as a soft, sober and conscientious Christian, very fitting to the description of a wife from the 1800’s. Garvey’s first marriage to Amy Ashwood failed as Ms. Ashwood did not fit this description of a wife; her drinking and flirtatious behaviour was often described and not complimenting to that of Garvey’s own. His second wife Amy Jacques however suited the description as praises of her handling of finance, typing skills, organizational skills and child raising made her a more fitting suit for Garvey. These descriptions implied that like his father the post-colonial ideology of a man ran though Garvey’s veins as his stubbornness and emphasis on a woman for not her ‘wifeliness’ but the contribution she made to the advancement of her husband was of priority as Amy Jacques described in chapter five of the biography tat the value of a wife to him was like a gold coin – expendable, to get what he wanted and hard enough to withstand rough usage in the process. These roles were established as a part of the early construct of a traditional family adapted by many Caribbean families from their English colonisers that settled in the Caribbean. Although Garvey resented the colonisers, the impact of these roles was evident and allowed Garvey to have more focus on who he delegated tasks to and how he ran the operations of both the UNIA and the Black Star.

Finally, education played an integral role in Garvey’s upbringing. Though he resented his father in many ways his father could be praised for Garvey’s early interest in literature and public and worldly affairs although he was a brick layer, he was often sought after for advice within his community and was seen as a community lawyer for his wisdom and perspectives. It can even be argued that Garvey Snr’s early introduction to such literature to his son at a young age could a primary influencer to Garvey’s want to establish the UNIA. Due to this early introduction of books and political affairs, his progression through education was seamless as he was able to easily stand out in his field of journalism and public speaking due to his eloquence. His move to England to study at Birkbeck College despite him being of a darker tone opened doors for him that public speaking alone could not have done. Him being educated allowed him to connect with people of all social classes especially the wealthy upper class which proved as beneficial as he was able to push though the agenda of his various platform groups and reach masses that he could not dream of.

To conclude, Marcus Garvey was a man who used all the challenges he faced in life to mould himself into the great man that he was and contribute to the astounding legacy that he left behind. The history of the Caribbean and post-colonial ideas that existed during Garvey’s time were impacted by factors such as racism, the response of different groups to colonialism, educational opportunities and the traditional roles assigned to the genders. His ability to manoeuvre through the xenophobes that existed in the worlds outside of his country, progress through a community blinded by their overwhelming patriotism and loyalty to their colonisers, despite the unfair treatment received whilst striving for and attaining higher education along his journey further solidifies the remarkable man Garvey was due to contribution and impact of the various post-colonial issues that existed.

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