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Marcus Mosiah Garvey: The Man, his Movement and his Poetry

C. E. Jordan Gremp

Marcus Mosiah Garvey was the man who in the historical record brought unification and strength to Black people throughout the world. He traveled to many countries to see the poor working and living conditions of the black people. He started the United Negro Improvement Association and spoke out about the unjust behavior towards his people. He inspired and gave hope through speaking, teaching and writing. He used poetry to understand his own life and relay it to black people and promted them to do the same.

Garvey was born in St. Anne’s Bay, Jamaica on August 17, 1887. He was a decendant of the Maroons, Jamaica’s first freedom fighters, and he was said to be proud of his "pure black blood."(Nicholas, p 12) At the age of 14 he left school for financial reasons and moved to Kingston to become a printer and educate himself outside the classroom. He traveled and joined organizations in Jamaica.

Garvey is often called the "Black Moses" because of the strength he had and struggle he went through for his people. He started the back-to-Africa movement and started black people on the road to rebuttal against the years of oppression and racism they had endured. Black communities all over the world were being oppressed and they needed a charismatic individual to come and take them into the new era of Black restoration.

When Marcus was 27 years old in 1914 he started the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica. This program did exactly what the name says. It turned into an international organization to help black people economically, to protect their culture, in self-help and all kinds of racial discrimination. In 1916 he made his first trip to the USA to preach his ideas. He had been prompted by Booker T. Washington to come, but unfortunately Washington died just before Garvey reached the US. He ended up spending many years in the US strengthening the back-to-Africa movement he started. He came at a perfect time because it was right when black people were starting to rise up against the government and racism. He chose the perfect place, Harlem where there was a strong black culture and the focus area of black intelligentsia, literature and art. He first traveled around the country speaking and ended up in New York City where he started the second chapter of the UNIA. He was a very religious man and used God and himself as the leaders of this movement. Gospel had a huge impact on people so he used it for black racial pride and wrote many songs himself. Garvey was so charismatic that he influenced black people worldwide with his energy and long awaited truth. Black people were fed up with the years of oppression and racism that had started with the colonization of much of their land.

With all the talking Garvey did, he did twice the acting. With the success of his movement and support from his people he felt some kind of economic stronghold should be started. In 1919 the UNIA established a shipping fleet called Black Star Line. It was a sign of economic equality and enterprise. It consisted of three ships to transport passengers to and from Africa, America and the Caribbean. It did well for a while, but didn’t last because of expenses and corruption.

By 1920 the UNIA had become a very powerful organization with hundreds of chapters all over the world, international conventions and even a weekly newspaper called the Negro World. The next two years were tough on Garvey and the UNIA. There were critics and unfortunately some black critics which didn’t do well for the organization. There was also a lot of pressure from the government who was threatened by Garvey and his growing power. They accused Garvey of mail fraud from mailings having to do with Black Star Line in 1922 and arrested him then eventually deported him back to Jamaica in 1927.

Garvey never returned to America after that, but he continued his political activity in Jamaica. The movement never was as strong for him as it was in The USA, but what he had started, continued to grow within the United States and around the world. When he returned to Jamaica in 1927 he was welcomed back with open arms and an eagerness of people who wanted the inspiration of this great leader. "Mr. Garvey’s arrival was perhaps the most historic event that has taken place in the metropolis of the island… no denser crowd has ever been witnessed in Kingston."(web: Great Men and Women, Back to Jamaica) He then started a newspaper called The Blackman, which supported poor people, workers, colonial subjects and African people. It helped spread Garvey’s message in Jamaica and in this newspaper Garvey wrote many dialogues and poetry in a very classical style. Garvey liked using a classical style in his promulgation to express greatness and nobility. He felt that all philosophers and great thinkers in the world were not strictly individual thought, but members of an elite company "whose minds extended around the world."(web: M.G. Life and Lessons p 13) What he wanted to convey by this is that people don’t have individual successes, but together as a group, thinking along the same plain, greatness can be achieved. This is why he used other philosophies to create his own. He wanted to use prior genius imaginations to his advantage. He told black people to do the same, not to ignore, but to learn from the structure and success of their race and eventually black people will rise up against the white oppression. This following poem shows Garvey’s passion for this idea.

A Black Man's Speech to A White Man in America

I'm not as educated, sir, as thee,

But God Almighty's sun I see,

And you may treat me very hard l'or this,

But I His Holy Hand shall kiss.

I have no nation, none as great as yours

That kills and grabs beyond the stiores;

I have no selfish laws to keep men down

And then upon them ever frown.

You have the wealth of land and sea and sky,

You boast as if you'd never die:

How great you are, my mighty earthly king,

So great that I must tribute bring!

But, sir, one day you'll surely be in Ilell,

And then a story I will tell;

As Dives asked for quenching water then,

So will you all from that hot peti.

Your gilded pride is much in this your day

It's time for you to gather bay

And so you feed upon my sorry life,

And rob me of my home and wife.

My lands you say are yours, and minerals too,

How sweet it is, dear sir, to you!

You kick me down and lash me on my back,

And when I cry there's one more whack.

But one good day will surely come for me,

When God of men will speak to thee,

And then the awful thunder clap will tell,

How far down you will be in Hell.


(web: The Poetry of M.G.)

He looked up to Hitler, Mussolini, and of course Selassie for these reasons.(Selassie compared to Mussolini) He felt they were people who also felt racial pride and wanted to see their people excel in this world.

The amazing thing about this man is what he did with the sheer strength of his own will. Marcus Garvey was an immigrant into the United States from an economically unstable country just like thousands of other people in this time. He came over from Jamaica with an invitation from Booker T. Washington. (who died before Garvey reached America) He arrived with little money, no friends and no ground to start an economically profitable life for himself. He had little education, and was a young black man in the racist country. What was it that separated him from the rest of the West Indian people that immigrated to The USA? He had a vision of black power and saw his people were being severely oppressed. He lived at a time when most black people, all over the world were poor and oppressed. Black people didn’t feel good about themselves because they had no rights, expectations and nothing to look forward to. The white people who had power and money did not value African cultures. By the power of speech and persuasion he talked to his people and helped them understand their beauty and gave them hope. "He encouraged us to be self-reliant, and have pride in our history and ourselves. He inspired millions of people all over the world to press for better conditions and independence."(web: Great Men and Women) It was the twenties and people were influenced by him and his voice booming "New Negro!". He started in Harlem and caught on very fast. Even after he was gone his seed had been planted and many more organizations and black leaders grew from this. "Garveyism was fed in an environment where ‘in barber shops and basements, tea shops and railroad flats, art and education, literature and the race question were discussed with an abandon that was truly bohemian.’"(web: M.G. Life and Lessons p 4) This is a very important quote because at this time the black community was very influential and with the creation of ideas, art and literature happening all the time, Garvey had an impact on these parts of the black culture. From early on Garvey and the UNIA encourage cultural activities. During the 1930s the UNIA supported many artistic ways of expression. There were concerts, plays, music, speech drama and dance competitions held at the UNIA headquarters. Today many aspects of Garvey’s influence are seen in black culture in the arts, crafts music and religion.

Garvey’s theories consisted of a mixture of philosophies of prior men and philosophies of his own. He used an idea called New Thought that came out of the Gilded Ages that focused on mental healing. Garvey used these teachings along with Christian Science ideas to guide Black people to change their attitude and conduct. On a tour in the Caribbean Garvey was quoted saying, "I have come to you in Jamaica, to give new thoughts to the eight hundred thousand black people in this land."(web: Life and Lessons) At the forth UNIA International Convention he stated, "The Universal Negro Improvement Association is advancing a new theory and new thought," and in 1973 he then stated "to rise out of this racial chaos new thought must be injected into race and it is this thought that the Universal Negro Improvement Association has been promulgating for more than twenty years."(web: Life and Lessons) He wanted the black people to hold pride in their race and to become strong as individuals and in essence as communities. A well-known UNIA motto was "One God, One Aim, One Destiny."

Another form of teaching Garvey really believed in was literature and poetry. He felt it could be uplifting and help the individual explore his/her inner strengths and desires. He wrote in the New Jamaican, "many a man has gotten the inspiration of his career from Poetry."(web: Life and Lessons) To him poetry was a way to enter your own soul and think about the truth therein. The reader is therefore able to see the passion being projected by the writer. Garvey wrote many inspirational poems and gospels for the New Black theory inspiring his people to become strong and self sustainable. His writings also show his ability to communicate with an audience using oral tradition. He created many dialogues for the Black Man, a magazine, in the 1930s that were two voices between student and teacher that were instructive and uplifting and were to be read as if they were being spoken. Here are two examples of poems he has written that provoke black people to be spiritually uplifted.

Your Duty To-day

Believe in God

Lift yourself

Lift your family

Lift your clan

Lift your race

Lift your country

Lift your nation

And be

An imperial whole. -1933

(web: The Poetry of M.G.)

This poem is simple so a large and uneducated audience can read it, yet it is written as if a very educated man himself is writing it. Although Garvey was not taditionaly educated he was well read and schooled in the Victorian moral exhortation.

Your Duty To-morrow


Look back and help for humanity's sake.

Measure your charity by the acts of others toward you

while you were climbing.

Forget not the past with all its good and ill reports.

Contemplate your future by the experiences you have had,

If you must strike to live, strike hard and sure.


(web: The Poetry of M.G.)

It is said that Garvey’s greatest achievement was his ability to change the consciousness of black people. In the 1920s he started to use a more religious focus in his teachings and preaching. "The white race has a system, a method, a code of ethics laid down for the white child to go by, a philosophy, a set a creed to guide its life, and black children need that too."(web: Life and Lessons) He say religion as a way to focus good energy and a positive code to live by, only that black people need a individualistic code, a religion they can call their own. He used the existing gospel and changed it with new racial meanings. He did the same with great works of English Literature, using the style and technique within racial relevance.

Christ the Way

Oh, with the Spirit as of old,

I chant a prayer to my God;

The Being, precious, more than gold

That Croesus has ever had.

I lift my soul to Him above,

And sing the angel's happy praise;

The song of life in joy of love

That men from earth to Heaven raise.

There's joy in Paradise for me,

Although a weary child of sin;

The penitent on Calv'ry's tree

May find the way to enter in.

My hopes are good, in Christ, the Lord;

On Him I rest my cares of heart;

He will so bridge the Heavenly Ford

To show the way ere I depart.

October 8, 1927

(web: The Poetry of M.G.)

I have chosen Marcus Garvey’s poetry as a main point in my essay because it was something he was very passionate about and one of his loved techniques to get black people to start thinking about their position in society and to do something about it. Also poetry is a form of expression and art, just as music. Like reggae he wrote about racial self-confidence, self-development, success, international black progress and allegiance and the importance about knowing about black history.

Many Reggae artists have celebrated Marcus in their music. Many songs directly use his name and make specific references to him. He is celebrated for his use of oral tradition and reggae remembers him through the same means of musical storytelling. As many people predicted after he had died, that his memory would live on and his voice would still be heard from the past, through black people in the present.

"Marcus say, Marcus say, red for the blood that flowed like the river

Marcus say, Marcus say, green for the land of Africa

Marcus say, Marcus say, yellow for the gold that they stole

Marcus say, Marcus say, black for the people they looted from…"

-Steel Pulse

Here Steel Pulse sings words that Garvey himself spoke, giving them life and continuous meaning in the present time and continuous struggle the black people face.

"I’ll never forget, noway

They sold Marcus Garvey for rice…

So don’t you forget, no way

Who you are and where you stand in the struggle."

-Bob Marley

This quote from Bob Marley is a continuation of the idea that the black man belongs in Africa and there is a continuos struggle to get back to the motherland. This was another idea that Garvey preached. He felt that Africa was the land for the black people just as Europe was the land for the white people, Asia the land for Asians, and Middle East the land for Indians and so on.

The focus on the arts is a very important aspect for me. Art is a way for people to express themselves and to realize their individuality and background. Art makes people unique because all ideas are different and it is something everyone can do. You don’t need to be educated or to have money to produce imaginative work. One needs self-realization and cultural recognition. This is how Garvey felt as well. His focus was in poetry because it made the creator reach deep into himself or herself and recognize their beauty and individuality. Getting people to express themselves was a form of therapy that could bring people together. He wrote many books, articles, poems and dialogs and through these, people understood the significance of his thoughts. The power of his words was so moving it effected people world wide and black people all over started producing proud cultural art. Art is the most prominent way to preserve culture because it is the most descriptive form of expression. This gospel song is one of many Garvey wrote that was sung by black people for hope. It is an example of the power art holds and its cultural uniqueness. This song also voices his ideas about black people returning to Africa.

A Rallying Song

  1. Oh glorious race of mighty men,

The homeland calls to you;

Our fathers wrought with faith divine,

So let us march in line. (Refrain)

2. If foe we meet across the way,

Our courage hold on high,

For Victory is near at hand,

So march ye with the band.

Refrain: Oh glorious race, Etc.

3. Old Africa is calling you,

So wave the banner high;

No foe shall win the glorious day,

Shout ye, and march and pray.

Refrain: Oh glorious race, Etc.

4. Our God is leading us away,

And land and seas divide,

For hosts are here in royal form,

March on and fear no storm.

Refrain: Oh glorious race, Etc.

5. New Africa beholds the sight,

The world will tremble then,

Good men of might will worship God

And bless the heaving sod.

Refrain: Oh glorious race, Etc.

6. Tell the people everywhere you go,

"The day is here again,"

The Ethiopian’s God appears

To deal with all affairs. —1934

(web: The Poetry of M.G.)

Marcus was a beautiful poet with an exuberant amount of inner strength. This gospel shows parts of the philosophies Garvey introduced in the School of African Philosophy, that he started in Toronto, Canada, after being deported from the United States. It was established to train people in his racial philosophy. The philosophy of the school is, in so many words, the guidelines the Negro should follow to be trained to project a civilization of his own and to maintain it. Garveyism has been compared to Zionism because they had many of the same ideologies. In The Blackman he wrote, "The jew has something the Negro hasn’t got, he has racial stamina. We want to work out a plan like the Zionist movement so as to recover ourselves."(web: Life and Lessons)

Garvey’s movement started in Harlem and became a world wide awakening. He gave black people a warning that they must find themselves. Without a positive program, without each and every man and woman’s sacrifice toward its realization, the race will be farther down the road. He stressed that "the Negro should get behind the program if necessary and die for it."("A Warning to the Negro" The Black Man, May-June 1936, Vol. II, No. I, p. 9)

The Fight Is On

1. The fight is on to-day,

The glory is at hand;

No more must we delay,

But join the marching band.


The field is ever open,

For those of courage great,

For Heav'n has sent its token,

So march to glorious fate.

2. The Prophets told us when

The time would come to speak,

And through the greatest men

God's help, in faith, to seek.

3. Throughout the live long day,

As battles we do fight,

The Cross of Christ display,

To keep Him all in sight.

4. In conflicts of the night,

The stars will lead us on,

So strike with all your might,

And raise the Pilgrim's song.

(web: The Poetry of M.G.)



Print Sources:

Bair, Barbara and Robert A. Hill, Marcus Garvey: Life and Lessons. Berkely: University of California Press, 1987

Barrett, Leonard E., Sr., The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997

Barrow, Steve and Peter Dalton, Reggae: The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides Ltd., 1997

Cronon, David, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969

Martin, Tony, Literary Garveyism: Garvey, black arts, and the Harlem Renaissance. Dover, MA: Majority Press, 1983

Nicholas, Tracy, Rastafari — A way of Life. Chicago: Bantam Books, 1996 (pp 12-16)

Vincent, Thoedore G., The Black Power & Garvey Movement. New York: The Ramparts Press, 1971

Online Souces:

"Black Start Marcus Garvey, 1922," Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe,…5=aleaf7d3ca9f02bf0e3003c27a65d107 (April, 5 2000)

"Fact Sheet on Marcus Garvey," The Marcus Garvey & UNIA Papers Project, UCLA, (April 5, 2000)

"Great Men and Women: Marcus Garvey," Jamaicas Heros, (April 5, 2000)

"Marcus Garvey: An Overview," The Marcus Garvey & UNIA Papers Project, UCLA, (April 3, 2000)

"Marcus Garvey: Life and Lessons," The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers Project, UCLA, (April 3, 2000)

"The Poetry of Marcus Garvey," poetic compilation, (April 3, 2000)