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From Garvey to Obama

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By Erin Kaplan, Photos by Gregg Segal

Published Apr 1, 2012 8:00 AM


Marcus Garvey, the larger-than-life 20th-century African-American activist, left a large and sometimes swashbuckling legacy. But his chronicler, historian and longtime UCLA Professor Robert Hill, argues that the impact of Garvey's ideas, particularly about self-respect and pride, extends far beyond his movement and his time, echoing through the decades.

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Robert Hill. Photo by Gregg Segal.

View from Hill



Hill explores his collection and discusses his latest edited volume of the Garvey papers.

Video provided by UCLA News|Week.

In the last 100 years, America has produced plenty of figures who've come to symbolize its singular fight for black freedom and equality, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But none have endured longer or encompassed the black American imagination more thoroughly than someone who was not American, but Jamaican: Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr. And no one knows more about Garvey and his far-reaching but little understood legacy than UCLA History Professor Emeritus Robert Hill.

Hill has long fought the view that Garvey doesn't rate scholarly treatment. Garvey was indeed larger than life, given to a grandiosity reflected in his typical dress of a sea captain's uniform, complete with plumed helmet and epaulets. The "back-to-Africa" movement for which he was best known never came to fruition. His big financial venture, an ocean liner company called Black Star Line, collapsed before it ever launched.

"When I started this, people said, 'What are you doing?' " says Hill, who retired from UCLA last year. "There's a lot of serious skepticism about Garvey, that he was a con man, that he wasn't for real. I wanted to give historical significance and seriousness to the subject."

A serious subject, indeed. Today, 125 years after his birth, Garvey is remembered among blacks less for his failures than for his call to black people everywhere to band together and embrace their potential for greatness ("Up, you mighty race!"), a message that especially galvanized early 20th-century African Americans whose potential had been systematically stifled by the effects of slavery and segregation. And in the racially violent times in America following World War I, Garvey's insistence on leading with pride and self-affirmation was nothing less than revolutionary. At the same time, his focus on black self-help and self-determination was also read as conservative.

These ideas would resonate through the decades. In retrospect, Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association were stem cells for the various and sometimes opposing iterations of black political thought that came after. (It's interesting to note that Malcolm X's parents were avid followers of Garvey.)

A Last-Minute Rescue

Hill grew up in Jamaica with extended family who, like many Jamaicans, regarded Garvey as a hero. His initial Garvey project was modest, a biography for an academic press. It was 1970, and Hill was 26 years old, "fresh off the banana boat," he recalls with a laugh. Then came a serendipitous discovery. Hill learned from a front-page New York Times story that a community organization in Harlem had been given an abandoned building to open a drug treatment center. In the building staffers found cabinets, safes and boxes that turned out to contain the entire papers of the central division of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

"They were going to throw them away!" Hill exclaims, astonished by the memory. The community organization fell apart, but a struggle over the papers ensued. The struggle turned into high drama; the organization's director was held up at gunpoint, and drug addicts ransomed the papers on the street to the highest bidder. Eventually a group headed by the historian John Henrik Clarke purchased the papers and brought them to the New York Public Library.

"Then there was the question, who's going to organize all this?" says Hill. "Clarke said, 'Robert Hill.'" Hill's plan for a biography quickly gave way to the idea of building a Garvey archive that was bigger than Harlem and that would go, as Garvey had done, to wherever the movement was: Europe, Africa, the U.S. and the Caribbean. "That was what set me on this course," says Hill. "And the archive grew like Topsy!"

Pride, Power, President

Though he has officially retired to St. Ann's Bay in Jamaica—Garvey's hometown—Hill remains passionate about his longtime subject. He is excited about the revelation yielded by the Universal Negro Improvement Association papers—confirmation for him that Garvey is a more dynamic historical subject than most.

"Unlike editing papers of known figures like John Adams, editing papers on black figures like [Frederick] Douglass or Garvey entails discovery—a kind of historiography," says Hill. "You're finding things out. In this case, my discovery shifts the whole axis of Garvey's movement from a racial movement to an ethnic one." Hill welcomes such developments because they continually refine Garvey's story and his meaning, which he says is routinely exaggerated, mythologized or ignored altogether.

Despite that—or because of it—Garvey's legacy is easy to spot in recent history, from the Black Power movement of the '60s and '70s to the racial pride that swelled among blacks worldwide during the successful 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama, who has roots in America and Africa. But the political zeitgeist has changed dramatically since Garvey's time. While blacks in America continue to struggle as a group, an increasing "post-racial" attitude has discouraged any movements that draw on black or ethnic identity.

"Apart from the Nation of Islam, I don't think I can point to a really black nationalist movement here anymore," says Hill. "There is cultural nationalism—Afro-centrism—but nothing that really resembles what Garvey was doing." In other words, while Obama is certainly an international figure who inspires black pride, he is no Garvey.

Still, though the U.S. president is hardly nationalist, Hill allows that his campaign "had a lot of nationalist elements. His phenomenon is bigger than him."

He tells the story of a friend in New York who, shortly after Obama's election, was in a Harlem restaurant being served by black waiters who were decidedly less than attentive. "She said to them, 'Don't you understand that there's a black man in the White House?'" Hill recalls. "What she was saying was, 'Take your black seriously.' That's the spirit of today's nationalism, telling the brother what time it is."

An Island Movement Goes Global

Parsing the legacy of Garvey has been Hill's life. He has been archiving Garvey papers at UCLA's James S. Coleman African Studies Center since 1977. He has published those papers in 11 books thus far; the latest volume publishd last summer, The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers: The Caribbean Diaspora, 1910-1920, is the first in the final series of three that explores the Caribbean influence on Garvey and his movement, including the back-to-Africa campaign that claimed the continent as a natural homeland for blacks everywhere.

Hill's first seven volumes looked at Garvey and the UNIA in America, while the next three works followed the expansion of the movement across the Atlantic to Africa. This latest book literally brings the project home by tracing the influence that Garvey's native West Indies had on what eventually became a global movement. After decades of research, Hill was struck by what he found: The Caribbean culture, specifically its "friendly societies," had a much greater influence on Garvey's ambitions than anyone had previously thought.

The societies were social organizations that raised money to bury the dead and to keep black communities solvent. But they also staged oratorical contests and ritual parades—traditions clearly echoed in the parades and speeches that marked UNIA events in the U.S. during the organization's heyday.

"Garvey-movement historians couldn't see these cultural roots," muses Hill. "Mining specific West Indian roots undermined the globalness of the black movement it became." Yet the Caribbean Diaspora volume establishes that until 1922, when Garvey was indicted for mail fraud by the FBI and became a martyr in the eyes of black America, the movement was primarily West Indian.

"It's a big discovery that reverses conventional wisdom," Hill says. "The significance of ethnicity is what's emerged. Ethnicity got buried under the call for racial unity and uplift, but it was at the heart of things."

So while America legitimized Garveyism, Hill realized that the more layered reality is that "this was an ethnic movement among immigrants who struggled here on American soil."

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