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About Marcus Garvey and the Black Star Line

Martha King

[Garvey was born in 1887]

Garvey, called a "black Moses" during his lifetime, created the largest African American organization, with hundreds of chapters across the world at its height. While Garvey is predominantly remembered as a back-to-Africa proponent, it is clear that the scope of his ideas and the UNIA’s actions go beyond that characterization . . . .

Garvey's ideas particularly resonated with African Americans during the postwar period. At the core of Garvey's program was an emphasis on black economic self-reliance, black people’s rights to political self-determination, and the founding of a black nation on the continent of Africa. . . .

Perhaps the largest endeavor of the UNIVERSAL NEGRO IMPROVEMENT ASSOCIATION (UNIA,) was the Black Star Steamship Line, an enterprise intended to provide a means for African Americans to return to Africa while also enabling black people around the Atlantic to exchange goods and services. The company’s three ships (one called the SS Frederick Douglass) were owned and operated by black people and made travel and trade possible between their United States, Caribbean, Central American, and African stops. The economically independent Black Star Line was a symbol of pride for blacks and seemed to attract more members to the UNIA . . . .

As a result of large financial obligations and managerial errors, the Black Star Line failed in 1921 and ended operations. . . . Early in 1922 Garvey was indicted on mail fraud charges regarding the Black Star Line's stock sale. . . . [Garvey was convicted but released after serving three years in federal prison. He was then deported to Jamaica.] In the United States Garveyism was central to the development of the black consciousness and pride at the core of the twentieth-century freedom-movement.

From Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. Ed. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Copyright 1999 by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Hnery Louis Gates, Jr.

Patricia Robinson Williams

As a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Marcus Garvey was in the vanguard of the new awakening among African Americans. Although his philosophy was at odds with other leading figures of the era, such as W E. B. Du Bois, his influence could not be abated. Promoting his ideals in the art of oratory and through his newspapers, first Negro World and later the Blackman, Garvey has influenced almost every generation of African American writers since.

Images depicting the destructive element in racial prejudice, one of the cornerstones of Garvey’s ideology, were initially seen when major fiction writers of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Nella Larsen, grappled with the infirmities of "color" prejudice. In Larsen's so-called passing novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), mulattoes move into the white world to escape personal oppression and limited opportunity. As is typical in Garveyism, this social mobility leads to self-hate and racial ambivalence.

Richard Wright and his school of fiction writers was the next group to depict the struggle of African Americans against social and political forces. Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas in Native Son (1940), for example, is an "Everyman" motif for social, political, and cultural disenfranchisement of African Americans. Bigger acquires self-pride and faces his troubles through the aid of two white males, both unlikely cohorts, and becomes the folk hero often created through the use of Garveyism.

The next generation of writers displaying Garveyism might be termed the precursors of the Black Arts movement. Extending James Baldwin's protest themes in Nobody Knows My Name (1960) and The Fire Next Time (1963), the aggressive poets of the sixties, such as Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), decry the destructive environment of the northern ghetto and portray Garvey's contempt for such dehumanizing existence. Beyond the 1960s, an aesthetic perspective that embraces the racial loyalty and pride found in Garveyism is seen in works such as Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970). Thus, the influence of the Garvey social and political movement continues.

See--Tony Martin, Literary Garveyism: Garvey, Black Arts and the Harlem Renaissance, 1983. James de Jongh, Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination, 1990.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright 1997 by Oxford University Press.

[Editor's Note: The following is a small selection of materials from the extensive Marcus Garvey site at UCLA]

Marcus Garvey: An Overview

Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) form a critical link in black America's
centuries-long struggle for freedom, justice, and equality. As the leader of the largest organized mass movement in black history
and progenitor of the modern "black is beautiful" ideal, Garvey is now best remembered as a champion of the back-to-Africa
movement. In his own time he was hailed as a redeemer, a "Black Moses." Though he failed to realize all his objectives, his
movement still represents a liberation from the psychological bondage of racial inferiority.

Garvey was born on 17 August 1887 in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica. He left school at 14, worked as a printer, joined Jamaican
nationalist organizations, toured Central America, and spent time in London. Content at first with accommodation, on his return
to Jamaica, he aspired to open a Tuskegee-type industrial training school. In 1916 he came to America at Booker T.
Washington's invitation, but arrived just after Washington died.

Garvey arrived in America at the dawn of the "New Negro" era. Black discontent, punctuated by East St. Louis's bloody race
riots in 1917 and intensified by postwar disillusionment, peaked in 1919's Red Summer. Shortly after arriving, Garvey
embarked upon a period of travel and lecturing. When he settled in New York City, he organized a chapter of the UNIA,
which he had earlier founded in Jamaica as a fraternal organization. Drawing on a gift for oratory, he melded Jamaican peasant
aspirations for economic and cultural independence with the American gospel of success to create a new gospel of racial pride.
"Garveyism" eventually evolved into a religion of success, inspiring millions of black people worldwide who sought relief from
racism and colonialism.

To enrich and strengthen his movement, Garvey envisioned a great shipping line to foster black trade, to transport passengers
between America, the Caribbean, and Africa, and to serve as a symbol of black grandeur and enterprise. The UNIA
incorporated the Black Star Line in 1919. The line's flagship, the S.S. Yarmouth, made its maiden voyage in November and
two other ships joined the line in 1920. The Black Star Line became a powerful recruiting tool for the UNIA, but it was
ultimately sunk by expensive repairs, discontented crews, and top-level mismanagement and corruption.

By 1920 the UNIA had hundreds of chapters worldwide; it hosted elaborate international conventions and published the Negro World, a widely disseminated weekly that was soon banned in many parts of Africa and the Caribbean. Over the next few years, however, the movement began to unravel under the strains of internal dissension, opposition from black critics, and
government harassment. In 1922 the federal government indicted Garvey on mail fraud charges stemming from Black Star Line
promotional claims and he suspended all BSL operations. (Two years later, the UNIA created another line, the Black Cross
Navigation and Trading Co., but it, too, failed.) Garvey was sentenced to prison. The government later commuted his sentence,
only to deport him back to Jamaica in November 1927. He never returned to America.

In Jamaica Garvey reconstituted the UNIA and held conventions there and in Canada, but the heart of his movement stumbled
on in America without him. While he dabbled in local politics, he remained a keen observer of world events, writing
voluminously in his own papers. His final move was to London, in 1935. He settled there shortly before Fascist Italy invaded
Ethiopia and his public criticisms of Haile Selassie's behavior after the invasion alienated many of his own remaining followers.
In his last years he slid into such obscurity that he suffered the final indignity of reading his own obituaries a month before his 10
June 1940 death.

Copyright 1995 The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers Project, UCLA
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Marcus Garvey and The Black Star Line--An Exhibit


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Marcus Garvey, 1920
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Negro World masthead and headline
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African Redemption Fund Flyer
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UNIA membership card of Mndindwa Marwanqana, South Africa
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Black Star Line stock certificate
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Negro World masthead and headline
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Black Star Line Steamship Corporation flyer
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Inspection of the S.S. Yarmouth by UNIA members
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