Writing about Garvey

Since starting my program, I’ve been interested in writing about Marcus Garvey and his movement. Mostly, I’ve been less interested in the case for or against his place as a fraud in black liberation struggles and more interested in the alignment of performance and black performativity in his work. I had first tried suggesting the connection between the power of space over Garvey by looking at the United Negro Improvement Association’s First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World. Although the first draft of that paper is perhaps to embarrassing to share, this is the much more cohesive second draft thesis:

Previous scholarship on Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) has addressed his political and economic strategies for the black diaspora; his attention to spectacle and spectator has yet to be fully considered.[1] Born in Jamaica, Garvey started the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914 as a debate and literary society.[2] Moving to Harlem in 1916, he and the organization matured, rising to international political agitation until Garvey’s deportation in 1927. He appealed to black Americans’ growing disenchantment that culminated after the race riots of 1919.[3] The radical politics that Garvey used during this period, however, have often overshadowed his use of spectacle. Certainly many of his contemporary critics viewed Garvey as simply a novice activist with a sense of flair, but what should be considered is the importance of the performance within his movement? Filing this gap in the scholarship, this paper focuses on one of the crowning achievements of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, the convention held in August 1920 at Madison Square Garden, New York City.

I found that this approach did not directly get at the importance of my argument and simply suggested that 1) I saw a hole in the scholarship that I wanted to fill, which does not suggest its importance beyond my own interest. After receiving comments from peers, I returned to this same argument with a much more “vivid” introduction and a more concise thesis:

[Madison Square Garden] was haunted and continues to be haunted by a discursive past in which the Garden has been figured as a place of spectacle and entertainment. As what Michel Foucault called a heterotopia, the Garden became a site of simultaneity, where different points in time could be reenacted and imagined as real, where audiences could be taken away from the day-to-day experience of the metropolis to another place in the world or another point in time. In so doing, the Garden created “countersites” that could take the disempowered from the outskirts of society and put them centerstage. As such the space allowed and disrupted Garvey’s radical black politics, dividing his use of the space into the performativity of radical politics and the performance of spectacle. At once the space was intended to reveal the power of the black diaspora and simultaneously announce the preeminence of his movement to direct that power. Yet at a time when Euro-American hegemony had not been contested to the extent of the post-1945 period, Garvey relied on the discourse of self-determination that had developed at the end of the First World War and on his own semiotic knowledge to depict his movement as a veritable black nation in exile. The Garden then provided a venue against white supremacy and simultaneously contained Garvey’s politics as a form of performance on one of the most renowned modern stages in the United States.

Understanding this intersection between the Garden and racial politics creates a consciousness around the limits of “staging” revolutionary action. Against depicting performance spaces as lacking in revolutionary or radical potential in of themselves, I look to the discursive history of the Garden to suggest that the convention fell within the possibilities of this specific site. Thus this article attends then to questions of liberatory practices to suggest that contestation against oppressive regimes require more than the appropriate uses of spaces.

This argument felt much better to me, however as I tried to move through mapping the article, I realized that there were two thesis. First, the Garden is itself a heterotopia that subsumes all forms of politics into the realm of spectacle and entertainment. Second, Marcus Garvey, who was already a master of performance and charismatic politics “fed” into the Garden as a heterotopia. I came to this conclusion, while on a “retreat” house sitting for a friend. I had planned on spending the weeks simply editing the one article, yet I spent the first week butting heads with my own problems with figuring out the argument. Once I divided the project, I found that I could at once, talk about Garvey’s relationship to the Garden much more clearly and think more clearly about what makes the Garden so special, especially as a new place of entertainment in the 19th century. I continue to edit the argument of the Garvey paper (leaving the Garden paper for another time) but the thesis has begun to focus on avowal, which I’ve found an interesting concept to work through with Foucault’s posthumously published lectures Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling. This is currently what the article looks like.

Looking to the beginning of his political agitation in the United States, which at once made him a paragon of the black liberation struggle, instantaneously made Marcus Garvey a target of surveillance. My article argues that the act of being surveilled marked Garvey a radical, a criminal category. The binding of his black politics to surveillance before the Law mark scenes of avowal; the first, before his supporters and detractors that marked him as a prophet and savior of the black diaspora. The second involved the investigation by the United States government that marked him as a foreign black radical, a target for deportation. Among the many ways that Garvey spoke of himself, it was never as a radical. The legislation of the First World War codified the concept of “the radical.” Although Garvey’s claim by the end of 1920 would be ignored and ridiculed by the white press and denounced by black contemporaries, it was the Law that took his claims seriously. I look to the surveillance and investigation of Garvey, suggesting not simply that he lied to authorities that he would stop his political work, but instead that his continued radical identity was structured by this evasion. By looking to Foucault’s definition of avowal (l’aveu), I posit his avowal as a black leader of the diaspora before his followers affirmed his identity, while simultaneously making his relationship to the Law contingent on his “guilt” as a dangerous radical, binding Garvey’s surveilment to his politics. By using these scenes as my framework, my work offers this avowal as a necessary component to his status, indeed framing his legacy as a prophetic voice in the black diaspora.

Although Foucault spoke of avowal in its engagement in a psychiatric regime of truth, —a technique that bound the individual to a diagnosis that offered a cure—avowal as it relates to a juridico-politcal structure changes the surveilled, giving the opportunity to continue to speak within a framework of social control. By disavowing his position as a black radical or promising to stop such activity, Garvey’s ability to remain in the United States was paradoxically contingent on his radical politics being framed within a context of disciplined acts. Garvey, then, maneuvered his politics between the spectacle portrayed for his supporters and the contestation of the surveillance organizations that wished to contain his politics. Indeed, as the BOI searched for reasons to deport Garvey, they were frequently frustrated that he framed his politics sufficiently within the law.

It still needs work but I believe this frames the argument better around the importance of visibility in Garvey’s politics. As I work through the argument, I will of course, return to the thesis to better articulate my points.

[1] For full biographical information see Judith Stein, The World of Marcus Garvey: Race and Class in Modern Society (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986); Theodore G. Vincent, Black Power and the Garvey Movement (Berkeley, California: The Ramparts Press, 1971); Edmund David Conon, Black Moses: Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Milwaukee: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1966).

[2] Colin Grant, Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and His Dream of Mother Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 56.

[3] John Henrik Clarke, “Marcus Garvey: The Harlem Years” in Transition, no. 6 (1974), 14. The most notorious race riot occurred in Chicago on July 27, 1919 and lasted nearly a week. See William M. Tuttle, Jr., Race Riot: Chicago in the Summer of 1919 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).


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