Struggling with a chronically stagnant economy and one of the highest crime rates in the world, Jamaica is turning for help to a black nationalist leader who died more than 70 years ago.
Marcus Garvey, who inspired millions of followers worldwide with messages of black pride and self-reliance, is being resurrected in a new mandatory civics program in schools across this predominantly black country of 2.8 million people.
Students from kindergarten through high school are supposed to learn values such as self-esteem, respect for others and personal responsibility by studying Garvey, whom Martin Luther King Jr. called the “first man on a mass scale and level to give Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny.”
But the program almost totally avoids mention of the positions that made Garvey deeply controversial: his promotion of a “back to Africa” movement, his use of the title “provisional president of Africa” and a campaign for racial separation, born of the conviction that whites would never allow blacks justice. He even met with the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, leading some mainstream African-American leaders to question his sanity.
American civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois once called him “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race.”
The program is a major rethinking of Garvey’s legacy in his Caribbean homeland. He was the first person named a national hero following independence in 1962, and the government put his likeness on coins. But it had declined repeated calls to use his teachings in schools, where history is not a required subject.
“The teaching of Garveyism in schools is something that politicians of all stripes have shied away from partly because of their own intellectual ignorance and partly because they don’t know what to make of this complex subject,” said Robert Hill, a Garvey expert who is professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles.
But Jamaicans take great pride in the achievements of a native son who created an international movement.
“We want all our children to believe they are important to what becomes of this country. Through Marcus Garvey, we see what it means … to admit to no stumbling block that we cannot overcome,” said Amina Blackwood Meeks, the Ministry of Education’s culture director who led efforts to draft the Garvey-infused civics program.
For many Garvey adherents in Jamaica, where reggae luminary Burning Spear once mournfully sang “no one remembers old Marcus Garvey,” the only question is: What took so long?
Born nearly 50 years after the abolition of slavery in Jamaica, Garvey founded the United Negro Improvement Association in 1914 on the island, and then built it into a mass movement in New York from 1919 to 1927. He established a network of “Liberty Halls” as venues for political debate, theater and scholarship around black themes, raising awareness of African achievements and calling for economic empowerment to circumvent racism.
From his Harlem base, Garvey urged people find pride in their African history, and assured the descendants of slaves that there were no limitations to what they could accomplish. His Pan-African philosophy urged blacks to return to the continent of their ancestors and he launched the Black Star Line, a fleet of steamships intended to take them there.
During his meteoric rise, he was bitterly opposed by some fellow black intellectuals, especially Du Bois, who said Garvey was either “a lunatic or a traitor.” In turn, Garvey called Du Bois a “rabid mulatto who needed a horse whipping,” and he dismissed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, as seeking black assimilation into white society.
His movement claimed to speak on behalf of Africans and delegates at one congress elected him “provisional president of Africa.”
Garvey was eventually convicted of mail fraud charges in connection with his steamship line and was deported to Jamaica in 1927.
But in the early decades of the 20th century, when segregation was deeply implanted in the United States and when European colonialism still stretched around the world, Garvey’s words also inspired civil rights figures in America, political leaders in Africa and the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica.
It’s the uplifting and ambitious aspects of Garvey’s life that educators hope will inspire youngsters in modern-day Jamaica, where times are tough for many.
The official unemployment rate is over 14 percent, but many economists believe it’s higher. Nearly 30 percent of high school students dropped out just before their final year in 2011 and standardized test scores are sinking. Over the past decade, the United Nations says, the island had the world’s third-highest murder rate, with about 60 slayings per 100,000 inhabitants. Young slum dwellers use concoctions that promise to transform dark complexions to a cafe-au-lait color.
Some island academics blame many of the country’s woes on the lingering effects of slavery, which was particularly brutal on Jamaica’s sugar plantations.
“We have to use all tools and strategies at our disposal to tell our children and our people in general that, as Garvey said, the black skin is not a badge of shame, but rather a symbol of national greatness,” said Verene A. Shepherd, director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at Jamaica’s University of the West Indies. “If Jamaicans from very young are imbued with this kind of thinking, we will see the benefits in years to come.”
But some academics question whether the program can really overcome the lack of economic opportunities in Jamaica, arguing that self-esteem follows achievement, not the other way around. They also say students will ultimately reject efforts to turn a historical figure into nationalistic propaganda.
Hill said he suspects the program will mostly involve “beating the drum for Garvey” while glossing over his complexities.
“If I just say to students, ‘Garvey is a great man and here’s the reasons he was great,’ that hasn’t taught them anything. In fact, the likelihood is you are likely to alienate the very students you are trying to reach because they will recognize it as just a form of ideological brainwashing,” Hill said. “You have to teach Garvey as part of the development of political thought.”
The teachers’ handbook for the new program includes lesson plans using famous Garvey quotes such as “Up, you mighty race, accomplish what you will” to instill personal identity, discipline, courtesy, national pride and heritage. It says economics lessons could highlight Garvey’s experiences as an entrepreneur, while devotionals will include hymns he wrote. Youngsters will be required to keep a journal.
One of the few references to his “back to Africa” call is a suggestion that students “explore ship building, the shipping industry and travel by sea through a project to reconstruct (small models of) the ships of the Black Star Line.”
So far there has been no public opposition to the program from blacks or whites, who are accustomed to seeing Garvey as a part of the country’s history and seem happy to have civics of any sort introduced at schools.
Meeks said nothing about the program will be alienating for students or faculty who are not black.
Several schools declined to allow a reporter inside classrooms to see the civics course in action because orientation was just getting started.
But Education Minister Ronald Thwaites said he’s confident the program will soon be a success, saying that “after many false starts, the campaign of values and attitudes now begin in earnest, rooted and founded” in Garvey.