Colin Grant






Is Obama Channeling Marcus Garvey?

By Colin Grant 


History News Network, 10 March 08


‘His words were compassionate,’ recalled Virginia Collins, ‘he spoke from his soul, and you had this feeling that you were there, that you [were] he, too, that you felt the same thing he was speaking of.’ That sentiment of a politician giving sentiment to the submerged dreams and aspirations of the everyman/woman is one that has been expressed time and again by the awed listeners to Barack Obama on his campaign trail. Whether on the steps of the old state Capitol in Springfield, the pulpit of Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Church in Atlanta or the town hall of Newark, New Jersey, Senator Barack Obama has inspired ecstatic audiences with his powerful oration. But the supreme ventriloquism that Virginia Collins relates does not describe the Senator from Illinois but rather a much earlier incarnation: Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Whilst it’s tempting to imagine that Obama’s rhetoric links back to a tradition of black pastors, to Adam Clayton Powell, Snr and Martin Luther King, Obama’s speech bears much closer comparison to the haunting and melodious delivery of the Jamaican visionary who in 1920s led the impressive black movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, UNIA.


 The power of Obama’s oration relies not so much in the actual words of his speechifying but in its capacity to convince; in its ability to transmit what the Spanish call Duende, a most profoundly felt emotion. Marcus Garvey was bathed in the spirit of Duende; his rival, W.E.B was not. Arguably Barack Obama has the spirit; Hillary Clinton does not.


Listening to their oratory one could believe that Garvey and Obama were poured from the same bottle; though, clearly, Obama has added water to the wine of his predecessor’s zealotry. Garvey, a superb Ciceronian orator, made his name atop the soap boxes in Harlem’s Speakers’ Corner in the unseasonably warm spring of 1917. His passion fired an audience like no other before him. He had arrived penniless and unheralded, and yet in a few years Garvey was presiding over a mass movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, with hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of members and branches scattered across America. As a character in Ralph Ellison’s satirical novel, Invisible Man says, ‘Garvey must have had something. He must have had something to move all those people! Our people are hell to move! He must have had plenty!’ To date, Senator Obama has a compelling and simple message – an ‘audacity of hope’ that aims to unify the country. But just like his Jamaican-born predecessor, Obama’s most obvious strengths (his powers of oration) are turned against him by the rival camp. Back in 1919, the African American journalist, John E. Bruce, then a fierce critic of Garvey, wrote:  ‘We like to listen to the music of his mouth,’ but went on to dismiss him as a glib phrase maker, mocking his lilting Caribbean voice: ‘You won’t do Mr.Garvey too muchee talkee.’


Similarly Obama’s rivals have recently tried to blunt his eloquence, casting him as plagiarising charlatan who can talk-the-talk but is lacking in substance. But the charge that he is some kind of linguistically adept snake oil salesman seems a poor fit for Obama, especially when his sincerity is near impossible to dint: it strikes many as a naked and clumsy attempt to attack “the shepherd and scatter the sheep.” A year ago the prevailing wisdom held Obama’s color to be more problematic. But, so far, the African American senator has pulled off an astonishing coup. He has campaigned in such a way to allow Democrats, especially white ones, to cast their votes in a colour-blind manner. His simple strategy has been to avoid focussing on color or black issues; for a man who aims to represent the whole nation, it would not be prudent to do so. “Race” is the fear word, the corollary to Ronald Regan’s “socialism”, that must not be mentioned lest it ostracise potential supporters. The racial terrain is difficult and vexing, but, so far, the man with lambent eyes and a powerful and persuasive rhetoric has negotiated the landscape with consummate skill. Can he maintain that stance?


As the political juggernauts rolled on from South Carolina, it became clearer that the black voters were prepared to cast to one side doubts that Obama was one hundred percent African-American and one of their own. Peculiarly, Obama had Bill Clinton to thank for reminding voters that his wife’s rival was black – in a way that was not detrimental to the senator from Illinois but boomeranged on Hillary Clinton. The former president’ attempts to ‘out’ Obama as black with veiled references to the undeniably black Jesse Jackson - whose success in South Carolina, when he ran for the Democratic nomination, was not sufficiently replicated in the rest of the country - have not worked in the subliminal way intended to the advantage of Hillary Clinton. Black voters, now that battle has been enjoined, are more solidly behind Obama than ever before. The same can not be said to be true of their African American representatives in Congress.


Again there are parallels in the way that both and Obama and Garvey seemed to come from nowhere to establish an ecstatic and devoted following in an astonishingly short time. Both men departed from the more traditional route to the black electorate. To his critics (largely an older generation of African American race leaders) Obama must appear, just like Garvey, as an undeserving interloper - one who turned comfortably in his cot as they rode the freedom buses, stoically taking beatings and being thrown in jail. Half of all African-American congressmen have made it plain that they favour Obama’s rival. That these representatives belong to a group that calls itself the Congressional Black Caucus underlies the fact that the oft repeated talk of ‘unity’ amongst African Americans was always a myth. But cracks are appearing; the stress lines of maintaining support for Hillary Clinton at variance with the wishes of their constituents are beginning to show. The staunch Clinton ally, John Lewis, wavered early in February, and then embraced Obama; and even the Harlem congressman, Charles Rangel, who has said that the time is not yet right for a black president, has edged away from that certainty. Lewis further articulated a danger for either successful candidate should the campaign turn brutal and vengeful. Clinton and Obama might do well to turn to the history books, to reflect on an earlier comparable and internecine struggle between Garvey’s UNIA and Du Bois’s NAACP.


Samuel Redding grew up in a NAACP stronghold and recalled how ‘the coming of the Garveyites shattered the defensive bulwark around the protective community of Negroes.’ In the district, with a large black population, black folk had enjoyed political control, ‘the same men had been returned to office again and again. What they did there seemed not nearly as important as just being there. They had enormous prestige ... and they had not had to fight to keep it.’ But in the elections that year Garvey sent out agents from Harlem, and the local UNIA divisions put up their own candidates who split the black vote. The campaign, wrote Redding, ‘smelled of pitch and brimstone and led to street brawls….and while Negroes fought one another, whites won the offices. Even the least subtle Democratic mind can see the danger of a bruising battle amongst themselves allowing the Republicans a smoother path to victory.


No one wants to be on the losing side, but clearly the faltering allegiances amongst African American Super Delegates are not just signs of expedience. A seismic shift is taking place in the minds of senior Civil Rights activists who, despite decades of advocacy, never firmly believed it possible that a black man could be elected president in their life time. The extraordinary wave of enthusiasm for Obama, and the way he has withstood the onslaught against him, has undermined the conviction of the doubters.


 Again there is a corollary in the spectacular early career of Marcus Garvey. At the height of his fame, as the applause crested and then died down, Garvey could just make out the slow hand-clap of one of his staunchest critic, John E Bruce. But then one evening in the autumn of 1919, Bruce stood at the back of the crowds on a street corner in the heart of Harlem. He had attended Garvey rallies before. He had remained aloof and sceptical. But on the evening of 13 October 1919 as the autumn leaves began to fall from the towering poplars that lined 135th St, so too did John E Bruce’s suspicions about the explosive Jamaican start to recede. For, as Bruce wrote in his memoirs, he had often listened to the great orator but on this occasion he ‘heard’ Garvey perhaps for the first time – and it was as if the whole of Harlem was speaking with one voice. He’d listened and listened until he’d got a line on Garvey – ultimately on his honesty and tremendous earnestness - that would not break.  Until then, Bruce had rarely passed up an opportunity to ridicule Garvey and his schemes, which seemed ‘wild, chimerical [and] impossible of accomplishment’ – ideas as fanciful perhaps as that of there ever being an African American president.


It has been often cited, that the view that the white electorate will not vote for a black man is so last century (not withstanding the “Bradley effect” whereby voters store away their prejudices when the pollsters knock on the door only to unpack them in the privacy of the ballot booth). Nonetheless, given the extent to which American society is still racially stratified in 2008, Barack Obama needs the Congressional Black Caucus to come on board. He must be hoping that, as with Garvey’s conversion of Bruce, so too with he be able to bring about a change of heart of Charles Rangel and all of the members who still have a foot less than adroitly in the other camp.