Negro with a Hat - Introduction
‘Marcus Garvey: Lunatic or traitor.’ That was the assessment of W.E.B Du Bois, the Jamaican’s nemesis and rival for the leadership of 1920s black America. In a withering editorial, Du Bois called for Garvey to be locked up or deported from the U.S.A – a wish that came to pass, on both counts. Thereafter, especially following his death in 1940, the story of Marcus Garvey was largely told from the perspective of his enemies. He was depicted as gauche and bombastic with an embarrassing penchant for dressing up in out-dated Victorian military costumes, complete with epaulettes, ceremonial sword and plumed bicornate helmet.
Even growing up in a Jamaican household in the 1960s there seemed to be something of a stigma attached to the name Garvey. Aside from his eloquence, extraordinary oratory, many achievements and grand ambitions (including the founding of a black-owned shipping line) there was the undeniable problem of his presentation – a difficulty that I had not resolved when I started to write Negro with a Hat. The title, which had proved elusive, suddenly arrived unbidden in 2003, when I stumbled across an exhibition that inadvertently offered a new way at looking at Marcus Garvey.
“Make Life Beautiful”, the exhibition of “The Dandy in Photography” that toured the UK that year was conforming to type with its alluring, black and white images of Cecil Beaton, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward & co, when half-way round the gallery, I was pulled up sharply by one print – the profile of an anonymous black man wearing a fedora.The caption read: ‘Negro with Hat’. Adjacent to it was another portrait by the same photographer; it showed a white man in fancy dress wearing a theatrical turban. It’s title: ‘Man with Hat.’ The juxtaposition seemed to pose a question: is a Negro not a man? When, just over a century ago, the aristocratic photographer, F.Holland Day placed his camera in the service of the anonymous black model, the elegant studio-based portrait of the ‘Negro’ that he produced was intended to be formal and respectful. This was a subject who dignified the term ‘Negro’ – a forerunner of Sidney Poitier whose clean finger nails and starched white shirt graced the silver screen sixty years later in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”