Negro with a Hat

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Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and his Dream of Mother Africa
By Colin Grant
Jonathan Cape £20, 530 pages
FT bookshop price: £16

The Dr Seuss-like title of Colin Grant’s highly readable biography of Marcus Garvey requires some explanation. “We deprecate the use of the term ‘nigger’ as applied to Negroes,” wrote Garvey in his African Declaration of Rights, “and demand that the word ‘Negro’ will be written with a capital ‘N’.” The Hat, too, fully deserves its capital, referring as it does to the magnificently plumed bicornate number Garvey wore when he processed in a motorcade through Harlem in 1924 as president-general of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which he had founded eight years previously. As provisional president of Africa, he also sported a gold-tasselled turban.

Though in some respects a comic figure, satirised by Eugene O’Neill in Emperor Jones, Garvey was also a heroic and tragic one. Grant, a playwright who works for the BBC, provides a monumental, nuanced and broadly sympathetic portrait.

A stonemason’s son, Garvey was born in Jamaica in 1887, and left school at 14 to become a printer’s apprentice. In 1912 he sailed to London, where he worked for the African Times and Orient Review and took evening classes in law at Birkbeck College. On his return to Jamaica he founded the UNIA, before working his passage to New York, where, as “Professor Garvey, late of London University”, he soon established himself as a public speaker, and in 1918 launched the Negro World, the UNIA’s official organ. “Devoted to the Interests of the Negro Race without the Hope of Profit as a Business Investment”, the paper refused lucrative advertising contracts for such products as Dr Fred’s Skin Whitener, which other black papers relied on, and took a ferociously independent line.

An admirer of the IRA and Mussolini, Garvey established a uniformed militia, the African Legion, and attracted hundreds of thousands of followers, many of whom he alienated when he sought an accord with the Ku Klux Klan. He also made powerful enemies, including FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who called him a “notorious Negro agitator”.

His grandest project was the Black Star Line, intended to rival the luxurious White Star Line (whose flagship was the Titanic). It acquired three ships, but did not prosper, and Garvey’s attempts to raise money for a fourth led to his imprisonment for mail fraud. He was then deported to Jamaica, where he was imprisoned for libel, and ended his days in London, where he died, alone and broke, aged 52. He never set foot in Africa.

Hailed in his day as the Black Moses, Garvey is now known chiefly through occasional references in reggae songs. Grant’s book – his first – is a welcome and scholarly corrective.

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