Jamaican diaspora blogger Geoffrey Philp has been working tirelessly to gather signatures for the online campaign to exonerate Marcus Garvey, who was convicted and sentenced to prison on charges of mail fraud involving his Black Star Line shipping company. [Read the first part of the interview with Geoffrey here].
In this follow-up post, Geoffrey discusses why he thinks it is important for Garvey's name to be cleared of the mail fraud conviction – which Garvey supporters maintain was politically motivated – and why it should be done under the Obama administration.
Global Voices (GV): Why it is important to exonerate Marcus Garvey? What do you think it will achieve? What message will it send and how meaningful would it be if it were to happen under the first black U.S. President?
Geoffrey Philp (GP): Marcus Garvey in African Fundamentalism said we must ‘canonize our own saints and martyrs.’ The reason for this is psychologically important. If we can see the value of Black heroes–people who look like us– then we can begin to see and validate our own experiences—become the heroes in our own stories. If we begin with ‘mental emancipation,’ as Garvey urged, then all the other thoughts of limitation will disappear.
Can you imagine if the Caribbean was populated by people who were not hindered by the question of race in developing their intellectual talents and who were committed to social and economic development?
The problem is that we are forgetting the struggles of our heroes as Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France stated in her interview with the Trinidad Express:
‘I don't know if the young people today know or appreciate what the fathers of liberalisation did so that they can enjoy the freedoms they do today. These writings and teachings are not on the curriculum in France or other nations. From what I've heard they are not on the curriculum here either. The leaders of the liberated nations did not continue the work of the liberators and so the legacy has been forgotten.’
President Obama has done wonders for the psyche African Americans and New World Africans. He has made it possible so that many African American children have proof that if they dream to become president of the most powerful country in the world, it can happen. If President Obama exonerates Marcus Garvey, he will demonstrate that he recognizes the tradition of struggle that was continued by Marcus Garvey and that he
wasn't just giving lip service when he quoted Marcus Garvey's famous words in Dreams From my Father: ‘Up ye mighty race’ (199). It would be a historically redemptive act.
For us in the Caribbean, Marcus Garvey’s work is of primary importance. The question of our Africanness must be confronted. Our failure to confront these issues has led us to all kinds of violence against our minds and bodies: the epidemic of skin bleaching and hair straightening and the lack of respect for our bodies and ourselves by reducing the sexual act (which should be an intimate expression of love between two people) to ‘daggering’ each other in the streets. This lack of pride in ourselves has also led, in some cases, to extreme forms of self-loathing where we doubt our intellectual abilities. All of these acts of ‘mental slavery’ have consequences in our politics, economics, diet, family life, and health.
GV: What has the White House’s reaction been to the cause? Do you expect the campaign to be successful?
GP: Last year, the White House rejected a plea by one of our current members, Mr. Donovan Parker, and I wrote a post about it – Obama Rejects Plea for Marcus Garvey's Pardon:
Mr. Ronald Rogers, White House pardon attorney, stated that the limited resources of the Justice Department would be better spent on other requests for presidential clemency.
‘It is the general policy of the Department of Justice that requests for posthumous pardons for federal offences not be processed for adjudication,’ Rogers told Parker in a sharply worded response. ‘The
policy is grounded in the belief that the time of the officials involved in the clemency process is better spent on pardon and commutation requests of living persons.’
Basically, Mr. Rogers was ignoring the fact that in 1925, the Justice Department with the complicity of the White House, railroaded Marcus Garvey, and now ninety years later the current occupant of the White House is washing his hands of the affair because apparently ‘Marcus Garvey is just another dead Negro.’
Do I think it will be successful? Marcus Garvey in The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey said, ‘If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life.’
GV: When Garvey was charged and convicted for mail fraud, many felt that it was out of fear of his message and was politically motivated. Almost 90 years after that judgment, do you see parallels in modern-day America?
GP: The struggle for human rights has always been against a small group of elites who hold and wield power for their narrow class interests. This was true before Garvey and it is true now. In my work, I identify with the prophetic tradition that seeks to ‘speak truth to power.’ And what is that truth? We are all human, brothers and sisters, and we should never be denied our inalienable human rights.
GV: One of Marcus Garvey’s goals with the UNIA’s Black Star Line was repatriation to Africa. Do you believe in repatriation?
GP: I believe in repatriation, but this is where I disagree with some of my brothers
and sisters who will no doubt quote Marcus Garvey’s answer, ‘I will not give up a continent for an island.’
I want to repatriate to Jamaica because that’s where the first battle has to be fought—to emancipate ourselves from ‘mental slavery.’ We can’t help anyone else before we first heal ourselves.
Once we can see ourselves as a Black nation—it is disingenuous to speak about ourselves as White Jamaicans, Chinese Jamaicans, or Indian Jamaicans because it does a disservice to the memory of the heroes such as Sir Alexander Bustamante, Norman
Washington Manley and their followers who risked so that all Jamaicans could be free—then, we can begin to talk about the liberation of Africa, which I think the African nations are perfectly capable of doing themselves and should be their primary struggle. We can assist, but any act of liberation begins within.
Ultimately, the liberation of Africa is the recovery of human rights. In the Americas, we can fool ourselves about the struggle for human rights by dissociating ourselves from the racial question that began in the Americas when Christopher Columbus landed in San Salvador. But there is no middle ground in the fight against discrimination, for as James Baldwin reminded us in his letter to Angela Davis, ‘If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.’
GV: How has this digital activism affected your work as a writer?
GP: I never thought I would ever use that word to describe myself, but if the cap fits, I’ll wear it.
Black men have been the target of a white, male patriarchal system whose sole aim in the preservation of white privilege. As a result, the meme of the Black man as a lazy, incompetent, shiftless, sexual beast–in short, a nigger—continues to be spread via the media and especially social media, where some individuals and corporations spew the most vile, racist rants and images in their tweets and shared photos.
So, how do you raise a bulwark against this kind of negative propaganda? First, the source of our pride cannot stem only from our physical talents. We are, after all, the fabled ‘beasts of burden'—this is why Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, and Sir Arthur Lewis are important.
Garvey addressed the ‘whole man’ and that is why The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey had an educational component. Marcus Garvey's work to rehabilitate the image and lives of Black people and Black men, also led him to write several mini-plays that were designed to protect the most vulnerable members of the race: our children.
Out of a similar concern for children, I’ve written two children’s books, which combines the life and work of Marcus Garvey and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into a fable about an ant who uses non-violent methods to save his colony from an invading Amazon army. The book that I’m currently working on is about a little girl who is teased by her friends about her ‘bad hair'—another one of those pesky issues that surround African identity.
GV: Is signing the online petition limited to only North Americans? And where is it located?
GP: Anyone who is outraged that Marcus Garvey was imprisoned on a charge of mail fraud in which the only evidence was an empty envelope should sign the petition.