It's not often that a writer describes a “criminal” as their hero, but the outlaw in question isn't just anyone — it's Jamaican-born civil rights leader Marcus Garvey. After 20 years of writing, Jamaican author Geoffrey Philp, whose children went to the same high school as Trayvon Martin (the African American teenager who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida in 2012), has finally published his first novel, “Garvey's Ghost.” It was released on August 17, 2016, (Marcus Garvey's birthday) by Carlong Publishers (Caribbean) Limited.
Why would Garvey be called a criminal? The founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) served a two-year sentence in 1925 in Atlanta, Georgia, after being convicted of mail fraud. He was then deported to Jamaica.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey is one of Jamaica's most revered national heroes. An eloquent spokesman for Pan-Africanism and black nationalism, he spread ideas of racial pride and economic self-sufficiency through his organization, and encouraged people to form an independent black nation in Africa, inspiring the “Back to Africa” movement espoused by many Rastafarians today.
Philp recognizes the historical importance and relevance of Garvey and his movement, and has advocated that President Barack Obama grant Garvey a presidential pardon.
Global Voices recently spoke to Philp about his new book and Garvey's relevance today:
Global Voices (GV): For readers who may not be aware, who was Marcus Garvey and why do you think he was important?
Geoffrey Philp (GP): Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) was the leader of the largest movement for social and economic justice in the twentieth century. In 1914, he along with thirteen members founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and by 1920, after moving the headquarters to the United States, the movement had over 6 million followers worldwide. In 1922, at the height of the movement, Garvey was arrested by the Bureau of Investigation and charged with mail fraud. In 1925, Garvey began serving a five-year sentence in the US penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. After several appeals, his sentence was eventually commuted by President Calvin Coolidge, and he was deported to Jamaica. After running for office and winning posts in the local government, Garvey was again subjected to persecution by local law enforcement and he moved to England, where he died on June 10, 1940. In 1964, Garvey's body was returned to Jamaica and in 1969, he was awarded the nation's highest honour of National Hero.
Marcus Garvey is important for many reasons. Garvey was the first black leader to recognize the centrality of Africa in the destiny of the peoples of African descent and he was also the first to create a coherent blueprint for African liberation in his groundbreaking work, The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. Many black leaders from Malcolm X to Jomo Kenyatta credit Marcus Garvey with opening their eyes to the urgency of African redemption. As Kwame Nkrumah said, “Long before many of us were even conscious of our own degradation, Marcus Garvey fought for African national and racial equality.”
GV: You are involved in a campaign seeking a pardon from President Obama for Garvey for the mail fraud conviction that had him deported from the United States. It still hasn't happened. Why are you so passionate about this and why is it necessary, in your view, for Garvey to be exonerated?
GP: The campaign to exonerate Marcus Garvey is very much alive. In fact, on August 17, 2016, Dr. Julius Garvey, Marcus Garvey's son, held a press conference at the National Press Club that brought together activists from all over the world to petition for a presidential pardon. Garvey's legal counsel explained in a recent interview: “Garvey's conviction and deportation facilitated the marginalization and silencing of his philosophy of racial justice, a strategy that focused primarily on economic empowerment for people of African descent throughout the world.”
The genius of Garvey's message should not be clouded by this obscene miscarriage of justice.
GV: What has the life and legacy of Garvey meant to you personally?
GP: I believe in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality… Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
I also believe in the dignity of all human beings. Marcus Garvey stood for these ideals and he began his movement with the most downtrodden people on the planet, the people of his own race.
Since Garvey's time until now, we are still “kicked about,” exploited, abused, and murdered with impunity. Look at the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Who would believe that a hundred and twenty-nine years after Garvey's birth, peoples of African descent would still be subject to the same kinds of brutality and still have to assert that their lives have value – and not just as chattel?
Garvey also needs to be exonerated because he did not commit a crime. This fact has been demonstrated by the research and testimony of many scholars during hearings at the House of Representatives in 1987.Twenty years later, on January 10, 2007, Representative Charles Rangel introduced H. Con. Res. 24 to the 110th Congress: “Expressing the sense of the Congress that the President should grant a pardon to Marcus Mosiah Garvey to clear his name and affirm his innocence of crimes for which he was unjustly prosecuted and convicted.”
The whole purpose of Garvey's imprisonment was to halt the progress of Africans at home and abroad and for the sake of peoples of African descent, this injustice must be reversed.
GV: You've been sitting on this novel, “Garvey's Ghost,” for a long time. What got it kickstarted again and what is it about?
GP: I wouldn't say that I've been sitting on the novel for twenty years. I would say, however, that it had been rejected by publishers since I wrote the first draft, which was inspired by what happened to a friend of mine over twenty years ago, when her daughter ran away from home. And even though she was running away from home, she still saw herself as a “good” Jamaican girl. She had made the bed and tucked the corners of the sheets neatly under the corners of the mattress. That image stayed with me for a long time.
Since then, the manuscript went through many incarnations and rejections. The final draft came with the death of Trayvon Martin, who went to the same high school as my three children. His death hit close to home. And it gave me the reason why Jasmine Bailey would run away from home. Jasmine felt hopeless and helpless. She wanted to do something, anything, that wouldn't make her feel so impotent in the face of such grave injustice.
So, at its base, “Garvey’s Ghost” is about a young woman who runs away from home and her mother’s attempts to find her.
GV: How does your novel combine fact and fiction, and to what end?
GP: “Garvey's Ghost” is a mashup of real people, places, and things in Miami and Jamaica. For example, after I had the inspiration for the novel, I needed to figure out the plot and the characters. The writer John Gardener said, “Character is the life of fiction,” so before I write the first word of any story, I ask myself questions such as, “What does the character do for a living?” I thought about this for a long time, but I couldn't come up with a decent answer. Then, one Friday afternoon as I was having dinner with my wife at a local Chinese restaurant, I suddenly realized that I was surrounded by elderly Jewish men and women who were accompanied by their live-in nurses, many of whom were Jamaican. That was it. Jasmine's mother was a live-in nurse for an elderly Jewish woman.
So, why do I combine fiction and fact and “to what end?” I want to tell a good story! A storyteller's currency is plausibility. Of course, I have my own interests and ideas, but who wants to read a story where the writer is just preaching and screaming her ideas at you? I am not a propagandist. I am an artist. The story comes first. But you have to, as the poet Emily Dickinson advised, “tell it slant.”
GV: Who should read “Garvey's Ghost?”
GP: Garvey's Ghost is for anyone who is interested in finding out what happens next to a young woman who disappears from her mother's home in the middle of the night.
GV: Garvey was a proponent of going back to Africa. What was his thinking at the time, and does that philosophy still resonate today? Or have the descendants of African slaves integrated and settled where they are? And if they did decide to return, how do you think they would be able to move forward?
GP: Garvey was not a proponent of a wholesale back to Africa movement. He wrote in The Philosophy and opinions of Marcus Garvey, “We do not want all the Negroes in Africa. Some are no good here, and naturally will be no good there. The no-good Negro will naturally die in fifty years. The Negro who is wrangling about and fighting for social equality will naturally pass away in fifty years, and yield his place to the progressive Negro who wants a society and country of his own.”
Garvey wanted black people to have their “own place under the sun.” You have to remember that at that time, black people were subject to Jim Crow laws, colonialism in North, Central, and South America, and were confronted with crimes against humanity by every colonial power. For example, in the European scramble for Africa, King Leopold of Belgium (the Butcher of the Congo) massacred 10 million Africans in the Congo and one of his favourite tactics was to cut off the hands of Africans as souvenirs.
As Garvey envisioned it, Africa would an inspiration and a homeland that offered protection to Africans at home and abroad.
Of course, times have changed since then, but the idea of African redemption remains. And in this Garvey was almost prophetic when he said in The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey: “We shall march out, yes, as black American citizens, as black British subjects, as black French citizens, as black Italians or as black Spaniards, but we shall march out with a greater loyalty, the loyalty of race. We shall march out in answer to the cry of our fathers, who cry out to us for the redemption of our own country, our motherland, Africa.”
So, African redemption can be achieved in our own backyards as long as we are engaged in the principles that Garvey envisioned: Redemption, Education, Self-Reliance, Purpose, Entrepreneurship, Community, and Tradition (RESPECT).
GV: Do you think Garvey paid a price for his pride?
GP: Not only did Garvey pay a price for his pride, he paid a price for his black pride. It is the price that many black men have paid — even when they are not proud — but they are perceived as “uppity” because they have an ounce of ambition.
GV: Is there an individual who you think is carrying the torch for him today?
GP: There are many individuals who are carrying Garvey's torch in small and large ways. Here in South Florida, I can think of Garvey activists such as Ras Don Rico Ricketts of LionSplash, Dr. Michael Barnett, I. Jabulani Tafari, and Priest Douglass Smith of the Rootz Foundation. Further afield, I can think of Garveyites such as Mwariama Kamau, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Justin Hansford, Dr. Claire Nelson, Yaw Davis, Goulda Downer, Melvin Foote, Attallah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, Quito Swan, Nkechi Taifa, Shaka Barak, and of course, Dr. Julius Garvey.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the great Burning Spear, to whom the book is livicated and who kept Garvey’s name alive in popular culture; the scholars, Tony Martin, Robert Hill, Colin Grant, Rupert Lewis, Carolyn Cooper, and Carolyn Boyce-Davies, whose work guided me these many years and gave me insights into Garvey’s life.
Now, as far as the big torch is concerned, Garvey was incomparable. He was a once in a lifetime experience.
GV: “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind,” according to Garvey. Words from that quote are popularly associated with lyrics in Bob Marley's “Redemption Song.” How does that resonate with you and what do you think other people should take away from that quote?
GP: Bob Marley, like Marcus Garvey, brought a message of redemption and enlightenment to the world, so it is no wonder that Bob would use Garvey’s words in his songs. My students would say that Marley and Garvey were “woke.”
We all need to be “woke.” Because if we aren’t “woke,” then we will end up in the situation that James Baldwin spoke about in his conversation with Nikki Giovanni: “What the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself. You become a collaborator, an accomplice of your own murderers, because you believe the same things they do.”
So, I tell my students, if you want to be “woke,” read the books of Franz Fanon, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Audre Lourde, bell hooks, Nikki Giovanni, Malcolm X, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ralph Ellison and Michelle Alexander. And that's just a start.
Reading and storytelling open the imagination to other possibilities so we won’t remain enthralled in the numbing narratives within our culture, which encourage silence and/or neutrality in the face of injustice. As Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “We must always take sides… Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
GV: What is your experience as a Jamaican diaspora author like?
GP: When I came to Miami in 1979, no one had ever heard of Jamaican writers such as Roger Mais, Orlando Patterson, Dennis Scott, or Mervyn Morris. A few had heard about [St. Lucian poet and playwright] Derek Walcott, but you could count them on one hand. Thirty odd years later, we have had huge turnouts for writers such as Marlon James – well, who hasn't heard about Marlon James? – Kwame Dawes, [Haitian writer] Edwidge Danticat, [Trinidadian novelist] Elizabeth Nunez, and Colin Channer.
But what is even more rewarding is that we can now say we have a community of Caribbean writers such as (if I've left off a few names it's not because of malice or bad mind) Donna Aza Weir Soley, Fabienne Sylvia Josaphat-Merritt, Jaquira Díaz, Sandra Castillo, Max Freesney Pierre, Anjanette Delgado, Adrian Castro, Carlos Pintado, Michele Jessica Fievre, and many, many more.
Our audience has grown so large that the Miami Book Fair International, which is celebrating its 33rd anniversary this year, has launched #ReadCaribbean, “to highlight the region’s authors and topics that get at the heart of the Caribbean experience.”
GV: How successful a tool has citizen media been for your writing?
GP: Citizen media (and I include Global Voices in this) have been invaluable in my attempts to have Garvey exonerated. I have written many stories and letters and sent them to media outlets in Jamaica, the Caribbean, North America, and England, which have not been published. Luckily, I didn’t have to depend on the gatekeepers to get the word out. Just by using the hashtag, #MarcusGarvey, I was able to meet many other Garveyites such as Mwariama Kamau, who is an administrator for the Facebook group, Millions for Marcus Garvey.
Also, with the use of a Facebook Page (Exonerate Marcus Garvey), Twitter, YouTube videos and my blog, I was able to gather and deliver (through Causes.com) over 11,000 signatures to my representative in Congress, Frederica Wilson.
GV: Do you have any other upcoming projects/materials?
GP: Right now, I've just completed the manuscript for a book of poems, “Letter from Marcus Garvey,” in which I try to tell the story of Marcus Garvey, not as an icon of black liberation, but as a man. A man who fought for what he believed in; who loved and was betrayed (on many levels) and as a man who fulfilled his destiny.
GV: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add?
GP: I’d like to thank you and Global Voices for the wonderful opportunities you have given me to speak about my hero, Marcus Garvey, and to spread the word about my novel, Garvey's Ghost.