Geoffrey Philp: A Conversation about Marcus Garvey

BARRINGTON M. SALMON, WRITING FOR THE WASHINGTON INFORMER, INTERVIEWS JAMAICAN WRITER GEOFFREY PHILPS ABOUT MARCUS GARVEY.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jamaica’s first national hero, was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica on August 17, 1887. The publisher, orator, journalist and businessman was an unavowed black nationalist and Pan African who built the largest mass movement of black people – the United Negro Improvement Association — in history. He called for black unity globally and an end to colonialism. Garvey was jailed in 1925 after being convicted of mail fraud (related to the sale of stock in the Black Star Line), but his sentence was reduced and he was deported to Jamaica two years later. Garvey eventually moved to London, England, where he died in 1940.

The Informer talked with Geoffrey Philp, a Jamaican writer, poet and publisher last week. He started a petition earlier this year which he intends to send to President Barack Obama. The petition seeks Garvey’s exoneration for the false charges leveled against him.

Philp, 53, said as Garvey’s 124th birthday approaches, his message of black pride, financial independence, and the fight against colonialism in all its forms, takes on added currency.

“Why is Garvey important?” Philp asked. “(Caribbean author George) Lamming once said until people in the Caribbean and Americas recognize the contributions of Haiti, we will never be free of the effects of colonial and neo-colonialism. In the same way, New World Africans and Africans on the continent will not be free until we honor and recognize Garvey for setting our minds free.”

Philp said Garvey, who was an icon for his generation and generations since, spent his life working towards an intellectual and spiritual freedom for black people. Philp used a screenwriting analogy to describe Garvey.

“In ‘Reading the Way of the Screenwriter’, the author says that on Page One of the story you’re telling, the hero is under a spell, doesn’t know he is under the spell, and the story moves the heroine from waking up from that spell,” Philp said. “The break in the spell happens at the climax and the hero recognizes who he is and walks towards life or death.”

“We have been put under this spell by slavery and colonialism and people like Kamau Brathwaite, Walter Rodney, Marley, and Garvey have been working a kind of magic to get us to wake up,” he explained. “We’re drifting through life looking at life through the eyes of the oppressor.”

That spell manifests itself in often destructive ways, such as the violence black people inflict on each other, black and brown people bleaching their skin, straightening their hair, and despite black America having the buying power of approximately $913 billion, the vast majority of that money is spent with businesses outside of the black community.

Garvey espoused a fairly comprehensive economic plan for the development of industries and private businesses, all in black hands. Following World War I in 1918, conditions afflicting black people in the U.S. including segregation, violence against blacks and the southern migration north, provided the ground in which the Garveyite philosophy flourished. Garvey’s economic line of attack, publicized in his paper, the Negro World, pulled in large numbers of new adherents. Garvey organized several business enterprises, including the Black Star Line, a fleet of ships, a chain of grocery stores, a restaurant, the Negro Factories Corporation, millinery, and a publishing house.

Garvey had hoped the Black Star Line would be a means to trade globally and transport black people who sought to be repatriated to Africa. He sold shares for $5 and that capital allowed him to buy three ships.

“When you think about his words back in the 1920s, his insight on practical, educational things is profound,” Philp said. “If you make a list of the great things Jamaicans have done, the first person on any list is supposed to be Marcus Garvey. Anybody can come after that. It’s not to disrespect any other Jamaicans like (National Heroine) Nanny. They were resisting. In fact, (from the time) they set foot in Jamaica, the Africans in Jamaica had this chain of resistance.”

“The difference is the intellectual foundation he laid. You have people who came along, who made that breakthrough but they didn’t have a systematic philosophy. He came from a perspective of African fundamentalism. He said if you hold this to be true, certain things will happen. Garvey laid down the intellectual foundation of freedom for Africans on the continent.”

“Garvey is the resistance against a whole system which is predicated on the use and abuse of African labor and that you treat profits as more important than people. That has enormous implications because that is what the Caribbean and Americas was found upon. He said humanity is far more important than any moneymaking scheme. That was a complete shift in priorities. Every step of the way the question is, are we focusing on people or money? This leads you down the road to humanity, self-actualization.”

Philp said he became aware of Garvey several years ago when he read that his icon, reggae great Bob Marley started his record label, Tuff Gong, because of Garvey.

“I grew up listening to the music of Bob Marley. When I realized Bob had his own label, he alluded to Garvey’s influence,” he said. “Garvey said we needed to own the means of production. I started to read Garvey, said ‘Oh, this is what he’s talking about.'”

Garvey got him pondering “the whole issue of identity as an artist, and as a black man,” Philp explained.

Philp, a husband and a father who lives and works in Miami, said he felt compelled to take Garvey’s words beyond the intellectual. So he started his own book company, Mabrak Books, as well as a renowned blog, Geoffrey Philp’s Blogspot, which is a repository for fiction, poetry, interviews, podcasts, and literary events from South Florida and the Caribbean.

“The blog exists, and is a physical manifestation of what Marcus has taught me. I could make that breakthrough while others said I couldn’t own a company,” he said.

“Marcus was just interested in supporting black businesses,” Philp said. “If you had a business and you were black, you could get money from him. Garvey’s methods predate micro-loans and things of that nature.”

Philp said he has gathered about 1,200 signatures on the petition. He hopes to get 5,000. History demands that Garvey’s name be cleared, he said.

Perhaps the most significant of Garvey’s considerable legacies, Philp said, is the freedom he gave black people to maximize their humanity in the face of often debilitating racial animus.

“Garvey demanded basic respect and basic dignity,” he said. “He said, if we’re going to share this common space, deal with me righteously, man to man, man to woman, just deal with me righteously. Marcus Garvey talked about true freedom and self-actualization. He said the first step for black people is to be comfortable in their own skin. Every one of us has to work out in our own way what Marcus Garvey means to us.”

 

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