The many empty chairs that outnumbered those taken by the audience at the Undercroft at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus on Thursday, October 13, told a story of their own for attendance to events staged at the venue in the past had seen better days. Nevertheless, those who opted out of the evening traffic to attend the National Heritage Month Public Lecture heard stories of inspiration about three powerful black men – Marcus Garvey, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois, among others, from guest speaker Dr Umar Abdullah Johnson, as Robyn Miller of Jamaica’s Gleaner reports.
Held under the theme, ‘Strategic Approaches to Address Inequality in the Americas: Comparing the Work of Marcus Garvey to Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois, the 6 p.m. lecture got off to a slightly late start.
Johnson, the great great great great grand-nephew of ex-slave Frederick Douglass, and a political activist and clinical psychologist who works with black youths in the United States (US), spoke of the invaluable contribution of the men to black heritage, in a powerful delivery to the small but appreciative audience.
Throughout, the stories contained one main theme to black people: Stamp out petty differences, get rid of self-hatred and embrace your history.
Noting that Garvey’s Pan-African views were a response to the inequity black people were confronted with at the time, he said the skin bleaching and wig-wearing phenomena could be traced to our non-acceptance of self.
“Bi-racial is the new term invented. It was never entertained in slavery, you were either black or white, but it’s being used these days to drive a wedge between us,” he said
Tracing that inequity to his own roots, he told of the vicious raping of his own great great great great great grandmother (mother of Frederick Douglass) by a white man named Aaron Anthony which, he noted, reaffirmed the point that “we can find a white man in all our families”.
Of Garvey’s impact, Johnson said it was so great that it stretched well beyond the shores of the Caribbean and the US where his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was based, “and the red green and gold, with black, stands deliberate in the Ghanian flag – inspired by Garvey”.
“Garvey and Douglass had more in common than they had in opposition,” he revealed, “and it was no mistake that Garvey had one of his ships named after the latter.”
Among Garvey’s contemporaries was Booker T. Washington, a man whom many blacks felt was a “sell-out” but who, on closer investigation, is revealed as a “pragmatic strategist”, Johnson said.
It marvelled many that Garvey, a man from a rural village in a small country such as Jamaica, had the kind of influence that rivalled many of the leaders of his time, and Johnson said, “he packaged the philosophy so well” that it spread like wildfire.
But self-hatred among the black race was alive and well and presented its own setbacks for Garvey and his movement in the form of W.E.B Dubois, and later FBI director J. Edgar Hoover who helped to sabotage Garvey’s Black Star Liner.
Garvey’s emergence was not welcomed by all black people, Johnson revealed, “as a light-skinned supremacist in W.E.B Dubois, who held the view that the lighter you are the better it will be for you, was jealous of the young Garvey who it was felt had upstaged him after having waited 25 years to step into the shoes of Washington upon his death”.
Furthermore, Dubois had a sense of entitlement as the next powerful black leader due to his scholarly achievements and his status among the black community, which saw him questioning Garvey’s small-town background.
“Dubois was an excellent example of a scholar who lacked the charisma to lead,” Johnson argued. To study self-hatred you have to study W.E.B. Dubois,” he charged. “But Douglass told us that you have to build your way out of depression.”
Chronicling how he himself did just that in his book, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Johnson told how Douglass had beat down his slave master to escape the shackles of slavery.
But the ideals of white supremacy took centre stage and many abolitionists did not believe a black man had authored the book. Douglass’ brazen revelations made it all the more incredulous. In fact, it took a white woman, Douglass’ second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, to confirm this for it to gain acceptance.
Blacks, too, questioned Douglass’ credibility, for his actions did not always live up to his philosophy, such as when he preached, “Blacks should marry blacks”, but went on to marry a white woman after a bout of depression over the death of his first wife, Anna Murray Douglass.
There were many similarities between Douglass’ demeanour and leadership style and that of Dr Martin Luther King Jr which, Johnson noted, earned him many comparisons with the great American civil-rights leader who would come to prominence in the 1960s.
Issuing a challenge for blacks to change the conditions in their fight for more rights, he said the common thread throughout the lives of Douglass, Booker T and Garvey’s message was their commitment to race.
“If we are going to push for better conditions we have to put aside our petty differences, put aside these for they are artificial discussions,” he urged, his voice reverberating through the hollow Undercroft punctuated by Garvey quotes and shouts of “Yeah”, “Jah Rastafari”, from the audience.
Earlier, host Dr Michael Barnett, lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work, and a member of UWI’s heritage-month committee, contextualised the occasion against 2011 being designated International Year for People of African Descent.
He said the committee had been agitating for October to be declared heritage month to facilitate month-long celebrations for a packed calendar of events including reggae singer Peter Tosh’s birthday and the Dr Walter Rodney symposium, among others, culminating with National Heroes Day as the main event.
The National Heritage Month Lecture is organised annually by the UWI heritage-month committee in observance of Jamaica’s cultural heritage.
For the original report go to http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20111030/arts/arts4.html