W. B. Garvey: Musings
The Undocumented Question
—Ralph Waldo Emerson.
I continue to be fascinated by the consuming human idea: the right to follow the enticement of our own imaginations. It is a worn out cliche to speak of the United States as a nation of immigrants, yet it was the colonists asserting their ‘freedom to dissolve’ all connecting political bands that birthed its conception. The Declaration of Independence confirmed Locke's notion that all persons possess natural rights bestowed by their Creator, including the fruits of his or her labor, but in place of one's right to “Life, Liberty and Estate,” Jefferson craftily deflected Locke’s most radical element with the light of men’s dreams, the elusive and esoteric “Pursuit of Happiness.”
Matilda de ‘pon dyin’ bed,
Me want go to Colabra,
Me want go to Colabra,
Matilda de ‘pon dyin’ bed.
From the Prodigal Son to Tuareg nomads to explorers who took ship and sailed across oceans, we humans have stared at the horizon and been moved to wonder. Like Matilda, who left her lover in Jamaica to labor on Panama’s infamous Snake Mountain, we are willing to pursue our happier vision of life and face all perils, even if it takes us far from those we love and who love us most. What else explains why so many set sail from their island homes and risked their lives to dig a canal somewhere as dangerous as 19th century Panama, or why, even now, these determined dreamers get in their heads to pack themselves inside truck containers and cross a scorching desert to spend backbreaking hours harvesting tomatoes?
Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez never met Leon Campbell. If she had she might have warned him not to bind to that brittle dream too tightly. Sadly, she will not have the chance. Maria died tying grapes vines, not too tightly, in 108 degree heat in the fields of Stockton, California.
Maria was seventeen, from Oaxaca Mexico, two months pregnant and engaged to her one and only sweetheart. Leon is thirty-nine, from Jamaica’s St Mary’s parish, the father of two half-grown children. Like Maria, Leon left home bound to his own American dream that by resolve and unstinting labor he would assure his family of a happier future. A respected mason back in Jamaica, Leon is now bending in the fields a thousand miles away in Brewster, Washington, shoveling manure and picking fruit.
The locals are delighted to see Leon and his oncoming wave of fellow Jamaicans. After the 5,000 acre orchard was forced to fire its Mexican workers, many having worked there for twenty-odd years, half of Brewster’s businesses folded. There were fears the whole town was about to go bust. So no one asks about Leon’s official status, for while Leon admits the work is “very hard” as far as the local sheriff is concerned, Leon and his mates “are nice to talk to … always polite and cheerful.”
In my mind, I see Maria’s young face light with a guileless smile as she held that first California pay check. She may not have warned Leon Campbell from her grave, but her death still serves as a caution. Leon knows his own test is coming: “it’s going to get hot,” he muses softly, looking out to the horizon. How long that dream can sustain him while he labors to resist the heat is the unanswered question.
A nation has grown flush in glory and wealth thanks to dreamers like Leon and Maria. Like the thousands of West Indians who worked and died in Panama with their sights on a finer life, they staked their future on Jefferson’s elusive promise, convinced that no law nor accident of birth foreclosed their right to chase Happiness.
the freedom of man and mind, is nothing but a dream.
They are right. It is the American dream.”
So find yourself in early age,
to find what you shall be in life
What’s in a name? Did growing up bearing the name Garvey and counting Marcus Garvey as a family relation provide the inspiration and the courage to believe that I had something to say and lead me to becoming a writer?
I have never been sure what creates an idea. It could be hunger, or perhaps indigestion; the world certainly gives us more than enough to swallow. What I do know is that what drives an artist to create is the idea of his or her own worth. For an American of African descent that very idea can be an existential challenge; the fact that I count Marcus Garvey as my outstanding forebear has guided my struggle.
The above quotation is from Garvey’s 1927 poem, “The Start.” It shows that the man who would become the most renowned pan-African nationalist leader of his day set out to become his great idea from a very tender age. While the scope of Garvey’s accomplishments continues to be discovered and hotly debated, even as a child I realized hearing the reverent responses to my name that the pride I felt as a simple relation was shared by a great multitude that Garvey had inspired.
That is not to suggest that the reactions I received were always positive. During my schooldays growing up in 1960’s Jamaica, the Garvey name could still provoke disdainful, scorn-drenched opinions. That Marcus Garvey was eventually hailed as one of Jamaica’s National Heroes has not mitigated such contempt among those who viewed a self-educated black man’s lofty vision as narcissistic arrogance.
Part of the reason, I’ve come to realize, is that in representing the radical idea that the sense of one’s own worth necessarily comes from within – at a time when being labeled “negro ” was a small step above being counted as an idler, a rapist or a thief – Garvey could be dismissed as an ideologue. Such populist views were deemed impractical, totalitarian or simply far-fetched. That he dared dress in the garb of potentates made it easy for his critics to label Garvey as a simple naive fool, or worse, a con-man. And yet what his detractors found to be radical has become so internalized in present times as to sound commonplace, so easy has it been to forget that for his oppressed and slandered followers Garvey’s was a new and a liberating vision: the notion that their dreams deserved expression and their hopes should be reflected with self-affirming pageantry.
As a musician and now as a writer, I firmly believe that the artistic outpouring of a people is an essential means both of encouraging the idea of self-worth and of conveying that self-worth to others. What made Garvey’s Harlem newspaper, the Negro World, and his Universal Negro Improvement Association so vital was his idea that dignity was won and expressed through the disciplines of art and literature. Besides providing an outlet for marginalized writers and poets, Garvey and his associates cultivated their own playwrights and musicians. There was the U.N.I.A. Band and Orchestra, the Band of the African Legion as well as the Liberty Hall Choir and the Universal Jazz Hounds. A lover of opera, Garvey presented the oratorio, Hiawatha, composed by his Afro-English friend, Samuel Coleridge Taylor at Carnegie Hall and the U.N.I.A.’s Liberty Hall showcase often featured rising stars like the young Marian Anderson. So while his clarion call was for Africans to unite and embrace their Negritude, the essence of Garvey’s message rang far beyond the bounds of nation and skin tone.
The poet Ethel Dunlap, although very light-skinned, was a staunch Garveyite. She penned:
I am not black as Kedar’s tents and yet,
There is a tie that binds to Afric son
And daughter that enthralls and enchants–
So count me thou as Ethiopian
Similarly, Garvey’s belief in the right to self determination inspired a generation of leaders across the globe. Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, a Garvey admirer, would write in Garvey’s ideological vein:
The men of old times like to write about nature
Rivers, Mountains, Mists, Snow, Flowers, Moon, Wind.
We must arm the poetry of our days with steel.
And our poets must learn to fight battles.
So while the uplift of his Race and African independence were of concern to Garvey first and foremost, it does disservice to his vision to imagine that people across four continents could be so moved by a mere propagandist. At a time when people of color were awakening to the hard hungering of a post-industrial age, the name Marcus Garvey reminded the exploited, forgotten and dismissed that despite all hardships they too were of worth and had something to contribute: “This World is also Your World.”