Short Speech Given At The Unveiling of UNIA Blue Plaque

 UNIA Blue Plaque Unveiling on Marcus Garvey’s 124th birthday

At 2 Beaumont Crescent, West Kensington on 17 August 2011

The re- interment of Marcus Garvey’s body in Jamaica in 1964 by Jamaica’s first independent government, and his elevation as Jamaica’s first national hero was, and remains of profound significance for the majority of Jamaicans at home and abroad. Viewed in the context of his time, Marcus Mosiah Garvey is rightly revered as one of the great men of the early twentieth century. Long before the civil rights, black power and anti-colonial movements, Garvey had achieved what none of his rivals could – neither WEB Du Bois, C L R James or George Padmore – namely, the founding of the largest mass movement of black people in the form of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, with branches in the USA, Canada, Britain, Africa, the Caribbean and Central and South America. What Garvey and his rivals shared though was an implacable commitment to the black liberation struggle; the redemption of Africa and the diaspora.

Garvey was driven by a simple self-evident truth; that Africans and people of African descent are equal to all other races, at a time when black people were brain-washed into believing that they were inferior to those who had enslaved and colonised them. He was determined that we should secure our seat at the table of humanity. He devoted his life to awakening his people from the deep sleep of slavery and colonisation, laid the foundation of the black nationalist movement and provided inspiration for the freedom fighters who came after him.

When New Beacon Books, Britain’s first Caribbean publishing house, published Adolph Edward’s short biography of Garvey in 1967, the only other book available about him in this country was Amy Jacques Garvey’s ‘Garvey and Garveyism’. Today there is a substantial body of scholarship devoted to Garvey among which Robert Hill’s 10 volume ‘The Marcus Garvey And Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers is pre-eminent.

Notwithstanding the corpus of published work on Garvey both sides of the Atlantic, it is reggae artists who have helped to sustain Garvey’s iconic status in the popular consciousness of the African diaspora. There is a significant body of reggae songs that memorialize Garvey and his ideas. These songs constitute an African consciousness in reggae music. Burning Spear’s songs, ‘Old Marcus Garvey’ with it’s paradoxical refrain, “no one remembers old Marcus Garvey”, and ‘Marcus Garvey’ from the eponymous album come to mind. The entire album is both a celebration and invocation of Garveyite sentiment. In his song ‘So Much Things To Say’, Bob Marley likens enmity against himself to the betrayal of Garvey in the lines, “I’ll never forget no way/how they sold Marcus Garvey for rice”; and in ‘Redemption Song’ Marley paraphrases Garvey with the lines, “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/ none but ourselves can free our minds”.

In 1937, Garvey made a speech in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada during which he said, “we are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, because whilst others may free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind”. In a recent essay, Professor Robert Hill, reveals that, although he has been a life long Garvey scholar, it was not until 2001 that he realised that the lines from Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ were taken from Garvey’s 1937 speech when Professor Rex Nettleford, late vice Chancellor of UWI, pointed it out to him. It was only then that Professor Hill recalled sending Marley a copy of ‘The Black Man’ in which Garvey’s speech was published after a concert in Chicago in 1976. Professor Hill wonders if he had had a hand in Marley’s song.

On this day, as we celebrate the 124th anniversary of the birth of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, this blue plaque is an apt reminder of the legacy of his contribution to our struggles for self-emancipation and the continued struggles for racial equality and social justice in Britain.

Linton Kwesi Johnson

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