The Moral Anthropology of Marcus GarveyIn the Fullness of Ourselves -Pt 1

This article retrieves and articulates key elements in Marcus Garvey’s philosophy that point toward a moral anthropology ( the study of human societies and cultures and their development ). The author discusses these in the context of ancient and modern concerns for issues of human dignity and human rights and the right and responsibility of the struggle for freedom as a particular African and universal human project.


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The moral anthropology of Marcus Garvey, a central element in his general philosophy, is rooted in and rises out of four main sources. First, it has roots in the liberational form of Black Christianity reflected in the writings of 19th century nationalists who advocated a socially conscious religion and sustained action to uplift, liberate, and “vindicate the race,” that is, African people. These activist-intellectuals include David Walker (1830),
Maria Stewart (1835), Martin Delaney (1852/1968), Bishop Henry McNeil Turner (1971) and others (Bracey, Meier, & Rudwick, 1970; Brotz, 1966).




The modalities of struggle for these leaders and thinkers were varied and wide ranging, but at the heart of their project was the concept of the judicious joining of the concepts and practices of spiritual salvation, moral grounding, and political liberation. This was expressed as either redemption in its socioreligious form or vindication in the form of political liberation and cultural achievement in defense and development of the race.

Garvey enters, then, into a nationalist and race-conscious conversation already established. He embraces the concept and project of redemption as epitomized in the ultimate goal of a free, redeemed, and powerful Africa in its respected and proper place among the nations of the world. His battle cry is “wake up Ethiopia. Wake up Africa. Let us work towards one glorious end of a free and redeemed and mighty nation. Let Africa be a bright star among the constellations of nations” (Garvey, 1967, Vol. 1, p. 4).


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Garvey’s anthropology, then, evolves in a context of his overarching project of the redemption of Africa. For him, to redeem Africa is to redeem both the continent and the world African community. The concept of redemption here is polysemic ( having a number of meanings, interpretations or understandings ), but means essentially to reclaim, recover, set free, restore, and justify. And he places great emphasis on the agency of all Africans and on their obligation to free themselves, recover and reclaim their Divine identity and ancient heritage, realize their inherent potential as world makers, and vindicate and liberate Africa among the nations of the world.


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Second, Garvey’s philosophy and anthropology are shaped by the dominant thought in the context in which he asserts himself, that is, a European dominated world. His philosophy and anthropology are on the whole in
opposition to European domination, but he is influenced by the power they wield and the social Darwinist justifications they use to explain and justify it. Although he does not accept its most racist assertions and argues human equality, some of his criticism of African people’s status as oppressed people reflects and uses language and concepts of social Darwinism, that is, concepts of survival of the fittest and related moral interpretations of the roots and reasons of conquest and domination (Garvey, 1967, Vol. 1, pp. 11, 29; Garvey, 1967, Vol. 2, p. 13).


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Perhaps the foremost authority on Garvey, Tony Martin (1976), reasons that it is Garvey’s stress on self-reliance that “led him to occasionally speak in the language of Social Darwinism” (p. 32). But there is a species of reasoning in Garvey’s thought that reflects his integration of some of social Darwinism’s basic contentions in his philosophy. Although Garvey qualifies and gives his own interpretation to each of these, it is clear that he lives in an age of colonialism and imperialism and he necessarily seeks a place of power and respect for Africans, Black people, in this process in the interest of defense and development as other peoples of the world. He also questions the reasons for the Europeans’ hegemony ( leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others) in the world, attributes it to power, organization, knowledge, and propaganda, and decides Africans must deal with each of these in turn to liberate and raise themselves up in the world. And it is in his discussions of the reasons for European dominance that he makes his most problematic and contradictory statements.


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Garvey’s anthropology and indeed his entire thought are also shaped by his own particular experience and reading of the concrete conditions and pan-African possibilities within the framework of these conditions. He had, he notes, traveled extensively and found Black people routinely exploited and oppressed, and yet he had seen in them the possibility of not only liberating themselves but also making a significant contribution to the transformation of the world for human good. Thus, his anthropology informs and inspires such practice. It is in the context of his critique of the self-deceptive, self-destructive, hegemonic, and unjust character of European civilization that he asserts that Africans are called up to pose an alternative model in the interest of human freedom and flourishing.


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In this regard, he says Africans are “called upon to evolve a new national ideal, based on freedom, human liberty and true democracy” (1967, Vol. 1,p. 25). This, of course, follows the constant challenge of Black nationalist thinkers and thought from Stewart and Delaney to Kawaida and Us (Karenga, 1997) and other Black nationalist thinkers of the 1960s as well as Frantz Fanon (1968) and Malcolm X (1965a, 1965b), from whom they borrowed heavily along with Garvey. The essential contention that is consistently within Black progressive thought, nationalist and otherwise, and which appears even in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (1958, p. 63) thought is that given the history of struggle, achievement, suffering, profound spirituality, and ethical sensitivity of African people, they have a special message and model for the world, a new paradigm of how humans ought to relate and assert themselves in the world.


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Finally, Garvey’s moral anthropology is informed and shaped by his active struggle to pursue and realize the possibilities inherent in an awakened, organized, and self-determining people. His conception of African possibilities is expansive and rooted in the concept of Divine endowment of humans, human equality, and the assumption that “there is nothing in the world common to man that man cannot do” (1967, Vol. 1, p. 1). Thus, in discussing the question of the liberation of Africa from White domination, he asks “How dare anyone tell us Africa cannot be redeemed” when there are so many African “men and women with blood coursing through their veins?” Furthermore, he defiantly asserts that no one should view Whites as invincible or deities of some kind. Indeed, he says, “The power that holds Africa is not Divine. The power that holds Africa is human and it is recognized that whatsoever man has done, man can do” (1967, Vol. 1, p. 6). Clearly, his optimistic assessment is based not only on his theoretical reasoning but also on his initial success and the world-embracing reach of his message. Indeed, his stress on human agency, human equality, and the responsibility of all Africans to aid in the liberation and uplift of Africa made for a powerful message to his followers around the world and found a friendly ear even sometimes among his opponents (Lewis, 1988; Martin, 1976).

Written by Maulana Karenga

California State University, Long Beach

Source: Journal of Black Studies

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