Marcus Garvey and the Unfinished Business of Black Liberation

Donna Mattis
7 min readAug 17, 2021

Today August 17, 2021, Jamaica celebrates the 134th birthday of Mwalimu Marcus Mosiah Garvey. The usual traditional meaningless, “putting on a show” floral tribute at his national monument will have to be postponed at least because Tropical Storm Grace is now pelting the island. Yet the self-serving speeches by politicians lauding his contribution to the development of Black consciousness (the kind they work tirelessly to de-cultivate), the media playing its “invaluable” part by taking out some dusty documentary film (probably made from the 1940s when Garvey was alive) set aside for the yearly event and reminding us of some of their favourite of his less considered incendiary quotes like: “A people without knowledge of their history is like a tree without roots” or the Bob Marley popularized “Emancipate yourself…” — — — Jamaicans know the rest.

Over the years, in all of the carefully rehearsed presentations, the lingering issue of the inclusion of his teachings in the Jamaican school curriculum at all levels of learning looms in the background and remains as elusive in the home of his birth as does his designs for global Black empowerment.

Despite the hallowed place that Garvey holds in the international liberation struggle, the land of his birth has never in earnest paralleled that respect, appreciation and understanding of his seminal place in the African liberation struggle. The task of getting his philosophy institutionalized in academia has proven to be as uphill a struggle as the life and times of the man himself.

Sporadic outbursts and flirtations with the concept — when at particular junctures it becomes a laudable point of reference — but still nothing has come to fruition. Sad…but perhaps for the best…at least for the immediacy, because if Garvey is to become a part of the curriculum at any level, it must serve a real social purpose.

It must manifest the intent of this great Black philosopher: the restoration of the full humanization of the Black man from all negative stereotypes — — Franz Fanon’s denegrifying of his identity. Afro-Trinidadian CLR James; Afro-Guyanese Walter Rodney and to a lesser degree Michael Manley were all variations of this theoretical, social and historiographical context boldly articulated by Garvey.

Succinctly, the deprolitarianization of the African was Garvey, so anything short of this is a mere formality to put to rest the intermittent calls for the formalization of his teachings. Translation: there must be the substantive representation of the spirit of Garveyism: Black nationalism; Black consciousness; Black pride; Black confidence, Pan-Africanism.

In short Black Power — — those two little dirty words, so very misinterpreted and misunderstood by white supremacists and neo-colonialists — — the knee in the neck. This though is the core of Garvey. And it’s non-negotiable!

Garvey was perhaps the most universally influential Black nationalist of the post-slavery epoch. He was among the first African to dare to publicly declare: pride in Black skin; pride in race; the belief in self, arising from being beneficiaries of a great ancestral past; the recognition of a history long before European ships arrived; that slavery was a long interruption of a glorious past, but not singularly the definition of who we are. Consequently, Obama dared to dream because of Garvey’s celebrated belief in himself.

Last year, I sat in on a Webinar and a salient point made was that we misrepresented the concept of Emancipation and freedom by treating it as a mission accomplished, rather than the bottom end of the continuing liberation struggle. Garvey was astute in that recognition. Not only did he recognize that we were only just on the road to complete liberation but enumerated the fundamentals which would take us there.

In “Marcus Mosiah Garvey: A Champion For Black People” eminent academic, scholar and author Paul Ivey captures the essence of Garvey:

Reflecting the depth of his intuitive genius, Marcus Garvey launched the first ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. About Garvey whom he revered, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “He was the first man on a mass scale to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny.”

The elegance of Garvey’s genius becomes even more obvious when one sees that he intuitively recognized that his starting point for his project of Black liberation and empowerment had to be the application of a tourniquet to the abused psyche of his people to arrest the haemorrhaging of their self-esteem that was inflicted by the indignities of chattel slavery and its aftermath. He realized that psychological reprogramming was necessary.

The “psychological reprogramming” of course references re-learning, re-memory, rebirth, and an African renaissance to re-connect to an empowered past that would provide the anatomy to flesh out and rise once again. In the words of Amicar Cabral, to get back to the history colonialism forced us to abandon:

The colonists usually say that it was they who brought us into history: today we show that this is not so. They made us leave history, our history, to follow them, right at the back, to follow the progress of their history.

Decolonisation of Education

Emancipation and Independence were twin scams we bought into. First, “Emancipation” never had a welfare/Marshall Plan type post-slavery, social intervention programme to rebuild lives destroyed by four hundred years of socio-economic brutality. The kind of rehabilitative package generously given to Germany and Italy, (ringleaders) along with the rest of western Europe, post-World War II. Instead, compensation was given to planters, so contemptuous an act that in 2018 still not getting it the British establishment sees it as “buy the freedom” for the enslaved: “Millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes,” tweeted the Treasury. Britain getting in touch with its humanitarian side. Debt paid. Britain washed and cleansed in the biblical River Jordan. Consciences absolved.

“Independence” too threw us off the scent. We were led to believe in a new future of nation-building based on the forging of common and equal interests — — a pluralistic society built around democratic means and democratic output with the colonized education curriculum and the entire state machinery remaining in place. Weaponized to maintain the suppressive relations of colonialism, only this time at hands of the minority ruling elite and their political operatives.

If our education system is structurally designed to keep the imbalances in place then how do we open our minds to any notion of the kind of psychological liberation that Garvey warned must foreshadow any possibility of African redemption from Euro-engineered miseducation?

Calls for Garvey’s entrenchment in the education of our people have always had an urgency. Promises and delaying tactics are to be forcibly pushed back — — the establishment knows all too well the power of the enlightened mind and the profitability of mass mental enslavement.

How would one explain Tourism being conveniently fitted into the Jamaican school syllabus? “Brainwash education to make us the fools,” Marley called it. If not fools certainly it will possibly reinforce in young Black minds notions of white privilege alongside existing misconceptions that WHITE is a byword for tourists. That’s how enslaved the mind is.

What the decolonized curriculum will look like is another issue. First, we have to make that first step toward letting go. What we are confident of is that GARVEYISM must be a part of the new direction.

We cannot continue to romanticize genocidal murders like Christopher Columbus with stories about how a “poor dreamer” endured the scorn and jeering of non-believers to be enshrined in the history books. There should be no moralizing of a man who set in train the genocide of the indigenous peoples and enslavement of Africans in the New World.

Black children must learn the naked truth and let them decide how they will process it. We hope they will stand on the right side of history. We hope that they will not search for any positives. Anything is possible. Last year, Chinese-Jamaican, former University of the West Indies academic and businessman recently chastised us for our lack of appreciation for The Man Columbus:

After news emerged that Columbus’ statue in Boston was beheaded early Wednesday morning, amid protests against racial and social injustices across the US, O’Brien Chang asked in a tweet: “How many of us would be here if Columbus had not sailed?

He followed up with: “Had Columbus not sailed, the cannibal Caribs would have eventually eaten up the Tainos like they did elsewhere….”

“Had Columbus not sailed, the cannibal Caribs would have eventually eaten up the Tainos as they did elsewhere….” Now put that in the proverbial pipe and smoke it! What more can we say about the brutality of colonized education that demonizes victims and makes heroes out of criminals?

Mental Freedom Is The Unfinished Business…Gateway To African Development

Delivering our minds from the clutches of colonial enslavement is the highest and final stage of the liberation struggle. As per Garvey, it is only through true emancipation that we can truly begin to unlock the gateway to reclaiming our true selves, confidence in our abilities and begin finding our way back to the great people that we are.

The home and school are twin partners in this leftover mission. The education of the parents as of the child is crucial, yet a difficult task because most parents are recipients of the same whitewashed/brainwashed education. But there are significant pockets of consciousness that give hope — — pockets to be nurtured.

Some parents are resourceful and have chosen to home school their children — — that’s a promising start. It doesn’t stop there! Pan-Africanists and other interests need to take a stance. We need to become more forceful in our lobbying efforts to decolonize education. Garveyism MUST be the cornerstone of any revolution — — it is a no-go if it isn’t. We must rigorously fan the flames of resistance if we are to get this done.

Garveyism is critical but I cannot resist making it unequivocally clear that I’m not talking about flashcards and deliberately chosen bytes of his written and spoken words — — that won’t do! Garveyism is not an exercise in shallow recitals.

On the contrary, it is the complete overhauling of a deliberated crafted mindset that makes us agencies of our own destruction. His philosophy cuts deep. It is a journey across the borders of our minds. Afrocentrism is the destination that he envisaged and anything less will keep us chained to the defeatist programming of those who have always sought to keep us down.



Donna Mattis

History/Politics degree/taught for a while/ once copywriter. On a journey of reclamation of Afrikan identity to the full restoration of African humanity.