Updated: May 6
Easter is approaching and now I see that a movie, Marked Man, starring Tobagonian actor Winston Duke, about Marcus Garvey's betrayal by an FBI infiltrator, is planned. I am beseeching Jah to not let it be like the recent Judas and the Black Messiah, about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton's betrayal by an FBI infiltrator, which I abandoned that half-way through. I'm hoping and praying that Kwame Kwei-Armah's script for the Garvey biopic echoes the Rastafarian's celebratory, militant tone of Burning Spear's "Marcus Garvey" rather than Black Messiah's defeatistism. After all, the story of Christ's passion is one of betrayal too yet all Christians (other than Mel Gibson and those Americans who love his movies) celebrate it as the Messiah's greatest triumph.
As Sierra Leonese writer Namina Forma explains, "In every Black book that won a medal, or every Black film that won an Oscar, there was always a Black person struggling against racial oppression. There are consequences to only lauding such portrayals. Perpetually tying the narrative of Black people and Blackness to slavery, colonisation and oppression meant that Black people – Black children especially – were denied the chance to see ourselves as heroes with agency over our worlds. And non-Black people were denied the chance to root for us, only feeling pity and, of course, relief that they were not Black."
I first heard about Garvey in the context of one of the men who betrayed him - "Bag-o-Wire, catch afire, with him batty fulla tyre" - when I lived in Jamaica back in '74 and Burning Spear rode the airwaves: "Where is Bag-o-Wire?/ He's nowhere around, he can't be found/ Friend, betrayer, who gave away Marcus Garvey". Along with "Slavery Days" and Bob Marley's entire Natty Dread album, Burning Spear's "Marcus Garvey" was a part of my reggae epiphany: "Marcus Garvey's words come to pass".
Still, I never took Garvey's message of returning to Africa seriously, not until my US-born partner, the Queen of Sheba, began recently advocating that Black Americans can only heal their trauma by leaving the US, as James Baldwin and so many other great Americans did. "Living in the US is like being in an abusive relationship," she argues. "We have to leave to heal."
Today Garvey is vaguely known here mainly through the influence of reggae music, but in the 1920's and 1930's he was the most loved and most hated Black man in the world, which by deductive logic includes Trinidad. His United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had millions of supporters in branches throughout the world; his newspaper Negro World was sold - and banned - wherever the African diaspora touched. Including Trinidad.
And Trinidadians played central roles in the Garvey movement, starting with Charles Zampty from Belmont, who met Garvey in Panama. Zampty migrated to New York in 1918 and by the following year founded a branch in Detroit. In 1922 he was the UNIA auditor-a post he held until 1977 when he met and told his story to Garvey's Trini biographer, Tony Martin.
But it was the 1919 dockworker's strike which revived the dormant Trinidad Workingmen's Association (TWA), our first trade union, and introduced Garveyism to the masses. Howard Bishop, the leading light in the TWA reprinted articles from Negro World in the Association's paper, Labour Leader. TWA secretary James Braithwaite was on occasion president of the Port of Spain branch of the UNIA.
White people were terrified of Garvey. Negro World was banned in Trinidad as in many British colonies worldwide. Braithwaite, calling the 1919 dockworkers' strike, was jailed for 30 days. Other TWA leaders were deported, including Grenadian John Sydney de Bourg, who went to New York and became the UNIA's head of the Negroes of the Western Provinces of the West Indies and South and Central America. De Bourg became Garvey's right hand man and he was made a Knight Commander of the Nile and Duke of Nigeria and Uganda, and was awarded the Gold Cross of African Redemption. Alas, they fell out and De Bourg testified against Garvey in the infamous 1932 trial.
Trinis also held shares in the UNIA's Black Star Line. Randolph Flanner and Allan Berridge, both workers from the Government Foundry, became engineers for the Lines ships. Joshua Parris was a fireman there too. But links between Trinidad and Garvey grew closer in the form of Herbert Fauntleroy Julian, aka The Black Eagle, a man so Trini in his vast flamboyance, his dreams and wildness and skullduggery, he deserves not a movie but a whole TV series.
Born in Port of Spain in 1897, Julian was inspired by his first sight of an airplane on January 3, 1913, when Frank Boland performed an exhibition flight at the Savannah. The plane circled twice, caught afire, crashed and Boland died. A few years after Julian migrated to Canada to study medicine and in 1920 designed and patented an Aeroplane Safety Appliance. The following year he moved to Harlem where he met Marcus Garvey.
Julian decided to surprise Garvey and his followers at the UNIA convention, so he rented a plane and just as they were crowding into Liberty Hall he swooped low over the building. Planes were rare in those days and there were no laws against low flying. Everyone was terrified and amazed and excited and fell in love with the dashing young Trini who would become known as The Black Eagle.
On one occasion the Black Eagle sold to a mortician the rights to display his body if he died, and used the money to hire a pilot to take him over New York where he jumped out of the plane with a recently-invented device called a parachute. He landed atop the US Post Office two blocks away from the vacant lot he'd aimed for. On another free fall he played "I'm running wild" on a saxophone as he plummeted towards New Jersey. He raised funds to fly to Africa but crashed a few minutes from land, bruised and battered but undaunted. He eventually made it to Ethiopia by boat and so impressed Haile Selassie, he was made a colonel in the three-plane Ethiopian Air Corps. At Ras Tafari II's coronation, however, the Black Eagle crashed the new Emperor's new plane. He decided it time to return to New York.
During World War II the Black Eagle challenged Luftwaffe commander Herman Göring to aerial combat over the English Channel but received no response. Contrast that with celebrated aviator Charles Lindenberg, who Göring presented with a medal in 1938.
An artist as well as an adventurer, Black Eagle wrote and produced a classic play, Lying Lips, starring Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl.The Black Eagle continued his adventures well into the 1960s and I'm tempted to recount more, but this blog isn't about him - you can look him up online - this is about Marcus Garvey, whose UNIA by 1930 had Trinidad branches in Balandra Bay , Carapichaima, Caroni Cedros, Chaguanus , Couva, D'Abadie, Enterprise Gasparillo, Guico, Iere village, La Brea, Los Bajos, Mucurapo, Marabella, Matura, Morne Diablo, Moruga, Palmyra, Penal, Port of Spain, Princes Town, Rio Claro, St. Madeleine, San Fernando, Siparia, Tableland, Victoria village, and Williamsville - over 30. Jamaica had ten.
Those organizations encouraged African racial pride and self reliance, but doubled as Friendly Societies to pay death benefits. In March 1922, the Charter for the Port of Spain UNIA Branch was unveiled at the Ideal Hall on Tragerete road. Local UNIA President Stanley Jones, Vice-President Thomas O'Neil, Chaplain Reginald Perpignac, Black Cross Nurses Director Louise Critchlow and Commissioner for Trinidad Percival Burroughs were followed a detachment of Black Cross Nurses. The meeting started at 3 p.m. with cultural performances by the UNIA youths organization, the Vanguards, and a UNIA choir.
Dressed like an Ethiopian Queen, because mas is always a part of Trini pagentry, Nauma Brathwaite unveiled the Charter. VP Burroughs presented each officer with an symbol of office - a gavel for the President, a Bible for the Chaplain, and so on. TWA leader Howard Bishop delivered the Feature Address. Burrows would eventually become the UNIA Commissioner for District 5 of the Foreign Fields - which included Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, St. Vincent, Brazil, Columbia and Venezuela.
Surprisingly, one Hucheshwar Mudjal, who was born in India and grew up in Trinidad before moving to the US, was Foreign Affairs columnist for Garvey's daily Negro Times. Cyril Critchlow, a Trini in New York, was the official UNIA reporter who moved to Liberia with Garvey when he attempted to shift base to Africa. Trini to the bone, Critchlow squabbled with the local union leader Gabriel Johnson, sought the assistance of the US minister in Monrovia and sued Garvey for back pay.
Due to hostile propaganda but also because of its latter-day connection with Rastafarianism Garvey's message is thought to be a simple one of repatriating all Black people to Africa, which was enthusiastically embraced by the Ku Klux Klan. Actually, Garvey preached that the Negro race needed a strong nation, which would necessarily be based in Africa, for the protection of Black people the World over, much as Europeans and Americans were protected by their countries.
Nor was Garvey's idea of racial pride a matter of envy towards other peoples. Rather, he advocated self-discipline as a basis of pride and was severely critical of complainers: "We are too envious, malicious and superficial, and because of this we keep back ourselves".
By the time Garvey finally got permission to visit Trinidad in 1937, the UNIA was broken by internal corruption and US Government harassment (both assisted by Trini smartmen). He was accorded a grand welcome at the Globe Cinema in Port of Spain. Smoke from the June 19 labour conflagration was still in the air, but Garvey agreed not to hold any public meetings, perhaps because his friend Captain AA Cipriani disapproved of labour leader "Buzz" Butler and the rebellious strikers, and maybe Garvey was surrendering to the conservatism that age can bring. Three years later he would die of heart failure in London.
Marcus Garvey statue in San Fernando
Garvey's legacy, however, quite apart from the world-changing Rasfafarian movement, had been deeply implanted in Trinidad soil long before, however, when an executive member of the Port of Spain branch of the UNIA in the 1920s, a meat vendor at the market named James Gollop, encouraged his and his wife Emelda's young son Sydney to join the UNIA youth Vanguards. Years later, in 1950 when Sydney was a member of Crusaders, the St. Paul's Street steelband, he attended a meeting organized by the Trinidad Youth Council to discuss what was to be done about the terrible fighting between bands.
That night in the Public Library Sydney Gollop rose and addressed the crowd with a startling suggestion drawn from what he'd learnt as a young Vanguard: "We should form an organization". Thus was created the Steelbands Association, with Gollop as its first President, forerunner to the National Association of Trinidad & Tobago Steelbandsmen and, after that, Pan Trinbago.