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Marcus Garvey's albatross

LANCE NEITA

Sunday, June 01, 2014    

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THE little house is set on a tiny lot some 10 yards in from the road. It presents a challenge to navigate the steep steps carved out many years ago on the edge of the embankment.

The building, painted in a fresh lime-green coat, is unimposing, showcasing what a typical small residence housing a tradesman-class family would have looked like in the early 20th century. But a monument at the front makes it stand out from the cluster of buildings that cling to the side of a narrow, winding street taking you out of St Ann's Bay and up into the hillside districts that circle St Ann's capital town.

We are at the birthplace of Jamaica's first National Hero Marcus Garvey, and frankly, we are unimpressed. The visit was part of a tour of heritage sites in the garden parish undertaken recently by the St Ann Homecoming and Heritage Foundation.

Apart from the monument erected by the National Heritage Trust, and another installed some years ago by a Pan-African group led, I recall, by Devon Evans, there is nothing about the site that shouts out 'Marcus Garvey, National Hero with international status'.

The significance of the presence of this national treasure is largely lost on the residents of St Ann's Bay and the thousands of commuters who pass by unaware of the address, and indeed the relevance, of the birthplace of a National Hero.

We tried to look inside the building, but doors and windows were locked, and we learnt that it was unoccupied, unfurnished. In fact, it is a bit of a capture for the young men who stand guard and earn their income stream from scores of overseas visitors who have included the spot on their travel itinerary but struggle to find some official who can provide directions to the exact location.

Appeals from various quarters have been made to the relevant government departments for a refurbishing of the home. They have fallen on deaf ears and empty pockets. Jamaicans are, on the whole, ambivalent toward our National Heroes. We only take them out and dust them off for official occasions like National Heritage Week.

National Heritage Park is well laid out with memorials and monuments, but only gets spruced up when there is a State funeral or a visit from overseas VIPs.

We speak passionately about Garvey's birthplace being ignored, but how many of us, myself included, can identify Paul Bogle's or George William Gordon's birthplace?

All our heroes have their portraits on the currency coins and banknotes. That privilege has been extended to prime ministers, and so we have the images of Sir Donald Sangster, Michael Manley, and Hugh Shearer gracing the currency, with Edward Seaga, PJ Patterson, Bruce Golding, Portia Simpson Miller and Andrew Holness not likely to be so fortunate.

I am reminded that the conversion of the Jamaican currency to a decimal system in 1969 was not without its share of wit and humour. The story goes that Morris Cargill, late newspaper columnist, had expressed the hope that the new currency would not be named after politicians, "as there is nothing I would hate more than to carry a Seaga or a Nethersole around in my pocket".

Seaga, who was in charge of the change-over, later hit back by suggesting a competition to name the new currency, submitting that the lowest denomination, the one cent piece, should be named a Cargill, "as having a Cargill would be next to having no cents (sense) at all".

But back to our National Hero, the Right Excellent Marcus Garvey. Believe it or not, this great man has two prison convictions attached to his name.

In 1923, he was convicted and imprisoned in the USA in what, on reflection, seems to have been a blatant miscarriage of justice. The accusation was in connection with stock sales for the Black Star Shipping Line, a corporation founded by Garvey.

The prosecution charged that Garvey had not yet purchased a ship which he had advertised as belonging to the corporation. In fact, the advertising brochure had been produced prematurely in anticipation of a jointly agreed on and successful completion of the negotiations. Of the four Black Star Line officers accused, Garvey was the only one found guilty and imprisoned.

Through it all he maintained his innocence, but the deck seemed stacked against him as a consequence of his strident leadership of the Negro cause. Remember, this was America in the 1920s.

During his time as prime minister, Edward Seaga started the process of seeking to secure the expunction of Garvey's unjustified criminal conviction from the judicial records of the USA. This was followed up by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller.

I understand that efforts are still being made here and in America to clear Garvey's name and remove the cloud that has hovered over the reputation of our first National Hero.

But hold the phone. Garvey also had a prison sentence imposed on him in Jamaica in 1929. He was cited for contempt of court when he accused the judges of corruption after his UNIA property was seized. So, before we clear his name abroad, we also have to clear his name at home.

National Heroes Sir Alexander Bustamante, Paul Bogle, George William Gordon, Sam Sharpe, all felt the iron hand of the law in their time. But time and circumstances proved them innocent. If we believe that Garvey was wrongly accused and sentenced, then we must do everything in our power to have him exonerated of all charges. Our first National Hero cannot afford to have this albatross hanging around his neck.

He occupies a special place of honour in the Order of National Hero. He was the first to be so named. A statue and shrine mark his resting place at National Heroes Park. We have a major highway in Kingston named after him (remember?), a Marcus Garvey Scholarship at the University of the West Indies, his image is on our currency, Liberty Hall has been refurbished and is open for business, and an imposing statue stands in Lawrence Park, St Ann's Bay.

Take a look at his memorials overseas. Schools, colleges, highways, buildings, have been named in his honour all over the world. In Africa, his name is revered in Cape Town, Ghana, Nairobi, Nigeria, Kenya, as a liberator. Nigeria has streets bearing his name. Nkrumah of Ghana named the country's shipping line the Black Star and the national football team the Black Stars.

In England there is a Marcus Garvey Library in Nottingham, a street named after him in Brixton, a Marcus Garvey Centre in Nottingham, a statue in Willesden Green Library, Brent, London. A plaque marks where he died at 53 Talgarth Road, London.

In the USA there is a memorial park in Harlem, a Public Library branch in New York, and a major street named after him in Brooklyn. There is a Garvey Cultural Centre in Colorado, a Garvey Festival held annually in Pembroke, Illinois, and his bust is housed in the Organisation of American States' Hall of Fame, Washington.

Martin Luther King paid tribute to Garvey on his visit to Jamaica in 1965, describing him as "the first man of colour to lead and develop a mass movement and to give millions of negroes a sense of dignity and destiny, and to make the negro feel he was somebody".

To many, these things don't matter right now. We have more important things to think about. Fixing the economy, passing the IMF test, the runaway dollar, the high cost of living, the looming energy crisis, wanton crime, the World Cup.

Hence the lethargy and the closed circuit channels when it comes to serious discussions about Garvey and our national heroes, and Garvey's proper place in history. We owe him too much to continue to allow this farce of a double conviction to mar his right to occupy, without any encumbrance, that most senior position in the rank of distinctions and awards given to deserving Jamaicans.

In the words of Edward Seaga, as he spoke in 1988 at the 100th anniversary of the birth of Garvey: "Most of all, we are indebted to him for his uncompromising frontal attack upon racial prejudice everywhere, that wasting social disease that has crippled generations and sapped their vitality. Garvey stood in its path and struck it a lethal blow.

"Garvey shattered the mental prison that developed in this part of the world over some 400 years, to let in the fresh winds of liberty and equality which we now breathe today. For this we made him our first National Hero of Jamaica."

Lest we forget.

Lance Neita is a communications and public relations specialist. Comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com

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