Charisma, confrontation, and exile. Self-portraits of two black separatists
Marcus Garvey: Life and Lessons, edited by Robert A. Hill and Barbara Bair. Berkeley: University of California Press. 451 pp. $25. Assata: an Autobiography, by Assata Shakur. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill. 274 pp. $18.95 cloth. $9.95 paper.
HERE are self-portraits, written in defeat, of two black radicals of different generations. Both upheld separation over integration, confrontation over accommodation. Both brought charismatic qualities - drive, magnetism, ruthlessness - to the struggle. And both ended in exile, after clashes with the law.
Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a self-educated Jamaican with grandiose visions of black nationhood, flashed across the American scene between 1918 and 1925, gaining national attention - and notoriety - by attracting throngs of followers to the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the first large black movement in modern times. But the decline of postwar radicalism, the blatant impracticality of Garvey's back-to-Africa rhetoric, and his dictatorial and opportunistic leadership cost him much support. Governments everywhere feared Garvey; the law - including the young J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI - harassed him constantly. Convicted on a dubious mail fraud charge, Garvey was imprisoned in 1925, deported in 1927.
Interest in Garvey revived recently, spurred by Robert A. Hill of the University of California at Los Angeles, the curator of a current exhibition on Garvey at Harlem's Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the principal editor of a multivolume collection of Garvey's papers; Volume V has recently appeared. The papers show Garvey the grass-roots politician, building the UNIA from scratch but also cutting corners everywhere and angering established black leaders.
The ``Life and Lessons'' presents Garvey's writings from 1925 to 1940, as he sank into obscurity. Expelled from his vital American stamping ground, he failed in Jamaican politics, and then among blacks in London. Garvey's writings are intensely didactic, his themes a mixture of liberal, optimistic nationalism and bourgeois self-improvement. It's all Horatio Alger and Dale Carnegie: Work hard, educate and discipline yourself, save and invest, build economic power from the corner store upward. About the depression, the danger of Hitler, the appeals of communism, all the issues of the 1930s, he had nothing to say.
Hill plays down Garvey's failings, implying instead that he anticipated the civil rights movement of the 1960s by bringing mass politics to black Americans. Some scholars disagree, comparing Garvey to Malcolm X as a failed messiah whose dream of salvation through migration to the promised land simply fostered political fantasy and irresponsibility.
Assata Shakur (born in 1947 and better known as JoAnne Chesimard) is a grass-roots activist who turned Black Panther during the Vietnam era. Like Garvey, she is essentially a loner, dedicated primarily to ``the cause'' and to intense but transient relationships. As with Garvey, race defines her ideology, with a crude populism added that depicts a white power structure spurred by greed and racism.
Garvey's nationalism followed 19th-century liberal models, its goal being black sovereignty in a world of equal and mutually respectful nations. Shakur's dispenses with lofty goals: It consists largely of white ``crackas'' and police ``pigs,'' who deserve whatever happens to them.
Like Garvey's, her political career was short-lived. A radical organizer in Harlem in the late 1960s, she went underground in 1970 or '71. Described by the police as ``the soul of the Black Liberation Army,'' she was arrested in early 1973 (she gives no details) and held on high bail on several charges of bank robbery and attacks on the police. She was acquitted in all cases, but was convicted in 1977 (and sentenced to life) as an accomplice in the shoot-out murder of one New Jersey state trooper and the wounding of another. Aided by several confederates, she escaped from prison in 1979. She now lives in Cuba, where this book was written.
Shakur insists there is no blood on her hands. It's all a frame-up, she says, just as the legal system is a racist fraud and American politics a vicious conspiracy. (How she nevertheless was often acquitted under these circumstances is not explained.) And if, by some chance, a ``pig cop'' gets hurt, what about the centuries of black oppression by whites?
The message is shrill, propagandistic, and deceitful, as the narrative cuts back and forth between Shakur as a spirited and creative child and Shakur as the wounded victim of sadistic jailers. Only her acid remarks on the macho pomposity and self-centeredness of the Black Panther leadership ring true; but even these smack of old scores being settled.
Shakur is resolutely close-mouthed about the Black Liberation Army, never mentioning the name. The curtain parts for an instant only when she states that one party friend ``loved weapons and was a genius with them.''
Garvey and especially Shakur represent the extremist wing in the long-standing battle between integrationists and separatists for the soul of black Americans. The integrationists range from Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King Jr., and now to Jesse Jackson, indeed to virtually all black candidates and elected officials.
Working within the system makes sense, they insist: Progress against racism and poverty has been made and can be made. In any case, what practical alternative is there to electoral politics for a minority making up only 12 percent of the population?
Separatism has failed. Though it may evoke headlines, its doctrine is too esoteric and demanding to gain a general audience.
Despite racism and poverty, the American Dream still offers more than either Garveyism and back-to-Africa or Assata Shakur and the Colt .45.
Leonard Bushkoff is a free-lance book reviewer specializing in history and politics.