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Garvey's belief in arts and culture

Olive Lewin, Contributor

OUR brief viewing of Jamaica's National Heroes in the context of the arts today looks at Marcus Garvey (1887-1940).

Born in St. Ann's Bay of humble parentage, we are told that he lived the life typical of rural youth. However, even while at elementary school his interest in reading extended his knowledge of happenings in the rest of Jamaica and beyond. This probably helped to instigate an early move to Kingston.

Drawn to elocution and debating activities, he recognised the importance of platform deportment and eloquence in improving self-confidence and credibility in delivering messages. This was underlined by visits to various churches, where he studied techniques of many preachers and practised them in the privacy of his room.

Garvey joined a fledgling political group and worked on its paper, thus beginning his lifelong journalistic career.

In 1914 Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) after returning from travels in Central America and almost two years in England. The UNIA motto was 'One God. One Aim. One Destiny' with the mission to unite 'all the Negro peoples of the world into one great body to establish a country and a government exclusively its own.' By now Garvey was convinced that arts and culture had crucial roles to play in the achievement of the racial pride and upliftment that were central to his vision and worldwide political ideals for black people.

Literary tastes

In Jamaica there was a stated commitment to improving the literary tastes of the youth and to establishing a music programme including a band to perform in public free of cost, and a wide range of choral, instrumental and solo music activities. Dancing soon was added, with the presentation of regular concerts, vaudeville shows, musical comedies, literary and dramatic theatre events. Most of these took place at Edelweis Park, but some were staged at Liberty Hall. Training and preparations were disciplined and standards high. Response was enthusiastic from both performers and audiences.

After Garvey established the UNIA in New York in 1916, it spread to 40 countries with a membership of millions. This mass movement vigorously promoted Black Nationalism, but cultural activities always ran parallel with political activism.

It was Ranny Williams who used to regale me with stories of UNIA presentations.

He himself wrote plays and songs for the programme, and appeared as dancer ('hoofer'), singer, actor, comic and performer of monologues. He unhesitatingly recognised Garvey's contribution to his career.

Stage personalities

Older Jamaicans will remember stage personalities like Harold and Trim, Racca and Sandy and the brilliant dancer Kid Harold who was active until he died in 1985. Garvey himself wrote and directed plays. He also appeared in one staged by the famous comedian and impersonator Ernest Cupidon. As a child I used to hear Cupidon described as a 'natural comic', and frequently quoted to peals of laughter by adults in Clarendon.

The name 'Sagwa Bennett', fresh in the minds of many admirers, is also associated with UNIA cultural activities, and the famous tenor Granville Campbell trained and conducted one of the choirs. This group rehearsed 10 times per week and had a repertoire which included hymns, anthems and operatic excerpts.

Elocution and debates were regular features, suspected of being Garvey's favourites. In 1930 a dance contest featuring classical, popular and traditional styles lasted a week and involved over 400 contestants.

There can be no question of this National Hero's involvement with the arts as "a thread running parallel with his political activities." (Beverly Hamilton).

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