I’ve been a fan of Burning Spear (the Spear) since high school. It was the height of the Black Power Movement in the U.S., a movement that had spread to the Caribbean and expressed itself in a growing consciousness and pride in our Africanness. The Spear’s third album, Marcus Garvey, became an anthem, an indictment of the times. Marcus Garvey words come to pass, Burning Spear sang and we cheered.
It was one of the first albums I bought; it almost never left my room or my sight. I played it every chance I got. There were many favorites.
Burning Spear, who took the name of the former president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, was born Winston Rodney in 1945 in the parish of St. Ann. Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley have been credited as his major influences. The Spear has been connected with several legendary Jamaican producers and studios of the 1960s and 70s. He was with Island Records until 1980 when he formed his own label. Burning Spear Music Production company and Burning Spear Records handle his bookings and music.
Now living in New York, the Spear tours extensively. Nominated 12 times, he won Grammy Awards for Best Reggae Album for Calling Rastafari (2000) and Jah is Real (2009). In 2007, he was honored by the Government of Jamaica with an Order of Distinction (OD).
I saw Burning Spear in concert in New York a few years ago. The show was memorable for several reasons. First, it was theSpear. Second, it was the only time I remember going to a show on a Sunday night, getting home after 3 a.m., and going to work the next morning. (It was after this show, I think, that I discovered Red Bull.)
When we arrived, there were only a few people in the audience. However, by the time the opening acts had warmed us up sufficiently and the Spear took the stage, the crowd had swelled considerably. There was no place to stand in this standing room only show. I could hardly see him — and my friends and I had been standing only a few yards from the stage.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jamaica’s first National Hero was born in St. Ann’s Bay on August 17, 1887. He was the youngest of eleven children born to Marcus Garvey, Sr., and Sarah Jane Richards.
Garvey’s father, whom he described as “severe, firm, determined, bold and strong, refusing to yield even to superior forces if he believed he was right” influenced him greatly. The elder Garvey had an extensive library where young Marcus learned to read.
At age 14, Garvey went to Kingston where he worked as a printer and later published a small newspaper, The Watchman. While in Kingston, he became involved in union activities and took part in an unsuccessful printers’ strike in 1907.
From 1910-12, he traveled extensively throughout Central America observing and writing about the poor working and living conditions of black people. He later traveled to the UK where he attended Birkbeck College and worked for the African Times and Orient Review, which advocated Pan-Africanism.
Fueled by these experiences, Garvey returned to Jamaica in 1914 and started the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The goal of the organization was to unite all the people of the African Diaspora to “establish a country and absolute power of their own.” The UNIA also encouraged self-help economic projects and protest against racial discrimination.
In 1916, Garvey settled in Harlem where he began a branch of the UNIA. He spoke across the United States, encouraging African-Americans to be proud of their race and return to Africa, their ancestral homeland. By 1918, he began publishing the Negro World newspaper to help spread his message.
In 1919, the UNIA launched the Black Star line, a shipping company that would establish trade between Africans in Africa and the rest of the world, and provide transportation back to Africa and started the Negro Factories Corporation to encourage black economic independence. He tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Liberian government to grant land on which black people coming from the Americas could settle.
By 1920, when the UNIA held its first international convention at Madison Square Gardens, in New York City, it boasted 4 million members. Speaking to a crowd of 25,000 people from around the world, Garvey exhorted them to have pride in their African heritage.
While Booker T. Washington, with whom he corresponded, and A. Philip Randolph supported Garvey’s views, W.E.B. Dubois called him “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America.” The U.S. government also viewed his activities with disapproval.
In 1922, Garvey was arrested for mail fraud in connection with the sale of stock in the Black Star Line, which had now failed. Although there were irregularities connected to the business, the prosecution was probably politically motivated, as Garvey’s activities had attracted considerable government attention. He was sent to prison and later deported to Jamaica.
Back in Jamaica in 1927, he continued his political activities, forming the People’s Political Party in 1929. He was unsuccessful in national elections but won a seat on the Kingston & St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC). Unfortunately, the world of 1930s Jamaica was not ready for Garvey’s progressive ideas and he left for England in 1935. He died there on June 10, 1940. He was buried in England because of World War II travel restrictions. In 1964, his body was returned to Jamaica where it was re-interred at the National Heroes Park in Kingston.
Garvey’s memory and influence remain. His message of pride and dignity inspired many in the early days of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In tribute to his many contributions, Garvey’s bust has been displayed in the Organization of American States’ Hall of Heroes in Washington, D.C. The country of Ghana named its shipping line the Black Star Line and its national soccer team the Black Stars, in honor of Garvey.
A petition, started earlier this year to urge President Barack Obama to clear Garvey’s name, was reportedly rejected by the White House.
Of all the places I’ve lived, Harlem is the only one that makes me constantly aware of history.
On my block, for example, the famous Great Day in Harlem photo of black and white jazz musicians was shot in 1958. From time to time, as I’ve looked out my window to see various groups recreating that iconic photo.
I was a young girl living in Jamaica when it happened and I still recall being afraid, even though I was 1,500 miles away. We had heard Dr. King’s message of peace and were saddened to learn of his assassination.
I’m proud to say that Jamaica honored Dr. King posthumously with a Marcus Garvey Prize for Human Rights in 1968.
I’ve often wondered what impact Dr. King would have had had he lived another 10 or 20 years. We can only speculate.
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