Negro With a Hat: The rise and fall of Marcus Garvey, By Colin Grant

The orator and visionary may not have made it back to Africa but his dream inspired Bob Marley
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While the title of this engrossing biography may appear a flippant description of one of the great black icons of the 20th century, it is actually a meaningful sobriquet. As the splendid cover photograph shows, Garvey's pomp equalled the best of the west's military heroes. His bicorne hats evoked emperors. Yet for all the sovereign connotations encoded in this dazzling image, it is reducible to one thing: a black man. Certainly back in Garvey's heyday of the 1930s, the negro was more conspicuous than the show-stopping hat.

As Grant demonstrates, Garvey, a Caribbean who lived in Europe and America and dreamt of Africa, wanted the world to see beyond the colour bar but tragically failed to transcend the limiting prism of his ethnicity. Both black and white establishments saw him as a dangerously uppity member of the "darker races".

As far as tales of the self-made man go, Garvey's story is a remarkable one by any standards. When he came into the world in 1887, his native Jamaica was adjusting to the abolition of slavery, which had been enacted just 53 years previously. Grandson of a slave and son of a mason and "rum-shop scholar", Marcus Mosiah Garvey escaped poverty to become a writer, cultural-political leader and orator. He excelled at "speechifying" and could pontificate for hours at a time. He was a natural born motivator, arch crowd- pleaser. He was to the soapbox born.

Writing in a concise, expressive style, Grant meticulously chronicles Garvey's eventful odyssey and sheds light on his revolutionary thinking and formidable public speaking. Garvey initially trained as a printer and journalist but really saw himself as an opinion former, a penseur with progressive views on race.

Trips to Costa Rica and to England, the "mother country", gave Garvey first-hand knowledge of the exploitation of blacks and steeled his determination to effect change. Aiding his first steps were turn-of-the-century intellectuals such as Dusé Mohammed Ali, founder of the pioneering publication African Times & Orient Review.

Upon his return to Jamaica, Garvey decisively went down the road to institutionalising his nascent black consciousness and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities in 1914. He subsequently moved to Harlem in New York, a hotbed of politics and art. This American sojourn would be a decisive catalyst to the ambitious, unashamedly self-promoting Jamaican, who zealously propounded the idea of New World blacks going "home". Garvey would lead the oppressed back to Africa.

Fame came fast for "Black Moses" and he soon ranked alongside emblematic minds such as Booker T Washington, Edward Blyden and W E B Dubois, Garvey's bitter rival.

The UNIA was in the ascendant, rapidly increasing its membership when the 1917 Bolshevik revolution shook the foundations of the White House. "Red-baiting" kicked in and the very "un-American" Garvey drew the ire of the future FBI boss J Edgar Hoover, who sent double agents to infiltrate the UNIA.

Following the First World War, European superpowers gaily carved up Africa, prompting Garvey, a thorn in the flesh of Empire, to attempt in vain to negotiate territory for repatriation to the motherland. Undeterred, he created the Black Star Line, the world's first black-owned shipping company, whose steamers would sail across the Atlantic to prosperity and equal rights. This audacious venture captured the imagination of descendants of slaves from Oklahoma to Cuba.

As Garvey's power increased, with his speeches and public appearances regularly drawing huge crowds, he started to lose his grip on reality. With his dream of resurgence of the motherland beset with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the diaspora's great firebrand was consumed by dizzying delusions of grandeur. Garvey denigrated imperialism but proclaimed himself the "provisional president of Africa".

In a monumental act of hubris, he tried to make a deal with the Ku Klux Klan, even announcing that one of its wizards might invest in the Black Star Line. It was not just in his own mind but around him that confusion reigned, and the real triumph of Grant's text is the illuminating portrait it paints of the world on several levels. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, African-American society, the American mainstream and the international community grappled with great upheaval.

What clearly emerges is the intense, charged debate among a plethora of black political agencies on how best to uplift the race. Internal animosities reaching back to slavery days made the pot boil over. Nobody could point the way forward with any real assurance.

If black against white was one thing, black against mulatto was another. African-American against Caribbean, another still. As Garvey fell from grace, found guilty of fraud over Black Star Line shares, much of the US black press cruelly ridiculed him as a lowly island man. They called him a Jamaican jackass.

Garvey was actually a very intriguing mixture of hero and anti-hero, a visionary with several blind spots. Above all he was a driven individual whose undimmed self-belief was both a strength and weakness. Grant maintains measure in his portrayal, neither excessively eulogising nor vilifying. Drawing on gargantuan research, he shows Garvey's heady triumphs and crushing disappointments, his complexity, his paradoxes.

Here was a man who predicated a whole ideology on the principle that "every Negro was a great enthusiast to see the race go forward in success", yet who wrote an essay, "The Negro's Greatest Enemy", in which he concluded that the black man's downfall would come from within.

Perhaps the greatest symbol of Garvey's ultimate failure was that he never made it back to Africa. But that very idea, and several others he proposed, lived beyond him. Years after Garvey's death in 1940, a young Jamaican called Bob Marley brilliantly set to music the ideal of "emancipation from mental slavery", a trope from one of the UNIA leader's last speeches. Therein lies a nation-building lyric, the greatest of redemption songs.