- Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey
Colin Grant's Negro with a Hat is the first full-length biography of Marcus Garvey to appear in almost twenty years. It is a paradox of African American studies that as the field has experienced tremendous growth over the last two decades, one of its most important historical figures has received such little sustained scholarly attention. Although biographies of Garvey proliferated rapidly in the seventies and eighties as new black studies scholars sought to recover the legacies of their ideological ancestors, by the mid-1990s the pace of such work had suffered a steep decline. That Grant, a journalist, should be the first to come back to Garvey only reinforces this sense of academic neglect.
Negro with a Hat thus revisits Garvey with the advantage of an entire generation of African American studies scholarship from which to draw. Grant's use of this body of work forms the strongest aspect of this biography. Synthesizing an incredible amount of scholarship, Grant has produced a portrait of Garvey which is richly detailed on both Garvey himself and his larger milieu. By making good use of recent secondary works, such as Ula Taylor's biography of Amy Jacques Garvey and Winston James's work on Caribbean immigrant radicalism, Grant has reproduced the lives of Garvey and his collaborators in impressive detail. Although he rarely seeks to go beyond the interpretations advanced in existing scholarship, by drawing together this body of work Grant has been able to both offer a more detailed picture [End Page 203] of Garvey's life than any previous biography, as well as helpfully orienting future researchers on the most important issues in further work on the subject.
The one area where Grant differs markedly from the bulk of earlier work on Garvey is in his treatment of his subject's multiple contradictions. Indeed, Garvey's contradictions are one of his most remarked upon aspects, from his frequently expressed disdain for the black poor he sought to uplift to his simultaneous approval of both the British empire and Irish nationalists. While nearly all earlier commentators either emphasize or attempt to suppress the contradictions in Garvey's thought, Grant takes a largely pragmatic approach, allowing the contradictions to speak for themselves. This approach has the virtue of avoiding facile attempts to smooth over Garvey's shifting commitments, while also not portraying Garveyism as somehow flawed for its contradictions.
The downside of Grant's presentation is that in leaving Garvey's contradictions to stand on their own, he is sometimes forced to give rather ad hoc explanations for various aspects of Garvey's thought, instead of attempting to explore the interrelationships between them. For example, in discussing Garvey's well known proclivities towards Victorian styles of dress and ritual, Grant asserts that Garvey borrowed these accoutrements of empire because "there was no tradition in their culture that black people could return to … Garvey was working in the dark and his imagination led him to established models" (258-59). Such an interpretation understates the importance of European ideals to Garvey (and indeed to most black nationalists of his period), which Garvey did not merely stumble upon for want of black traditions. On the contrary, Garvey's whole vision of a black empire in Africa was articulated through European ideas of nation and race. It was through these European frameworks that Garvey developed his entire ideology of black liberation. An appreciation of these intimate relations would strengthen Grant's account at some key points and avoid the sometimes scattered feeling Garvey's thoughts acquire here.
This methodological weakness makes itself felt most strongly at the point where Garvey's contradictions were at their most pronounced: the period of Garvey's engagement with the Left. As Grant recognizes, in the immediate postwar period Garvey was strongly influenced by the worldwide radicalization that followed the Russian Revolution. Such an impact did these events have on Garvey that at one point he would declare that Bolshevism would spread "until...