- Racial Capitalism and American Literary Studies in the Web of Life
Imprisoned in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in 1925, Marcus Garvey sent a letter to the hundreds of thousands of members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) that he had founded a decade earlier. Published in The Negro World (1918–1933)—the movement's mouthpiece with a wide international circulation, translated for UNIA divisions in colonies and former colonies and outlawed by authorities across the hemisphere—the letter speculates about, even as it hedges on, the future: Garvey's and the UNIA's, of whiteness and blackness, the US and Africa, and cataclysm, globalization, and the cosmos. "Our day may be fifty, a hundred or two hundred years ahead, but let us watch, work and pray, for the civilization of injustice is bound to crumble and bring destruction down upon the heads of the unjust" (96), Garvey writes in his characteristically black sermonic style. Garvey's oppressors are his readers' oppressors; his incarceration, their incarceration; his suffering, their suffering. The letter's appeal derives its rhetorical force from its promise of a black ascension coinciding with the demise of white civilization.
Convicted of mail fraud in connection with a stock scheme for the UNIA's Black Star Line shipping enterprise, Garvey invites his readers to engage in a form of counterfactual speculation that, he had argued exhaustively in his own defense in court, transcended the bogus stock scheme federal prosecutors charged him with masterminding. Garvey insisted that investors across the Americas derived [End Page 546] hope, promise, and a provisional sense of freedom from their purchases of Black Star Line stock over and above any actual, even if perpetually deferred, monetary returns on their investment. By way of making good on his debt, Garvey's letter from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary amounts to a sort of promissory note, a prison manifesto bespeaking a past future whereby racial capitalism's "assemblages of subjection . . . never annihilate the lines of flight, freedom dreams, practices of liberation, and possibilities of other worlds" (Weheliye 2). Mobilizing the specter of his martyrdom, Garvey, like a modern Black Prometheus unbound, pitches to his reader an imminent, and immanent, future of cosmic chaos providing for a Glissantian relation, a "totality in evolution" that Garvey himself in the afterlife is made to embody (Glissant 133): "If I die in Atlanta . . . [l]ook for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for with God's grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for liberty, freedom and life" (98). Offering his followers a kind of assurance that federal prosecutors successfully argued to the all-white-male jury at Garvey's trial was always already unavailable to black investors, a messianic Garvey portends his second coming in the guise of a menacing duppy leading a jumbie band of departed souls from the past, present, and future black diaspora, a paranormal materialist force conspiring with and through nature to exact revenge on the racial capitalist system:
In life I shall be the same; in death I shall be a terror to the foes of Negro liberty. If death has power, then count on me in death to the real Marcus Garvey I would like to be. If I may come in an earthquake, or a cyclone, or plague, or pestilence, or as God would have me, then be assured that I will never desert you and make your enemies triumph over you.(97)
I have dilated on...