Letter from Marcus Garvey
Born in the Jubilee of Victoria’s reign
when Britannia’s scepter ruled the waves;
from my father’s howl, my mother’s pain,
into a people who knew themselves only as slaves
and grunted under the whip without knowing
their past, praying for an early release to the grave,
I was named by my father after the philosopher-king,
by my mother for the prophet who set the Israelites free.
My parents had a dream that the sound of the abeng
should trumpet our redemption from the Blue Mountains,
clamor through cane fields to the roots of cotton trees,
and justice, our birthright, would echo through the plains.
The afternoon rains released a squall
of Monarchs over a field where my father
quarried plots out of the hillside and built
a Spanish wall behind our house, surrounded
by shadows that danced around his handmade torch.
Later that night, dizzy from stories of rum heads—
nestled like spiders in the corner of my godfather’s
printer—which began with a libation to our ancestors
Nanny, Tacky, Cudjoe, who had fought redcoats,
their deeds signed in blood, for us to breathe
praises in our own tongue and redeem this island
from ravenous ghosts that wander the marl roads
and darkened trails of bananas and pimento,
I repeated their names in the dark until my head
dripped with water from the Roaring River.
Aboard the SS Trent, lying on my back, I thought
about the “horrible and pitiable tales” that my brother,
a West Indian, returning from Basutoland, whispered
in the shadow of the white man’s gaze. And recalling
Up from Slavery by the “Sage of Tuskegee,”
Mr. Booker T. Washington, my young and ambitious
mind, like the ascent of the winged Africans, led to “flights
of great imagination.” I was determined that the black man
would not be “kicked about by other nations.” We would
no longer be “serfs, slaves, dogs or peons, but a nation.”
In that room, my young brain was set afire. Heeding the call
of destiny for a black empire, I peered through the porthole:
“Where is the black man’s government, his men of big affairs?”
No answer came as I pondered in the dark. Then the flare
burned through my body, for I realized, “I could not find them.”
Rising from my bed I decided, “I will help to make them.”
Quoting from Marcus Garvey and Amy Jacques Garvey, The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey; or, Africa for the Africans, vols. 1 and 2, Centennial ed. (Dover, MA: Majority, 1986).
We were drowning and we didn’t know
until this “golden voice from the Caribbean,”
with a mouthful of hymns, filled us with joy;
it was like Pentecost when the Comforter
said to the apostles, “Rise, your crown has been bought
and paid for, all you have to do is to wear it.”
And when Garvey raised his arms and looked at me,
I felt a love that I had glimpsed only with my father,
when he and I were standing in the snow,
he leaned his head against my chest and tied my shoelaces—
that man loosened the millstone from our necks,
and pulled us up to the bright shores of Africa.
Quoting from Stanley Nelson, Marcia A. Smith, Carl Lumbly, Marcus Garvey, Robert Shepard, Arthur Jafa, Lewis Erskine, Kysia Bostic, and J. J. McGeehan, Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind (Alexandria, VA: PBS Home Video, 2004).
Geoffrey Philp, an author from Jamaica, has written three children’s books, Marcus and the Amazons (Mabrak Books, 2011), Grandpa Sydney’s Anancy Stories (2012), and The Christmas Dutch Pot Baby (2012); two collections of short stories, Uncle Obadiah and the Alien (1997) and Who’s Your Daddy? (2009); a novel, Benjamin, My Son (2003); and five poetry collections, Exodus and Other Poems (1990), Florida Bound (Peepal Tree, 1995), Hurricane Center (1998), Xango Music (2001), and Dub Wise (2010). A graduate of the University of Miami, where he earned an MA in English, Philp teaches creative writing at Miami Dade College. He posts interviews, fiction, poetry, podcasts, and literary events from the Caribbean and South Florida on his blog geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com.