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Marcus Garvey

African Fundamentalism

"African Fundamentalism" was Garvey's quasi-religious manifesto of black racial pride and unity. It attained canonical status within a short time after it was first published as a front-page editorial in the Negro World of 6 June 1925. Written, like The Tragedy of White Injustice, while Garvey was confined in the Atlanta penitentiary, the essay proclaims ideological independence from white theories of history, makes concomitant claims of racial superiority, and articulates major themes that recur throughout Garvey's other writings and speeches. Chief among these are the ideas of racial self-confidence, self-development, and success; international black allegiance and solidarity; and the importance of acquiring a knowledge of ancient black history.

Garvey's use of the term fundamentalism in the title reflects this stress on the need for regaining a proud sense of selfhood by setting aside modern racist labels of inferiority and reviving the basic, fundamental beliefs in black aptitude and greatness that he saw exemplified in ancient African civilization. At the same time, the term resonated with Garvey's long-standing preoccupation with development of an original "Negro idealism." This notion was essentially grounded in religion. "I don't think that anyone who gets up to attack religion will get the sympathy of this house," Garvey declared in a speech in 1929, "for the Universal Negro Improvement Association is fundamentally a religious institution.

"African Fundamentalism" was written at the peak of the fundamentalist revival that swept America following World War I. The revival was expressed both as a theological doctrine and as a conservative neopolitical movement. While the concerns of Christian fundamentalists focused on a sociocultural return to a set of principles untainted by modern rationalism and secularism, and while Populist fundamentalists called for the maintenance of an older agrarian order that would belie the impact of industrialization and urbanization---so Garvey's call heralded a recognition of the achievements of Africans in the past and a return to the principles of black dignity and self-rule, principles that had been denigrated under the impact of modern racial oppression, slavery, and imperial colonization.

As in his sardonic use of the phrase "Vanity Fair," Garvey's choice of the word fundamentalism reflects an intuitive understanding of the types of associations people would apply to his use of the term. He employs these associations in the context of the essay itself, wherein his references to monkeys, caves, and the process of evolution inevitably call to mind the opposing ideas of social Darwinism and the fundamentalist movement. The conflict between these two philosophies peaked symbolically in the Scopes trial, which got under way during the same summer "African Fundamentalism" was written. The trial, which was held in Dayton, Tennessee, in July 1925, pitted prominent attorneys William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow against one another in a much-publicized courtroom battle. At issue was the acceptance of the theory of evolution and its place in the American school curriculum. Bryan argued for the creationist viewpoint (a fundamentalist perspective associated with the agrarian and southern sections of the United States and with the lower classes), while Darrow represented the modern, humanist viewpoint (a secular perspective associated with the urban and industrial areas of the North, with the growth of the social sciences, and with the educated middle classes). Bryan's side in the conflict prevailed, and teacher John T. Scopes was found guilty of breaking a law passed by the Tennessee legislature in March 1925, prohibiting the teaching of any doctrine denying the divine creation of mankind as taught from a literal interpretation of the Bible.

In his essay, Garvey played on the social Darwinist issues that were publicly highlighted by the Scopes trial and gave them an ironic twist. He adopted elements of the evolutionary theory of the secularists and of the strong nativist strain of the fundamentalists and utilized them both as premises to support his own counterargument. He presented black people in northern Africa as representatives of a higher form of life and culture than their white counterparts in Europe. He thus reversed the popular contemporary claims of white eugenicists, who applied evolutionary theory to the social milieu, associating people of African heritage with the slow development of the apes and offering their results as "proof' of white racial superiority. Similar reversals of white-dictated beliefs and standards were reflected in Garvey's fervent praise for the compelling beauty of black skin and African features; in his championing of the worship of black images of the Virgin Mary, God, and Jesus Christ in the place of white conceptions of the deity; and in his call for a recognition of the heroic accomplishments of black people, such as Crispus Attacks and Sojourner Truth, whose martyrdom, selflessness, and rebelliousness qualified them for respect equal to that accorded white saints like Joan of Arc.




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a A people without the knowledge of their history, is like a tree without roots.


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