Organized in 1937 near the end of his physical and organizational life, The School of African Philosophy is perhaps the most complete distillation we have available of the lessons Marcus Garvey was able to draw from his 23 years of leadership over the U.N.I.A. and A.C.L. More than any other single manuscript in the New Marcus Garvey Library, it displays many of the theistic, mystic, agnostic, paternalistic and politically conservative views underpinning the vision Garvey developed within the organization. Traits which would seem to lay the groundwork for the Nation of Islam following his exile and death thereafter.
Garvey was a man shaped by the forces of his American experience. The lectures to the School of African Philosophy display him to be a remarkably deliberate and didactic organizer who was both pragmatic and realistic about the precarious circumstances of black people throughout the world. He therefore sought not so much to analyze the problem as we find with his contemporary W.E.B. DuBois, but to step immediately into correcting the condition of his people. The glaring lack of any strident racial critique of his era elucidates Garvey as the post-reconstruction heir apparent to a bootstrap Black Nationalism which is palatable for white people for it means that eventually all black people will pick up their buckets and go home.
One can see then why Booker T. Washington grew fond of Garvey prior to his death going so far as to extend him an invitation to the Tuskegee Institute in order that Garvey might gain ideas for establishing a similar school within Jamaica. By the same line of reasoning, the adoption of such a strategy also shows why he was the bane of the Black leftist and progressive community of the New Negro Renaissance, most notably “The Messenger” editorial staff including A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen whom felt no need to leave America seeking justice and equality when their ancestors had paid in blood for the right to live here.
While the initial idea of a school never materialized, the time spent organizing and preaching in the streets of Harlem would soon result in the formation of an even more monumental institution. The students in the School of African Philosophy were to use their special instruction in working as state commissioners who would build unity within the black population that the U.N.I.A. might have the massive support necessary to accomplish its goal of repatriation.
The teaching style of Garvey is largely autocratic in nature demanding very specific steps from students in the process of organizing U.N.I.A. affairs including instructions on propagating belief in an African Christ, code switching when engaging black versus white audiences and dismissing Communism as an unfit organizational tool for black people.
Occasionally in his joviality and loose speech with students of the School, Garvey is given to veering off into dishonest, contradictory or patriarchal tangents. In one scenario, he speaks of the danger of dating two people within the same organization and the need to ensure that they live apart in different communities. In another instance, he warns his students to never be immoral, but if they must be immoral in accordance with their nature, they should hide this immorality from those they are leading. In all instruction, whether moral or secular, Garvey’s highest goal is always that whatever action is taken benefits the U.N.I.A. and that they should divorce themselves from all actions which might harm the image of the organization or black people.
While Garvey is often classified in the mind of the Pan-African and Black Nationalist paradigm as a radical, the chapter on “The Social System” and later in the “History of the U.N.I.A.” subsection “Dealing With Divisions” display him to be largely conservative in his political interaction. This was a period of heated Communist and Progressive intensity where race riots were lighting up cities all over the country. Garvey advises his students “You should help the police to maintain order because if the community loses its peace, you will have riots and probably bloodshed.” This makes the previous comparison between the U.N.I.A. and the Nation of Islam even more relevant when we consider Malcolm’s struggle with the organization’s policy of disengagement where it concerned local politics and police brutality that did not directly concern a Muslim cause or victim.
Overall, the text provides a critical internal portrait of the intellectual complexity of Garvey which might lead him to engage with such strange bedfellows as Senator Theodore Bilbo on the racist repatriation language of the Greater Liberia Act of 1939 or the Ku Klux Klan conference in 1922 where he gave them praise for their “honesty and fair play”. While we might deem these actions to have been taken in error from our position of hindsight, he did sincerely believe in the righteousness of his final outcome. It now becomes incumbent upon us to use a fresh analysis of the past while placing our own goals squarely in mind and incorporate those tactics which work and are still necessary into our future processes while rejecting out of hand those which now prove ineffective.