Back To Africa: Marcus Garvey (a play)

This article was originally published in Scholastic Search.

It's easy to find traces of Africa in American cities these days. Red, black, and green scarves; medallions cut to an outline of the continent; the resurrection of the term African-American; all of these are signs that many people of color are looking to Africa.

You might want to credit this to Malcom X or Spike Lee, but Afrocentrism was brought to the U.S. more than 70 years ago by a dynamic Jamaican orator named Marcus Garvey. As founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Garvey urged blacks around the world to work together to set up their own businesses and free Africa from European rule. For several years, he inspired hundreds of thousands; this play shows how.

Cast (*historical characters)

*Marcus Garvey, president of UNIA

Maurice, reporter for New York Age

Samara, reporter for Negro World

Black Star Line Shareholders 1, 2, and 3

*William Pickens, field secretary, NAACP

*Mokete Manoedi, black South African

Crowd members 1, 2, and 3

Jury Foreman

*Judge Julian Mack

*W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP

Scene 1

Liberty Hall, West 138th Street, Harlem, July 27, 1919

Garvey (to crowd): I stand before you this afternoon a proud black man, honored to be a black man, who would be nothing else but a black man. I want you to feel the same way. We have come now to a turning point, where we have changed from the old cringing weakling into full-grown men, demanding our portion. . .

Maurice (to Samara, standing next to him): Hey, I've seen you before, right?

Samara (cautious): Maybe.

Maurice: At the rally in Chicago. Blue dress, like silk or something.

Samara: If you don't mind, I'm a journalist. This man is a leader of our race, and I would like to hear what he has to say.

Garvey: . . .We do not ask charity of the white man because we believe in self-help; we believe that as a race of people struggling onward, we must lift ourselves up. If we are to become a great force, we must start business enterprises of our own; we must build ships and trade with the rest of the Negro race in America, the West Indies, Africa. . .

Maurice (at Samara): Ppphhh. What do I know about colored folk in Africa?

Samara: Pardon me?

Maurice: This guy's from Jamaica; he doesn't know a thing about our problems. I just think he's full of a lot of — you know. . .

Samara: Good sense. But you obviously don't think so, so what are you doing here?

Maurice: I'm a reporter for the Age.

Samara: Then how come you're more interested in me than in the man you're covering?

Maurice: Just look at him — short, fat, ugly — then look at you. . .

Samara: You're the one that's full of it, you know that? Not Mr. Garvey. (Turns away.)

Garvey: . . .The Black Star Line, which we have just incorporated, will soon have ships plying the seas, doing business for you and your race. So buy shares now. Invest so that in the near future you may exert the same influence upon the world as the white man does today. And now, it is my honor to dedicate this, the new headquarters of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

Samara (to Maurice): Got to go. Don't forget to write something.

Scene 2

135th Street Pier, Harlem, November 20, 1919

Samara (interviewing): Excuse me, ma'am, did you pay a dollar to go aboard the Yarmouth today?

BSL Shareholder 1: It's the Frederick Douglass, named after one of the greatest colored men that ever lived. Don't you forget it.

BSL Shareholder 2: And of course we're goin'aboard. Ain't never been nothing like this before, ever. A steamship bigger'n a house all run and owned by Negroes. Even got a Negro captain. Nope, nothing like this.

Samara: Have you bought stock in Mr. Garvey's Black Star Line?

BSL Shareholder 1: Yes, ma'am. I own a part of this beautiful ship. Me and a thousand other black folk. No white people even allowed to buy into this deal. Isn't that a twist on how things usually go?

BSL Shareholder 3: Sure is. I sent in $125. Now I'm going to send $125 more. And the truth is, I ain't got a red cent left. But if I got to die of hunger, that's fine, cause I'll know that I done all I can to make things better for the race.

Maurice (appearing from behind Samara): Bunch of fool country folk, straight out of the cotton fields. They might just as well throw their money right into that harbor.

Samara: You!

Maurice: We oughta slip onto this old hunk of scrap metal. I hear it's headed for the West Indies. Beaches, sunshine, you and me.

Samara: This is serious. The first ship in the first wholly Negro-owned steamship line is about to be launched, and you're dreaming about a honeymoon with somebody you don't even know.

Maurice: A man can dream, can't he?

Samara: What do you have against Garvey?

Maurice: He's doing this the wrong way.

Samara: What do you mean the wrong way? What's wrong about providing jobs for our own kids so we don't have to rely on rich white people all the time?

Maurice: At least you're talking to me now.

Samara: Shut up and stick to the point.

Maurice: Well, it remains to be seen whether these ships will float. And when Garvey talks about setting up our own businesses, our own schools, our own this, our own that — even our own country — he sounds a lot like the white folk down South who don't want race mixing 'cause they're afraid their kids'll turn into savages.

Samara: Look, there's William Pickens from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mr. Pickens, excuse me. I'm a reporter. Could you tell me how you feel about the launching today?

William Pickens: Well, you must understand that the NAACP has its differences with Mr. Garvey. We believe the Negro must work to attain his rights alongside our fellow Americans who are white. Mr. Garvey wants separation and segregation.

Samara: But doesn't a thriving Negro-owned business advance the cause of the race?

Pickens: I would have to say yes. In fact, the creation of a steamship line, even in its infancy, may well be one of the greatest achievements of the 20th-century Negro.

Samara: Thank you. (To Maurice) Well?

Maurice: How about dinner?

Samara: Forget it.

Maurice: We'll go to a place run by colored.

Samara: Only if you admit you're wrong.

Maurice: Forget it.

Scene 3

Madison Square Garden, 34th Street, Manhattan, August 2, 1920

Samara: (singing along with the crowd): Advance, advance to victory/Let Africa be free/Advance to meet the foe/With the might/Of the red, the black, and the green.

Garvey (quieting applause from the crowd): You are 25,000 black faces, representing 400 million Negroes around the world. Welcome! We are the descendants of a suffering people; we are the descendants of a people determined to suffer no longer! We do not desire what has belonged to others. We seek merely to wrest the nations of Africa away from the Europeans. The other races have countries of their own, and it is time for 400 million Negroes to claim Africa for themselves. Negroes of America, I say to you, go to Africa if you desire to enjoy the fruits of the richest country of God's green earth. It is there that you shall have your own nation and true freedom.

Maurice (moving next to Samara): Long time.

Samara: I thought they took you off this beat.

Maurice: I asked to go back on it.

Samara: So you could keep bugging me?

Maurice: No. No use in beating my head against the wall.

Garvey (to crowd): . . .Every student of impartial mind knows that the Negro once ruled the world, when white men were barbarians living in caves. Black men, you were once great, you shall be great again. . .

Maurice: I think this guy's dangerous. Did you see the parade yesterday? Hundreds of guys in uniform that he calls his African Legion. And him in that fool hat, calling himself the President of Africa. And what's with all the red, black, and green?

Samara: Black for the race, red for the blood we have shed over time, green for the promise of a fertile life in Africa. You should know all that by now.

Maurice: Right. Come on, let's go outside. There's something brewing.

Samara (following him out): You just don't understand what this is about. Just look at this crowd — 25,000 of us from all over the world. He's bringing us together. This is a world where black is despised, and he is teaching us to be proud — to admire and praise black things and black people.

Maurice (stepping outside): That's absurd. The important thing isn't to be black and proud; it's to be good at what you do, whether you do it with white people or black people or purple people or what you want. Wait, listen. This guy speaking here is a Negro from South Africa.

Mokete Manoedi: I do not believe that African Negroes are favorably impressed with the arrogance of Mr. Garvey in electing himself provisional president of Africa.

Maurice (to a group of listeners): Excuse me, I'm a reporter. As a member of the Negro race, do you think your future lies in Africa?

Crowd member 1: Nah. What do I get out of going to Africa? I'll just have to salaam to some high muck-a-muck of our own.

Crowd member 2: We all should be interested in going back to the place we were hijacked from 300 years ago.

Crowd member 3: How can I go back to a place where I've never been? I fought in the war in an American uniform and this is where I'm staying. You're crazy to listen to that pig-headed, pompous —

Crowd member 2: Shut your mouth. . .

Scene 4

Aboard the S.S. Kanawha off Cuba, May 1921

Maurice: So what'd I do right? Here we are, blue sky, blue water. . .

Samara: I'm on assignment. I got to go talk to Garvey. (Knocks on Garvey's cabin door.)

Garvey: White Negroes! Turncoats! — Come in. I hope you are truly one of the race, sister, and not another white person passing for black because of the color of your skin.

Samara: No, I —

Garvey: — Because it is black men who will be the ruin of the Black Star Line! Do you realize we have spent over $50,000 on repairs since buying this ship last year? My chief engineer — yet another "Yes, boss Negro" — is determined to destroy our venture by throwing away money.

Samara: But I understand you have collected tens of thousands of dollars from contributors in the West Indies on this trip alone.

Garvey (calming down): Yes, yes, we have given many people hope, but I am afraid their dollars are only going to fill the holes of foolish people's mistakes.

Samara: Do you know that the U.S. State Department considers you "an undesirable, and indeed very dangerous, alien" and intends to deny you a visa to return?

Garvey: Hah! It is a compliment to be thought dangerous by the white man's government. (An explosion suddenly rocks the boat.)

Samara: What was that!?

Garvey: Ahgggghh! The boilers again!

Samara (rushing out to find Maurice): You Okay?

Maurice: Yeah, I'm fine. But then, unlike thousands of other poor black folk, I don't have any money invested in this heap of junk.

Scene 5

Second Circuit Court, New York City, June 18, 1923

Jury Foreman: We find the defendant, Marcus Garvey, guilty of attempting to defraud potential investors in the Black Star Line.

Judge Julian Mack: Mr. Garvey, will you stand for sentencing. You, sir, have been preying on the gullibility of your own people. Even after you knew that the Black Star Line was failing, you persisted in selling shares of its stock. You should have taken your hundreds of thousands and built a hospital in this city instead of purchasing a few old boats. Your sentence shall be five years in prison and a fine of one thousand dollars.

Samara: Ridiculous! A lynching in a court of law. That's what this is.

Maurice: Hey, don't give me that. He's a swindler. Like any other swindler, white or black, he belongs in jail.

Samara: No! The people that ought to be in jail are the white people who sold him leaky boats for outrageous sums of money. Let's not get into this. Your NAACP friends are over there. Come on, I want an interview.

Samara (walking across courtroom): Mr. Pickens, do you still think that Garvey deserves our praise?

Pickens: He has gone too far. Any black man who would meet with the Ku Klux Klan, as he did last year, is a traitor to his race.

Samara: But that was practical. They both believe the races are better off living apart.

Pickens: I'm sorry, but no civilized man can endorse a movement that flirts with the Klan.

Maurice: Mr. Du Bois, has Garvey advanced the cause of the Negro race or set us back?

W.E.B. Du Bois: There is no question that Garvey had a great and worthy dream — he wanted to develop Negro industry and commerce, and bring about a free, independent Africa. His methods are wasteful, ineffective, and apparently illegal. But we are not in a position to wish ill upon a leader of our race.

Samara: Thank you , gentlemen. (To Maurice) Well, how about dinner?

Maurice: Ethiopian food?

Samara: Sure.

THE END

  • Subjects:
    African American History, Civil Rights, Civics and Government, Civil Rights Movement, African American
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