What will take the Black community out of our current situation? Bottom-up or top-down approach. The populist approach or elitist approach. This question has been haunting me for a few years. Yet, I never reach an answer I am happy with. On the one hand, my humble upbringing could mean I prefer a grassroots approach. On the other hand, my Columbia MBA would make me more of an elitist.
Why the reference to 2 great Black leaders? Because both lived in the same era, they had a similar objective; however, they were enemies. The story is documented in one of my favorite podcasts from NPR Throughline. The cliff notes for those who prefer not to listen to the podcast:
- Marcus Garvey: Born in Jamaica. Raised out of poverty through hard work. On several occasions, he had the opportunity in his career to side with “management” to which he belongs; instead, he preferred to side with workers for what he thought was right. He understood the power of elocution and trained himself to become a great speaker. He later moved to Harlem, where he accelerated his activism. He is behind Black Star Line’s vision, a shipping company that would enable transatlantic commerce and enable African Americans to move to West Africa, in Liberia.
- W.E.B Dubois: Born in Massachusetts. Grew up in a relatively integrated community. He was the first African American to get a Doctorate from Harvard University. He is one of the founders of the NAACP. Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He was a prolific author. One of his famous quotes is “”The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”
I would have imagined that there would be space for the 2 points of view. Actually, combining a great speaker and an intellectual should have created the perfect team. But they really seemed to go after each other really hard. Garvey was for racial separatism while Du Bois was for integration. Du Bois claimed that Garvey was fraudulent. And Garvey said that NAACP stands for National Association for the Advancement of Certain People (instead of colored people).
I am not trying to unearth some old beef. I am not trying to ignite colorism among Blacks. Instead, I am trying to learn from the past to avoid making similar mistakes. Garvey made the biggest mistakes. Let’s start by telling people in Africa that Blacks from the US will come over to govern their countries, or marching from Harlem to Madison Square Garden with 25000 supporters, in the uniform of what could be mistaken for a head of state. Did power overcome his grand ambitions for Black people? He would not be the first. Did they frame him to stop his pan-Africanism vision? It could be. The first-ever African American spy was a cover agent in his organization. During his trial, many of his close collaborators turned against him. He ended up spending 2 years in prison, was a broken man afterward.
My questions without answers:
- Is it better for oneself to fit in and drive change from within? Du Bois made a significant impact on the Black community and seemed to have had a fulfilled life.
- Do you rally the masses to make the elite listen? It should work right. Especially when the people have the right to vote. Why did it not work for Garvey?
- Why would people turn against Garvey? Especially at the time of the trial? If they had turned against him before or after, it would feel legit. But doing it when the US government is after him, is it a coincidence? How to create a base so strong that you can not be divided?
Should I close with some cheesy like “the truth is in between”. It sounds right, of course. But it does not feel right. The cause is so significant that everyone can grab a piece and move it forward. Elitists, populists, allies, everyone. If there is no space for others, this is probably a sign that it is becoming less about the right cause and more about a selfish move.