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Robert Bagnall on “The Madness of Marcus Garvey”

After fighting World War I, ostensibly to defend democracy and the right of self-determination, thousands of African-American soldiers returned home to face intensified discrimination, segregation, and racial violence. Drawing on this frustration, Marcus Garvey attracted thousands of disillusioned black working-class and lower middle-class followers to his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The UNIA, committed to notions of racial purity and separatism, insisted that salvation for African Americans meant building an autonomous, black-led nation in Africa. As Garvey’s influence in the black community grew, so too did the voices of his many critics. Integrationists such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Robert Bagnall, both of the NAACP, worried that the UNIA leader was exploiting black disillusionment for personal gain. Moreover, they objected to the UNIA’s call for racial separatism, and in this 1923 article Bagnall accused Garvey of “madness.”

History tells the stories of a number of notable madmen who played quite a part for evil in their day. Nero, Caligula, Alexander are notorious instances. Literature furnishes us with a number of cases of madmen who thought themselves destined to do great things. The most striking of such characters is Don Quixote. This mad Knight tilted at wind-mills and thought them to be dragons and confused flocks of sheep with damsels in distress. The world has laughed at Don Quixote, but this old mad Knight was comparatively harmless. As mad as Don Quixote, the much advertised Negro demagogue Marcus Garvey appears to be, but is by no means harmless.

The following is a pen picture of this notorious character which those who know him say is an accurate likeness:

A Jamaican Negro of unmixed stock, stock, squat, stocky, fat and sleek, with protruding jaws, and heavy jowls, small bright pig-like eyes and rather bull-dog-like face. Boastful, egotistic, tyrannical, intolerant, cunning, shifty, smooth and suave, avaricious; as adroit as a fencer in changing front, as adept as a cuttle-fish in beclouding an issue he cannot meet, prolix to the 'nth degree in devising new schemes to gain the money of poor ignorant Negroes; gifted at self-advertisement, without shame in self-laudation, promising ever, but never fulfilling, without regard for veracity, a lover of pomp and tawdry finery and garish display, a bully with his own folk but servile in the presence of the [Ku Klux] Klan, a sheer opportunist and a demagogic charlatan.

Until recent years many layman supposed that a madman was violently irrational at all times and in all things. We now know that an insane man may be seemingly perfectly sane in many ways and at many times; his insanity being revealed only when certain choices, decisions and acts are presented to him. Often his insanity is confined to his reactions to certain departments of life. Our asylums are filled with individuals who can talk lucidly, intelligently, and sanely on many questions, but who will reveal their condition to you by suddenly, calmly and assuredly announcing that they are Napoleon, or Caesar, or a mighty king, general or magnate.

When Garvey was found guilty at a recent trial, [Superior Court] Judge [Jacob] Panken of New York excoriated him, ending with these words—“There is a form of paranoia which manifests itself in believing oneself to be a great man.” In this he infers that Garvey is afflicted with this form of insanity.

Is Garvey a Paranoiac?

We may seriously ask—is not Marcus Garvey a paranoiac?

He certainly manifests many of the characteristic symptoms of this form of insanity. It is hard to understand many of the man’s actions except on the assumption that he is insane—that he is a paranoiac. Let us examine the symptoms of paranoia and see how Garvey manifests them.

A paranoiac is afflicted with Egomania. His world is interpreted in terms of self. The first person of the personal pronoun is ever on his lips. One hears from him a succession of I, Me. The world revolves around him.

Read the Negro World. See how its pages are thick with the words “I, Marcus Garvey” in every issue. See the self-laudation and egoism manifested there. Listen to Marcus Garvey as he speaks. Then you will think that the description I gave above of a paranoiac is one of Garvey. No sane man would be so gross in self-laudation as Garvey.

A paranoiac has delusions of grandeur. He thinks himself great.

False Imagination

The paranoiac will imagine himself a great leader or ruler or wonderfully gifted in some art; a genius. He thinks of himself always in the superlative. All others dwindle in comparison. He imagines that he has done great things. He craves acknowledgment of this from others. He has lost all sense of perspective. He can never receive enough fawning and flattery. Marcus Garvey when a soap boxer years ago in New York advertised himself as “the world’s greatest orator.” This title he still proclaims. He compares himself boastingly with [black intellectual W. E. B.] Du Bois, [black writer] James Weldon Johnson and others—claiming far greater attainments with nothing to substantiate his claims. He makes a mockery of the solid accomplishments of these gentlemen. He regards himself as an empire-builder, a divinely inspired leader of 400,000,000 Negroes (although no such number exists in the world).

He imagines miserable failures to be great successes and a credit to him. He confesses the loss of nearly a million dollars of poor people’s money and that there is nothing left but debts. He confesses the utter loss of every vessel of his, “Black Star Line,” and then boasts of the success of his shipping line. In one breath he says that all three of his ships are gone; that there is nothing left out of nearly $1,000,000 but debts. In another breath he states that “if it hadn’t been for our enemies, we would now have twenty vessels instead of three.” He still seems under the delusion that he has three. He has a court reception, divides Africa in which he or his movement hasn’t one foot of ground into duchies and makes “knights” and “ladies” and “dukes.” Those presented to him must bend the knee before him. Arrayed in royal garb, he and his court assemble on an elevated dais while the common people are below, kept away from him by armed guards. Here is clearly a case of delusions of grandeur. Could a symptom be more characteristic?

The third symptom of a paranoiac is delusions as to fact. He suffers from exaggerated, distorted, perverted views of things. A paranoiac imagines an emaciated figure to be hale and sturdy and vice versa. He sees three people as a great crowd. Observe this trait in Garvey.

Marcus Garvey testified in court that the Yarmouth [a Black Star Line ship] made three trips in three years, losing on one of these from two hundred and fifty thousand to three hundred thousand dollars ($250,000 to $300,000) and on another trip $75,000. Luc Dorsinville, the Haitian agent of the line states that on another voyage the Yarmouth took three months to go from New York to Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica. The trip, he states, cost between $20,000 and $30,000 without enough cargo to pay half of that. Passengers booked were left waiting and $30,000 worth of cargo awaiting shipment was left on the dock in Haiti.

In spite of all this, Garvey in the Negro World of July 26, 1920, giving a report, states no losses, whatsoever on his shipping lines.

In the Negro World of March 5, 1921, he says: “Nothing engineered by Negroes within the last 500 years has been as big or as stupendous as the Black Star Line. Today we control three quarters of a million dollars (not on mere paper but in property value) and money that can be realized in twenty-four hours if the stockholders desire that their money be refunded to them. We can sell out the property of the Black Star Line and realize every nickel.”

Less than eight months afterwards it was revealed that the line had nothing[,] that everything was gone.

He states that his organization has 4,500,000 members and is all over the world. An analysis of his financial report of 1921 reveals that he has not 20,000 dues paying members, and that his paying membership is much smaller than the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

He stated that 150,000 delegates would attend his convention. No more than 200 delegates were present as revealed by a careful analysis of the vote, day by day as given in the Negro World, his organ. Is it not clear that fact and fancy are mixed and twisted in Garvey’s mind?

Unduly Suspicious

A paranoiac is unduly suspicious. He suffers from the delusion of persecution. He is always looking for treachery. He imagines someone is always trying to harm him.

Garvey’s speeches are shot through with statements showing that the above is his frame of mind. He is continually talking of conspiracies and plots. His delusion is that he is the victim of persecution. Listen to these utterances of his and see if they are not the characteristic utterances of a paranoiac.

In the Negro World of January 21, 1921—“All the troubles we have had on our ships have been caused because men were paid to make this trouble by certain organizations calling themselves Negro Advancement Associations. They paid men to dismantle our machinery and otherwise damage it so as to bring about the downfall of the movement.”

In the Negro World of May 13, [1921,] he describes what is clearly a delusion of a great conspiracy. He says: “Millions of dollars were expended in the shipping industries to boycott and put out of existence the Black Star Line.” He further says, “Bolshevists are paying for attacks on the line.” (We wonder, in his insane delusions, how he gets capitalists and Bolshevists all against him.)

He continually changes his cabinet group. He finds traitors all about him. Everybody he imagines is his enemy. He brooks no criticism. He tolerates no adverse opinion.

“Castles in Spain”

Another symptom of paranoia is that the victim imagines that when he desires a thing to be, it has come to pass. “Castles in Spain” to him are stone and mortar castles here. There is no clear differentiation between the ideal and the actual.

So Garvey sees himself president of the Republic of Africa, sees his government established. Year before last, at his convention, he promised that ninety days afterwards, he would have embassies at the court of St. James, in Paris, Petrograd, Rome, etc.

He has no conception of the gulf of difficulties between a plan and its fulfillment.

And in paranoia these delusions are fixed. No circumstances, logic or arguments can change them. So it is with Marcus Garvey.

There is much reason to believe that if Marcus Garvey were examined by alienists, he would be pronounced insane—a paranoiac.

If he is not insane, he is a demagogic charlatan, but the probability is that the man is insane. Certainly the movement is insane, whether Garvey is or not.

Source: Robert W. Bagnall, “The Madness of Marcus Garvey,” Messenger, March 1923, 638–648.

See Also:"The Collapse of the Only Thing in the Garvey Movement Which Was Original or Promising": Du Bois on Garvey
"Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World": The Principles of the Universal Negro Improvement Association
"The Black Star Line": Singing a Song of Garveyism
"If You Believe the Negro Has a Soul": "Back to Africa" with Marcus Garvey