One of the most amazing things about traveling to a new country is how much you can learn about your own. While visiting the Black Star Gate in the center of Accra, I was given a humbling lesson in American history by the security guard on duty. I had never heard of Marcus Garvey and the Black Star Line, but his story was compelling enough to inspire the flag and identity of a foreign country.
Marcus Garvey was born in 1887, in Jamaica. He studied in London, and became a leader in America’s nascent civil rights movement. He was a contemporary of Booker T. Washington, and an early proponent of Pan-Africanism. Broadly speaking, his goal was to get as many African-Americans back to their homeland as possible. He thought blacks would never succeed in an American society structured to keep them down, and their best bet was to hop a ship back to Africa.
This was as shocking back then, as it would be now. Garvey’s belief in the separation of races was completely at odds with the larger black movement in the USA, who sought integration and equality in American society. In fact, his interests aligned him weirdly with those of white racists, to the point that he even met with and discussed strategy with leaders of the Ku Klux Klan.
Strange bedfellows aside, Garvey did amazing things for the black movement, one of the most important of which was the establishment of the Black Star Line. This was a fully black-owned and operated shipping company, whose eventual goal would be to start moving African-Americans back to the motherland. They were initially successful, which both shocked and frightened a lot of powerful people. Soon, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was infiltrating and sabotaging the company, even hiring their first black agent ever to carry out the task. They mixed destructive materials in the gas tanks, and cooked up bogus “mail fraud” charges against Garvey and other Black Star officials.
Garvey would spend five years in an Atlanta prison, before being deported back to Jamaica, where he eventually died. But his influence never waned; even in prison, he was producing essays that were widely read around the world. How important was Garvey? He’s considered a holy prophet within the tenets of Rastafarianism.
When Kwame Nkrumah declared Ghana’s independence in 1957, he paid tribute to Garvey by incorporating a black star in the center of Ghana’s flag. He nicknamed the national soccer team the “Black Stars”, and ordered the construction of Black Star Square and Gate. The message was clear: Ghana was to be a country in the spirit of Garvey’s vision. And if that made the western powers nervous… too bad. The first independent nation in West Africa was going to be a country for Africans.
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So interesting!!!! And now I am realizing that meaning is tied to “Black Star” (the former hip hop duo of Mos Def and Talib Kweli…two of the most influential and talented rappers)
Yep, they also were inspired by Marcus Garvey … Black Star is one of the greatest hip-hop albums of the 1990s! I am going to listen to it again now 🙂
Fascinating! I had heard of Marcus Garvey but didn’t know the history. Would make a good movie!