The Story of a Reluctant Activist

Geoffrey Philp is a political activist who is dedicated to exonerating Marcus Garvey. Here’s his story.

“Marcus Garvey,” screamed the dreadlocked woman as she made her way through the crowd toward me.

“Yes,” I answered, figuring she had forgotten my name and latched on to the nearest association.

“I need the name of your children’s book and the exoneration site for Marcus Garvey,” she said and handed me her notepad.

I gave her my business card with the name of my children’s book, Marcus and the Amazons, and a sticker with the web site address for the petition site.

“Thank you for supporting my work,” I said and returned her notepad.

“We should be thanking you for keeping the message of Marcus Garvey alive,” she said. “And I’ll do anything to help a revolutionary brother.”

The phrase struck me. So, this is what I had become? After writing five books of poetry, a novel, two short story collections and two children’s books, I was now a “revolutionary brother”? I accepted the name.

As I drove home that evening from the Miami Book Fair International, I began to imagine the story arc of my life as a reluctant activist. The trajectory would be from a mild-mannered poet who wrote poems about exile and the music of Bob Marley through stories that explored the plight of fatherless boys in Jamaica and South Florida; children’s books about the Jamaican culture hero, Anancy, to the “revolutionary brother” who went door-to-door canvassing for the Obama campaign and petitioning for the exoneration of Marcus Garvey.

If I were to begin in medias res, the opening scene would be in my office researching my second children’s book, Marcus and the Amazons, the story that would change the course of my life.

During the lock-in, I’d be holding my pen in my right hand—I still write by longhand—and my left hand would be holding down the pages of The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. Just at eye level, my computer screen would display the web page with Letter from Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Pulling at the little hair I have left, I’d be filled with doubt because I wanted the scenes to be perfect. I was combining the work of two of my dearest heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  and the Right Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey into a moral fable about the Black community. The protagonist, Marcus Formica, would embody the principles of non-violence that Dr. King advocated and he would have to confront the lack of self-respect within the Black community that Garvey sought to remedy.

The first culmination would be in an elementary school in what is politely called an “underserved community.” Children and adults would still be demonstrating the self-defeating patterns that Garvey tried to end: the virulent self-hatred that was evidenced in dysfunctional families and high incarceration rates among Black males.

A flashback? The NAACP’s collaboration with the Justice Department under J. Edgar Hoover to stop the Garvey movement and Garvey’s conviction on trumped up charges of mail fraud. Cut to Garvey’s premature death caused by his incarceration and years of libelous calumnies that no other civil rights leader has had to endure.

The mid-point would be another moment of self-doubt. Who would make Garvey’s name whole again? I wasn’t a Rastafarian and I certainly wasn’t a Garveyite. Was I black enough? A blessing would come Marcus Garvey’s son, Dr. Julius Garvey, and the endorsement of Garvey scholar, Dr. Rupert Lewis, would help as the twin enemies that every activist must face, apathy and ignorance, reared their hydra-like heads.

Luckily, I’m at the third point twist. And whereas apathy is usually terminal, ignorance can be cured. Which is why in addition to my daily efforts on Twitter, Facebook and my blog, I’ve begun a lecture series, “Rethinking Garveyism in the Twenty First Century” which has already been booked for three venues in South Florida during Black History Month.

I still don’t know how this story is going to end. Will I reach the goal of 10,000 signatures? Will President Obama sign the petition this time? He has denied a previous attempt. No matter the outcome, it will have a great soundtrack: Bob Marley’s Legend with “Get up, Stand up,” as the lead track.

I’m praying this story will have a happy ending. For if it does, I know that like my heroes, Bob Marley, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Marcus Garvey, I will have played a small part in the redemption of my people.

If you would like to insure a happy ending, please sign the petition.

Part of the Calling All Activists: Submissions Wanted! series

Photo: AP/David McFadden

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About Geoffrey Philp

Geoffrey Philp, author of the e-book, Bob Marley and Bradford’s iPod, has also written, five collections of poetry, a children's e-book, Marcus and the Amazons, and a short story collection, Who's Your Daddy? An award winning writer, whose work explores the themes of masculinity and fatherhood in a Caribbean context, Geoffrey is one of the few writers whose work has been published in the Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories and the Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse. His popular blog, geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com, covers literary events in the Caribbean and Miami, where lives with wife, Nadia and their three children, Anna, Christina, and Andrew.

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