In Praise of…The Marcus Garvey Library,
Ronald Elly Wanda
I first discovered The Marcus Garvey Library at Philip Lane in Tottenham almost a decade and a half ago and have remained a frequent visitor ever since. It is host to a number of controversial hard and paperbacks and many activities that other public libraries dare not entertain. It is, to say the least, ‘Radical’. For a start, it is named after a gentleman who once observed that:
For man to know himself is for him to feel that for him there is no human master. For him Nature is his servant, and whatsoever he wills in Nature, that shall be his reward. If he wills to be a pigmy, a serf or a slave, that shall he be. If he wills to be a real man in possession of the things common to man, then he shall be his own sovereign. When man fails to grasp his authority he sinks to the level of the lower animals, and whatsoever the real man bids him do, even as if it were of the lower animals, that much shall he do. If he says “go.” He goes. If he says “come,” he comes. By this command he performs the functions of life even as by a similar command the mule, the horse, the cow performs the will of their masters. For the last four hundred years the Negro has been in the position of being commanded even as the lower animals are controlled. Our race has been without a will; without a purpose of its own, for all this length of time.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey, the renowned fiery Jamaican writer, anti-racist, social and political justice crusader who famously advocated Pan-Africanism as a solution for many problems (primarily racism and slavery) that plagued Africans especially those outside of Africa. He led the largest organized mass movement of people of African ancestry ever. Garvey has come to be best remembered as a champion of what singer and Rastafarian philosopher Bob Marley, also inspired by Garvey’s enterprise, once tunefully termed the “exodus” movement. The movement sought to inspire all Africans in the diaspora to “redeem” Africa, and for the European colonial powers to leave Africa. At one time, he also said: “I have no desire to take all black people back to Africa; there are blacks who are no good here and will likewise be no good there”.
He was born on the 17th of August 1887, the youngest of his father’s 11 children in St. Ann’s Bay, in countryside Jamaica. He was a bright student from the start; he attended infant and elementary schools in St. Ann’s Bay later receiving private tuition from his godfather Alfred Burrowes, a Printer, whom he later became apprenticed to. His passion for social and political activism is said to have been triggered at an early age by his love of books from his father, a skilled mason, and Mr Burrowes, who were both widely read and had private libraries. Although born in Jamaica, he lived for years in New York City, the Caribbean and London, making study visits to Panama, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela and other parts of what was then British protectorate or the so called “Empire”.
“Everywhere”, noted Garvey in his travel journal, “Black people are experiencing great hardships”. His appeals to the colonial administrators, following the distressing situations in Central America, Europe, America and Africa itself were ignored. Convinced that unity was the only way to improve the conditions for black people, he returned to Jamaica on the 1st of August 1914 and launched the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League (UNIA). He then led the association with the motto “One God! One Aim! One Destiny!” It sought to unite “all the people of African ancestry of the world into one great body to establish a country and Government absolutely their own.” In 1928 he presented a Petition to the League of Nation (now UN) in Geneva, on behalf of black people around the world. The petition outlined the abuses that black people around the world face and sought redress through the Organization. One other important aspect of the petition was its exposure of the barbarity of the South African regime and its unfitness to govern Namibia.
To say the least, Marcus Garvey was a successful publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and international crusader for Black Nationalism. He achieved his aims of promoting a positive spirit of pride and love, assisting the needy, reclaiming black empowerment, and establishing universities and colleges for purposes of educating the ‘black child’. From 1935 until his untimely death, owing to poor health, in June 1940, he lived and worked in London. In November 1964, his remains were extracted from Kendal Green Cemetery in London and finally returned to Jamaica, having been proclaimed Jamaica’s first National Hero; he is rested at the National Heroes Park.
Today, the rights and freedoms that the ‘black man’ partially enjoys are immensely owed to the bruising battles that were fought by Garvey and others like him, the courage they took and victories they secured we must never forget.
In the past, the problem of the momorialisation of slavery was the absence of memorials. In 1988 for example, the then managing director of Heritage Projects Limited dismissed the very idea of a Museum of Slavery as being “unacceptable” to the British Public. Although speaking for himself, he exemplified the fact that for slave-holding and slave trading nations, remembering the facts and redressing the legacy of African slavery across the Atlantic remains a controversial and fraught exercise. Henceforth, it is heartening to see such despicable attitudes slowly changing and Garvey’s memory and other significant anti-slavery crusaders kept alive worldwide; from ‘The Marcus Garvey library’ in England to ‘The Marcus Garvey Pan-Afrikan Institute’ in Mbale, Eastern Uganda, his spirit and inspiration continues being memorised in all cultural corners of the world.
Upon entrance to the contemporary building hosting The Marcus Garvey Library in Tottenham, one is fittingly greeted by a foundation stone of Marcus Garvey that was planted by Marcus Garvey Jnr. on the 7th of August 1987 to commemorate a century since his birth. The stone, noticeably scripted entirely in capital letters, critically announces:
“IT COMMEMORATES THE CENTENARY OF THE LIFE AN`D WORKS OF THE RIGHT HONOURABLE BROTHER MARCUS MOSIAH GARVEY THE AFRIKAN BORN IN JAMAICA W.I ON THE 17TH AUGUST 1887, THE PEOPLE OF HARINGEY AND INDEED THROUGHOUT THE WORLD HONOUR HIS LIFE COMMITMENT TO HIS PEOPLE IN REGENERATING BLACK PRIDE SELF RELIANCE AND CONFIDENCE”.
A message, (as I discovered), that resonates with you throughout your entire period at the library. On 30th July 2008, following a short visit to the centre, a helpful senior librarian Lee Francis agreed to engage my hazy enquiries, the transcript of which follows below:
Ronald Elly Wanda (hereafter, R.E.W): When did this library open?
Lee Francis (hereafter, L.F): Well, the complex has been opened since the 1980s but the library itself (Marcus Garvey library) hmm, it became operational, about 1993!
R.E.W: You have less material covering ‘black literature’. Is it because of fewer readers or for that matter less demand for this division?
L.F: New books come in all the time. I order them. I also look after the ‘black literature’ section, and I usually order books as and when they are requested by our readers. We usually use one supplier throughout the Council (Haringey Council), however we have started branching out, especially now that internet technology (and IT) has advanced and made many things possible. There are some books (especially those of Black interest) that I cannot sometimes find through our local supplier, when this arises I usually order them using Amazon (the internet supplier), I find them much quicker and reliable, given the fact that we have ordering deadlines, for instance a book shouldn’t take us more than 10 days once an order has been made etcetera. Also there is high demand for some books in the black literature section, which is why we have labelled many of them ‘reference only.
R.E.W: I’ve noticed you have a large section dedicated purely to Marcus Garvey…
L.F: Yes we do. We have a large section upstairs dedicated to Marcus Garvey. We have books and speeches by him as well as books and essays written about him. The very latest is a biography that came in last week. We also have a vast selection of materials on the slavery subject.
R.E.W: Great man he was!
L.F: Yes, I agree.
R.E.W: I once tried ordering a book through Waterstones by Dani Nabudere that was published in Lusaka, Zambia. It took the bookshop almost 2 years to tell me they were giving up trying. Do you face similar problems in ordering books published elsewhere in the world, least of all Africa?
L.F: No. Usually if a book is written in English, it is easy for us to try and get hold of it than say if it is in another language. Place of publication, I do not think is very much an issue. Here in Haringey, we have more than 100 spoken languages; as learning provider, we are trying to reflect on this diversity, but I think it would be impossible to stock all books in all these languages, some of which include Vietnamese, Latino, Afrikaner, Welch, Japanese, Swahili and so forth. We also have a large collection of DVD programmes in many languages that reflect the diversity of our community.
R.E.W: How about some out of print books?
L.F: We sometimes loan books that we are unable to get from a publisher, from the British Library for a three week period. Also, and increasingly so, we are buying second hand books from Amazon (the internet bookshop), and it only takes 10 days!
R.E.W: This library is buzzing with activities for all ages!
L.F: It certainly is! The Marcus Garvey Library is not only a library but an interactive forum, where the community meets to discuss relevant issues and problem that it faces. This library actively engages and liaises with the local further and higher education providers such as the College of North East London (CONEL) and Middlesex University (MU) and their students. They (students) tap into our resources when researching their discourses and often offer us suggestions such as new materials and books that we can order, these are sometimes specialist books and other relevant resources that the community can make use of, they include books and DVD software on hairdressing, Criminology, Business, and Management etc. That said, there are between 12 and 13 other agencies that tap into our resources and are constructively engaging with our local community as well. Next month (August) we will be launching ‘Books on Therapy’, an initiative that we have come up with in association with local GPs (General Practitioners), it was a pilot scheme that initially started in Cardiff, that we have also embraced. Most of this information is on the leaflets titled “What’s on in Haringey Libraries” that is also available on the Council’s website. There is also Black History month coming up in October; where we usually have lectures by invited guest speakers, plays and dances, new book launches and many more exciting things!
R.E.W: Thank you Mr Francis.
L.F: Thank you!
What Haringey Council seems to have achieved at number one Phillip lane in Tottenham is a redefinition of the library for our modern age. The Marcus Garvey library has become a template for what can be called a ‘civic outcome’, the library as a place of respect, mutuality, and enlightenment in our increasingly antagonistic multi-racial, multi-cultural society. And it is a model which other libraries in the surrounding boroughs (in particular the newly launched Enfield central library) have begun desperately to follow. Enfield Central library like Haringey’s Central library in Wood Green also opens on Sundays, from 12 noon to 4 pm. For those with strong religious inclinations, this increasing popularity of the library can be seen as a miserable indictment of Britain’s post-Christian age. Instead of attending churches, wretched secularists seek some kind of spiritual fulfilment amid the ‘written word’; where readers unlike worshippers have a far more appealing menu full of classics such as Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things fall apart’, Ngugi wa Thiongo’s ‘Decolonizing the Mind’, Ben Okri’s ‘The famished Road’ or even good old pamphlets on contemporary local issues such as ‘Community Justice News’, that immediately serves a practical purpose for the user. Reading, says Alberto Manguel in his latest book ‘The Library at Night’, has become a “ritual of rebirth” which both invigorates the reader and awakens old books to new life and freedoms.
That said, Marcus Garvey Library has played a key role in extending ‘learning’ to disenfranchised members of the community on matters ranging from the civic to the domestic, thus in a sense transforming them from unapprised into informed citizens, equipped with the capacity to modify, if so they wish, their society.
For if society is allowed to exploit and oppress certain individuals, by say, striping them off the possibility to get an education, to learn spiritual values, to harmoniously develop their diverse abilities, then freedom for such a people becomes only a “spectre or an unrealistic ideal or dream”, because the virtues of freedom and democracy cannot truly be enjoyed without an education.
As indeed we are reminded by Aristotle in his book ‘The Politics’ (also available at the library) that for as man is best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is worst of all when divorced from law and justice. “Injustice armed is hardest to deal with”, says Aristotle, “and though man is born with weapons which he can use in the service of practical wisdom and virtue, it is all too easy for him to use them for the opposite purposes”. Dependence on the ‘radical library’ and at the same time active participation in its continued transformation ought to be the real objective of us all as librarians, library users, writers, educators, students and community members.
Finally, slavery as a subject, at last seems to have caught the public’s attention. Last year alone, I recall three major BBC films that went on to offer three hours viewing into the squalid corners of the Atlantic slavery, perhaps cunningly put to commemorate the so called 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007. Yet even more remarkable is the way slavery was so marginal to mainstream intellectual and popular interests until relatively recent. For the political and ruling establishment here in Britain, slavery has long seemed a distant phenomenon; something that unfolded in Africa, the Americas or in the Atlantic. The fact that the British orchestrated much of the slavery in the Atlantic by the mid-18th century has generally gone unnoticed. Today, that is no longer true and historians are recognising the centrality of African slaves in the shaping of the modern world by, say the late 18th century. Marcus Garvey library is a store full of information that brings this forgotten history to the forefront of historical discourses for both the native and diasporic library user.
Ronald Elly Wanda MCIJ is the president of Pan African Society (UK) based in London
I am grateful to Lee Francis at Marcus Garvey Library for all the help he gave me whilst touring the Library.
‘Man Know Thy Self’ an essay by Marcus Garvey. For an in depth, including commentaries on this essay and many others please access http://www.marcusgarvey.com/wmview.php?ArtID=565// accessed 31st July 2008.
For a detailed discussion on this topic see Francis Fukuyama, the End of History 1991 cited in R. E. Wanda’s “The Immigrant and ‘Britishness’ in Britain” that can be accessed on http://libr.org/isc/issues/ISC24/A32-Wanda.pdf
Aristotle, ‘The Politics”, by T.A Sinclair, 1962, Penguin Books, London. P.39.