After seeing the name of the “Universal Negro Improvement Association” pop up on “Boardwalk Empire,” Speakeasy emailed HBO to ask for a comment about why their writers associated a real-life black leader’s group with murder, drugs and other kinds of wrongdoing.September 29, 2013, 10:00 AM
Is ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Trampling the Legacy of Marcus Garvey?
By Ishmael Reed
“Black Moses, The Story of Marcus Garvey and theUniversal Negro Improvement Association” by E. David Cronon received an endorsement from the celebrated black historian, John Hope Franklin, who wrote the introduction. The book recounts the career of Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant, who launched one of the largest mass movements of blacks before the Civil Rights movement. The book tracks the Jamaican from his beginnings as a journalist to his conviction for mail fraud. Though the case against him was fragile, Garvey doomed his case by acting as his own lawyer.
In the beginning of its new season, “Boardwalk Empire,” introduced a character named Valentin Narcisse (played by actor Jeffrey Wright), a dapper smooth talking character who speaks with an Caribbean accent. This character uses a white woman to blackmail Chalky White whose henchman killed the woman’s husband after he pretends to be outraged at finding the black henchman with his wife. Turns out that this was a set up and that this was how the husband and wife got their freak on. In order for Narcisse to keep quiet, Nucky Thompson decides that White has to give Narcisse ten percent of his club’s profits. Returning to New York from New Jersey, Narcisse has the woman killed. Back in Harlem, he is seen negotiating with white gangsters for part of Harlem’s heroin trade. The walls of his office are decorated with the photos of distinguished black men, but this character despite his eloquence and his fancy dress is a hoodlum. We see a banner hanging behind Narcisse that reads “Universal Negro Improvement Association”–which was the real-life name of the real-life black nationalist and self-help organization founded by Garvey. The inclusion of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in a show about crime and violence shocked even me, a person who has written, obsessively, about the depiction of blacks by the media, part of a hundred year old complaint.
After seeing the name of the “Universal Negro Improvement Association” pop up on “Boardwalk Empire,” Speakeasy emailed HBO to ask for a comment about why their writers associated a real-life black leader’s group with murder, drugs and other kinds of wrongdoing.
Here’s something that Garvey, who campaigned for black empowerment, surely would have noted: the writing staff on “Boardwalk Empire” isn’t a very diverse bunch. Garvey himself might have raised an eyebrow at the fact that virtually none of the people involved with the writing of the series, which plans to explore Garvey’s legacy in future shows, have any black roots (according to HBO, David Matthews, the executive story editor on the show, is biracial).
An HBO spokeswoman said via email “there are no writers of Caribbean heritage on the show but they do an extensive amount of research. Yes, you were correct in noticing the name of the organization and Marcus Garvey’s name comes up in future episodes – this is not a coincidence. ”
One of the most controversial figures in American history, Garvey was criticized by both the NAACP and the Communist Party, who, on other occasions, said nasty things about each other. His model for his self help enterprises was, Booker T.Washington, who, for those in power, was the president of the Black Nation; his being invited by Theodore Roosevelt to dine at the White House caused a scandal.
Garvey’s newspaper, The Negro World, established in January,1918, was called by poet Claude McKay, “ The best edited colored weekly in New York. Emphasizingblack pride, the newspaper published stories about slave rebellions,American and Haitian, and the histories of African Empires,all meant to make blacks feel proud of their racial heritage.
The Negro World,which was published weekly until 1933 was also used by Garvey to criticize his enemies sometimes in such a vitrolic manner that he invited lawsuits.Taking his lead from Washington, who established Tuskeegee College, that blacks operated their own businesses, he rejected capital from whites and used his “magnetic” personality to raise money from the grass roots. At the height of his influence, Garvey was able to draw 25,000 blacks to hear their leader make a speech in Madison Square Garden as part of a convention, which was accompanied by parades and much pageantry.
Already under surveillance by the Government, the flamboyant Garvey got into difficulty when he began a steam ship company”that would link the colored peoples of the world in commercial and industrial intercourse.” His enemies used the business dealings associated with the purchase of steam ships for which he sold stock, to get him done in with the charge of mail fraud.He was sent to an Atlanta prison and served a term there until he was awarded clemency by president Calvin Coolidge. He was deported to Jamaica, Garvey’s ideas influenced not only American blacks likeMinister Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X, but foreign leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana.
An HBO spokeswoman told us “Nowhere in the story line are we implying Marcus Garvey was involved in gambling or drugs. Valentin Narcisse is a fictional character who is based on someone who was.”
HBO pointed us to an interview in GQ in which Wright said “Dr. Narcisse is kind of a funhouse mirror distortion of an historical figure named Casper Holstein who was, during the early 1920s in Harlem, the king of the numbers game.” He goes on to say “at that time, there was something of a great debate within African-American society, among the great thinkers of the past: W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and within the Harlem Renaissance about what was the way forward. Within that debate were some pretty vicious personal attacks over complexion, politics, between urbane and rural—a lot of those dynamics are fleshed out within the relationship between Dr. Narcisse and Chalky.”
“Boardwalk Empire” creator Terry Winter said this via email: “Our fictional Valentin Narcisse is associated with Marcus Garvey’s organization, but this is not to imply in any way that Garvey himself was involved in the same types of illegal activities. Without giving away any future story developments, I can say that the Narcisse character was inspired in part by Casper Holstein, a West Indian immigrant who was head of the Harlem numbers racket as well as a philanthropist and political activist. After Garvey was sentenced to prison and the UNIA collapsed, Holstein purchased the building in which the organization was headquartered. As the season progresses, we also focus on J. Edgar Hoover‘s fixation with putting Garvey in jail.”
But except for his buying the mortgage for a building once used by Garvey’s organization, Holstein was not a part of the UNIA. Moreover, there is no evidence that Holstein was involved in the murder of a white woman. Also, connecting him with the heroin trade is bizarre because he died in 1944. Heroin was introduced into Harlem in the 1950s; before that it was used by white males, mostly.
Holstein’s connection with Garvey’s old building came about when Garvey’s movement already had collapsed. Holstein donated a large portion of his fortune towards charitable purposes such as building dormitories at historically black colleges, as well as financing many artists, writers, and poets during the Harlem Renaissance. He also helped establish a Baptist school in Liberia, and create hurricane relief fund for his native Virgin Islands. He had nothing to do with heroin.
Garvey is an official National Hero of Jamaica. It is a disgrace that HBO connects his UNIA in any form with murder and heroin dealing. In my view, it’s an example of what happens when the writing staffs of Hollywood and television are decades behind in terms of diversity. There are plenty of black historians who could serve as consultants in case they continue to exploit the Garvey story.
George Bernard Shaw had it right. If you don’t tell your stories others will tell them for you and they will “degrade” and “vulgarize” you.
Ishmael Reed’s new play, “ The Final Version” will premiere at the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe on Dec.12. His online magazine Konch is at konchmagazine.localon.com
The Idol Smasher
Published: Monday 31 December 2012
Reed’s righteous fury is a heartening antidote to the squeamishness of liberals and the lunacy of the right wing. He says the editors of The New York Times and most other major media outlets “sound like they get their instructions from Julius Streicher [the Nazi propagandist] when it comes to blacks.” He calls the HBO series “The Wire” “a Neo-Nazi portrait of black people” and dismisses the movie “Precious” as a film that “makes D.W. Griffith look like a progressive.”
“Lazy, no-good black people, who are welfare cheats, sitting around eating chicken, and having sex with their children, right out of the Lee Atwater-Paul Ryan playbook,” he said of the portrayals in “Precious” when I reached him by phone at his home in Oakland, Calif. “The wonderful novelist Diane Johnson was right when she said that ‘largely white’ audiences are thrilled by images of black people as dysfunctional. This has become a billion-dollar market which led critics to assert that Black Bogeyman movies sell better than sex, according to the critic C. Liegh McInnis. You even have a critic at The Root website, a post-racial ‘Talented Tenth’ hangout for ‘exceptional blacks,’ praising Quentin Tarantino’s latest sick exercise into racial porn, called ‘Django Unchained,’ ” which I critique at the Wall Street Journal site Speakeasy. This movie is being praised by the same critics who loved ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘Precious,’ probably because it revives Stanley Elkins’ discredited ‘Sambo Thesis.’ ”
Reed has no time for Black Bloc anarchists, whom he calls “alienated, spoiled middle-class white kids from the suburbs” as well as “vandals and thugs.” He calls the Oscar presentation “a white supremacist pageant.” He detests the Clintons, who he reminds us sold out the poor and the working class. Hillary, he says, makes “Eva Peron seem benign.” He predicts more tragedies like the recent Connecticut massacre, noting that many white Americans stockpile assault rifles because they are terrified of black people and that mass shootings in the United States almost always are carried out by estranged white men.
“ ‘The Turner Diaries,’ the book that inspired Timothy McVeigh to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma, and assaults by gunmen including one against the North Valley Jewish Community Center [in Granada Hills, Calif.,] in 1999, are very explicit,” he said not long after we were on a panel together at the Miami Book Festival. “The [novel] tells whites they need guns because if they give up their assault weapons blacks will kidnap white women and Jewish men will be their pimps. This fantasy, however absurd, at least addresses the deepest, unspoken fears of whites. The white power structure looks around at what is happening. It sees we are going down. It is terrified of an uprising by a coalition of whites, blacks, Asian-Americans and Hispanics that elected Obama—even though Obama with his pretty, multicultural face and elegant style and his spouse, who is more militant than he and who for that reason has been silenced, serve the empire. The only problem is that white crazies like [Michele] Bachmann and the others are so blinded by white supremacy that they won’t go along with the script. She [Rep. Bachmann] said that Obama was costing the taxpayers $250 million per day on his trip to India, a lie, when Obama’s taking over 100 CEOs along with him brought back billions in contracts.”
“The other part of the white public, the underclass and working class, has proven that they will go to any lengths to uphold white supremacy,” he said. “Even when they had no fight in the Civil War, owning no slave assets like the planters, they caused the deaths of 640,000 Americans in order to uphold white supremacy. Then, as now, parts of the white working class, who are anti-union and get drunk on the cheap moonshine of racism, are willing to exercise self-extinction in order to uphold white supremacy.”
“One part of the slavery deal was the patriarchal planter’s ownership of black women’s wombs,” he went on. “Now they [the powerful] are mandating this demand of all women. Yet, white women favored Romney by 14 points. They’re intimidated I think by their husbands, brothers, fathers and employers, which is why they scapegoat the [black] brothers for worldwide misogyny.”
“When Eve Ensler cited the Congo, Haiti and New Orleans as where all of the cruelty to women [was], I figured that she was excusing white men because she has some kind of financial relationship with them,” he said. “One report from SUNY Buffalo has it that 90 percent of middle-class white women who were interviewed report being battered or witnessing their mothers, daughters and sisters being battered. Nicholas Kristof, who is on a world tour for the purpose of blaming black and brown men for cruelty to women, probably missed this report. So the white power structure, at least the Northeastern part, hopes having a black man as president will save the empire, just as the Germans, who were considered the underclass by the Romans, continued the Roman Empire until the 1800s, according to some historians. But they can’t sell this to the majority of white women, who voted for Romney, the kind of dated ‘50s face and style that alienates the rest of the world, instead of a president who is actually charming to those who hate the United States. The president, whom I have both admired and criticized, is good for business. His face is more welcomed in many parts of the world than the usual white Yalie or Harvard person who hasn’t a clue about what’s happening on the global streets—the kind of people who constantly get us into international trouble and even wars because they can’t read the values of other cultures … while Obama can go to places and tell Muslims, ‘Well, you know, I have Muslims in my family.’ ”
“The reason that I supported Obama for re-election is because of the vitriol, bordering on the psychotic, aimed at him and his family,” Reed said. “Also, because he faced not only opposition from the neo-Confederate caucus in Congress, but from a tea party that was created by [Rupert] Murdoch and [Roger] Ailes and from CNN, which made a business alliance with the Tea Party Express, led formerly by Mark Williams, who was fired over his so-called colored people letter. He wrote:
Mr. Lincoln, you were the greatest racist ever. We had a great gig. Three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massa in the house.
We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don’t cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!
Williams went on to say blacks don’t want taxes cut because “how will we Colored People ever get a wide screen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn?”
Reed said: “That they [CNN leaders] would make an alliance with this scum explains how blacks are depicted on CNN usually during the time when they have black anchors. I feel sorry for these people. It’s because of CNN and Hollywood that when I visited Palestinian schools in Jerusalem in October I was asked why all black people are on drugs. And he [former Tea Party Express Chairman Williams] was replaced by a woman named Amy Kremer, who said to a CNN interviewer that ‘I just don’t believe that he [Obama] loves America the way we do.’ CNN’s bonding with this outfit explains the way it portrays blacks. The network has Soledad O’Brien scolding black men for not showing up at their daughters’ birthday parties, or blacks making excuses for not being successful, or it does a 24-hour show about blacks committing dumb street crimes, or black athletes doing DUIs, while the audience, described by [former CNN anchor] Rick Sanchez as ‘angry white men,’ are shown doing altruistic deeds. They ignore the widespread pathologies afflicting white women. They’re always shown helping people with their homework or adopting kids from Africa.”
“I hold up a mirror to our hypocrisy,” Reed said. “This is a tradition among writers that goes back to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who exposed the hypocrisy of the Puritans. In Haitian mythology there is a figure named Ghede. In West Africa he is called Iku. His role is to show each man his devil. He wears a top hat and smokes a cigar. That’s what I do. I show each man, woman, or institution their devils.”