By Ishmael Reed
“Boardwalk Empire” made a reference to the black leader Marcus Garvey on a recent episode. But it wasn’t a tribute that Garveyites would have appreciated.
“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