I realise halfway through my interview with Julius Garvey that it was a mistake to question him firstly about his views of the relevance today of Pan Africanism, rather than exploring the defining relationships of his life and philosophy.
Because it is in the account of those relationships that one begins to understand how the theoretical views one holds are honed by practical life experience, especially human engagement.
Garvey is the son of Jamaican activist, journalist, businessman, politician Marcus Garvey, who was lauded for his work in promoting black rights through his Universal Negro Improvement Association until his death in 1940.
In his home country and in the US and Britain, Marcus Garvey argued for black people to recognise their significance in the world, to work towards their freedom in all respects, from religion where he put forward the idea of a black god, to economics where he encouraged the development of black-owned businesses supported by black communities.
He was a strong proponent of the independence of African countries from colonial rule and for the formation of a United States of Africa to which Africans in the diaspora, including in America, would be repatriated voluntarily.
His son, Julius Garvey, 83, is a gynaecologist in New York who still practices a few days a week, but has spent much of his lifetime furthering his father’s work on Pan Africanism.
In the Eastern Cape this week to deliver the Robert Sobukwe Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Steve Biko Foundation, Garvey acknowledged that carrying his father’s legacy was difficult but “more of a privilege, really”.
“As a young person, it was a burden, because it was something of a political and philosophical mantle which a young man has no understanding of. I wanted to play cricket, go with my girlfriend, hang with the boys, I didn’t want to hear that I was Marcus Garvey’s son and must follow in my father’s footsteps.
“That has dogged me all my life. So as a young person it was a burden in that sense but also a privilege because my father was a hero. In college they called me ‘son of black god’.
“In between wanting to run away from it and being lionised as Marcus Garvey’s son, I had to find out who Julius Garvey is, that’s kind of my mission in life. It turns out I’m my father’s son, that’s the fun part because I understand him. Because of the DNA, I react the same way, I understand his thirst for social justice. I won’t say I understand his courage, because it as enormous and his audacity to take on the whole colonial world and say ‘I’m going to re-build Africa, reform Africa, redeem Africa’, was absolutely stupendous. I don’t think that was in my DNA.”
Julius is equal to my provocation whether “this Pan Africanist nonsense” is still relevant today. “It’s not nonsense. It’s the order of the day. You don’t have champions of it the way you had with Kwame Nkrumah. A lot of people give lip service to it. They talk of Pan-Africanism but all they’re really talking about is different countries getting together, they’re not really talking about an African ideology as the basis of Pan-Africanism.”
For him that ideology is rooted in notions of humanism, ubuntu, the relationship between individual and society. “A person was not a person in and of itself, a person was part of a community. You fulfil your identity within a community. It doesn’t foster individualism, whereby the individual considers himself separate from the community. That’s a Western concept and not present in a lot of original civilisations.
“The other basis of an African philosophy is the relationship to the environment. We consider God is the universe, not some entity outside [it] that created the universe and went away and is up there watching us. The relationship we have with the universe is that if the universe is supporting us then we must respect the universe and must learn from the universe.“So we are a natural people, we learn from nature. We’re interested to imitate nature and not in transforming nature.
“A lot of Western philosophy is about this superior intellectual mind which can master both your own body and nature and then you can have perpetual prosperity. That’s what drives the western industrial machine. That’s a paradigm which is dying because it’s killing the planet, it’s polarising humanity and destroying plant species.”
Julius says his father’s conception of Pan Africanism included a transformation of humans. “The transformation of man is one of the key things that Pan-Africanists haven’t caught on to. [Marcus} said god and the environment have made us what we are but we must make us what we want to be and that is what is lacking, we as black people must make ourselves what we want to be.
“The problem is we don’t know what we want to be because what we are is so determined by what somebody else says we are – we’re inferior, subhuman, unintelligent, ugly – all these negatives have been grafted onto our minds so we’re not able to see our possibilities.
“This is what my dad was able to show, our possibilities to do all of what needs to be done for ourselves – we didn’t have to depend on anybody else.”
He agrees many charlatans masquerading as leaders have brought great harm to black communities but insists on blaming whites who have co-opted blacks.
“That’s why we have not progressed and I think the reason we have so many [charlatans] is because our minds have been captured.
“My father used to say ‘look, the whole world is run on bluff’. What the white man is doing is a shell game [a confidence trick], it’s not real, it’s an artificial construct, it has nothing to do with you as a human being, with your needs to be happy in your environment. There’s nothing within European society that does that, apart from anti-depressants and the entertainment industry, and that’s [their] reality. It’s not reality, it’s a pseudo-reality. Reality is when you look in the mirror in the morning and you’re god-damned depressed because you have to go to a meaningless job or have no job or you’re in a hostile environment.”
I ask him finally if his marriage to a white woman did not debunk the promotion of the idea that blackness must be front and centre of society.
“No, I don’t think so. I believe in one race, the human race, I believe in a non-racial society. I don’t believe in an advantage for any particular race. It’s not that there needs to be prejudice against Europeans, I think we need to be pro-African, without being negative to anybody else.
“Marriage is a very personal thing, nobody knows where you are at any particular point in time in terms of your needs. That’s up to the individual. I would never tell my son whom to marry. It’s very much the same thing in terms of sexual preference nowadays.
“Mixed marriages have been going on since the world began. You see it all over the world. In the US, a significant percentage of black people are mixed. You don’t see it as much on the other side but a significant percentage of white people are mixed too.
“Marcus Garvey had to deal with a specific problem at a specific time. Like Steve Biko, who said, ‘I write what I like’, well I speak what I like. It is in my father’s vein and philosophy.” — firstname.lastname@example.org