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Marcus Garvey

While the broadcast networks crow about their big ratings for "Survivor" and "Temptation Island," public television has been doing its duty admirably, celebrating Black History Month with serious programs about real struggles for survival.

Tonight "American Experience" on PBS offers a fascinating biography of Marcus Garvey, the quixotic proponent of black nationalism who acquired a huge following by 1920 but was almost forgotten when he died 20 years later. His philosophy would take hold again in the 1960's with the emergence of the new black separatist movement epitomized by Malcolm X. J. Edgar Hoover lived long enough to hound both of them.

(On Sunday at noon CUNY-TV, Channel 75 in New York, will rebroadcast a 1963 interview with Malcolm X on "The Open Mind.")

"Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind," presents a full-bodied portrait of a strange and complicated man with huge ambitions and flaws to match. Short and plump, with brooding eyes, Garvey was plain-spoken about his Napoleon complex; he even told the woman he loved that she was his Josephine. He also had a weakness for ornate uniforms.

But the uniforms weren't mere foppery. They became the symbol of his Universal Negro Improvement Association and a visual metaphor for Garvey's central theme. "We have changed from the old cringing weakling and transformed into full- grown men demanding our portion as men," he said.

The imagery was vital at a time when early movies portrayed blacks as heathens, cannibals tossing whites into pots for cooking. The documentary tells the story of a Garvey follower, a master carpenter from St. Kitts, who came to Harlem in 1910 and found himself barred from the all-white carpenters' union. He ended up working as a janitor, but when he put on his U.N.I.A. uniform, his pride was restored.

Garvey's Waterloo was his terrible business sense (disastrous when combined with his supreme self-confidence). While he understood that economic power was crucial to black self-determination, he confused his own charisma with financial acumen. He raised large sums from his supporters to start a shipping corporation and then lost everything through bad management and sabotage by Hoover's agents.

When Garvey began his improvement association in 1914, slavery was just a generation away. His own father was born a slave and felt compelled to teach his son resilience, but in a particularly cruel way. The father was a mason whose work included building tombs. When Marcus was a child, his father had the boy climb down into a grave and then pulled up the ladder, leaving him there alone in terrible fear. His mother, on the other hand, wanted to call her son Moses and instilled in him an epic sense of self.

The documentary conveys the sensation of what being black meant to the proud, educated — and yes, resilient — Garvey. He became a journalist and a laborer, traveling through Central America where he saw black workers doing the crucial scut work but holding no power. His ambitions would become global. He wanted to be the leader of black peoples everywhere, though his base would eventually be Harlem.

He spread his message through his newspaper, The Negro World, which was also published in Spanish and French and was distributed in Africa and the Caribbean, where it was banned by white officials. As his popularity grew, he became the target of government hostility in many countries, including the United States. Liberal black leaders, proponents of integration, didn't like him either, considering him a dangerous and embarrassing fanatic, especially when he decided to meet with Ku Klux Klan leaders, whom he considered the real source of power in America.

He may have been a fanatic and outlandish, declaring himself the provisional president of Africa, though he never actually visited the continent. But his extremism touched a chord in a great many people who had been treated extremely badly. His refusal to compromise was ruinous but would prove inspirational to later generations who wouldn't find his essential message of self-determination and black pride to be outlandish at all.



PBS, tonight

(Channel 13, New York, at 10:30)

The public television black heritage celebration, being broadcast under the banner of "Umoja," a Swahili word for unity, presents an alternative vision of history, whose landmarks, verities and personalities barely appear in mainstream recollections.

Most Americans, for example, would probably place the country's first battles for school integration in the 1950's and 60's in the South. But the Garvey documentary is followed by "Nantucket: Rock of Changes," a 30-minute documentary about a group of Quakers who opposed slavery but still didn't want their children to mingle with blacks at school. Twenty years before the Civil War this battle was settled in court, and the Nantucket, Mass., schools were integrated.

This short film recalls the now- extinct African-American community on Nantucket, which prospered because the whaling industry, for its time, was an enlightened employer in racial matters. It's another buried chapter that was worth excavating.


Marcus Garvey: Look for Me

in the Whirlwind

PBS, tonight

(Channel 13 in New York at 9)

Stanley Nelson, producer and director; Marcia Smith, writer; Mark Samels, senior producer; Kysia Bostic and J. J. McGeehan, composers; Carl Lumbly, narrator. A Firelight/ Half Nelson Productions film for American Experience.

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