How leaders are portrayed in history books, film, the news media and the public square depends on who—or what color—those leaders are. If one takes a look at the so-called “Founding Fathers” as a poignant example, their images are fiercely protected. Their bad deeds are scrubbed away—whitewashed if you will—and their positive contributions are exalted and blown out of proportion to their actual impact. Little to nothing is said of their genocide and displacement of native people, the subjugation of Black people, and their subordination of women.
George Washington is called the father of the country, we are told, but little is mentioned of the 216 to 316 enslaved Africans he owned, or the fact that he signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law, which allowed for whites to recapture enslaved Africans, even in free states. Further, there is Thomas Jefferson, who owned 20 enslaved Africans, and refused to recognize the Black republic of Haiti when it seized independence from France.
But if we were to scrutinize these leaders as we should, it would require us to take a completely different look at them. Mass murder, kidnapping, land theft and other crimes have been submerged and hidden, as those who committed the offenses have been recast as “heroes,” “leaders” and “statesmen.”
James Madison, who inherited Africans from his father, the largest landowner in Virginia, once said: “A general emancipation of slaves ought to be 1. gradual. 2. equitable & satisfactory to the individuals immediately concerned. 3. consistent with the existing & durable prejudices of the nation… To be consistent with existing and probably unalterable prejudices in the U.S. freed Blacks ought to be permanently removed beyond the region occupied by or allotted to a White population.”
And Andrew Jackson was not a Founding Father, yet is revered, although he owned as many as 300 kidnapped Africans.
“Although you will find some negroes, at first hard to manage – still I hope you will be able to govern them without much difficulty,” Jackson once told his overseer. “I have only to say, you know my disposition, and as far as lenity can be extended to these unfortunate creatures, I wish you do so; subordination must be obtained first, and then good treatment.”
Yet, Black leaders are exposed, left out in the open to be torn apart and maligned as their work, ideals and legacy desecrated. Marcus Mosaiah Garvey, the Black Nationalist visionary and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Associated, is a case in point. The PBS website says the following of Garvey, “A personal and political antagonist to Du Bois, Garvey was both a visionary and a manipulator, a brilliant orator and a pompous autocrat.”
It is worth noting that Marcus Garvey accomplished what no one had done before or since—he led the largest mass movement in African-American history, with a UNIA membership of upwards of eight million people. Further, he sought economic empowerment and social upliftment for millions of people, and employed thousands. Meanwhile, the man who worked overtime to destroy him and subsequently so many other Black leaders—J. Edgar Hoover—was honored with a federal building in his name.
In response, Atlanta BlackStar has started an online petition to tell PBS to change its description of Marcus Garvey:
Tell PBS to change its description of Marcus Garvey –
” Marcus Garvey was both a visionary and a manipulator, a brilliant orator and a pompous autocrat.”
— Atlanta Blackstar (@ATLBlackStar) August 18, 2015
Media images and narratives help create our reality, and the younger generation is influenced by the the images they see. When they come of age and become leaders in their own right, they will make decisions—bad or good—depending on the information that has been transmitted to them. And if they are falsely told that their ancestors were “manipulators” and “pompous autocrats,” they will act accordingly and to the detriment to the community.
It is time that we reclaim those images, of Marcus Garvey and so many other Black leaders whose names have been dragged through the mud.