"Poetry for the People": Reading Garveyism through Poetry

"Poetry for the People": Reading Garveyism through Poetry


This website is dedicated to a creative and interactive exploration of the "Poetry for the People" section of the Negro World, a newspaper that ran from 1918 to 1933 and served as an amplifier for the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) spearheaded by Marcus Garvey. While poetry appeared in the newspaper for most of those fifteen years, it was most prominent in 1920-21, when the newspaper regularly featured the aforementioned "Poetry for the People."

Garvey's was a movement centered on a concept of black nationhood that was nonetheless global in scope; fittingly, the Negro World  had a robust international circulation. It proved to be so influential that it was, at various points, censored or altogether banned in a number of regions, including the Bahamas, Gambia, the West Indies, and South Africa. Its formidable presence is made all the more clear when one considers the United States' targeted efforts to shut it down. 

An unabashedly political newspaper, the Negro World situated its poetry section ​side-by-side with a range of materials, including health and hair advertisements, community announcements, political cartoons, editorials, urgent appeals to invest in the Black Star Line, and--most sobering--the repeated call for an end to lynchings in the U.S.

So, how might we read poetry in the movement, as movement? It was "Poetry for the People" that helped build and inspire the largest black-led movement ever seen the world over--a movement that was at least "Four Million Strong," to quote the title of a poem by Ethel Trew Dunlap. And while confined within the margins of a newspaper page, poetry nonetheless traversed borders, connecting individuals and collectives from across the diaspora. As it helped recruit new members, it also resisted racist violence, distilled the values of the movement, and rewrote the narratives around black people and black women in particular.

This website contains digitized images of "Poetry for the People" pages, the originals of which can be found in the Robert A. Hill Collection in Duke University's Rubenstein Library. This website also features a selection of poems that I have personally annotated to offer historical context and explanations of poetic devices. Finally, this website is home to a handful of my own original poems, written in response to this archive and available as text and audio. These latter poems are steeped in the language, images, themes, and affective underpinnings of those primary poems that they aim to speak alongside. This is one way of reaching back across time and space and "feeling with" the poets, as a way of "thinking through" their poems and thus rethinking the broader Garvey movement. What this demonstrates, hopefully, is some small version of an alternative epistemology, or another way of "knowing" what Garveyism was and did, that allows for creative expression as well as a more intimate relationship with the archives.


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