The Veiled Garvey: The Life and Times of Amy Jacques Garvey

The Veiled Garvey: The Life and Times of Amy Jacques Garvey

by Ula Yvette Taylor

ISBN: 9780807853863

Publisher The University of North Carolina Press

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Leaders & Notable People

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

The Formative Years, 1895-1917

Little is known about the early life of Amy Jacques Garvey-the woman who became not only the second wife of Marcus Garvey but also a prominent Pan-African activist and intellectual in her own right and, for a time, the unofficial leader of the worldwide Universal Negro Improvement Association and African (Imperial) Communities League (subsequently referred to as the UNIA). But the scant information available-especially in terms of racial/color attitudes and class-is important because these complex issues were crucial in Jamaican society and undoubtedly influenced Amy Jacques's formative years as a member of the "brown" middle/upper class. Two other factors seem to have also been significant but less typical: her formal schooling and her role in the family. Thus, though we do not have much information on Jacques's upbringing, it is important to underscore what we do know, since it gives us some thin threads that were woven into the tapestry of her later life, sometimes in surprising ways.

Amy Jacques never described the island of her birth, Jamaica, as a tourist paradise. She did not share memories of visiting the North Coast (Montego Bay), where the blue-green water is serene and hummingbirds abound. Nor did she write about the sun warming her "brown" face or describe walking through the countryside or playing in waterfalls. The girlhood recollections found in her essays and interviews are limited to a few vivid accounts of how her father, George Samuel Jacques, challenged her intellectually and prepared her for adult responsibilities. In hindsight, she gives the impression that her childhood was filled with serious duties; other than private piano lessons, her social engagements-whether festive or formal-were apparently so few that she elected not to mention them. And evidence to the contrary has not yet surfaced, despite the fact that the island offered a variety of amusements. Though it is difficult to draw many conclusions from such sketchy remembrances, it is important to glean what we can from the record of Amy's early life in Jamaica, because it was there that she blossomed into a bright, cultured young woman-one in whom both her parents would take pride. What neither could have anticipated was that she would ultimately be transfigured, after living in the United States, from a typical debutante into a disciplined Pan-African thinker and leader.

Amy was born on 31 December 1895 in Jamaica's capital city of Kingston, the heart of the island's commercial, industrial, and professional life. Horse-drawn wagons and carriages still roamed the poorly paved streets, but the loud cable cars gave this otherwise tranquil place a citified air. The geographic beauty and amply stocked stores attracted sophisticated urbanites to this seaport. The wealth of Kingston was largely generated by black workers, and, to some observers, women were the most visible laborers. Edgar Mayhem Bacon, who visited the island in 1890, reported that "women are the workers among the blacks in the neighborhood of Kingston. They carry the coal on the wharves, load and unload vessels, drive donkeys and mules with produce, break stones on the road, carry stone and other building material for house builders, wash, bake, dig in the fields."

As was the case in most colonized communities, black labor overwhelmingly benefited elite Europeans, and Amy's own lineage was deeply rooted in an upper-class British heritage. Her great-great-grandfather, John Jaques or Jacques, had been the first mayor of Kingston. (Only prosperous European men could participate in the political process and hold public office.) As mayor, John Jaques was one of forty-seven members of the Jamaican House of Assembly. During his tenure, and well into the mid-nineteenth century, the assembly seems to have been shamelessly corrupt and controlled by privileged planters who lacked "fitness in character, education or morals."

Mayor Jaques was not noted as an exceptional politician. For example, after much debate Britain abolished the trading of Africans in 1807 (though slavery remained legal for another thirty-one years), but apparently Jaques did not participate in this discussion and ultimately resigned his assembly seat in 1812 for health reasons. Today, like many councillors, Jaques is celebrated in Kingston by his namesake, Jacques Road.

There are no records of what Amy's father, George, inherited in terms of material wealth from his great-grandfather, John Jaques. It is clear that he had the opportunity to receive a formal education and travel to the United States and Cuba before accepting a managerial position at the La Paloma Cigar Factory. The tobacco trade was not a lucrative Jamaican industry, since there was insufficient profit to entice planters to manufacture cigars and cigarettes as compared to sugar, coffee, cocoa, and bananas. Planters also resisted tobacco production because it required large growers to employ "a special manager" who was familiar with the Cuban cultivation and curing process. Further, it was generally conceded that Cubans grew a superior leaf. Nevertheless, by the early 1900s consumption of Jamaican cigars in England and Germany had begun to generate a greater demand for tobacco, and George's employment at the cigar factory must have seemed relatively secure.

Sometime in 1891, George married Charlotte Henrietta from the parish of St. Elizabeth. Charlotte's mother was a black woman named Jane, and her father, Frank South, was an English farmer. Like George, Charlotte was formally educated. With few exceptions, only members of the capitalist elite received a higher education during this period, and because of their class status it was incumbent on both George and Charlotte to socialize with, and ultimately marry, someone of comparable means. George demonstrated his financial security by purchasing seven acres of property on Long Mountain Avenue, located in the eastern section of Kingston where he built the family home. In addition, he bought real estate in the Windward Road area, a popular section for the "brown"/colored elite on the outskirts of the city. Charlotte and George were married for five years before the birth of their first child. (George had fathered children prior to his marriage, but they did not count as "legitimate" heirs.) They had prayed for a son but were blessed with Amy.

Though Amy was later to serve as the archivist for the UNIA, she provided little documentation of her personal life before migrating to the United States and meeting Marcus Garvey. Her reluctance to share the details of her earlier life may be accounted for in several ways. Perhaps she believed that it was not until she met Garvey that her life had profound meaning. Or her decision not to fully disclose her well-to-do Jamaican upbringing could have been tied to her need to maintain a public image of modesty and thrift in spite of her access to wealth. Nevertheless, a look at what it meant to be a part of the Jamaican middle/upper class in the early twentieth century provides some clues about her girlhood.

The middle/upper class is difficult to define precisely in any culture or community, because class is a relative term that is linked to the conditions of a particular situation. In Jamaica, level of formal schooling and training strongly influenced earning power and, therefore, class standing; however, skin color was another important variable in class divisions. Amy's family fell in the category of-and received all the privileges accorded to-formally educated "brown" Jamaicans.

The venomous seeds of the color/class system in Jamaica germinated in the course of slavery. During that time, inhabitants were legally divided into free (white), slave (African Caribbean), and freedmen/women (former slaves who lacked the full rights of a free person). In terms of legal rights, political power, wealth, and prestige, the whites of Jamaica were at the top of the hierarchy. Occupying the oppressive role of "masters," they had definite color preferences among the enslaved population; their obsession with pigmentation is evident by the color-coded records in all of the slave registration returns from the British Caribbean. Skin color and physical features were just as important as gender and age. Phenotype functioned as a means to categorize enslaved people into specific occupations; later it determined treatment and labor expectations. A ranked order, based on a racial gradation between "African" and "European," was first established by the Spaniards but later adopted by the British, who used it crudely to label individuals and ultimately to create contested identities. Under this system, fluid racial classifications were divided, subdivided, and then diced into well-defined but confusing categories:

Negro-child of a Negro and Negro Mulatto-child of a White and Negro Sambo-child of a Mulatto and Negro Quadroon-child of a White and Mulatto Mustee-child of a White and Quadroon Mustifino-child of a White and Mustee Quintroon-child of a White and Mustifino Octoroon-child of a White and Quintroon.

In addition to bearing the labels that were assigned them by this classification system, members of the miscegenated population (largely produced by the bodies of black women) were collectively regarded as "colored" people. During slavery, coloreds far outnumbered Africans in skilled trades and were underrepresented in field gangs because they were generally regarded by planters as more intelligent. Clearly, the ability to think was linked to a lack of "color." Everywhere in the British Caribbean, the darkest Africans were relegated to the hardest field work because snide colonists linked their ancestry with savagery.

Not surprisingly, these racist and racialist attitudes toward the enslaved coloreds and Africans were passed on to the freedmen/women's population. There is little doubt among Caribbean slave scholars that, by and large, freedmen/women tended to share the dominant and damaging European cultural precepts about race; economically, they were just as committed to slave owning as the principal route to wealth. The majority of colored freedmen had inherited material wealth from their white ancestors, and they owned "almost four times as many slaves as free Blacks." Freed coloreds lagged behind whites in terms of financial wealth but were far ahead of freed blacks in terms of occupational skills, financial wealth, formal education, and thereby status. When slavery was legally abolished in 1838, the glaring vestiges of the institution remained firmly intact. This color/class system continued to be reinforced throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century.

As a member of a well-to-do, middle-class family-and, more importantly, of a society in which race was intrinsically important to class formation-Amy Jacques was proud of her light brown hue, which granted her an assumption of difference, or "superiority," when compared to the black laboring classes of the island. She, like most Jamaican citizens of the period, had no doubt internalized the Eurocentric, but very real connection between color and prestige fused during slavery. She had inherited her mother's genetic makeup: light brown skin and a fine hair texture. In contrast, her father was of a darker hue. Amy often credited him with her intellectual development and apparently loved him dearly, but as the product of an environment where individuals often prejudged others based on appearance, she recalled how "she had been ashamed of her father coming to school because of his dark color." Her reaction was one of self-preservation. Physical attributes (skin color, hair type, and facial features) could work like radar in terms of detecting one's lineage and evaluating that individual's presumed manner of living. George Jacques's color, Amy thought, implied to her school peers that her pedigree was not as "lightly-colored" as she wanted them to believe. And since women were generally regarded as having less status than men, it was even harder for them to escape color and class restrictions.

Despite the fact that no legal color bar existed, scholars have documented color discrimination against dark-skinned people in employment, particularly in public service occupations. Unquestionably, class and color were interwoven to an extent that class tensions often manifested themselves as conflict over color. It seems that color clouded Amy's thinking in such a dramatic way that at times she felt uncomfortable sharing a public space (her school) with her own father-a man who clearly put energy into his parenting as well as providing for all of her material needs and desires.

Racial characteristics, such as color, thus had a powerful impact on everyday racial discourse in Jamaica; in this setting it would have been nearly impossible for Amy to discover and embrace her "blackness." But two other features of her early upbringing may have helped to put her on the path toward eventually becoming a Pan-African intellectual: her formal education-which confirmed standard ideas about race, but ironically, at the same time, gave her the intellectual tools to later challenge the imperialist myth of European superiority-and the fact that, as a child, she was treated "like a boy."

Amy stated that she learned at an early age the significance of an education. Often her father would give her exercises to increase her knowledge and develop her literary skills. "On Sundays, after dinner, he would collect foreign newspapers, and I had to get a dictionary, and read the editorials and news items." Jacques would explain events and answer all of her questions. Sometimes he would give her an assignment to write an essay on a news item or article. This dialectical, intergenerational exchange provided a double-learning environment for Amy, causing her to "learn to think independently on world affairs and to analyze situations."

While her father challenged and stimulated her intellect at home, Amy attended school at a time when compulsory elementary education was nonexistent in Jamaica. Her formal instruction began at St. Patrick's, then continued at one of the twelve Deaconess Home Schools for boys and girls. These Anglican schools were operated by nuns from London who geared the curriculum toward the Cambridge Local Examinations, which included instruction in religion, English language and literature, arithmetic and mathematics, history, geography, music, and drill. Given that the schools received a grant from the government, they were subject to examination and inspection. In addition to requiring that all candidates for admission submit testimonials of good character and conduct, Deaconess schools called for proof of vaccination and a medical certificate of good health.


Excerpted from "The Veiled Garvey: The Life and Times of Amy Jacques Garvey" by Ula Yvette Taylor. Copyright © 2002 by Ula Yvette Taylor. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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