An Ellis Island of the Soul: Eric Walrond and the Turbulent Passage from Garveyite to New Negro

Article excerpt

At the height of its popularity, Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had more than two million followers. (2) Garvey's defiant Black Nationalist organization resonated with an international audience and became the largest black mass movement in American history prior to the Civil Rights Movement. The organ of the UNIA, Negro World, had over 200,000 readers at its peak in the early 1920s. (3) It was, as Tony Martin describes it, "a highly political official organ and a major literary forum for the mass of New Negroes." (4) Perhaps no one exemplifies this combination as well as Eric Walrond, the author of the important short story collection Tropic Death (1926) and a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, whose earliest American writings appear in Negro World. A youthful supporter of Garvey, Walrond later resigned his position with Negro World in 1923 and begin to publish pieces in anti-Garvey publications like the NAACP's Crisis (edited by W.E.B. Du Bois), the socialist Messenger (edited by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen), and Opportunity (edited by Charles S. Johnson), the voice of the integrationist National Urban League. Walrond's changing views on Garvey have caused some critics, including Tony Martin, to describe him as harboring "a certain confused ambivalence" at best, but also more pointedly of being a "defector." (5) To dismiss Walrond as an opportunist, or worse, a traitor because of his shift in perspectives on the Jamaican race leader is misleading. The relationship between the two men was highly complex, occurring at a crucial juncture in Walrond's life when he was forming both his political and aesthetic beliefs, and needs closer examination. This essay will explore the nuanced connection between the two men and demonstrate Walrond's changing political and literary allegiances during his early years in New York City.

Walrond, born in British Guiana (now known as Guyana), migrated to Barbados and Panama before arriving in the United States in 1918. His involvement with the Garveyite movement took root shortly thereafter. It was a time when Anglophone Caribbean immigration was reaching its zenith. Between 1900 and 1930 (mostly by 1924 when the Immigration Act was passed, severely curtailing newcomers) almost 100,000 black immigrants had arrived in the United States. (6) The majority of them settled in Harlem and in Brooklyn, where Walrond initially came to live with his aunt. Although he had been a journalist for two years for the Panama Star and Herald, a leading Latin American paper, Walrond was unable to gain employment in the field upon his entry to the United States. After numerous disappointments, he was left to conclude that the reason for his failure was racism, a "grizzly monster I found lurking in the shadows of every New York newspaper office I visited." (7) Forced to take a number of jobs outside his chosen profession, Walrond was eager to accept a position with the Garveyite publication Weekly Review when invited to join as a part-time associate editor. (8)

When the enterprise folded after a few issues, Walrond joined the Brooklyn and Long Island Informer, a weekly that appeared from June 1920 to January 1922. Incorporated in Jamaica, Queens, with Walrond as magazine editor, the Informer was inspired by the principles of Garveyism, stressing racial pride and black business enterprise in its editorial and advertising policies. Practicing their own version of black capitalism, the editors were part-time owners as well as working journalists. For the twenty-two-year old Walrond, who was on the verge of being married, the venture was a risky one. However, staking his future in the black West Indian community, he decided to become a full-time newspaperman.

Only one copy of the Brooklyn and Long Island Informer has survived, but that single issues reveals its broad design. The edition, printed on January 8, 1921, is preserved at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. …


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