Under Fire: A Rhetorical Analysis of Marcus Garvey's Apologia

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Under Fire: A Rhetorical Analysis of Marcus Garvey's Apologia

Taking pen in hand in 1917, Marcus Garvey portentously wrote that the world would soon see a revolutionary transformation in black leadership. Furthermore, he prophesied that this new race champion would "...not be a white man with a black heart, nor a black man with a white heart, but a black man with a black heart."(2) In 1918, Garvey emerged as that new leader. His tenure as a protagonist, however, was not without its setbacks and scandals. As a result, contemporary scholars, such as Cronon, Edwards, Manoedi, Martin, and Stein, have viewed Garvey as somewhat of a paradox.(3) From one perspective, Garvey and his movement reached fruition and decay in less than a decade. From another, Garvey and his philosophy transcended generations. Many of his thoughts on black pride, liberation, and solidarity were adopted by succeeding movements, including the Black Power Movement and the Nationalistic Movement of the Black Muslims. It is, however, Garvey in his historical context that I wish to examine in this essay. More specifically, I am interested in how Garvey dealt with adversities to his movement and critics of his character.

Throughout much of Garvey's career as a movement leader, he was plagued by mistakes, blunders, poor decisions, and a terrible business sense. As a result, Garvey spent much of his time justifying these setbacks in an attempt to maintain and defend the strong following and the rich sources of income he received from blacks around the world. This rhetorical form of sell defending discourse is referred to as apologia.

Apologia has been studied by rhetorical scholars for several decades.(4) B.L. Ware and Wil A. Linkugel, two scholars who have advanced the theoretical study of apologia stated, "We believe that apologetic discourses constitute a distinct form of public address, a family of speeches with sufficient elements in common so as to warrant legitimately generic status." They also noted that "The recurrent theme of accusation followed by apology is so prevalent in our record of public address as to be, in the words of Kenneth Burke, one of those situations typical and recurrent enough for men to feel the need of having a name for them."(5) Apologia as a form of rhetoric can be presented in a number of mediums (TV, books, newspapers, speeches, radio) and can assume a number of rhetorical approaches (denial, conspiracy logic, scapegoating, discrediting one's accusers). In the case of Marcus Garvey, he utilized a combination of mediums and approaches in his apologia.

In this essay I argue that Marcus Garvey employed five basic rhetorical approaches in an attempt to defend his character and to maintain his movement. These five strategies were: denial, scapegoating, discrediting of accusers, transcendence, and conspiracy/plot logic. The structure of this paper has three sections, with the second section demanding most of the attention. In part one, I give a brief overview of Garvey's life, with an emphasis on decisions and events that attracted negative criticism. In part two, I analyze each of the five forms of apologia that Garvey used in responding to this criticism. And in the third and final section, I draw some conclusions about Garvey's use of apologia. Ultimately, I hope to provide a better understanding of the apologetic strategies that Garvey employed in his attempt to prolong the life of his movement and to defend his character.

The value of this analysis is two-fold: 1) to improve our understanding of how Garvey rhetorically reconciled the tension between intensifying his persona as a movement leader and restoring his public image and balance in the eyes of his followers; and 2) to obtain better insight into the rhetorical techniques and social conditions that produce apologetic discourse.


There was nothing about Marcus Garvey's early life that suggested that one day he would become one of the most influential black leaders in the world. …


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