I learnt of the death of the African history scholar Professor Tony Martin last week. Dr Martin was a renowned authority on Hon Marcus Mosiah Garvey – who was famously honoured by the immortal Burning Spear tune No One Remembers Old Marcus Garvey. So it was with sad irony that so few people got to hear of Dr Martin’s passing at the age of 70. He joined the ancestors last Thursday (17th January) but no one remembered him.
I remembered a community activist who once told me: “Malcolm X? Everybody loves Malcolm now. We’ve got Malcolm X t-shirts, Malcolm X baseball caps. We love him now he’s dead! But when he was alive not so many people loved Malcolm. They were scared by media talk of him being a dangerous radical. But he’s safe now he’s gone.”
Perhaps one day – when it is safe to do so – people might dare to remember Dr Martin who wrote some 14 books on Garvey, enslavement and Pan-Africanism. He was a barrister-at-law at Gray’s Inn and lectured across the world.
I know we in Britain tend not to celebrate our leading academics as they do in America (which is a great shame) but even factoring that in, given that Dr Martin was high profile and lived a lifetime of being outspoken and often controversial his passing hardly merited a mention on social networking sites let alone the official media. I learnt of the news from Bro Toyin Agbetu’s email newsletter.
So why don’t we want to know Dr Martin? His wikipedia page gives a clue. He was embroiled in a series of controversies and libel counter-actions over claims that he was introducing students to books that dealt with the subject of the role of Jewish people and the enslavement of Africans.
Now don’t get me wrong, I know this is a topic likely to inflame passions. But surely the purpose of academic study is to explore the evidence and test the theories not shut the whole debate down amid accusations of being anti-Semitic.
Sadly this one issue has overshadowed Dr Martin’s lifetime of work on Marcus Garvey and other aspects of African history. I don’t know enough about Jews and transatlantic slavery to offer a view but I am instinctively not inclined to assume that simply broaching the matter equates to anti-Semitism especially where books have been authored on the subject. It seems to be as worth of academic exploration as the role of any other races and nationalities in slavery are.
I disagree with Dr Martin’s decision, in 2001, to share the stage with the discredited Far Right historian David Irving for a lecture entitled ‘The Judaic Role in the Black Slave Trade ‘ not least because the company he kept on that stage seriously undermined his arguments on it.
I first came across Dr Martin while working for the anti-racist think-tank The 1990 Trust. He had just been dis-invited to a conference at London City Hall during the time that Lee Jasper was race advisor to the then mayor Ken Livingstone. The dis-invitation appeared to be the result of an outcry principally from British-Jewish figures and was the spark for many months of bitterness and acrimony between Pan-Africanists – who defended the right to hear the academic speak – and anti-racist groups who were effectively accused of being ‘in the house.’
I was expected to help push out the anti-racist defence explaining why Dr Martin’s views rendered him so unacceptable that this African academic should not address a primarily Black audience in London.
My last job before The 1990 Trust was as news editor of The Voice newspaper I had made a particular stand in campaigning for the ban on Louis Farrakhan to be overturned, not because I agreed with everything Farrakhan said – far from it – but because the case for suppressing the free speech of the Nation of Islam leader were far weaker than the arguments as to why he should be allowed to visit Britain.
I won’t rehearse the arguments here but, as a Liberal, my position has not changed. The similarities between Min. Farrakhan and Dr Martin were clear. If I supported the right of one to visit Britain why not the other?
I was never convinced by the anti-racist stance over Dr Martin but was distressed at the extent of personal attacks that resulted, much of it from Pan-Africanists. It struck me that talk of ‘unity’ flew out the window when discussing the likes of Jasper and the divisions in the community that widened in 2003 are present a decade later.
Garvey was a great advocate of unity and had been alive I’ve no doubt his sympathies would have been with Dr Martin but I believe he would have also been troubled that this issue was such a cause of friction. Perhaps the passing of Dr Martin signals a time to forge greater links between activists and community campaigners. Acknowledging him and learning more about his academic works would be a start.
As painful as some of the issues he raise were Dr Martin is part of African history now. We should be able to remember him while feeling able to discuss what we agree and disagree about his works and views. Free to talk about him without fear of societal pressure to shun him.
If we are able to sit down and discuss him perhaps, ironically, he might yet become a symbol of unity.
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway