JR Ralph Casimir: Garvey’s disciple | Icon

Lennox Honychurch explores the life of the late Dominican activist JR Ralph Casimir — an early Pan-Africanist, Garveyite, and poet — who is also the subject of a powerful new biography

  • Casimir in 1989. Photo courtesy Papillote Press
  • Casimir with his mother and siblings. Photo courtesy Papillote Press
  • Casimir’s wedding day. Photo courtesy Papillote Press
  • Delegates of the West Indian Conference held in Dominica (1932) to consider West Indian confederation and self-government. JR Ralph Casimir (standing, far right) was one of the two secretaries of the Conference, chaired by CEA Rawle (seated, third from left)
  • JR Ralph Casimir. Photo courtesy Papillote Press

Caribbean people are very much aware of the contributions of Jamaica’s national hero, Marcus Garvey, for his advocacy of Pan-Africanism and Black pride. Most accounts of Garvey’s life highlight his charismatic personality and inspirational ideas. His tireless campaigning drew a wide following that also came up against prejudice and brutal opposition.

However, this overwhelming focus on the leader has meant that much less is known of the sacrifices made by the rank and file of the movement — the foot soldiers who carried Garvey’s message into the villages and fields of the colonies and raised contributions from across the region to send to the movement’s headquarters in New York.

Now, Kathy Casimir MacLean, a granddaughter of one of Marcus Garvey’s agents in the Caribbean, JR Ralph Casimir (1898–1996), has written an account of her grandfather’s role in the struggle during the first decades of the 20th century on the island of Dominica. It provides a major contribution to the study of Garveyism in the region roughly 100 years after her grandfather committed himself to the cause.

Like Casimir, most of Garvey’s followers identified with his background among struggling working-class labourers and peasant farmers on the outskirts of colonial towns and plantations.

Garvey was born in 1887 at St Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. His father was a stonemason and since his family was poor, his education was very sketchy. He left for Kingston at the age of 15 and eventually rose to become a foreman at a printing company. Here he became involved in radical journalism and wrote articles that called on Black people to take pride in themselves and look to Africa as a source of inspiration.

Garvey developed this movement by founding the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). At first it was a sort of brotherhood organisation, but he later remodeled it to become the main council for Black awakening.

He emigrated to New York in 1916, and the following year founded a branch of the UNIA in Harlem. Here he established headquarters and started a newspaper, The Negro World, which took as its motto the rallying cry of the UNIA — “one aim, one God, one destiny”.

As on many other islands at the time, there existed on Dominica a vibrant core of Garvey activists as his message spread. Led by Casimir, who was a deeply committed and passionate agent of the movement, they strove against great personal odds to fight for change and respect for Black people in this small colonial outpost.

In her book Black Man Listen, published by Papillote Press, his granddaughter paints a loving and well-researched portrait of the challenges he faced. It also gives some insight into the dedication of others like him across the Caribbean at the time who took up the challenge.

The title of the book comes from one of Casimir’s poems of the same name in which he highlights the urgency of the cause, one verse of which reads:

You oft quote Marcus Garvey, but
Garvey’s philosophy was to educate
Build, unite, uplift —
Nothing destructive nor reckless.
How do you study History? …
Black man has been up and doing for centuries
Do likewise:
Learn to aspire, unite, create, build.

JR Ralph Casimir was born in the west coast village of St Joseph on Dominica. He was educated at the village school and moved to Roseau, the capital, where he took on various jobs such as bookbinding. He became clerk for the leading lawyer on the island, Cecil EA Rawle — a  leading advocate of Caribbean unity, who also campaigned for self-government by increasing the right to vote through constitutional reforms towards universal suffrage.

As Rawle’s clerk, with a deep interest in current affairs and involvement with the island’s newspapers, Casimir became part of an influential group of citizens who were keen to see changes in colonial rule. But even in Dominica there were divisions of class and shades of colour to deal with.

At one point, Rawle threatened to terminate Casimir’s employment because of his involvement with UNIA. According to Rawle, Casimir’s links with Garveyism were giving his chambers a bad name among upper class clients. Calling himself a “New Negro”, for more than half a century Casimir confronted not just colonial rule, but his island’s elites.

These were stirring times in the Caribbean immediately following the First World War, for many young men had volunteered to fight in this imperial conflict. They had been inspired by the propaganda persuading them that, as members of an “imperial family”, it was very much their war.

And so, they went. Mainly to Egypt, Palestine, Greece and the Western Front. Race and ethnicity, as ever, in no small part determined their respective placements: the darker ones to the labour battalions and the lighter Creoles to officer positions and to the Front.

Of those who survived, many returned disillusioned at having seen the underbelly of the Empire for themselves. Many more heard the disturbing stories of returnees and began a movement of self-determination that laid the groundwork throughout the 1920s and 1930s for a new spirit of Caribbean nationalism.

It was into this state of collective consciousness that Casimir immersed himself. Besides his work for UNIA, he served as a secretary for the first West Indies Conference — held in Dominica in 1932 — to plan a union of the Eastern Caribbean.

In addition to concerns for regional advancement, Casimir continued to argue for the wider ideals of Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement. UNIA branches were established wherever people of African descent were gathered in the region — including places such as Panama and Costa Rica, where islanders had emigrated to find employment.

“Liberty Halls” were opened as meeting places. The men and women who led the movement had to maintain momentum, keep spirits up, and encourage membership. At times they had to explain to impatient followers why the idealistic programmes for a Black shipping line, trade, and independent governments were not unfolding as rapidly as they had been inspired to believe.

It was these UNIA team leaders on the ground, such as Casimir, who had to take the brunt of doubting donors when the movement faced its toughest challenges. It was they who had to face the constant questioning as to why the benefits of the subscriptions and shares that they had been persuaded to pay into UNIA were not bearing fruit.

Casimir appealed to Garvey to make a visit to the islands to rally his followers and give them confidence in the cause — as well as to relieve pressure on agents like himself. Kathy MacLean has used her grandfather’s surviving letters, notebooks, and lists of members, along with their financial contributions, to illustrate all of this.

But Casimir soldiered on, backing Garvey’s ideals to the very end of his life, while witnessing a new generation of Caribbean youth inspired by the cause. In Black Man Listen, Kathy MacLean has not only done her grandfather proud, but she has provided Caribbean people with a new window onto Marcus Garvey’s work in the region and among the African diaspora around the world.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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