Selwyn Cudjoe Speaks on the Life of Tony Martin

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
[Celebration & Remembrance of Tony Martin, Wellesley College,
Wednesday, May 1, 2013.]

Professor Tony MartinI met Tony Martin when I arrived at Harvard University in 1976. Although we were both born in Trinidad, we had not met each other prior to that time. Tony was born in Port of Spain, the capital of the country; I was born in Tacarigua, a village about twelve miles east of Port of Spain. Tony had studied at St. Mary’s College, one of the elite colleges of the country; I had remained at St. Mary’s Anglican Church School, as a pupil teacher or practicing teacher under supervision of other teachers. In the course of things, Tony went off to England “to further his studies” as we say at home. I went to the States. By then he had written Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Improvement Association, a book that came to define his scholarly career and which the late, great John Henrik Clarke described as being “close to a definitive study of Marcus Garvey as we have seen.” Other than our mutual national origins, my interest in Tony Martin grew because I was using Race First in my class and wanted to know more about Tony and what had gone into the writing of his book. In December of 1987, a year and a half after I arrived at Wellesley, Tony presented me with a copy of his book that was inscribed, “To a brother and a colleague, with Best wishes.” I still possess a copy of that book, but this is getting ahead of my story.

In 1976 or early 1977 Tony and I met at a café of some sort around Harvard Square in Cambridge. As per usual, Tony must have been about a half hour late, but we proceeded to have a wonderful and certainly informative meeting since we had so much to talk about. Thereafter, Tony would invite me to some of his parties at Wellesley, we would consult with each other about academic issues, talk about academic works; sometimes we would meet at academic conferences, and sometimes we would be invited to participate in the same functions. Over the course of the years we developed a good friendship and became supportive colleagues.

In 1986 a visiting position opened up in the Africana Studies at Wellesley—it was called Black Studies at the time. Through the instrumentality of Tony, who was the chair at the time, I was given a visiting position which turned into a long–term position and my being tenured in the department. From 1986 to 2007 when Tony retired, we worked together at the Africana Studies Department. We worked harmoniously together, although, there was a time, on the big issue of the teaching of a particular text, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, we had our differences which anyone on this campus knows and which many people from the outside must have heard about. Throughout our difference there was never one instance either within the department or outside it in which we ever had an open confrontation about that incident or any other. In fact, there were times when, in Trinidad, we would meet and talk about other things, although I must say not in as cordial and as trusting a manner as before. So that whatever happened between Tony Martin and me we always enjoyed a professional relationship and, in spite of everything, were respectful of each other.

Tony Martin was a hard worker. He seemed to come to life at night either in his office or in Clapp Library. Long past the midnight hour he could be seen pouring over his books in his office. Many late nights one would see him at Clapp browsing over the books no doubt looking for a text, trying to authenticate an aspect of something he was writing, or preparing for his classes. And, he was a meticulous scholar and rigorous teacher. He was concerned about details—one might almost say that he was obsessed about details which, if one were to speculate about this tendency, one may argue that it emerged from the legal training that he received at Gray’s Inn in London. I remember his visiting my class once and writing that I referred to Tony Morrison’s The Bluest Eye as The Bluest Eyes. Sometimes he would even point out grammatical errors that one had made in a correspondence to him or in evaluating another colleague. In a way, Tony was as thorough a scholar as he was devoted as a teacher.

And I want to believe that it is this tendency—that of being thorough and meticulous—that made Race First such an important book. Choice Magazine, the standard reviewer of books for libraries in the United States at that time, called Race First “the most thoroughly researched book on Garvey’s ideas.” And that was true. Today, even as we re–read that book, one recognizes the tremendous amount of players that Tony put onto the historical canvas of that work. Apart from outlining the innumerable chapters that Garvey had founded throughout the world, the amount of ordinary people who had contributed toward making UNIA what it had become, one is impressed by the number of people whom Tony interviewed for this work including Mrs. Amy Garvey in Kingston, Jamaica; Charles Zampty, once of Trinidad but for over a half–century of Detroit, Michigan; Ralph Casimir of Rosseau, Dominica in the West Indies, who had become particularly friendly with Tony; Queen Mother Moore of Harlem who saw Garvey in 1922; and Colonel Von Dinzey of New York. It was almost as though he was bringing all of the forgotten members of the Garvey story and the contributors of the organization to the foreground of the narrative; putting them in your face, as it were, honoring those who did so much to ensure that this great Pan African figure of the twentieth century would become known to all and thereby never be forgotten. Long before “grassroots history,” to use a term that Eric Hobsbawn used in his collection of essays called On History, was in vogue, Tony was doing everything in his power to recognize the importance of ordinary persons in the making of history and, in the process, the making of themselves; letting the subaltern give voice to their own history.

From that point on Tony went on to write things such as African Fundamentalism, Literary Garveyism; a biography on Amy Ashwood Garvey, which in my view was his worst book, and most recently, Caribbean History: From Pre–Colonial Origins to the Present, which I cannot speak on because I have not read it. In this outlining, no one can overlook The Jewish Onslaught which stands prominently in the polemical or propagandist tradition of American letters. And just in case, if anyone suggests that I am trying to downplay the importance of this work, I use the term polemical or propagandist in its own honorary sense as for example one would describe Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and David Walker’s Appeal.

In celebrating Tony’s life and scholarship we should always remember his belief in self–reliance in a similar manner in which Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and the Nation of Islam used the term and put it into practice. It is from that impulse of self–reliance that led to Tony’s creating his own imprint, Majority Press, around 1983. At that same time I began to do a similar thing when I began to do Calaloux Publications. As you would know, in 1976, Greenwood Press published Race First. In 1986 Tony published Race First with his own press, Majority Press. He would say to me that he could have published with any of the other accepted mainstream presses, but he wanted to publish his own work, received the total benefits from his labor; and make a strike for black self–reliance and black independence in the field in which he worked, Africana Studies. Today, anyone who wishes to question the wisdom or truthfulness of his position has only to look at the publisher of his Caribbean History (2012) that was published by Pearson, one of the “world’s leading learning companies;” the owner and publisher of the Financial Times and Penguin Books. In terms of his academic life and his economic philosophy, there couldn’t be any more vindication of his economic philosophy than this.

Tony was always concerned about departmental autonomy. When I became tenured, only the two of us were tenured members of the department. Tony could not wait for a third tenured person so that we could run our “own business” as he said. He really did not like the interference from the administration which seemed to convey the feeling to us that they knew what was best for us and how we ought to do things in our department. It was one of his greatest joys when the department tenured its third faculty member, and we could run our own affairs. That, too had its own problem, but he felt that even with its limitations and its problems it was better to run your own affairs with all its problems than always have other folks telling us what we should do.

There is just one more sad/regrettable comment to make before I end. One of Tony’s abiding passions was to ensure that black folks on the campus always had an input in the decisions that the college made, particularly as it had to with the process of tenure, promotion, and so on. In his thirty–plus years here he fought hard to achieve and maintain the autonomy and relevance of the Black Task Force. In retrospect, those achievements were made through constant struggle and eternal vigilance to ensure that the Black Task Force retain its influence on the campus and utilize our ability to place members on all committees of the College. If he were alive, Tony would be sad if he knew for the last two years none of us have been able to find enough time to be a member of the CFA to represent the views of black and minority faculty and thereby ensure that the institution give as much consideration and be as fair as possible to every faculty member in its deliberation and decisions. This is one oversight Tony would have liked to see rectified and, in this instance alone, I think I could speak on his behalf.

Tony Martin was a great man and a conscientious historian who was committed to the articulation and practice of blackness even though it is represented sometimes as a shifting, evasive, and dissembling signifier. But he was not a post–modern scholar, nor was he much into any abstract theoretical approaches to history so he would not have been particularly bothered about the indeterminacy of blackness of which the post–modern theorists speak. In fact, if I were pushed, I would define Tony as a “narrative historian,” who concentrated more on the chronological ordering of his material into a single coherent narrative, albeit with sub–plots, but with a concentration on men and women rather than circumstances (Hobswawm) although I hasten to point out that anyone who reads his “Rescuing Fanon from the Critics” that appeared in the African Review in 1970 and published subsequently in The Pan–African Connection: From Slavery to Garvey and Beyond, would be hard pressed to understand why he did not continue in such a direction. To me, “Rescuing Fanon from the Critics,” remains one of Tony’s largely unknown and unappreciated masterpieces.

Tony was concerned primarily about black people, “race first,” as he would have said. So today, as we come to celebrate and to remember his life and his professional work, I can think of no fitter words to pay tribute to his memory than those he used in one of the epigrams in chapter 5 of Race First when he quotes Garvey as saying:

You [meaning white people/Anglo Saxons] assume a right to write history within the last 500 years, and simply because you have been able to dump so many tons of your history in the world and other people have not said anything by way of complaint, you think your history rests there. But a lot of things your Mr. H. G. Wells has said we Negroes treat as bunk. Mr. H. G. Wells may divert civilization for the benefit of his Anglo–Saxon group, but that does not make it the fact that the people who laid claims to the civilization he attributed to others are going to give up easily. The black man knows his past. It is a past of which he can be nobly proud. That is why I stand before you this afternoon a proud black man, who would be nothing else in God’s creation but a black man.

In remembering and celebrating the life of Tony Martin, we celebrate the life of a proud black man. And for this, many of us shall always be grateful.