My skin is black but for some people it's not black enough. Ordinarily, I can dip below the radar and get through life without being rumbled. My mistake was to write a biography of Marcus Garvey.

My skin is black but for some people it's not black enough. Ordinarily, I can dip below the radar and get through life without being rumbled. My mistake was to write a biography of Marcus Garvey.

At a time in the 20th century when Negroes believed themselves despised, the flamboyant ebony orator, Marcus Garvey, galvanised millions with his titanic belief in race pride. Yet the name 'Garvey' elicits both adoration and disgust amongst black people. It might have something to do with his hat.

To admirers the Victorian military uniform, complete with plumed bicornate helmet was in keeping with the regal countenance of the man proclaimed provisional president of Africa . "Absurd," shout his detractors. For them Garvey is a tragic character straight out of pantomime, whose mimetic craving for equality only served to perpetuate the dominant view of the black man's evolutionary inferiority.

For the first reading of the book there could be no more perfect venue than the Marcus Garvey Library in Haringey. Or so I thought; the Ligali Front (a collection of Afrikan activists) thought otherwise. As reported on its forum, not only had the biographer announced his coconut credentials with the title of the book, Negro with a Hat, but he also worked for the BBC, which the informed brethren knew was short-hand for the Bombaclaat Broadcasting Corporation.

The faithful, custodians of Marcus Garvey's legacy, were alerted to assemble urgently at the library. Their temper might be judged by the blogger who wrote: "If Dem Diss Marcus Dem Must Die!"

I headed for Haringey certain only that the irony of the title had not met with the understanding I had so naively presumed. In the estimation of Ligali's Brother Olatunji, Chief Officer Politics Department, it was akin to calling a book on Jinnah "Paki in a Suit." Perhaps a sympathetic audience was not guaranteed.

Just inside the atrium of the library, a dull-faced punter, vacillating over whether to borrow the new biography, seemed to brighten as I walked in. His eyes flicked between me and the author's photo on the flap of the jacket.

'Oh, is you,' he burped through Guinness breath. 'You brave! Never expect you would-a come.'

My visible unease over his warning caused him no displeasure.

'Are you coming to my talk?' I asked, more feebly than intended.

He straightened his trilby. 'Oh, yes!'

His enthusiasm was worrying, but the first signs, as the crowd assembled, appeared promising. A neatly turned-out man, wearing a suit was the first to take a front-row seat. His clean finger nails and starched shirt (a dead ringer for Sidney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming for Dinner"), immediately marked him down as an ally. I'd also taken the precaution of bringing my mentor, Viv Adams, as a point man, briefed to call out "tell 'em brother" whenever a particularly winning insight on Garvey hit the mark. For much of the night, even before clearing his throat, Viv was drowned out by the unrelenting litany of nay-sayers. They were particularly vexed by The Telegraph reviewer's conclusion that Garvey was a "black David Brent", a "chubby little loser" - sentiments they obviously believed to have been sanctioned by me. Sister Nzingha had helpfully photocopied the article and proceeded to hand out. If the book was a slug; here was the slime.

Time to play my trump card. Shouting above the din, I called upon Sidney Poitier to enlighten us all with his reflections on the book. He started piously mumbling something about top shelves, naked women and pornography; He knew what to expect from titles such as Mayfair and Men Only; the same was true of Negro with a Hat. Sidney 's assessment prompted a chorus of "Yes man, respect. Respect!" The squall of indignant voices was beginning to extinguish all hope of clarity. Someone helpfully suggested we needed a moderator. No sooner had I agreed than Sister Nzingha started to drag her chair towards the stage. A knot of excitement was finally freed in her unfurling dreadlocks. 'Right,' she bellowed, 'we'll have a question from Brother Gumba then Sister Serene. You can follow Brother Zion. I'll come to you in a minute Sister Kay...'

'Hold on, wait a second,' I interrupted, 'what about, erhh someone else we haven't already heard from?' But the unaffiliated others seemed suddenly disinclined to raise their hands. 'The problem is Colin,' suggested Ken, the most coherent critic, 'you're coming across as arrogant.' He imagined that writing about Garvey was for me 'a kind of intellectual exercise.' 'These people,' he went on to say, 'are living Garvey.'

Ken suggested that I give away a couple of copies. After all no one had read the biography; it was impossible to gauge my motives. The talk came to an end. I sat at a tiny desk with my writer's autograph pen ready. The crowd stormed to the front. The first review copy was claimed, tucked under the armpit of Sister Nzingha; the next copy similarly disappeared, and then one more, then a couple of others, until finally none remained.

'Have you sold out?' A straggler asked as we started to clear away. 'Apparently,' I replied.


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