In “Acres of Diamonds,” the connection between the fictional Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) and the real-life Marcus Garvey became even more explicit as “Boardwalk Empire” depicts the emergence of the “New Negro” of the 1920s. Expressing a philosophy similar to Garvey, Narcisse is clearly a member of his organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), whose membership peaked during the first half of the decade.
Before World War I, African Americans remained divided between two approaches to the problem of racism in the United States. In 1895, facing the rising tide of segregation and disenfranchisement in the post-Reconstruction South, Booker T. Washington spoke of accommodation to these new conditions in a speech at the Atlanta Exposition. Espousing what became known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” Washington accepted the loss of African American political rights and suggested that blacks focus on economic development through vocational training. After this speech, Booker T. became the leading the figure in black America until his death in 1915, as money from Northern philanthropists flowed through his schools and institutions.
Not everyone shared Washington’s views. Led by W.E. B. Du Bois, some African Americans believed that you could not achieve economic progress without political rights and that they should not abandon the quest for legal equality. Du Bois advocated for blacks to attain higher education and to fight Jim Crow through the courts. Along with an interracial group of blacks and whites, he formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
As American involvement World War I began in 1917, some questioned whether African Americans should fight in President Woodrow Wilson’s war “to make the world safe for democracy” when they did not have equal rights at home. Du Bois urged blacks to serve, saying that participation would give blacks a greater claim on rights once the U.S. defeated the Central Powers. Indeed, thousands of blacks served in segregated units during the year-and-a-half the U.S. fought in the conflict.
Upon returning to the United States following the November 1918 armistice, blacks faced a new wave of attacks. Fearful that black veterans would seek equality after their service abroad, white Southerners engaged in a violent campaign to maintain the status quo as 76 blacks were lynched in 1919. That same year, a major race riot broke out in Chicago after a black boy drowned because angry whites had pelted him with bricks when he drifted to the white section of the beach.
Feeling that the promises of the war had been broken, a more militant black community emerged in its aftermath. Dr. Narcisse’s mentions the “New Negro” as he talks to a group in Harlem early in the episode, a term which reflected more activist mood of African Americans during the 1920s. Emerging in Northern cities whose black population had been augmented by the African American migration during the war and throughout the following decade, the “New Negro” philosophy merged Washington’s and Du Bois’s views.
Prominently featured on Narcisse’s wall is a poster for Garvey’s UNIA, which represented the most dramatic manifestation of the “New Negro.” While the fictional Narcisse arrived from Trinidad, Garvey came to Harlem from Jamaica and began to espouse a form of black nationalism and black separatism that appealed to many working-class blacks in the North. He preached black self-help, started a shipping company called the Black Star Line, and urged African Americans to return to Africa.
Garvey, however, faced serious difficulties. His authoritarian leadership of UNIA alienated allies, as did his meeting the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan. Having caught the attention of the young J. Edgar Hoover, the federal government aggressively pursued Garvey for mail fraud. After his conviction, he served two years in prison and was then pardoned by President Coolidge in 1927 and deported. Does Narcisse face a similar fate?