Short answer: No. Marcus Garvey never said it.
Marcus Garvey never said or wrote, “A people without the knowledge of their past, history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” Ludacris wears a t-shirt in the video for the song “Pimpin’ All Over The World” with a version of the quote on it. Garvey didn’t say that either.
The quote actually comes to us from a historian named Charles Christopher Seifert. It is on page eleven of his book The Negro’s or Ethiopian’s contribution to art. Why would Seifert get that quote from Marcus Garvey, and not attribute it to him? Seifert published the book in 1938. Garvey was living in London, England at the time. The quote later appeared in a flyer produced by Harlem bookseller Lewis Michaux. We will show below that both Seifert and Michaux were Garveyites.
How can I be so sure about the foregoing? I have been a card carrying dues paying member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association for over thirty years. I am also the editor of a book of quotations by Marcus Garvey. “Emancipated from Mental Slavery: Selected Sayings of Marcus Garvey” is the title. It took years of research to publish that book. The book’s title references a quote from an October 31, 1937 speech by Garvey. Bob Marley paraphrased that same quote in Redemption Song. Because of that, I can authoritatively state Marcus Garvey never said, “A people without the knowledge of their past, history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” Marcus Garvey did not say that no matter how many people want to convince us otherwise.
Study Marcus Garvey
In the 1990s I formally entered membership into the organization Garvey founded with thirteen others the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). When a new UNIA member joins the organization they recite the vow of African Redemption contained in the organization’s constitution. I took that vow, and was instructed to read three books:
- The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey,
- Race First by Dr. Tony Martin and,
- Message to the People: The Course of African Philosophy.
I was also told to STUDY the UNIA Constitution. I’ve also read The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey volume three. In addition, I’ve gone through every issue of the Negro World weekly newspaper on microfilm that I could find. I’ve gone through the volumes of the Garvey Papers project page by page. Then there are the books by Amy Jacques Garvey: “Black Power In America: The Power Of The Human Spirit” and “Garvey and Garveyism.” Nowhere did I come across the “tree without roots” quote. Furthermore, no one who ever cites Marcus Garvey as the source of that quote has ever shown a primary source connecting it to him.
Lewis Michaux and the tree without roots.
Lewis Michaux was the founder of the National Memorial Book Store in Harlem, New York. His niece Vaunda Micheaux Nelson wrote a book about him entitled “No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller.” In that book , on page 52, is a flyer for the bookstore apparently from 1944.
Michaux’s flyer is a remarkable artifact. It has two trees on it. The tree on the left has roots and the one on the right does not. A label above the left tree’s roots states “These are the roots of civilization.” Each root has a name and function as follows:
- Invention of the alphabet
- Discovery of the smelting of iron
- Weaving of cloth
Then there is the box of text underneath the roots which reads as follows:
Let there be Light! And there was Light! And the Light shone upon all men! And there was perfect equality!From Lewis Michaux’s bookstore flyer
In the great struggle to attain for ourselves equality with all peoples, we must know the basic facts which history reveals.
Do you know what noted scholars of the world have to say about the black race?
Count C.F. Volney, the noted French historical researchist, says, “A people, now forgotten, discovered, while others were yet barbarians, the elements of the arts and sciences. A race of men, now rejected from society for their sable skin and frizzled hair, founded on the study of the laws of nature those civil and religious systems which still govern the universe.”
Do you know that it was from Africa that the light of the Gospel was sent to Europe?
Do you know that the professors of the University of Sankore, North Africa, were what we today would call Negroes.
“We,” says Major Felix Dubois, “possess the biographies of several hundreds of these learned men; and all are related to one another in a more, or less direct line…which gives the categorical lie to the theorists who insist upon the inferiority of the black race.”
Finally: Do you know that (according to Frobenius, the noted German scientist.) “before the Arabic and European invasion the Africans did NOT dwell in hamlets, but in towns with twenty or thirty thousand inhabitants, in towns whose highways were shaded by avenues of splendid palms, planted of regular intervals and laid out with the symmetry of colonnades“?
The black race has been made the foot ball of other races altogether too long! It is time to stop it! We must obtain the correct knowledge of the important role which the black race has played in the advancement and the progress of civilization.
The quote paraphrases Charles Seifert
Charles Christopher Seifert (1880-1949) was an early member of the UNIA’s New York Division under Division President Issac B. Allen. At the time Marcus Garvey held the position of UNIA International Organizer.
Charles Seifert is the person to whom credit for the “tree without roots” quote rightfully belongs. In “The Negro or Ethiopian’s Contribution to Art” he wrote:
A race without knowledge of its history is like a tree without roots.Charles C. Seifert, page 11, “The Negro or Ethiopian’s Contribution to Art.”
Seifert wrote three other books including:
- The true story of Aesop “The Negro”
- The Blackman’s place in world history : an answer to the question of the St. James Young Men’s Bible Class (1940)
- The three African saviour kings (1946)
Seifert was born in Christ Church, Barbados. The Ethiopian Historical Research Association developed out of his collection of rare books. Afterwards, it became the Ethiopian Research School of History. Seifert one of a number of people who left Hubert Henry Harrison’s Liberty League to join the UNIA. In November 1917 the UNIA letterhead lists Seifert as vice president. By January 1918 he is Chaplain of the UNIA under President Samuel A. Duncan.
In the Schomburg Library resides a four disc interview series with Tai Seifert, wife of Charles that deserves scrutiny.
Links to Marcus Garvey
Although Seifert eventually severed ties with Garvey and the UNIA, the RBG influence is still evident. Beginning with the book’s cover we find the quote “Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands…” The UNIA opens its meetings with a ritual including that bible verse. Only a member of the UNIA well versed in the organization’s inner workings would notice that.
Of course, there is more.
The book’s dedication “To all Ethiopians–Black men at home and abroad…” That text not only echoes the phrase which originated with Edward Wilmot Blyden, but also its extension in the UNIA slogan “Africa for the Africans, those at home and those abroad.”
The truth will make you free
Some people may take offense at the revelation and suggest the origin of the quote is unimportant. What is a tree without roots, but a log, a piece of wood meant for either the fire or the saw? Do we become a “tree with roots” when we know the original source of the quote? If so, should we impose upon ourselves responsibility to verify every idea presented to determine whether that idea is valid or not?
Yes, must be the only answer to the previous question. Allowing the consideration of any other possibility is to assign oneself the role of being led about by the whims of those who would miseducate us. To verify the primary source of any information presented requires mental effort. Our willingness to examine any information presented and authenticate it ensures we are rooted in truth. That is the path to emancipation from mental slavery.
A tree without roots is dead wood
It would seem easy to recognize a tree without roots is dead wood. What do we gain from unknowingly repeating false information? Do those spreading misinformation realize “what you do comes back to you?” Eventually the misinformation connecting Marcus Garvey to something he never said will ultimately inflict itself on those spreading it.
Already we see the effect it is having on them. Another quote from Garvey brings it into clear focus.
“If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. But with confidence you have won even before you have started.Marcus Garvey
If they had any confidence in the world they wish to bring into existence all they would have to do is tell the truth. Anyone deliberately spreading misinformation about the tree without roots quote is twice defeated, whether they know it or not. Their actions proclaim they have no confidence in themselves. They are twice defeated because their actions proclaim they fear the true words of Marcus Garvey. In no uncertain terms, people intentionally spreading misinformation about Garvey are looking for him in the whirlwind and see a reality different from the one they desire. They see a free, redeemed, and independent Africa springing from a firmly rooted tree as you read this.