Coming at Midnight: Race and Caribbean Reactions to America in the 1910s

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1917 Silent Protest Parade in New York. via Wikimedia Commons.

In Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America, published in 1998, Winston James examines the prominance of Caribbean immigrants in radical political movements in the United States in the early twentieth century, looking at figures including Marcus Garvey, Cyril Briggs, Claudia Jones, C.L.R. James, George Padmore, and Jesús Colón, among many others. In the preface, James writes:

About five years ago, while I was researching the life and times of Claude McKay — the Jamaican-born poet, novelist and radical intellectual — two surprising discoveries claimed my attention and demanded further investigation. The first discovery was the conspicuousness of Caribbean migrants — especially during the early twentieth century — in radical movements in the United States: not only black nationalist organizations like the Universal Negro Improvement Association, led by Jamaica's Marcus Garvey, but also the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, and (after it was founded in 1919) the Workers' (Communist) Party as well. The second discovery was that the literature on the period, with few notable and qualified exceptions, has either overlooked the phenomenon, distorted it, or offered inadequate analysis. The more I explored the primary sources, including a substantial amount of archival material on Caribbean migrants and American radicalism, the more dissatisfied I became with the quality of the existing literature.

As I investigated the Caribbean presence within American radical movements, several questions came to the fore. What was the precise extent of the Caribbean involvement? How does one measure it? What does it tell us about those who migrated to the United States? What does it tell us about the Caribbean itself? And, most significantly, how does one explain this variant of Caribbean radicalism abroad? How does it help us to understand traditions of resistance within the African diaspora? How does it help us to appreciate the heterogeneity as well as the unity of the African diaspora in the Americas?

In the excerpt below, James describes reactions to the United States of Caribbean migrants who arrived in the first two decades of the twentieth century, years marked by waves of particularly vicious racist violence — as well as impressions of the Caribbean recorded by prominent black American intellectuals. 

In order to understand the radicalism of Caribbeans in the United States, not only do we need to be aware of who these migrants were, we also need to know about the America that they entered in the early part of the twentieth century and, in addition, we need to be able to gauge their reaction to American society. So how did they react to the new environment?

The lynchings in the Southland, the segregation, the calculated as well as the routinized and unthinking humiliation of black people in their everyday life, primarily in the South but also in the North, appalled and shocked Caribbean migrants. Young Hugh Mulzac, just turned twenty-one, bursting with excitement about his first ocean-going trip as a sailor, left Barbados (he was born on tiny Union Island, in the Grenadines) for Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1907. His captain, a Norwegian man named Granderson, was also a licensed roving missionary and promised the devout Mulzac to find out where there was “a good Protestant Church” to take him when they reached Wilmington. Granderson and five of his crew, including Mulzac, duly went off to church. The captain entered the church first. Young Hugh, the only black person in the group, brought up the rear. Sixty years later, Mulzac — who in 1918 became the first black person to win a Master's license in the United States — vividly recalled what happened. Just as he reached the threshold a long, white arm stretched out and blocked his way. “I looked up into my first leering southern face,” wrote Mulzac.

“Where you goin, boy?” a voice asked.

“Why, I'm going in to church,” I replied.

“Oh no you're not ... not this church!”

“Why not?” I asked, “what have I done?”

“Oh no,” the man replied, "oh no, no, no, no, no!”

Captain Granderson intervened. “The boy's with me,” explained the good captain, “I’ve just brought him from Barbados in the West Indies ... he's a very religious boy. His grandfather's a minister of the gospel.” “That don't mean nothin here,” the man at the door replied.

Granderson persisted; he explained that he was captain of a barque in Wilmington harbor, the Aeolus; he explained that he was a missionary minister. He took his badge out of his pocket and said, “See. This is a missionary's badge. In every country I go to I’m usually asked to preach in the local churches. Why, in God's name, can't my crew join me at your Service?”

“Can't help who you are, captain, the boy can't enter. This is North Carolina” Then he weakened a little and said, “Waithere a minute.”

A short time later he returned with the curate, and Captain Granderson again made a detailed explanation. The curate was sympathetic but said, "The trouble is that this is not the church's doing, it's the law of the state. The North Carolina law forbids the mixing of congregations.”

“What about heaven,” countered Captain Granderson, “when we die and go to heaven is it the law there too?”

“I don't know about the laws there,” said the curate, “but we have our own down here and they have to be obeyed.”

While we stood there the service got underway. The congregation rose to sing and the words of the captain and curate merged with the strains of the hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” The music apparently inspired the curate.

“I have it! You can all go in and sit down and the boy can go up in the balcony.”

“These people are not Christians, but savages!” Mulzac recalled saying at the time. He was "sick” with anger and humiliation. When he returned to the ship, he went straight to his bunk and wrote to his relatives back on Union Island, explaining “the barbaric customs of our northern neighbors.” Though much had happened since he left his little island of twenty-two square miles, there was, said Mulzac, "not a word about the crew, the seas, the dolphins, and very few about the fine captain. There were just hot and tear-stained words about the church in Wilmington, North Carolina, and about a word I had learned for the first time — segregation.” The contrast with his Caribbean world was sharp: “Discrimination was a new experience for me. There was none in the West Indies,” wrote Mulzac. “Throughout our stay in the United States I did not go ashore again.” Mulzac became a Garveyite and worked for the Black Star Line as a ship's captain.

Even those, such as Claude McKay, who, prior to migration, had read and had been told (including by black American visitors to Jamaica) about these aspects of American society were unprepared for the raw and merciless racism that they encountered. Writing in 1918, six years after his arrival in the United States, McKay spoke for many others when he reported that “It was the first time I had ever come face to face with such manifest, implacable hate of my race, and my feelings were indescribable. ... I had heard of prejudice in America but never dreamed of it being so intensely bitter.” He had expected more of what he called "prejudice of the English sort,” the more insidious, forked-tongued kind of stuff, “subtle and dignified.” The prejudice he saw and experienced in the Caribbean was mainly rooted in class distinction, with less emphasis on race and color. Upon arrival in America, McKay was shocked and alarmed to find

strong white men, splendid types, of better physique than any I had ever seen, exhibiting the most primitive animal hatred towards their weaker black brothers. In the South daily murders of a nature most hideous and revolting, in the North silent acquiescence, deep hate half-hidden under a puritan respectability, oft flaming up into an occasional lynching — this ugly raw sore in the body of a great nation. At first I was horrified, my spirit revolted against the ignoble cruelty and blindness of it all. Then I soon found myself hating in return but this feeling couldn't last long for to hate is to be miserable. 2

Those like McKay, Harrison, Domingo, Moore, and Garvey who had migrated to the United States in the early part of the twentieth century had entered an America in which, in Rayford Logan's word, black America had reached its "nadir” — socially, economically, and politically. Harrison arrived in 1900; Briggs on July 4, 1905; Moore on July 4, 1909; Domingo, 1910; McKay, 1912; Huiswoud, 1913; Garvey, March 24, 1916. The years between Harrison's and Garvey's arrival were indeed dark times for black America. Four years before Harrison disembarked in New York City, the Supreme Court, in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, had enshrined racial segregation in law under the doctrine of “separate but equal.” A voluminous outpouring of racist ideology, moving under the legitimizing camouflage of science, flooded the landscape of the new century from across the borders of the old. Of all the black radicals — “New Negroes,” they called themselves — Hubert Harrison was especially perplexed and preoccupied by this movement. In 1915, D. W. Griffiths released his film Birth of a Nation, a racist interpretation of Reconstruction based upon the novel The Clansman, in which black people were depicted as savages, buffoons, rapists, incompetents — and the Ku Klux Klan as defenders of civilization and decency. The newly formed NAACP picketed the film in the North to little avail; it was even shown in the White House and viewed with approval by President Woodrow Wilson. “It is like writing history with lightning,” the President is said to have remarked after viewing the film. “And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” The Ku Klux Klan found the film a wonderful device to aid recruitment and used it accordingly in innumerable screenings. During the first two decades of the century, lynching was commonplace and generally passed unpunished in the South. This was the era of Booker T. Washington's hegemony, the era of black accommodationism, timid obsequiousness before the powers that be, albeit conditioned by formidable circumscription.

But most shocking of all, there was — within just over a year of Garvey's arrival — the horrifying outbreak of the East St Louis massacre of July 1917. At the base of this pogrom against the black population of East St Louis was the customary labor competition between black and white workers, an institutionalized practice of a racist America. White workers kept black workers out of the unions; black workers, like many non-union white workers, engaged in strike-breaking; and employers took advantage of the division. Then, on July 2, 1917, consumed by a festering accumulation of racist resentments, white East St Louis exploded into a diabolic orgy of indescribable savagery. Black people in that town were slaughtered and burned alive in the most barbaric and outrageous manner by white mobs: escaping black women and children were pinned down by gun-fire or thrown back alive into raging furnaces that had once been their homes; in other cases, the mob first nailed up boards over the doors and windows before setting homes ablaze. On the night of July 2, the chant "Burn 'em out! Burn 'em out” was heard from white onlookers as one mob went to work. But the mobs of East St Louis were set on burning 'em up, not on burning 'em out. As one Congressman remarked at the time, “It is impossible for any human being to describe the ferocity and brutality of that mob.” Oscar Leonard, the superintendent of the St Louis Jewish Educational and Charitable Association, went on a tour of the affected neighbourhoods accompanied by a young Russian-Jewish immigrant. Leonard reported the reaction of his companion:

I was informed that the makers of Russian pogroms could learn a great deal from the American rioters. . . . He told me when he viewed the blocks of burned houses that the Russian “Black Hundreds” could take lessons in pogrom-making from the whites of East St Louis. The Russians at least, he said, gave the Jews a chance to run while they were trying to murder them. The whites in East St Louis fired the homes of black folk and either did not allow them to leave the burning houses or shot them the moment they dared attempt to escape the flames. 8

The events were enough to shock even a nation that had largely been impervious to the monumental injustices perpetrated against its black citizens. But President Wilson, who was busy with making the world safe for democracy, did nothing; he did not even have the time to meet a delegation to the White House headed by the NAACP's James Weldon Johnson. East St Louis radicalized and galvanized black militants, who called for armed self-defense. And there was, too, “an insistent, angry demand for revenge,” on the part of many black people. Hubert Harrison agitated so effectively for black self-defense that the Justice Department explored the possibility of deporting him to the Virgin Islands, even though the islands were by then a part of US territory (having been sold to the Americans by the Danes). Garvey gave one of his most moving speeches a few days after the massacre, later publishing the speech, with additional material, as a pamphlet. Richard B. Moore's biographer said that Moore was “greatly disturbed” by the race riots, especially that of East St Louis; Moore described them as “wholesale massacres.” Black Harlem listened, read, and shed more than a tear over the horrors of East St Louis. (Refugees testified in front of rapt audiences in Harlem about the events.) And on July 28, 1917, black New York also marched.

Down Fifth Avenue to the sound of muffled drums, draped with black handerkerchiefs, marched ten thousand black people. They were silent. Little children, not more than five or six, headed the procession. The children were all dressed in white, and all, according to one account, tried "soberly to keep in step.” Behind the children were the women, also dressed in white; and behind them, the men, dressed in black. The marchers carried banners that filled the silence: “Mother, Do Lynchers Go to Heaven?” “Give Me a Chance to Live,” “We Are Maligned As Lazy And Murdered When We Work,” “We Have Fought For the Liberty of White Americans in 6 Wars, Our Reward is East St Louis,” “Mr President, Why Not Make America Safe For Democracy?” “Treat Us so that We May Love Our Country,” “Patriotism and Loyalty Presuppose Protection and Liberty,’” "Pray for the Lady Macbeths of East St Louis.” In front of the man bearing the Stars and Stripes went a banner with the inscription: “Your Hands Are Full of Blood.” 10 Organized by the NAACP and black groups in Harlem, this was the “Silent Protest Parade,” aptly described as “one of the strangest and most impressive sights New York has witnessed.” James Weldon Johnson, who helped organize the parade, reported that “They marched in silence and they were watched in silence; but some of those who watched turned away with their eyes filled.” 11 Black boy scouts distributed leaflets explaining the purpose of the march. Under the caption, “Why We March,” it explained that “We march because we deem it a crime to be silent in the face of such barbaric acts.” 12

Without a doubt, then, the midnight darkness of the moment in which these migrants from the islands entered the country contributed to the speed and depth of their radicalization in America. That turn-of-the-century conjuncture constitutes a point in the nation's history when the contrast between the United States and the Caribbean on the question of race must have been one of the sharpest and most disturbing for an islander in America. The contrast no doubt deepened the Caribbeans' discontent with the new country. It was, therefore, not just the place that contributed to their radicalization: the exceptional times — a veritable state of emergency for black America — played their part. It is not surprising nor is it insignificant that Caribbeans in Harlem helped to organize and took part in the Silent Protest Parade. 13

In written interviews, migrants from the Caribbean have left behind striking testimonies about how they absorbed the impact of American racism. The sometimes archaic and stilted language does not obscure the interviewees' shock and pain. 14

Having passed the immigration and customs examiners, I took a carriage for what the driver called "Nigger Town.” It was the first time I had heard that opprobrious epithet employed, and then, by a colored man himself. I was vividly irked no little. Arriving in Colored Town, Miami, I alighted from the carriage in front of an unpainted, poorly-ventilated rooming house where I paid $2.00 for a week's lodging. Already, I was rapidly becoming disillusioned. How unlike the land from where I was born, I soliloquized. There colored men were addressed as gentlemen; here as “niggers.” (189) 15

My first set-back was when the pangs of segregation closed in on me. The Pennsylvania train arrived at Cape Charles; I boarded the steamer for Old Point, and not knowing the customs walked into the white section only to be reminded a moment later that my color was to determine where I would stay during the two-hour trip across the Chesapeake Bay. What an impression! Why were people of the two races separated? At home such is unheard of. (192)

In the United States I was to gain new experiences. In New York City there were separate churches for colored and white people. ... I found that discrimination existed in hotels, in the residential sections of the city, and in office buildings, where in many instances colored people must use the freight elevators. In general, I gathered that Negroes were not wanted except to do menial work. (191)

A student who spent three months travelling throughout the Southern states before settling in New York did not disguise her feelings:

The whole situation down South filled me with bitterness and contempt. The utter ridiculousness of the sign in the cars "Whites to the front, colored to the rear." The girl that pointed it out to me was so amused for I could not stop reading it and laughing. They told me of a white Y.W.C.A. leader who came to their meeting, but always stood by until they had eaten before she ate! I wished I could meet her. It did not seem possible to me that such conditions could exist in one of the centres of civilization. (205)

Such responses can only be explained by the perceived, if not actual, differences between the place of race in the social structure of the United States, on the one hand, and the place of race within Caribbean societies, on the other. And the differences were neither fictive nor trivial.

Some of these differences may be fruitfully gauged by examining the response of Afro-American visitors to the islands. Surely, if the differences between the way race was articulated in these societies were as great as the Caribbean migrants in America claimed, then Afro-Americans visiting the islands must have taken notice and had something relevant to say. As it happens, the testimonies of Afro-American visitors invariably corroborated the differences observed by the Caribbean migrants. Although sometimes appalled by the prevailing poverty, Afro-American visitors to the Caribbean were, without exception, pleasantly surprised, indeed thrilled, at the relative absence of racism there. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and others reported their visits to the island in such terms. Their response to the racial situation in the Caribbean is of more help in understanding the America they left behind than in understanding the Caribbean societies that they testify about. And so Du Bois’s rhapsody about his visit to Jamaica in 1915 tells one more about race in America and more about Du Bois than it does about Jamaica itself, the ostensible object of his report.

Du Bois wrote of Jamaica in superlatives, opening with the statement: “Jamaica is a most amazing island.” He continued in the same vein to the very end of his article. To Du Bois, Jamaica was the "most startling” of the lands he had seen, and not only physically. Writing in the organ of the NAACP, the Crisis, he told his readers that he was struck by the manner in which Africa, Asia, and Europe met there. “In Jamaica,” the 47-year-old Du Bois observed, “for the first time in my life I lived beyond the color line-not on one side of it but beyond its end.” To his great but pleasant surprise, he discovered when he sat down beside the mayor at dinner, that “His Worship was colored.” Du Bois was also taken aback by the variety of positions occupied by black people. It was, he said, "a strange sort of luxury to ride on railways where engineers, firemen, conductors and brakemen were black.” And he noted that the “smart, dark Constables in their gleaming white hats and coats" gave him a double sense of security.

Although Du Bois registered what he called “the tragedy of a poverty almost incomprehensible,” he still spoke of the dignity and beauty of those afflicted by it — the black "peasantry” — in a pastoral, romantic tone:

The peasants ... were to me perhaps more alluring. I can see now those black, straight and strong and full-bosomed forms, supple of hip and thigh and lithe of limb, sinewy yet fine and calm, treading their silent miles like fate. Soft of word and slow but sweet of smile and uncomplaining, of the blood and tears of such as these was built Jamaica.

Jamaica was a paradox, said Du Bois. Through the predations of European colonialism the island, he acknowledged, lay "poverty-stricken.” Despite this, however, Jamaica, to him, was “facing the world proudly with one great gift, the gift of racial peace, the utter overturning of the barbaric war of color, with a chance for men to lift themselves regardless of the complexion of their grandfathers. It is,” he concluded, "the most marvelous paradox of this paradoxical western world.” 16

No Jamaican, or, more accurately put, no untravelled Jamaican, would or could have written about Jamaica in such terms. This is Jamaica seen through the eyes of a black American; Jamaica as seen by one who has lived in the dark and cruel shadow of Jim Crow and the lynching tree. And although Du Bois perhaps did not notice this — if he did, he did not tell — this was also Jamaica as seen through the eyes of a "light skinned,” "colored,” Harvard-educated gentleman. This is how the Jamaicans would have seen him, and this is how they would have treated him, and this was bound to have a bearing on how he perceived Jamaica. “Don’t you believe like colored Dr Du Bois that the race problem is at an end here,” Garvey wrote Robert Russa Moton, principal of the Tuskegee Institute. Notice that Garvey described Du Bois as “colored,” not “black.” (Moton visited Jamaica a year after Du Bois.) “Black men here are never truly honoured,” Garvey told him. 17

Five years after his visit and aware of the labor struggles being waged at the time, Du Bois was less sanguine about Jamaica and more critical of its mulattoes. The islands, he admitted, have "become disgusted with their old leadership.” He continued:

These leaders were largely mulattoes and it is British policy to induce them by carefully distributed honors and preferment to identify their interests completely with the whites. The visitor to Jamaica sees no color line in politics or society but he easily fails to note that the great mass of Negro peasantry has no real economic leadership or sympathy but is left to toil at a wretched wage and under disgraceful conditions. 18

But Du Bois was still enchanted by Jamaica, which to him epitomized beauty. In a characteristically powerful and bleak essay, “On Being Black,” also published in 1920, Du Bois suddenly declared, as if frightened by the darkness of the picture he himself had painted in the earlier part of his essay,

Pessimism is cowardice. The man who cannot frankly acknowledge the "Jim-Crow” car as a fact and yet live and hope is simply afraid either of himself or of the world. There is not in the world a more disgraceful denial of human brotherhood than the "Jim-Crow” car of the Southern United States; but, too, just as true, there is nothing more beautiful in the universe than sunset and moonlight on Montego Bay in Jamaica. And both things are true and both belong to this, our world, and neither can be denied. 19

“MY NEW LOVE IS JAMAICA” Hughes chirpily announced in the Chicago Defender on his return from visiting the island in 1947. “She is dressed in green, and her face is as dark and as beautiful as any in the world.” Robeson, who toured Jamaica and Trinidad the year after Hughes' visit, said of Jamaica: “I felt that for the first time I could see what it will be like when Negroes are free in their own land. I felt something like what a Jew must feel when first he goes to Israel.” It is true though, that, like Du Bois before them, they acknowledged the poverty. “Certainly my people in the islands are poor. They are desperately poor,” said Robeson. And Hughes on more sober occasions spoke with insight about “color lines” in the Caribbean. 20

In 1922. J. A. Rogers complained that many Afro-American visitors to the islands, including Moton as well as Du Bois, "give the impression that there is no color line there.” Rogers, himself a Jamaican migrant, observed that such also is “the proud boast” of many Caribbean migrants in the United States. Such a view is “very superficial, and far from being correct,” said Rogers. 21

The differences, then, between the articulation of race within the United States, on the one hand, and that in the societies of the Caribbean, on the other, require further investigation. After all, it is these differences that form the rational basis of the response of the Caribbean migrants to the United States, as well as the response of Afro-American visitors, such as Du Bois, to the Caribbean.

Notes

1. Hugh Mulzac, A Star to Steer By (New York: International Publishers 1963), pp. 26-32.

2. Claude McKay, “A Negro Poet and his Poems,” Pearson’s Magazine, September 1918, p. 275.

3. Rayford Logan, The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir 1877-1901 (New York: The Dial Press 1954).

4. Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W. W. Norton 1981); George Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (New York: Harper & Row 1971); idem, The Arrogance of Race (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press 1988).

5. John Hope Franklin, “The Birth of a Nation: Propaganda as History,” in idem, Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 1989), p. 16; see also Jack Temple Kirby, Media Made Dixie: The South in the American Imagination, rev. edin (Athens: University of Georgia Press 1986), chap. 1, “Griffith, Dunning, and “the Great Fact of Race',” pp. 1-22.

6. Elliott Rudwick, Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press 1964), p. 48.

7. Johnson, Black Manhattan, p. 239.

8. Oscar Leonard, “The East St. Louis Pogrom,” Survey, July 14, 1917, p. 331.

9. Johnson, Black Manhattan, pp. 231ff; Rudwick, Race Riot at East St Louis; the text of Garvey's speech is reprinted in the Garvey Papers, vol. i., pp. 212ff; Turner and Turner, eds, Richard B. Moore, p. 35.

10. Mary White Ovington, The Walls Came Tumbling Down (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company 1947), pp. 180-1; Johnson, Black Manhattan, p. 236; Rudwick, Race Riot at East St Louis, pp. 134-135.

11. Johnson, Black Manhattan, pp. 236-237; see also Ovington, The Walls Came Tumbling Down, p. 181.

12. Johnson, Black Manhattan, p. 237.

13. New York Amsterdam News, March 23, 1927; Henry, “The Place of the Culture of Migrant Commonwealth Afro-West Indians” pp. 313-314.

14. The testimonies are reprinted in Reid, The Negro Immigrant; page references are given parenthetically in the text.

15. Conditions in Colored Town, Miami, at the time when this migrant arrived there is helpfully discussed by Paul S. George in “Colored Town: Miami's Black Community, 1896-1930," Florida Historical Quarterly, vol. lvi, no. 4, April 1978, and “Policing Miami's Black Community, 1896-1930," Florida Historical Quarterly, vol. vii, no. 4, April 1979.

16. W.E. B. Du Bois, "An Amazing Island,” Crisis, June 1915, pp. 80-81.

17. Marcus Garvey to Moton, Feb. 29, 1916, reprinted in the Garvey Papers, vol. i., pp. 179-183, citation from p. 182, emphasis added.

18. W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Rise of the West Indian,” Crisis, September 1920, p. 214.

19. Du Bois, “On Being Black,” The New Republic, February 18, 1920, p. 340.

20. Langston Hughes, The Chicago Defender, November 29, 1947; Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: Vol. II: 1941-1967: I Dream A World (New York: Oxford University Press 1988), pp. 138-9; Langston Hughes, I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey, (New York: Rinehart 1956), pp. 6-37; Charles Nichols, ed., Arna Bontemps—Langston Hughes Letters, 1925-1967 (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1980), p. 235; Paul Robeson, The National Guardian, December 20, 1948, reprinted in Philip Foner, ed., Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews 1918-1974 (New York: Citadel Press 1978), pp. 190-191; Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: Alfred Knopf 1988), p. 336.

21.J. A. Rogers, “The West Indies: Their Political, Social and Economic Condition,” The Messenger, September 1922, p. 484.