In October 1937, entrepreneur and civil rights activist Marcus Garvey made a historic speech at Menelik Hall in Whitney Pier. The most enduring phrase of that speech, which was titled “The Work That Has Been Done,” is this: “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”
That’s also the phrase that likely inspired Bob Marley’s final single, “Redemption Song.”
Halifax author and journalist Jon Tattrie discovered the connection while writing his first non-fiction book, The Hermit of Africville, which examined the life and activism of Eddie Carvery. (Note: Tattrie is a regular contributor to Halifax Magazine.)
“Often I like to listen to music as I get ready to write, I keep the same mood, and in that case I was listening to a lot of Bob Marley and in particular, ‘Redemption Song,’” says Tattrie. “His voice had a similar quality to Eddie’s and their philosophies had a lot in common.”
Out of idle curiosity, Tattrie checked out the Wikipedia page for “Redemption Song”, and discovered a claim that the song was based on Garvey’s Nova Scotia speech. It didn’t have any citations, so Tattrie kept digging and discovered that the claim was probably true.
“The story stuck with me and the sort of broader significance of it and what it represented about Nova Scotia history,” he says. “I thought it was a really interesting chapter and worth digging into.”
But research wasn’t easy. Tattrie says it was like when you “climb a mountain and you think you’re at the top but then you see a higher peak.” He began by going over Garvey’s Nova Scotia visit, and then tying the speech to Marley. But as he worked, he discovered something that made him want to dig a little further: he learned that the black communities in Cape Breton and Africville reacted differently to Garvey’s words.
“It got me curious about why the two communities would experience the speech so differently,” says Tattrie. “Which led me into 100 years of Nova Scotian history. And then that led me into when the human races sort of separated from each other, and then when racism was invented. So that took me back a million or so years.”
By following threads of Nova Scotia history, from Tattrie was able to see racism developing over time, and examine it from a societal, historical, and psychological standpoint.
“I want to find ways to understand the sort of across the street racists that many of us find ourselves to be, rather than the cross-burning racists,” he says. “I wanted to try and understand the psychological processes behind it so that maybe people can see it clearer and then get beyond it.”
Jon Tattrie’s latest book Redemption Songs is available at bookstores around Halifax.