When Jamaican-born social activist Marcus Garvey came to the United States in 1916, he arrived at precisely the right historical moment. What made the moment right was the return of African American soldiers from the First World War in 1918, which created an ideal constituency for someone with Garvey's message of unity, pride, and improved conditions for African American communities.
Hoping to participate in the traditional American ethos of individual success, many African American people entered the armed forces with enthusiasm, only to find themselves segregated from white troops and subjected to numerous indignities. They returned to a United States that was as segregated as it had been before the war. Considering similar experiences, anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace has argued that when a perceptible gap arises between a culture’s expectations and the reality of that culture, the resulting tension can inspire a revitalization movement: an organized, conscious effort to construct a culture that fulfills longstanding expectations.
Some scholars have argued that Garvey created the consciousness from which he built, in the 1920s, the largest revitalization movement in African American history. But such an argument only tends to obscure the consciousness of identity, strength, and sense of history that already existed in the African American community. Garvey did not create this consciousness; rather, he gave this consciousness its political expression.