One hundred years ago this month, the Right Excellent Marcus Mosiah Garvey, global icon and national hero of Jamaica, founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The UNIA, in its heyday, was the era’s most dynamic and visionary mass movement of Black people organised under the banner of Pan-Africanism – of Africa for Africans; of the need for global black businesses; of resistance to Western hegemony; of the right of repatriation of African peoples; and of the universality and unity of African struggles from the United States to the United Kingdom to Latin America to the Caribbean to the Motherland.
The UNIA was also a working class movement of “ordinary” people. The Baltimore Observer newspaper at the time described them as “cooks, porters, hodcarriers, and washwomen,” and tried to deride the Association by mockingly suggesting that Garvey should have on the official seal of the empire “a washtub, a frying pan, a bailhook and a mop.” But it was the working class, people-centred nature of the UNIA (and the Nation of Islam, led by former UNIA member Elijah Muhammad) that was its greatest strength. Pan-African ideology was not simply an academic pursuit for writers, or for scholars without followers. It was a popular movement, with a broad base of support among disenfranchised peoples. That support was what made the UNIA, and Garvey, dangerous.
For Black people, the world of 1914 was vastly different than the one we inhabit today. In 1914, every African country except Ethiopia was the colony of a European power, as was almost every Caribbean country (sans Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti). Within the United States, racial segregation was the law of the land, upheld 20 years earlier by the landmark US Supreme Court case of Plessy v Furgeson. The legal dismantling of segregation and the passage of the Civil Rights Act were still 40 and 50 years away, respectively. These bleak conditions informed the goals and worldview of the UNIA.
Today, many of the more immediate and tangible goals of the UNIA have been achieved, from desegregation to decolonization. But the guiding Pan-Africanist perspective of Garvey’s Association, and his desire for Black people to centre themselves physically or philosophically within the African continuum, remains a distant, and seemingly unreachable goal.
The list of great Pan-Africanist leaders and thinkers, beginning with Garvey, is long: W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Emperor Haile Selassie I, Patrice Lumumba, Ahmed Sékou Touré, Amiri Baraka, Kwame Ture, Julius Nyerere, George Padmore, Walter Rodney, Jomo Kenyatta and Muammar al-Gaddafi are a diverse (all men, though) but fairly representative collection of bright lights of the Pan African milieu.
Unfortunately, they are all dead.
Is Pan Africanism also dead? Or has the unifying dream of the UNIA simply outlived its usefulness, 100 years later?
Post-Garvey, Pan-Africanism as a goal and ideal retreated first to the well-stuffed armchairs of bourgeois intellectuals and then to the rarefied air of political leaders who were tired of a geopolitical world order that was irrevocably stacked against the interests of African peoples. Worse, it also became the last refuge of despotic leaders who used Pan-Africanist rhetoric as a political prophylactic against regional criticism. But the people – the working class “cooks, porters, hodcarriers, and washwomen” who populated and energised the UNIA and invested their money in the Black Star Line – followed a different path. They voted with their wallets, their cultural choices and their visa application fees. Pan-African no longer, we became Pan-Brookynites, Pan-Canadian, and Pan-British. Our spending choices spurred the creation of multinational corporations and global brands. Capitalism, consumerism, individualism and a homogenisation of culture and desire – all lubricated by insidiously omnipresent Western media – was the opiate of Pan-Africanism. The rise of this Westernised ethos of me-first individualism is the antithesis of community-centred or global movements.
But for the annual exercises in rhetorical excess at the summits of the African Union in Addis Ababa, “Pan-Africanist” is a term more frequently used today in eulogies of great men; an epitaph on the tombstones countless Don Quixotes who tilted tirelessly at geopolitical windmills.
The non-African and/or Western-assimilated intelligentsia, long opposed to the revolutionary thesis of Pan-Africanism, has crowed triumphantly that the philosophy is dead. The inglorious murder of Muammar al-Gaddafi, chief funder of the African Union and proponent of a “United States of Africa” triggered giddy joy in America’s establishment press. G. Pascal Zachary, a sometimes-astute non-African technology journalist turned Africa expert, proclaimed in The Atlantic that “Qaddafi’s death. . . is a reminder that pan-Africanism was an historic mistake of enormous proportions.”
Is he right? Is Pan Africanism a “crazy dream and mistake?” Or is it an idea whose time is yet to come? In honour of its 100th anniversary, let’s look at some of the principles from the UNIA’s seminal “Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World” for guidance:
“Be it known to all men that whereas, all men are created equal and entitled to the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and because of this we, the duly elected representatives of the Negro peoples of the world, invoking the aid of the just and Almighty God do declare all men, women and children of our blood throughout the world free citizens, and do claim them as free citizens of Africa, the Motherland of all Negroes.”
“We believe in the freedom of Africa for the Negro people of the world, and by the principle of Europe for the Europeans and Asia for the Asiatics; we also demand Africa for the Africans at home and abroad.”
Here, in two succinct paragraphs, are bedrock principles of the UNIA’s Pan-Africanism. Freedom and liberation for African peoples and nations; African unity (because you can’t be the a “citizen of Africa” unless there is a country called Africa, rather than a collection of sovereign states); and full and equal involvement of the African Diaspora. In claiming Africa as “the Motherland of all Negroes,” the UNIA unequivocally and unapologetically located people of African descent within “the Motherland.” Today, that profound act might not seem as big a deal as it was then, when Africa and everything African was seen as backward and shameful.
On second thought, it is still a huge deal. Africa isn’t commonly portrayed as the “dark continent” of savages and cannibals as it was in 1914 (one of the UNIA’s declarations back then was “We hereby protest against the publication of scandalous and inflammatory articles by an alien press tending to create racial strife and the exhibition of picture films showing the Negro as a cannibal.” – Can you imagine the need to even say something like that??). Nonetheless, the Africa of today is still portrayed solely as a continent of war, poverty, disease and corruption despite the countless examples of the Continent’s accomplishments, modernity, history, innovation, culture and wealth. People of African descent – particularly those of us in the West – are still reluctant to fully embrace the concept of Africa as our ancestral home. The result is our own rootlessness, and our failure to rise up in solidarity when our Motherland is wronged, exploited or neglected by the countries in which we now reside. The rootlessness caused by our failure to embrace the Motherland affects us personally and disadvantages the Continent on the whole.
The United States, the world’s most powerful nation, is home to over 40 million Black people, and has a President whose father was born in Africa. Brazil, one of the world’s rising powers, has close to 100 million people who identify themselves as Black or mixed race – a majority of their population. Peoples of African descent form the majority of most Caribbean nations. The UNIA imagined a world in which these massive and influential populations of Black people would locate themselves in an African continuum – mentally, psychologically, personally and globally. In doing so, they would create a nation of diverse and far-flung peoples whose population, wealth, influence, and power would rival that of any in the world.
“Africa for the Africans at home and abroad” was simultaneously a liberation cry against the colonialism of the day and a forward-looking call for Black people to take interest and ownership in the future of their Motherland. Imagine a continent of 1.1 billion people, with a GDP of $2.4 trillion dollars and a history as old as time itself. Now imagine another 200 million people, even wealthier, on average, than those on the Continent, all forging ties of culture, commerce and common objectives. To imagine that powerful collective, strengthened by its diverse outlooks and experiences, united by ancestry and history, and fortified by a shared goal of development, is to imagine the UNIA’s Pan-African philosophy.
“We strongly condemn the cupidity of those nations of the world who, by open aggression or secret schemes, have seized the territories and inexhaustible natural wealth of Africa, and we place on record our most solemn determination to reclaim the treasures and possession of the vast continent of our forefathers.”
Here is the danger of neglecting the Pan-African cry of “Africa for the Africans:” Without that sense of interest, ownership and united defence of the Continent, the dictates of capitalism and great power intrigue will forever consign Africa to be merely a source of resources for the betterment of other nations. The Continent has supplied other empires with labour and natural resources – and ridiculously unfair terms – for the last 500 years. The names of the exploitative powers have changed, as well as the means of exploitation, but the seizure of the “inexhaustible natural wealth of Africa” continues apace. Just read the news, where the debate about where “investment” ends and “colonialism” begins continues to rage. This prescient foundation principle of the UNIA’s Pan-Africanism is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. There is no need for me to explain any further the dangerous consequences of allowing other nations and powers to carve up and exploit the Continent’s resources for their benefit instead of Africans’ benefit. Who feels it knows it.
“We demand the right of unlimited and unprejudiced education for ourselves and our posterity forever.”
“We demand that instructions given Negro children in schools include the subject of ‘Negro History’, to their benefit.”
Education – unlimited, unprejudiced, and rooted in history and a positive self-image – was a UNIA Pan-African rallying cry. Over the next 100 years, experts have only reinforced the value of education for development and progress, and the importance of young people developing a sense of themselves that is affirming and empowering.
To ask whether Pan-Africanism is relevant today is to ignore the existing global racial disparities in education, or to endorse those disparities as acceptable. Every study ever conducted makes powerful connections between education and wages, choices and empowerment. You want to empower a people? Educate them. You want to reduce poverty and eliminate a sense of helpless victimhood? Educate the poor and the exploited. The UNIA recognised and championed this visionary cause.
All the new age talk about self esteem being connected to body image, or gender roles, or poverty, or sexuality, pales in comparison to the fundamental disability that children must carry into their adulthood if they believe that they are racially inferior. Not too long ago, Caribbean history was the history of the great European explorers and colonizers – whose individual names we learned – and their exploits relative to a nameless, faceless mass of “slaves” or “natives.” I certainly learned the names of more British and Spanish kings and queens than I did African ones. I was told about the “peaceful” Arawaks and the “warlike, cannibal” Caribs. I learned of the “‘slaves’ taken from Africa” as if the entire Continent was simply an endless source of a different species of human – called ‘slave’ – from whom we all descended: The “bottomless pit” of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”
Today, there remain some corners in our region where a British accent and white skin – nothing more – convey some sort of innate authority and legitimacy. Still. Incredibly. And those lingering – though receding – vestiges of inferiority are the product of an insufficiently pervasive and self-empowering system of education. When SVG Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves talks about education in terms of “inculcat[ing] a core of tried and tested values resident in our Caribbean civilisation and its Vincentian component,” or “train[ing] critical minds fit to receive and transmit universal culture, including science and technology, but with a Caribbean particularity” he is making a Pan-Caribbean pitch that is rooted in the UNIA’s Pan-African philosophy. Ditto his talk of “our sense of self-belief; in the imperative of our self-mastery. Education, work discipline, the tried and tested values of our Caribbean civilization.”
“We demand a free and unfettered commercial intercourse with all the Negro people of the world.”
And here is the linchpin of Pan-Africanism in today’s globalized, commercialized, hyper-capitalist world: “free and unfettered commercial intercourse” across Africa and between peoples of African descent. Black Business.
100 years ago, the UNIA was calling for a free trade zone among African nations and its Diaspora. Today, we have a European single market and customs union that has revolutionized trade and commerce in that continent (Pan-Europa?). There is an ASEAN Free Trade Area that covers the 600 million people and $2.3 trillion in GDP of ten Asian countries (Pan-Asia?). The North American Free Trade Area covers the almost 500 million peoples of Canada, Mexico and the United States (Pan-America?). The imperative for free trade areas based on geography or history is more urgent today than it was in Garvey’s time, and the examples of Europe and Asia prove its validity in the African context. To paraphrase the UNIA – by the principle of Europe for the Europeans and Asia for the Asians; there is similar demand of African free trade for the Africans.
Today, the establishment of free trade areas and the facilitation of “commercial intercourse” is the bedrock of any integration movement or the creation of a “Pan-“ sense of unity. The reason that Africans in the continent and in the Caribbean often feel a greater sense of kinship or affinity for great Western powers is partially rooted in the pervasive influence and omnipresence of Western commercial brands – from McDonalds and KFCs to iPhones to BMWs. Their ubiquitous presence in our regions, and the way that our aspirations are shaped by them, is rooted in the liberal trading ties we have between our region and our former colonizers or neo-colonizers. And let’s not talk about media: If I ask you to name your favourite TV stations, TV shows, news programmes, movies or magazines; how many will you list before you hit upon an African one? The presence of Western goods and services in our regions – to the exclusion of African ones – is a cause and a symptom of our multifaceted disconnect from the Motherland.
Our trading ties are still patterned on the now-illogical trade routes established by the colonizers and neo-colonialists. Our politicians debate how many Bananas we’ve shipped to England. We discuss how to take advantage of economic partnership agreements with Europe. We go shopping in, and ship barrels from the United States. We study how many tourists come from Europe or the USA.
Where is Africa in all this? For that matter, where are the African descendants in Central and South America? In an era of integration, where “Pan-Europeanism” has become a powerful reality despite Europe’s diversity, what is inherent in Africa and Africans that prohibits similar economic unity?
Maybe the UNIA was onto something.
The Caribbean in the Pan-African Renaissance
The Caribbean has produced a disproportionate number of great Pan-Africanist thinkers and leaders. Jamaican Garvey begat Malcolm X (Grenadian parents), Louis Farrakhan (Jamaican and Kittitian parents), Kwame Ture, George Padmore and C.L.R. James (Trinidadian), Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire (Martinique), and Walter Rodney (Guyana), to name only a few. Indeed, many Pan-Africanists are born out of a need to look beyond their borders and see themselves as part of something larger than their own limiting immediacy – be it the ghettos and shantytowns of the United States and Africa, or the smallness of a Caribbean island. Pan-Africanism in that sense stands as an ideological oasis in a desert of insular exceptionalism – a rock in an unending torrent of seemingly local problems without solutions. These conditions, and the desire to see beyond them, is at the core of the Caribbean’s leadership in Pan-African thought.
So too has the racial makeup and history of the Caribbean forced us to consider issues of Blackness and exploitation in more global and systemic terms than those for whom racism was a segregationist white man with a noose, a nightstick and a guard dog.
CARICOM’s recent call for reparations from European slave powers for native genocide and African slavery is rooted in the Pan-African agenda. It has electrified and revitalized the remnants of the Pan-African movement worldwide, and the symbiosis between the Reparations movement and the Pan-African agenda will likely be the vehicle that will add impetus and structure to any Pan-Africanist or reparatory successes of the 21st century.
As the first (and second) generations of great Pan-Africanists have died off, the Caribbean has a special responsibility to build on their legacy. Our creativity, intellect, leadership and solidarity have shaped and driven Pan-Africanism for the last 100 years. As a new generation of Caribbean youth look longingly to the north rather than the east, the future of Pan-Africanism for those “at home and abroad” is at a crossroads.
Should we give up on our historical and cultural links to Africa? Should we forget the atrocities that brought our ancestors to Caribbean shores, and the legacies that we still confront today? Should we pattern our education on British or American curricula – with a perfunctory nod of the head to Africa – and call that progress? Should we try to build trading relations solely with the USA and Europe, on unequal terms, or explore trade with the peoples of Africa, Central and South America? Should we see the world with African eyes, or through the media-filtered glasses of FOX News and its ilk?
The answers, I think, are clear.
Happy Anniversary, UNIA. Thank you Marcus Garvey. And long live Pan-Africanism. Rally ’round the flag.