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Emancipendence or not, UNIA still relevant

Published:Thursday | August 7, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Orville Taylor

I DON'T like to take on my colleague columnists, especially when they are providing information that will enhance the education of black people about themselves, but Martin Henry's column two Sundays ago was a trifle disturbing.

In his discussion of the centennial of the Marcus Garvey-founded Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), he remarked, "History has made the UNIA, like the NAACP, redundant."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in the USA in 1909 and it came from vim, vigour and vitality of the Niagara Movement, spearheaded by W.E.B. Dubois in 1905, and included stalwarts such as Ida Wells Barnett. Barnett, a little giant of a woman, in 1884 held her seat on a Tennessee train, as Rosa Parks would later do in 1955, and had to be forcibly removed by several burly white men, one of whom gave up a mouthful of his flesh as it accompanied her off the train. The NAACP's stated objectives are "to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of minority group citizens of United States and eliminate race prejudice".

Similar goals

Inaugurated in 1914, Garvey's UNIA had, ironically, similar goals, although he and Dubois had one of the most antagonistic relationships among black leaders of that time period. While he was keen to establish black global and national economies and political freedom for Africa, Garvey was dedicated to the idea of black people in their own countries being first-class citizens. True, his ambitions were more lofty, but the inherent dignity of black people, a recognition of their worth by themselves first and other races afterwards, was paramount. For the purposes of a black majority country like Jamaica, the differences between the two movements would be even narrower.

Maybe because some of us speak Jamaican Patwa with strange accents and condescending tones, we believe that the work and the mission of work of the UNIA is done. Henry correctly observes that Garvey preached that the UNIA "stands for the economic, industrial, commercial, social and political liberation of the Negro peoples of the world. It stands for a free and redeemed Africa".

An evaluation of the status of the approximately two billion black people shows that we are still behind the eight ball, which is coincidentally black and, more interestingly, they chose white for cue balls. In the realm of ideology and belief, there is still a struggle to have validation of black religions. The recently appointed Cardinal Chibly Langlois of Haiti could find nothing better to do than de'nig'erate his own ethnic religion by deriding Voudou.

There are just about half a billion black Catholics, the largest Christian denomination in the world. Yet, since Pope Militiades consecrated Emperor Constantine in 313 AD, and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, there has been an apparent systematic bleaching of the faith. Although Catholics had two other black popes, Victor (186-198) and Gelasius (492-496), the highest any black person has reached since then is Nigerian Cardinal John Arinze. How come we have not had a black pope since Gelasius' demise?

And Islam is not better. Although the Prophet Muhammad 'reverted' his disciple Bilal as the first apostle, this equivalent of Christendom's Peter doesn't have the same revered status. Indeed, it was Islamic Arabs who enslaved East Africans in the 1100s and by the mid-1300, the greatest scholar of modern Islam, Abdel Rahman Ibn Khaldun, was describing blacks as full of mirth, incapable of saving, and less endowed intellectually.

Today, somewhere between 100,000 and one million black Africans are still enslaved in Mauritania and there myriad reports of genocide, rape and other human-rights violations by Islamists in Darfur.


Apart from those travesties, there are very few places where black people have achieved Garvey goals. Only two black nations, Barbados and arguably Seychelles, rank in the high Human Development Category of the UNDP Report. Conversely, more than 40 black nations, including countries in Melanesia, fill the Low Human Development Category. I cannot recall a single black African country with a life expectancy above 60, and countries such as South Africa and Nigeria, the richest, have poverty levels of 31 and 40 per cent, respectively. Niger has the paradox of having massive oil resources with 63 per cent of the population living below the poverty line.

Disproportionate ownership

Within countries with mixed populations, there is disproportionate ownership of resources by either white or light-skinned minorities or majorities. Even in Barbados, the blacks haven't shifted this pattern. The story in Jamaica, about the handful of families running the economy, is legendary. And in the great USA, the presidency of Barack Obama does nothing to change the historical prejudices and disproportionate numbers of blacks in prison or their lower life expectancy, higher poverty, and the list goes on.

For Martin, black countries now have governments, which are charged with the responsibility of creating their international global black space and improvements for their populations. Nonetheless, in the majority of the black countries, there are niggling to major problems with their democracies. Moreover, Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index is negative correlated with the presence of melanin. Unfortunately, most African and other black leaders have been more committed to meeting party exigencies and gaining or maintaining state power, rather than real development. The unfortunate reality is that nation states and political leaders make political decisions.

For that reason, a stateless organisation such as the UNIA is even more relevant today than it was, because it can keep the black developmental template in the public sphere and within nations, and pressure its governments to keep a black/Garveyan agenda alive. Indeed, we need simply look at Garvey's People's Political Party manifesto of 1929, which clearly would have been used as points of reference by our two major political parties. A UNIA is indispensable to keep the Garveyite gaze on our leaders to make certain that they do not betray or derail the electoral goodwill we have given them.

Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to and