Uncovering the Silences of Black Women’s Voices in the Age of Garvey

Today is the seventh day of our roundtable on Adam Ewing’s book, The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement and Changed Global Black Politics. We began with introductory remarks by Stephen G. Hall followed by comments from Komozi Woodard, Paul Hébert, Reena Goldthree, Frank Guridy and Asia Leeds. In this post, AAIHS blogger Keisha N. Blain highlights the strengths of Ewing’s book but critiques the study for its failure to foreground Garveyite women’s ideas and activism.

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Adam Ewing’s The Age of Garvey is one of the best books written on Garveyism. In this thoroughly researched and deftly argued book, Ewing provides an excellent overview of Garveyism that moves beyond the charismatic black nationalist leader who has dominated scholarly narratives on the movement. What Ewing has done is force us to pay attention to the “foot soldiers” of the Garvey movement—the individuals on the “ground” who were drawn to Marcus Garvey’s teachings and skillfully utilized Garveyism as an organizing tool in various locales across the globe. A beautifully written internationalist text, Ewing’s The Age of Garvey charts the global impact and varied articulations of Garveyism in the United States, Africa, Central America and other parts of the African Diaspora.

Drawing on an impressive evidentiary base, Ewing provides a wide array of examples of how black activists sustained Garveyism by seizing on its “emphasis on self-help, mutual aid, and economic development” and “encouraging Africans to replace ethnic and regional identities with pan-African ones” (p. 193). In so doing, his book joins the recent works of Robert Trent Vinson, Erik S. McDuffie, Daniel Dalrymple, and others, which challenge the declentionist narratives of Garveyism that often fail to account for the lasting legacies of the movement beyond Garvey’s 1927 deportation and the organizational collapse of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). In the The Age of Garvey, readers are introduced to a range of black leaders, activists, and intellectuals—Malawian Yesaya Zerenji Mwasi and South African Daniel William Alexander, among them—who led a series of political and religious movements that drew widely on Garveyism.

UNIA's Black Cross Nurses (1922)
UNIA’s Black Cross Nurses (1922)

What Ewing’s book does not tell us is that women in the movement played a crucial role in these movements and this is a major oversight in the text. How might Adam Ewing’s The Age of Garvey be enhanced by an examination of women’s roles and influences in the various movements he describes? In this review, I point out some of the blind spots in the narrative and offer a few examples of how a closer attention to women’s ideas and activities would have further strengthened this book.

In the first chapter of the Age of Garvey, Ewing discusses the education of Marcus Garvey and draws on an array of sources to highlight how Garvey’s ideas were greatly influenced by a number of individuals in his early life including his father, Malchus Garvey. Oddly enough, Ewing makes no reference to Sarah Garvey, the woman who gave birth to Marcus in 1887 and during her lifetime, bore eleven children—nine of whom never reached adulthood.1 One wonders how she shaped and influenced Garvey’s ideas. Ewing might have drawn some information on Sarah Garvey from the voluminous writings of Amy Jacques Garvey, Garvey’s second wife and Pan-Africanist leader in her own right. For example, in The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, Jacques Garvey offers a portrait of Marcus Garvey’s mother, describing her as the “opposite of her husband in every way” (p. x). Those who knew Sarah Garvey remembered her as a kind, gentle, and religious woman who wanted her son to be like the biblical Moses.2 Certainly, Garvey’s mother must have played some role in cultivating her son’s political and racial consciousness. Yet, Ewing is silent on Sarah’s life and the relationship she maintained with her only son who lived to see adulthood.

Amy Ashwood Garvey
Amy Ashwood Garvey

In 1914, when Marcus Garvey decided to launch the UNIA in an effort to “unit[e] all the negro peoples of the world into one great body,” Amy Ashwood, who later became his first wife, served as the organization’s first secretary and co-founder.3 While scholars have debated the extent of Ashwood’s formal leadership in the organization, none can deny the fundamental importance of her organizational skills and social networks to the UNIA’s success.4 The organization’s earliest meetings, for example, were held at the home of Ashwood’s parents and Garvey secured some of his earliest financial supporters through these contacts.5 Despite these facts, Ewing mentions Amy Ashwood only once in his book. On page 240, towards the end of the book, he refers to her as a “cofounder” of the UNIA in passing. Yet, in his detailed earlier chapters on the organization’s origins and early years, he makes no mention of Ashwood. He certainly does not acknowledge the existence of a co-founder on p. 44 when he describes the UNIA as “the organization Garvey founded in Kingston in 1914.”

In Ewing’s book, Pan-Africanist feminist Amy Jacques Garvey, Garvey’s second wife, fares much better than Ashwood Garvey (or any other woman leader in the movement). Ewing mentions her several times in the book and integrates a handful of quotes from Jacques Garvey, drawn from several newspapers of the period including the Negro World, the UNIA’s official periodical. While he acknowledges the key role Jacques Garvey played as de facto leader of the UNIA after Garvey’s imprisonment, Ewing offers little discussion of the myriad ways Jacques Garvey influenced Garvey’s thinking from the moment the two began working together and in the decades after Garvey’s death in 1940. Indeed, Garvey’s success can be attributed in large measure to Jacques Garvey and the other brilliant woman who surrounded him. As the seminal works of Ula Y. Taylor, Karen Adler and others have demonstrated, Amy Jacques Garvey was just as influential to shaping Garvey’s thinking as Garvey was influential to shaping hers. She helped Marcus Garvey write his speeches and articles and can thus be credited as co-creator of Garveyism.6 In addition to serving as de facto leader of the UNIA, she was editor of the women’s page of the Negro World, “Our Women and What They Think,” providing a significant platform for UNIA women to articulate their views on a range of issues affecting black men and women in the Diaspora.7 From the moment she joined the UNIA during the early 1920s to her death in 1973, Amy Jacques Garvey played a crucial role in shaping and disseminating the philosophy of Garveyism all over the world. Yet, she receives cursory attention in Ewing’s study.

Amy Jacques Garvey
Amy Jacques Garvey

Ultimately, readers are left with the impression that the primary actors who “enabled Garveyism’s global spread” were men. While the exact figures are unclear (on a global scale), we know that women made up the majority of various local UNIA divisions and after Garvey’s deportation, UNIA women were at the forefront of various black nationalist movements in the United States and other parts of the globe. Ewing even acknowledges this fact in the afterword of his book, where he gestures to a myriad of key women leaders who should have been better integrated in his book including Audley “Queen Mother” Moore, who mentored many Black Power activists and Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, a former UNIA member who went on to establish the Peace Movement of Ethiopia (PME), the largest black nationalist organization founded by a woman in the United States.

Beyond telling a more complete story about the global impact and lasting legacies of Garveyism, a discussion of these women leaders would have added weight to Ewing’s overall argument. One wonders, for example, about the kinds of activities in which African women were engaged in the religious movements that Ewing describes in his book. While he devotes several pages in chapter five to addressing the gender politics of the movement, Ewing does not employ a sustained gender analysis throughout the text and as a result, it’s unclear how gender informs the Watchtower movement in southern and central Africa, for example, and the other global black political and religious movements that build on Garveyism.

There is no denying that Adam Ewing has written a groundbreaking book that underscores the global impact of Garveyism as an ideology and as an organizing principle. However, the Age of Garvey would have benefited greatly from a closer attention to women’s roles and an in-depth and sustained examination of the politics of gender in the diverse movements Ewing describes. As the scholarship of Ula Y. Taylor, Tony Martin, Barbara Bair, Rhoda Reddock, Honor Ford-Smith, Erik S. McDuffie, Kate Dossett, Michele Mitchell, Asia Leeds, Natanya Duncan, Nydia A. Swaby, and many others have demonstrated, women’s roles are vital to understanding the global contours and enduring legacies of Garveyism. As I argue elsewhere, foregrounding the ideas and activism of Garveyite women deepens our understanding of the diverse political strategies and tactics people of African descent have employed in their struggles against racial discrimination, inequality, and global white supremacy.8 These women’s stories are central to the history of global Garveyism.

  1. Judith Stein, The World of Marcus Garvey: Race and Class in Modern Society (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), 24.
  2. Amy Jacques Garvey, ed., The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey (New York: Routledge, 1967, second edition), x.
  3. Robert A. Hill, ed., Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983-), Volume I: 5
  4. Although Amy Ashwood’s biographer, Lionel Yard, argues that she was co-founder of the organization, historian Tony Martin insists that Ashwood’s account was “probably fictional.” See Lionel Yard, Biography of Amy Ashwood, 1897-1969: Co-founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Washington D.C.: Associated Publisher, 1990); Tony Martin, Amy Ashwood Garvey: Pan-Africanist, Feminist and Mrs. Marcus Garvey No. 1 Or, A Tale of Two Amies (Dover: Majority Press, 2007), 2.
  5. Local newspapers in Jamaica (i.e. the Jamaica Times) included announcements for UNIA meetings that were taking place in the home of Amy Ashwood’s parents.
  6. Karen S. Adler, “‘Always Leading Our Men in Service and Sacrifice’: Amy Jacques Garvey, Feminist Black Nationalist.” Gender & Society 6, no. 3 (1992): 346–375.
  7.  Taylor, Veiled Garvey, 64-90; Mark D. Matthews, “‘Our Women and What They Think’: Amy Jacques Garvey and the Negro World,” Black Scholar, Vol. 10, nos. 8–9 (1979): 2–18.
  8. See Keisha N. Blain, “‘We Want to Set the World on Fire’: Black Nationalist Women and Diasporic Politics in the New Negro World, 1940–1944,” Journal of Social History (Fall 2015) 49 (1): 194-212

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain is the Senior Editor of Black Perspectives. She is a historian of the 20th century United States with broad interdisciplinary interests and specializations in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her first book, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press), will be published in Spring 2018. Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.

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