Mapping the Global Contours and Local Translations of Garveyism

Asia Leeds
Asia Leeds

This is the sixth 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 remarks from Komozi Woodard, Paul Hébert, Reena Goldthree and Frank Guridy. In this post, Asia Leeds emphasizes the need for more research on Garveyism’s impact in Central America and highlights some of the local articulations of Garveyism in Limón, Costa Rica.

Asia Leeds is an Assistant Professor in the African Diaspora and the World program at Spelman College.  Leeds’ research interests include Afro-Latin America, Caribbean migrations, and black women’s internationalism.  Based on fieldwork and archival research in Central America, she is currently working on her first book, which investigates the racial politics of citizenship and belonging in twentieth century Costa Rica. Her most recent article appears in Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International.


Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) is arguably the most important black organization in the twentieth century. Adam Ewing’s The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement and Changed Global Black Politics investigates the global appeal of Garveyism both at the height of the UNIA’s visibility and, most significantly, after the fall of Garvey and the disintegration of the Parent Body of the organization. Ewing calls this “second period” of Garveyism after 1921 the “age of Garvey.” He maps the local applications of Garveyism during the interwar period and beyond in the United States, the greater Caribbean, and on the continent of Africa in an impressive transnational framework. Ewing’s text is an excellent example of research that spans multiple sites in Africa and the African Diaspora while engaging the specific, local histories and political contexts. Part of the appeal of Garveyism to people in various parts of the black world was that it gave Africans and people of African descent a language and a frame of analysis through which to counter white supremacy and European colonialism.

I did not initially set out to do research on Garveyism in Costa Rica when I first arrived in the country for a year-long stay in 2003. I was interested in investigating the under-theorized British West Indian diaspora in Central America as a distinct black experience in Latin America. The more information I uncovered in archival materials and via interviews with Costa Ricans of West Indian origin, however, the more I realized just how important Marcus Garvey and the UNIA was and is to the region of Limón. Limón is the province of Costa Rica located on the Atlantic coast, where British West Indians, mostly from Jamaica, immigrated to work on port and railroad construction projects and United Fruit banana plantations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A young Marcus Garvey worked as a timekeeper on a United Fruit plantation in Limón in 1910. As Ewing notes, Garvey’s pre-Harlem experiences in Central America shaped what would become the UNIA. Although his first time traveling and living outside of Jamaica, Garvey’s experiences in Costa Rica and subsequently Panamá and other nations in Latin America, rarely receive substantial attention and analysis in Garvey scholarship. The experience of Jim Crow segregation in United Fruit enclaves in Limón and of Central American anti-black racism and xenophobia, which shaped immigration laws and customary social practices in the region, undoubtedly influenced Garvey’s politics and vision.

Liberty Hall in Puerto Limón, Costa Rica. Photograph by author.

The circulation of the Negro World newspaper, as Ewing shows, helped to delineate a black world beyond national borders. The newspaper connected disparate black communities and put them in conversation with one another, as the Negro World featured news from various parts of Africa and the African Diaspora. Within this transnational space of belonging shaped by the circulation of information, movement and relocation, and shared experiences, black people claimed a kind of modern citizenship that was denied to them in the Americas and colonized Africa. Local black newspapers such at the Limón Searchlight and the Atlantic Voice in Limón, Costa Rica in many ways mirrored the style of the Negro World, printing news on European colonialism in Africa, lynching in the United States, and economic stagnation in the British West Indies, for instance.

As Ewing illustrates in places like Kenya, South Africa, the U.S. South, and elsewhere, Garveyites adapted Garveyism to local contexts. The Age of Garvey, therefore, demands that we investigate the multiple iterations and practices of Garveyism in the different locations of the transnational community rather than think of Garveyism as a single, unchanging ideology. My research in Costa Rica offers insight on how West Indians adapted Garveyism to the political context of Central America. In my own work, I see examples of the “retreat from radicalism” that Ewing describes post-1921. In contrast to examples from the Caribbean, where, as Ewing shows, Garveyism aligned with labor movements and increased radicalization, West Indian Garveyites in Limón took a staunch anti-union, anti-strike position in a climate of increased labor organization by other workers in the enclave. At the UNIA’s global peak, the British Consulate in conjunction with Costa Rican authorities sought to ban the importation of the Negro World into Limón, but by 1921 Garvey was welcomed as a hero of sorts by United Fruit officials in Limón and he even corresponded with the president of Costa Rica. Where United Fruit deemed Garveyism as a threat in earlier years, the Company gave workers a paid holiday when Garvey visited Limón in 1921. Since the UNIA took a staunch anti-strike, anti-communist position, West Indians’ Garveyism in Limón helped to maintain the status quo, kept black workers on the job, and thwarted multiracial and multiethnic worker solidarity.

Enacted on the ground and largely by working class people, Ewing illustrates how Garveyism promoted the “leadership of the masses” and a “masses over classes” orientation in contrast to elite, top-down black organizations.1 As I find in my archival research in Costa Rica and discuss in my forthcoming book, Limón Garveyites enacted a certain kind of elitism even as culture and performance delineated class more than financial standing. Garveyites in Limón rejected working class culture that did not fit into the framework of redemption. Advocating “Garveyism instead Voodooism,” they considered African-derived Caribbean spiritual practices such as Pocomania backward and a danger to their efforts to redefine blackness and Africanness as modern and worthy of white respect.2 As I have written elsewhere the politics of redemption in Limón were gendered in very specific ways. 3 Community anxieties about the behavior of women appeared frequently in the pages of local West Indian newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s. In Limón, the local application of Garvyeism helped shape a particular type of conservative politics. At the same time, the then-stateless Limón West Indians utilized the language of Garveyism to demand recognition from Costa Rican officials and claim fitness for Costa Rican citizenship in the face of overtly anti-black nationalism. Ewing’s work helps us to make sense of the various and differing types of politics that were inspired by Garveyism. As The Age of Garvey reveals, Garveyism is a framework, or as Ewing describes it, “vessel,” shaped on the ground and given meaning in practice within local contexts.

Liberty Hall in Puerto Limón, Costa Rica. Photograph by author.

Today in Puerto Limón, Liberty Hall remains an important space and symbol of Garvey’s lasting influence. The Puerto Limón UNIA is still active and holds meetings in the building. Aside from UNIA functions, Limón’s Liberty Hall serves as an important community institution, where black Limonenses celebrate birthdays, weddings, and other major events. On the ground floor of Liberty Hall, a restaurant called the Black Star Line serves typical Limón cuisine. Garveyism is embedded in both the physical geography and the cultural politics of the city. Chatting with Afro-Costa Ricans in Limón, especially older men and women, one quickly realizes that Limoneses take great pride in the fact that Marcus Garvey spent time in Limón. A mix of legend, family archives such as certificates of purchased Black Star Line shares, and personal testimony shape the way that Limonenses think about this history. The annual Día de la Persona Negra y La Cultura Afrocostarricense at the end of August features a parade of men and women dressed in African-inspired styles, a celebration of music of the African Diaspora, and local culture, food, and history. In addition to the persistent Puerto Limón UNIA branch, celebrations of black pride and consciousness in the province of Limón remain the lasting legacies of Garveyism in Costa Rica.

Research on Garveyism has implications for larger epistemological questions in the field of African Diaspora Studies. Ewing’s book stimulates my own reflections on the meanings of black liberation and black radicalism. What exactly is black radicalism? What kind of politics constitutes it? What kinds of liberation does black radicalism imagine? Was Garveyism as appealing and adaptable because it provided a means of refashioning blackness and a framework for black politics within dominant structures?

Given Garvey’s lasting impact on black nationalism, internationalism, and consciousness, why isn’t Garveyism taken seriously in the academy? As Ewing mentions, his text is one of very few book-length studies of Garvey and Garveyism. I hope that more scholars investigate the global dynamics of Garveyism, particularly beyond the Anglophone world and the British Empire. I am curious to know, for instance, how Garveyism was adapted locally in the French Caribbean and French-colonized Africa. Did Garveyism impact Brazil and countries in Latin America aside from the places where West Indians migrated? Ewing’s research opens up spaces of inquiry which reveal that we have much more work to do in mapping and investigating the global contours and local translations of Garveyism.

  1. Ewing, 146-147.
  2. Limón Searchlight, July 26, 1930.
  3. See Asia Leeds, “Toward the ‘Higher Type of Womanhood’: The Gendered Contours of Garveyism and the Making of Redemptive Geographies in Costa Rica, 1922–1941,” Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International, Volume 2, Number 1, 2013.
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Comments on “Mapping the Global Contours and Local Translations of Garveyism

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    Was the Limón UNIA anti-communist/anti-union or pro business? It seems, on surface, to be a distinction without a difference, I know. But, it also seems increasingly clear that there’s a black, pro business transnationalism that preceded, vexed, and perhaps even outlasted leftist diasporic politics. What kinds of positive associations did black Costa Ricans tie to entreprenuership, welfare capitalism, and nominal commitments to the professed racial benefits of so-called free markets? To tie the Garvey movement into a transnational history of black capitalism may shed some light on the durability of counterrevolutionary politics WITHIN black politics. It may also allow, as you’ve already suggested, for really fruitful comparative work on black social movements and their complicated ties to colonialism and white supremacy. Love the forum. What a service to the profession! Looking forward to your book.

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