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Columbia Undergraduate Journal of History - Benjamin

Columbia Undergraduate Journal of History - Benjamin

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Keisha N. Benjamin of Binghamton University offers an insistent intervention in the historical literature with her attempt to restore the voices of rank and file women to the historiography of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Only the perspectives of elite Garveyite women have been studied, Benjamin contends, and her use of the “Women’s Page” of the Negro World provides an interesting attempt to reconstruct rank and file feminist sentiment.
Keisha N. Benjamin of Binghamton University offers an insistent intervention in the historical literature with her attempt to restore the voices of rank and file women to the historiography of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Only the perspectives of elite Garveyite women have been studied, Benjamin contends, and her use of the “Women’s Page” of the Negro World provides an interesting attempt to reconstruct rank and file feminist sentiment.

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Published by: Columbia Undergraduate Journal of History on Feb 06, 2009
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09/29/2012

 
eflecting on the role of women in Marcus Garvey’s UniversalNegro Improvement Association (UNIA), Black Nationalist leaderMadame M.L.T. De Mena argued, “Women were given to understandthat they were to remain in their places, which meant nothing morethan a Black Cross Nurse or a general secretary of the division.
1
Herstatement addressed the complex relationship between gender andGarveyism, which Amanda D. Kemp and Robert Trent Vinson definedas Garvey’s “race-based philosophy that places great emphasis on black political, socioeconomic, and educational advancement, racial pride, andself-reliance, in the ultimate objective of establishing black-led nation-states, particularly in Africa.”
2
Garvey, arguably the most influentialBlack Nationalist of the twentieth century, was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica on August 17, 1887. His difficult childhood experiences shapedthe ideologies on which he founded the Universal Negro Improvementand Conservation Association and African Communities League(which later became the UNIA) in 1914.
3
Two years after founding theUNIA in Kingston, Jamaica, Garvey visited the United States, wherehe recognized an underlying commonality in the socioeconomic statusof Blacks in Jamaica and in the United States. Determined to expand
1
Quoted in Mark D. Matthews, “Our Women and What They Think: Amy  Jacques Garvey and the
 Negro World 
,” in
Black Women in United States History 
, ed.Darlene Clark Hine (Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1990) vol. 7, 875.
2
Amanda D. Kemp and Robert Trent Vinson, “‘Poking Holes in the Sky’:Professor James Thaele, American Negroes, and Modernity in 1920s SegregationistSouth Africa,
African Studies Review 
43, no. 1 (April 2000): 158.
3
Tony Martin,
Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association ( 
Dover, MA: Majority Press,1976), 3-6.
Mr. Black Man, Watch Your Step! Ethiopia’sQueens Will Reign Again: Women in theUniversal Negro Improvement Association
EISHA
N. B
ENJAMIN
 
the organization’s impact, Garvey moved the UNIA to Harlem, New  York in 1918, where the organization was embraced by millions of Blacks in the Diaspora until its gradual decline in the early 1930s.
4
  While the UNIA was influential, it often neglected to give a voiceto Black women, who were very involved from its founding in Jamaica.Despite their substantial numbers in the organization, women heldrestricted roles and responsibilities, and were often placed in subordinatepositions to male Garveyites. While some Garvey scholars, such as Tony Martin and Robert Hill, maintain that women held importantpositions in the UNIA, the evidence indicates otherwise. Certainly, onecannot overlook remarkable women within the organization such as Amy Jacques Garvey, Henrietta Vinton Davis, Amy Ashwood Garvey,and Madame M.L.T. De Mena, whose contributions were many. These were not typical UNIA women—the average female Garveyite did notreceive the recognition or hold prominent positions as these womenactivists did. As a result of their prominence, these four women have receivedconsiderable attention in the historiography on Marcus Garvey and theUNIA; Jacques Garvey and Ashwood Garvey have been the subjectsof full-length biographies and Vinton Davis and De Mena have beenmentioned in various articles. Scholars have often used these cases tosupport the idea that women held prominent positions in the UNIA, without acknowledging the fact that the majority of women in theUNIA were restricted from gaining such influence. By addressing the responsibilities of women in the organization, this paper willdemonstrate that women’s leadership positions did not mirror theirnumbers in the UNIA. More significantly, the paper will contributeto the literature on Garveyism by focusing on rank-and-file femaleGarveyites—a group that has often been neglected by Garvey scholars.Finally, it will address the ways that many of these women attemptedto create a new space within the organization—even as they struggledto abandon some of their Victorian ideals—largely through the useof “Our Women and What They Think,” the women’s page in theGarveyite newspaper,
The Negro World 
.
4
Only one year after the UNIA relocated to Harlem, Marcus Garvey boastedof over two million members and approximately thirty branches throughout the world. For more information on UNIA membership, see Martin,
Race First 
, 3-19.
68
COLUMBIA UNDERGRADUATE JOURNAL OF HISTORY 
 
 The abundant literature on Marcus Garvey and the UNIA hasminimized the work of women within the organization. The works of  Tony Martin and Rupert Lewis demonstrate the dearth of informationon the role of women in the UNIA.
5
These Garvey scholars and othersoverlooked the significant contributions of female Garveyites. Instead,their works addressed Garvey’s success (or lack thereof) and analyzedhis movement’s influence in the United States and abroad. TheodoreDraper diminished the Garvey movement as unrealistic, and criticizedthe nationalism of Garveyites, which he believed “[had] little or nothing to do with their immediate lives, with their own time and place.”
6
 Similarly, E. David Cronon argued that while Garvey was unique, he was insignificant.
7
As an intense debate ensued, these scholars paidlittle attention to the “woman question” and the significant ways in which female Garveyites impacted the movement.More recently, in their attempts to remedy prior exclusions, somescholars have overstated women’s contributions to the organization. This is best exemplified in Tony Martin’s 1988 essay, which appearsin Rupert Lewis’s anthology,
Garvey: His Work and Impact 
, publishedtwelve years after Martin’s seminal book,
Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement  Association.
 
In this essay, Martin emphasized the responsibilities of afew prominent UNIA women, which were atypical of the role andresponsibilities of rank-and-file female Garveyites. Although onecannot overlook the prominent women in the organization, an accurateanalysis of women in the UNIA must fully recognize their involvementand influence, while accepting their limitations within the hierarchy of the organization. Thus, Martin’s 1988 article on women in the Garvey movement failed to remedy his earlier exclusions in
Race First 
, in whichhe made very few references to female Garveyites and often presented
5
Martin,
Race First 
, 27, 34; Rupert Lewis,
 Marcus Garvey: Anti-Colonial Champion 
(London: Karia Press, 1987), 68-69, 85.
6
Theodore Draper,
The Rediscovery of Black Nationalism 
(New York: Viking Press, 1970), 48-56.
7
E. David Cronon,
Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal  Negro Improvement Association 
(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1955), 221-222.
8
Rupert Lewis and Patrick Bryan, eds.,
Garvey: His Work and Impact 
(Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1988), 67-72, 73-86.
69
MR. BLACK MAN, WATCH YOUR STEP!

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