A-Z of Black Radicalism

U is for Universal Negro Improvement Association

Make it Plain is exploring Black Radicalism with Kehinde Andrews exploring a new letter each day. All of these are sourced from Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century, proceeds of which go to the Harambee Organisation of Black Unity There are some limited suggested resources below but please send in suggestions for more, these are just a few to start with

The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was founded in Jamaica in 1914 by Marcus and Amy Ashwood Garvey. The UNIA was created after Garvey had travelled the Caribbean and the Americas, witnessing the shared and appalling conditions facing Black people. After the Garvey’s moved to New York, Harlem became the headquarters of the organisation which grew to more than five million members across dozens of countries worldwide. The UNIA remains the largest Black organisation ever created, long before mobile phones, the internet or social media.

The UNIA was not radical in its economic analysis. In many ways Garveyism mirrored some of the moves to colonise parts of Africa and return Westernised Black folk to the continent in order to bring civilisation. Replicating capitalism was essentially the goal, proving that Black people could be just as “successful” as everyone else. But in its politics and organisation the UNIA laid the blueprint for Black radicalism. Had the organisation not been attacked and declined it would likely have developed a radical economic programme due to how it was organised.

The local chapters had a lot of autonomy and were responsible to the direct needs of the communities they served. This was part of the appeal, organic grassroots development that was local but tied into a much larger global organisation. The expressed political goal of ‘Africa for the Africans, at home and abroad’ is the basis of Black radicalism. Given its mass appeal and democratic structure the organisation would have had to develop a radical economic programme to fulfil its mission. It was already well ahead of the Pan-African Congress Movement which until 1945 was calling for greater autonomy within European empires, rather than liberation.

Building a Global Black Nation of those in Africa and the Diaspora, which ignores colonial nation state borders is the vehicle for Black Radicalism. The UNIA provided the blueprint for this by building a global organisation that sought to represent Black people worldwide, even petitioning the League of Nations. The UNIA was able to build its global reach with the publication of the Negro World, which was circulated worldwide spreading the message. Marcus Garvey never set foot in Africa, because the colonial powers would not allow it, but his words were some of the most influential. You only have to look at the incorporation of the red, black and green in flags across the continent.

Although the organisation was over fifty percent female there were numerous complaints at how women were treated and marginalised. But it was also a space that developed female leaders such as Amy Jacques and Amy Ashwood Garvey, Henrietta Vinton Davis and Ama Biney. The UNIA was also one of the first organisations to take women’s health serious with the creation of the Black Cross Nurses. As with most organisations there are serious lessons to be learnt but we should always remember that the UNIA would not have been possible without the work and leadership of Black women.

We should wonder why the UNIA built a mass global organisation at a time with almost no technology, when we have the technology but the prospects of replicating the organisation seem as slim as ever. The answer is simple, when the UNIA were building very few Black people could have thought that they had a place in their openly racist and brutal societies. It is the irony that the availability of technology is one of the key reasons we are convinced we are better in this racist system than outside it. If we take one lesson from the UNIA it should be that we remember we are no freer now than we were then. That we need to pick up the spirit of the movement and build an organisation that can represent Black people globally.


Keisha Blain Set the World on Fire

Amy Jacques Garvey  Garvey and Garveysim

Marcus Garvey The Philosophy and Opinions

Tony Martin Race First

Universal Negro Improvement Association

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