An Ethiopian Tent: Garveyism and the Roots of Caribbean Labor Radicalism.

Author:Ewing, Adam
Position:Report
 
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This paper is from "Broadcast on the Winds: Diasporic Politics in the Age of Garvey, 1919-1940", a dissertation presented May 2011 by Adam Ewing to The Department of History in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the subject of History at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts via dissertation Advisor Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. The author is currently an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.

At the break of dawn on June 19, 1937, smoke billowed from the wells of the Apex Company at Fyzabad, in the heart of Trinidad's southern oilfields. It was a signal to workers to stay home: The strike, which had been threatened since the beginning of the month, had begun. Worker defiance quickly engulfed the western half of the island, first spreading through the oilfields, then heading north to the sugar plantations and the towns, reaching Port of Spain, the capital, on June 22. Police and volunteer forces, overwhelmed by the extent of the resistance, opened fire time and again on the crowds, killing at least twelve, and wounding dozens. Only the arrival of two British warships, on June 22 and 23, allowed authorities to regain control. (1) Out of the carnage came the reluctant acknowledgement of the need for trade unions-until then, sharply circumscribed-and the institutionalization of the labor movement in Trinidad. (2) During a fleeting moment of sympathy for the workers, the Acting Colonial Secretary, Howard H. Nankivell, pledged "a new era in the history of Trinidad," an end to the "conditions of economic slavery" and the institution of fair wages and decent conditions of employment. (3)

The labor rebellion in Trinidad comprised an episode in a series of dramatic strikes and riots that shook the British West Indies in the second half of the 1930s, forever altering the landscape of the region and laying the foundation for the labor and decolonization struggles of the subsequent decades. The confrontations-pitting majority populations of poor, disenfranchised workers of color against the islands' powerful white oligarchieswere a product of the severe economic hardships set in motion by the Great Depression: collapsing sugar prices, spiking unemployment, reduced wages, escalating poverty. These class-based grievances were woven into longstanding racial tensions, which were ignited by the aggression of Italian fascists in Ethiopia, beginning in late 1934. Typical of interwar labor radicalism in the greater Caribbean, black workers viewed their struggle for economic justice through a prism of racial solidarity; labor, to borrow the felicitous phrase of the leader of the Trinidad demonstrations, Tubal Uriah"Buzz" Butler," mobilized under an "Ethiopian tent." (4) It was a blend of labor politics and racial consciousness born from an earlier, galvanizing period of radicalism following the end of the First World War. It was a politics that owed both its articulation, and its persistence, to Garveyism.

Despite the tremendous importance of Garveyism in shaping the politics of the greater Caribbean, the study of Caribbean Garveyism remains an "emerging field." (5) Recently, this has meant a minor proliferation of studies that examine the influence of Garveyism and the Universal Negro Improvement Association in a particular place, or at a particular moment in time. The results have been illuminating.

Ronald Harpelle, focusing on Garveyist contacts with West Indian migrants employed by the United Fruit Company (UFC) in Costa Rica, has demonstrated the extent to which the demands of UNIA fundraising aligned with UFC business interests, particularly after 1921. Marc McLeod and Frank Guridy have fruitfully explored the intersection of UNIA race consciousness with ethnic diversity, and with the competing discourse of "raceless nationality," in Cuba. Carla Burnett has established the deep relationship between Garveyist organizing and labor radicalism in the Panama Canal Zone in 1919 and 1920; while, conversely, Anne Macpherson has convincingly demonstrated the extent to which Garveyism evolved into a politics of conservative reform in British Honduras (now Belize). Like much of the recent work on American Garveyism, these studies have successfully and helpfully illustrated the extent to which the movement was shaped by local forces, molded by participants to suit their diverse and often contradictory sets of needs. (6)

What remains missing from recent work is a more comprehensive regional dialogue, a sustained discussion about the trajectory of Caribbean Garveyism against which to test the fissures of local variety. Most troubling, in the absence of such a conversation several local historians of the movement seem intent on reviving Judith Stein's sweeping and greatly misleading view that Garveyism was an essentially pro- business, petty-bourgeois, and anti-union philosophy. Stein's perspective on Caribbean Garveyism is based entirely on Marcus Garvey's fundraising trip to Cuba, Jamaica, and Central American in 1921, and it ignores much, in particular the radical period of Garveyist labor rebellion that followed the war, and the deep and sustained ties that the UNIA forged with labor activists over the next decade and a half. Nevertheless, Macpherson uses Stein's conclusions to make sense of her own discovery of conservative Garveyism in British Honduras. Elsewhere, a perplexing cognitive dissonance has set in. Frederick Douglass Opie, finding unmistakable evidence of Garveyite support for a labor strike in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, in 1920, is left wondering if Garvey's "intended" message was "co-opted." Burnett, in her otherwise excellent monograph, wonders why the "anti-union" Garvey might have supported the strike of Panama Canal workers in 1920, and rests on the unsatisfying conclusion that the growth of Garveyism "happened almost spontaneously in different parts of the world"-implying, like Opie, that Garvey's essential vision was lost in its transmission abroad. (7)

In proposing a unified interpretation of Garveyist influence in the greater Caribbean, this chapter both emphasizes the influence of Garveyism on regional labor politics and suggests its limitations. It both embraces the local diversity implied by recent work while remaining mindful of the broader conceptual and strategic currents that underlay that diversity, gave the movement its coherence, and propelled its global project.

Garveyism, I argue, was carried to the Caribbean archipelago and the Central American isthmus between 1918-1920 as a strident doctrine of international mobilization, race consciousness, and assertiveness that both gave encouragement to-and provided a language of grievance for-a series of labor strikes, riots, and rebellions across the region. This period of revolutionary enthusiasm was not sustainable; workers gained some concessions, but administrators also redoubled their efforts to undermine meaningful labor reform, to police manifestations of race consciousness, and to generally restore the "order" of starkly exploitative capitalist relations. As in the United States, Garvey and his supporters responded by scaling back the stridency of their politics. In Cuba and Central America, shorn of the subversive immediacy that had propelled the early years of contact, local UNIA divisions supported the more mundane needs of its predominantly West Indian constituency, developing in many places into an "immigrant protection association" that legislators in the Hispanic Caribbean, save in Cuba, viewed with little concern. (8) In the West Indies, Garveyites worked closely with labor activists to establish the foundation of a labor politics that emphasized-partly out of necessity- organization and constitutional reform rather than direct action and worker resistance. The work across the greater Caribbean was locally calibrated to the needs of its constituents, and fashioned with an eye to the opportunities and limitations offered poor, black, and colonized subjects. But it was also projected in global terms, viewed as the mundane spade work of diasporic solidarity and African redemption. By the mid 1930s, a new labor politics had emerged, one that both surpassed Garveyist labor organizing in its stridency and relied on Garveyist tropes of racial solidarity; one that distanced itself from Garveyist labor organizers while boasting a leadership that had been nurtured within the Garvey movement. (9)

Approaching Garveyism as a regional movement requires an appreciation of the ways in which the UNIA transitioned from an early period of strident immediacy towards an embrace of patient organizing and consciousness-raising that set the long term goal of African redemption in conversation with the demands of local needs and opportunities.

This in turn requires viewing Garveyism as an organic mass politics rather than a philosophical system devoted to either "radicalism" or "conservatism". Garveyites were connected by a series of broad and relatively fixed assumptions: a belief that African redemption and Negro redemption were coterminous and Biblically ordained; a view of the "Negro race" as a unified and ancient category of belonging; an understanding of history that suggested a declining white civilization and an ascendant Negro one. Such beliefs did not recommend an approach so much as demand that the work be done. And in practice, this work was malleable, strident or cautious depending on the circumstances, dedicated to the work of politics rather than the demands of ideological purity.

The success of Garveyism in the greater Caribbean in the 1920s and 1930s-as with the success of the UNIA in the United States in the 1920s-reflected the capacity of the movement to effectively speak to the needs and the aspirations of the moment within the realm of political possibility. And as in the United...

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