The Case for a Belizean Pan-Africanism

Article excerpt

I am pleased to be once more with you in the Academy of Music, I am pleased always to be in Philadelphia, but I do not want you to become too bigoted in your strength because there are dozens of branches of the U.N.I.A. that are twice as strong numerically as you are. I have also a cable in my hand which came to me last night while I was presiding over the meeting at Liberty Hall, from one of the Central American countries--British Honduras. Those of you who have been reading the Negro World will remember that about six months ago the government of British Honduras, through its legislature, voted to suppress the Negro World to prevent it from entering into British Honduras, where it had a circulation of 500 copies weekly. We had not yet organized a branch of the U.N.I.A., but the moment that the government closed down the Negro World the Negro people in British Honduras--in the city of Belize--organized a branch of the U.N.I.A.

Marcus Garvey

April 29,1920

During the heydays of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the 1920s, Marcus Garvey, venerated by many as the sage of twentieth-century Pan-Africanism, was clear in his praise for the strides the UNIA chapter in Belize was making. (i) From Garvey's perspective, the chapter in Belize deserved special recognition for its relatively high levels of organization and effective leadership. Such special acclaim for Belize was not insignificant given the fact that at its peak in the 1920s the UNIA could count over 1000 branches worldwide. The work of the UNIA chapter in Belize was such that Garvey, with his sights ceaselessly set on strengthening the central base of the organization, wasted little time drafting the Belizean UNIA leadership to work in the main chapter in Harlem with the hopes of expanding the capacity and reach of the movement internationally. Ironically, this recognition given to Belize by the leader of the largest Pan-African organization in history has been absent in the broader literature on Pan-Africanism. Consequently, and given the scant reference to Belize in Pan-Africanist literature, a tempting conclusion might be that those efforts in Belize did not produce a great deal in terms of the Pan-African tradition and movement. To the contrary, the African-Belizean experience is ripe with Pan-African activity that has been celebrated in other regions of the African Diaspora. Moreover, Belize's contribution to the Pan-African vision of unity, self-determination and empowerment throughout the African Diaspora transcended the Garvey Movement as it was consistently reproduced in other eras, settings and contexts. The eminent Trinidadian historian, Tony Martin, in his major work on Marcus Garvey and the Pan-African movement, gives broad accounts of the encounters between the Garvey Movement and Belize in the early 20th century. (ii) Martin, however, focuses mainly on illustrating Garvey's impact throughout the Caribbean, with particular emphasis on Trinidad. But his inclusion of Belize in the international scope of the UNIA is an exception. Otherwise, in most cases, Belize is at best a glancing reference included in other Pan-African accounts or at worse, altogether absent. This is particularly evident in works on the movement in Central and South America.

The omission of venues like Belize reveals a fault line in Pan-African discourse given, at the very least, the important place and role Africans throughout the Americas have occupied in the history of Pan-Africanism. Surely the contributions of African struggles in Diaspora locales like Brazil, Haiti and Trinidad, as Martin reminds us, have always commanded a special place in the Pan-African mosaic. From historical, geographical and political perspectives, I argue below that Belize belongs in the same mold. Admittedly, the intent here is neither a comprehensive recounting of African-Belizean history nor an in-depth analysis of Pan-Africanism historiography. Indeed, the points offered here will not be radically different from what has already been said in the chapters of Belizean history. …