UNIA at 100

by Wanda Sabir

I spent a week in Harlem for the Centennial Celebration of the Hon. Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association-African Communities League (UNIA-ACL), an organization that looked at Africans separated through the institutions of slavery and colonialism, both global systems of exploitation of people, goods and environments.

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A Garveyite from New York brings the Hon. Marcus Garvey back to life. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

As we marched through the Harlem streets on a warm Sunday, Aug. 17, Garvey’s birthday (1887), from the people’s response, we could see how the objectives of Garvey’s UNIA-ACL are still applicable today.

“Sovereignty,” “Africa for Africans,” “Buy Black,” “Race First,” we chanted – as Harlemites find it harder and harder to stay in a community established by their forbearers. An empty lot was where the former headquarters of the UNIA stood at 125th Street (MLK Jr. Blvd) and Malcolm X (Lennox Ave.), across the street from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. I was staying with friends in Harlem, so every time I walked to this junction, I thought about the two great men whom politics seemingly divided, yet they wanted the same rights for their communities.

Further up, on 135th Street, stood Adam Clayton Powell, the congressman – the sculpture shows him in motion, bills flying from his fingertips as he legislated for human rights for his community. In the evening when I walked home, I’d stop to listen to brothers playing African drums while large crowds of people danced. I was in the country of New York; humid like Senegal and Gambia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe – the marketplace looked like home.

I could get fresh fruit from vendors along the sidewalks, shea butter and incense, even clothing, while the hairstylists had everything except the fancy painted signs with their styles displayed. If it weren’t for the corporate chain stores I would have thought the plane landed not at LaGuardia but LéopoldSédarSenghor International (smile).

I’d walk by people who spoke with Diaspora languages I couldn’t decipher – a variety of English I’d never heard before. I felt both at home and foreign, yet my Blackness made me welcome as people smiled at me and I smiled back. I didn’t even feel abandoned when people I knew didn’t get back to me until it was time for me to leave. New Yorkers seem to be like that, too busy to slow down for an out of town friend, unless they are retired (smile).

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A team of leafleters spread the word of the UNIA Centennial in Harlem. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

I was good, though, in great company with new friends of friends. It was like traveling abroad – the world just grows larger as it embraces you tightly. I got caught in a rainstorm at Garvey Park, where there was a concert. I shared a huge umbrella with a sister standing near me and then with a little girl and her mother. We played open and close musical umbrellas as the outdoor arena raised and lowered their cloth canopies. I don’t remember the name of the musicians who performed but they were great and I walked home happy.

The next day I went to the Apollo theatre – it was Harlem week and the evening was phenomenal as we watched these really talented Black boys perform. The winner was a saxophone player. The adult winners were a gospel singer and two poets. The host and deejay were really good as well as the Apollo band.

Harlem in the summertime is a place filled with free music festivals and art, the landscape marred by reminders of structural racism and institutional violence in the form of police brutality. Garvey’s organization was formed when a violent incident occurred in Missouri 100 years ago; the irony of coincidence that the police shooting of an innocent Black boy occurred at this time there as well.

In New York, in July a policeman choked a Black man to death. He kept crying, “I can’t breathe.” To further condemn themselves, the police then refused to let paramedics into the crime scene to help the dying man. It was worse than a hit and run.

Many people thought the UNIA was dust, a thing of the past, yet such is so far from the truth. The current President General Senghor Jawara Baye said many times over the four-day Centennial Celebration, Aug. 14-17, that even when unacknowledged, a Black person doing work to uplift Black people is a part of the UNIA-ACL fellowship – they are a part of a larger canvas even if they don’t carry a paint brush. The work today is one of collaboration and recognition that the red, black and green path is fed by many tributaries.

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UNIA Centennial President General Senghor and 4th Assistant President General and Universal African Black Cross Nurses Administrator Basyima Muhammad Bey enjoy the Awards Program at Mount Olivet in Harlem. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

From the Harlem Walk-Thru led by the president general – those gathered walking through the ‘hood passing out leaflets to the evening’s reception and the weekend schedule of activities – to the Black Cross event at Mt. Olive Baptist church honoring women who have exhibited leadership. Their fields range from journalism to public policy and children’s programming: Nayaba Arinde, editor, New York Amsterdam News; Queen Mother Dr. Doris Blakely, ambassador of goodwill to Africa and community mayor of Harlem; Colia Liddell Lafayette Clark, civil rights and human rights advocate, Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, New York; Betty Davis, educator and co-founder of the New Abolitionist Movement and the Lynne Stewart Defense Organization; Betty Dopson, warrior queen and founder of the Committee to Eliminate Media Offensive to African People; Johanna Fernández, lead attorney for Mumia Abu Jamal and assistant professor of history at Baruch College; Déqui Kiono-Sadiki, poet, educator, chair, Malcolm X Commemoration Committee, member of the New York chapter of the Jericho Movement for Amnesty and Recognition of U.S.-held political prisoners and prisoners of war, radio host of Where We Live (99.5 FM); Mama Margaret Lamb, the oldest member of the UNIA-ACL in the New York area – her 91st birthday was Aug. 18; Leola Maddox, co-director of the Freedom Retreat for boys and girls, the first of its kind for the United African Movement; and Viola Plummer, one of the founding members of the December 12th Movement; and others (smile).

The four days were certainly a highlight of my life up to now. So much of what I recalled as a child growing to young womanhood in the Nation of Islam was reinforced at the Centennial. The UNIA-ACL was the backstory I’d heard about, yet hadn’t experienced.

That first afternoon, the famous attorney the Hon. Alton H. Maddox, Jr., founder and director of the Freedom Party, spoke about his life and work. His wife had been honored that morning (smile). The next day, Friday workshops were held in Harlem and Brooklyn. I headed for Brooklyn and attended the workshops for youth at Medgar Evers College.

Youngsters in grade school through high school listened attentively as panelists spoke about music, message and movement, how as consumers, they should listen carefully to the messages lest they participate in their own mental destruction. The brilliant entrepreneur, Heru Ofori Atta, moderated this second panel, which concluded with a performance by the hip hop duo Precise Science.

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UNIA First Lady Kathy English Holt – Photo: Wanda Sabir

The afternoon concluded, and I headed back to the subway station to Harlem for the evening concert at the Oberia Dempsey Center, where Sax Preacher from Chicago performed marvelously – we couldn’t stay in our seats (smile). Precise Knowledge also performed along with a really fine poet from Barbados, Adrian Green. Brother Tyhimba performed first – also from Chicago. The UNIA Chapter there seemed really cohesive and fun (smile).

Heru has a Black iTunes called http://movementunes.com/ where we can support Black artists. He also surprised Dr. Marimba Ani the following day when he told her he was going to send her a $6,000 check per month for six months to do with it whatever she desired. It is about supporting the work. The Centennial was full of moments like this.

Back to Friday night, though, the concert, hosted by President General Senghor, was a fun conclusion to a really full day. Saturday afternoon the free public program was at the Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X Memorial Hall, also in Harlem, but in a place I couldn’t walk to. It was really far from where I’d grown familiar with, so I didn’t have time to return to change clothes for the Red, Black and Green Banquet that evening. I guess I was what one would call California casual (smile).

I just felt chills as I thought about El Hajj Malik’s presence in the building and his demise confirmed across the street at the hospital. Photos of his life and work were all around the banquet room, and in the entry his bronze stature greeted you at the top of the first landing. Interactive screens were also in the main hall. As one climbed the winding stair case, El Hajj Malik followed you up, almost as if he was host and you the guest.

It seemed such a fitting place to have the first convention since 1920. New York had the largest number of members; Cuba was second. Dr. Marimba Ani gave the keynote address. It was about the notion of race, first. At a time when people are colorblind and ignoring difference, it is rather jarring to think about race as a way to identify oneself. Garvey said that “the Black man was universally oppressed on racial grounds, and any program of emancipation would have to be built around the question of race first. The race became a ‘political entity’ which would have to be redeemed. …

“He argued it is not ‘humanity’ that was lynched, burned, jim-crowed and segregated, but Black people. The primacy of race [not racial superiority] characterized the UNIA from its beginnings in Jamaica … ‘The world has made being Black a crime, and I have felt it in common with men who suffer like me, and instead of making it a crime I hope to make it a virtue,’” Garvey said (from “Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey” by Tony Martin).

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UNIA Centennial celebrants parade down Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

I hadn’t known the UNIA-ACL had a constitution and a pledge and a song. Of course I knew the flag and that the UNIA is a government; that’s why it has officers and presidents. I was impressed, more than I was already impressed (smile). I hadn’t known the Hon. Marcus Mosiah Garvey was a poet either – the importance of culture to a people was paramount to the UNIA founder.

When the officials came in, stopping before the lovely altar where a sister poured libations, I was so happy to be in this number when the saints marched in (smile). I felt like I feel when I think of the Black saints in households in Senegal and Gambia, Black saints like Cheikh Amadou Bamba and others. In other traditions, they are called orisha, whose function is similar. It is just wonderful seeing Black people unapologetically Black.

Perhaps one of the more memorial moments, if one can single out one such moment, was when Marcus Garvey showed up at the dinner. Brother Ronn Bobb-Semple is Garvey incarnate. When he walked into the room, we were like “Wow!” “Oh my goodness!” It was the same the following day at the parade – Garvey was with us in the flesh, thanks to Brother Bobb-Semple (smile). See for yourself: www.ronbobb-semple.com.

The world has made being Black a crime, and I have felt it in common with men who suffer like me, and instead of making it a crime I hope to make it a virtue.

The president-general’s wife, First Lady of UNIA Kathy English Holt, performed a really wonderful soliloquy honoring the work of Nannie Helen Burroughs, a well-loved educator and founder of the first Black women’s boarding school. Visit http://kathyenglishholt.com/. It was also really nice watching the couple honor each other and have fun dancing. I am sorry I missed Ms. English Holt’s son, bassist Corcoran Holt, perform Sunday evening. He’d just come off the road with Kenny Garrett (http://corcoranholt.com/).

Sunday morning I got up early, jumped into my clothes, the dress I hadn’t been able to wear the night before, ate some oatmeal and after getting directions, walked over to Marcus Garvey Park for the Sister Circle. I walked around, but couldn’t find anyone – ran into another sister I’d seen the day before and both of us walked around without any luck. I then got a phone call from a sister friend who was in the park with the sisters. Eventually we found them. This was about 10 a.m. We went for a walk to find coffee with non-dairy milk. I ended up buying lunch just in case I couldn’t find anything later. It was a smart move (smile). I also bought a Black ballerina from a toy store on my walk back.

A bus from Philly pulled in when we got back and Pam Africa and her husband, with others joined what ended up a powerful contingent. The parade was to start at 1, but it started at 3 p.m., so we returned about 5 p.m. It was worth the wait, but I’d planned to take some items back to Trader Joe’s and get dinner for my flight back to the Bay, so I wasn’t able to go to the evening performances at the National Black Theatre, which I had been to in February when there was a Black Panther Film Festival featuring Robert King as special guest. It was just so cool to have landmarks to remember (smile).

It is just wonderful seeing Black people unapologetically Black.

As we walked down Malcolm X or Lennox Avenue to 134th Street – 135th was blocked with a street festival – it was Harlem Week, people honked their horns in solidarity as they were handed back copies of the Garvey’s Voice. People carried posters and the red, black and green flag flew in the air. The line stretched blocks long. We were pretty marvelous to perceive. At a time when Black people in Harlem are hardly able to make ends meet, the parade said, “Black is not just back; it is here to stay!”

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.