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Amy Ashwood Garvey the illustrious Pan Africanist and her role in African liberation

“If ever there was a life of lived Pan Africanism, it was that of Amy Ashwood Garvey” (Adi and Sherwood 69). This quote may be surprising to many since, as stated by pan- Africanist scholar Horace Campbell, the ideological history of Pan Africanism has almost always focused on the contributions made by great heroes, mostly male, which denied the link to a broader social movement and the role of women (Campbell 286). This in itself emphasizes the struggle for a woman’s voice to be heard in movements and by extension the wider society, when dominated by male figures.

 

Amy Ashwood Garvey (1897-1969), the first wife of Marcus Garvey, is acknowledged as building upon the feminist activist work of African and Caribbean feminists before her. She made significant contributions to the Pan Africanist movement, feminism and community development in Britain, the Caribbean and West Africa. Born in Port Antonio, Jamaica in 1897, Amy met her future husband Marcus Garvey at the age of seventeen. They were both passionate about African American activism and were involved in political activities that influenced their thoughts, ideas and strategies for liberating Jamaica. The two founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Kingston in 1914 which was intended at first as a self-help and education movement with targeted local goals but soon took on a much wider, and eventually global, political and cultural significance. Their marriage soon ended and “Amy wrote that at least one of her reasons for leaving Marcus Garvey had been her desire to help Afro-American women to find themselves and rise in life” (Adi and Sherwood 70). Although Amy passed in 1969, her legacy is carried on, particularly in the arena of African independence and cultural appreciation, and as a pioneer in ongoing efforts to improve the status of black women globally.

 

Firstly, Amy had major contributions to the development of feminism and gender studies. In the article ‘Gender Equality, Pan-Africanism and the Diaspora’Rhoda Reddock assesses the 19th and 20th century feminist tradition in relation to the contemporary or third wave feminism. She highlights the interdependence of equal opportunity while exploring the different values of male and female “work” which retards the development of a society. In this area, the influence of feminist teachings on Amy Garvey is significantly highlighted as she contested for the inclusion of “boys and girls” the UNIA’s objectives rather than the broad, generic term of children. This emphasizes Amy’s desire to liberate women by breaking patriarchal boundaries, as she thrives to give social visibility to women and girls and show the importance of their contributions in society.

 

Furthermore, Reddock (2014) also discusses Amy’s approach to a “dual sex” hierarchy which gave women the opportunity in a male dominated organization to achieve a position of authority and leadership, thereby improving the lives of women. The attainment of these critical and valuable skills attained in the Garvey movement not only helped women in the movement but in other aspects of their personal and political life. The opportunities granted by Amy allowed for the realization that the ‘personal is the political’ and for change to occur women around the world need to think about their personal experiences, gain personal confidence and a sense of power. One needs to be made aware of the oppression experienced in her personal life to further see the oppression in the political spheres of life, and vice versa. This is captured in Feminist Africa, where Reddock (2013: 73) states, “As the life and work of Amy Garvey demonstrate, involvement in these movements created the consciousness and imagination which allowed women to go beyond the parameters of these movements, to challenge patriarchal constructs as they understood them, both in their personal and their public lives as well as their artistic and literary production”.

January 18, 1897
May 3, 1969

Pan-Africanist Amy Ashwood was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. Educated in Panama and Jamaica, she first met Marcus Garvey in 1914 while attending high school in Jamaica. Garvey launched the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) a few days after the two met; Ashwood, considered by some a cofounder of the organization, was at least its second member. An excellent public speaker, she worked actively to establish and promote the incipient movement in Jamaica and served as its executive secretary.

Ashwood left for Panama in 1916 and did not meet Garvey again until 1918, when she came to New York. In the United States, she busied herself with UNIA work: traveling across the country making speeches and recruiting new members, working on its journal, Negro World, and helping manage the new Black Star Line Steamship Corporation. In 1919 she is reported to have saved Garvey’s life by placing her body between him and a disgruntled former employee who wanted to shoot him and then wrestling the would-be assassin to the ground.

Ashwood married Garvey in New York City at Liberty Hall on December 25, 1919. However, by the middle of the following year, the marriage ended acrimoniously, with accusations of infidelity on both sides. Garvey, in addition, charged Ashwood with misappropriating funds; she countered that the UNIA leader was politically inept. Garvey received a divorce in 1922, which Ashwood later contested, and promptly married his secretary and Ashwood’s childhood friend, Amy Jacques.

Following the breakup with Garvey, Ashwood left the UNIA but remained a committed Pan-Africanist all her life, taking Garvey’s message to many parts of the world. In 1924 she helped found the Nigerian Progress Union in London. In New York, in 1926, she collaborated with Caribbean musician Sam Manning on the musicals Brown Sugar, Hey! Hey!, and Black Magic, intended to introduce calypso to Harlem audiences. In 1929 she left with Manning for London, where she lived until 1944.

In London Ashwood’s Pan-African activities resulted in friendships with such people as C. L. R. James, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, and Jomo Kenyatta; all of them frequented the West Indian restaurant she ran from 1935 to 1938, which became a famous Pan-Africanist meeting place. In 1935 she was active in organizing protests against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. In 1945 she chaired the sessions of the fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester along with W. E. B. Du Bois.

Ashwood returned to New York briefly in 1944 and campaigned hard on behalf of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who was seeking his first term in the House of Representatives. Ashwood spent the next few years in West Africa. In 1947 she went to Liberia on the invitation of President William Tubman. The two became close friends, and with Tubman’s help Ashwood wrote an official history of Liberia, which has never been published. In 1949 she spent some time in Ghana and researched her Ashanti roots.

Ashwood divided the rest of her life between the United States, England, the Caribbean, and West Africa. A lifelong feminist, she paid greater attention to women’s issues in the later years of her life. She also continued antiracist agitation in England, forming a chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Colored People in London in 1958.

Ashwood was in England in 1964 when Garvey’s body was returned to Jamaica; she participated in the official ceremonies marking the occasion. During these years she also tried, unsuccessfully, to find a publisher for her biography of Garvey and the movement, which is yet to be published. Ashwood died destitute in London

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