Transnational Black Freedom Movements in the 20th Century

This blog entry reviews two leading figures of the 20. Century, who grounded and inspired transnational Black Freedom Movements across the globe, propagating Pan-African ideas: Marcus Mosiah Garvey and William Edward Burghardt DuBois. The emphasis lies on their legacy, multiplying their ideas while transgressing ideological and geographical boarders. As visual sources, I chose photographs of my own travels that aim at capturing the culture of remembrance: their burial grounds become pilgrimage sites, while Monuments are being kept up in their honor.

Marcus Garvey Memorial_dvm
Marcus Garvey Monument in Kingston, Jamaica.

The internationalization of Black consciousness

Transnational Black Freedom Movements evolved because of the internationalization of black consciousness, i.e. the realization that Black people were oppressed around the globe and that a fight against this racial injustice could only be won when the Diaspora stood together. West and Martin (2009) mark the “Great Migration” starting in the wake of World War I as the real beginning of the black international, for „the upsurge in migration and urbanization was matched by an upsurge in consciousness.“ With the millions of migrants from the Caribbean, Marcus Garvey, came to New York City in 1916. Garvey’s racial consciousness had started to evolve in his homeland Jamaica and solidified during his travels through Europe, Latin America and the West Indies. Garvey had founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities (Imperial) League (UNIA) two years earlier in Jamaica and installed the new headquarters in Harlem, NYC. The UNIA hit the ravages of time and spread like wildfire: it became the first international black organization, calling for anti-colonialism and transformation, opening chapters in the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe.

Marcus Garvey Memorial - PlateMarcus Garvey Monument in Kingston, Jamaica. He was proclaimed the first National Hero of Jamaica in 1964.

In the 1920s, the UNIA had over 6 millions members and 1.000 chapters in 40 countries. Although on a global scale, „Garveyism was more metaphor than movement“ – the ideology multiplied independently of Garvey and the UNIA. To promote the economic development and unity of Africans worldwide, Garvey founded the Black Star Line Shipping Company to transport Africans and goods between the Americas, the Caribbean and Africa. Garvey’s signature goal was the foundation of a “Negro nation in Africa”, but his inexperience with the shipping business, his then conviction for mail fraud and the consequent bankruptcy of the Black Star Line led to the failure of this plan. In 1927, he was sent back to Jamaica and forever banished from the USA.

DuBois Memorial House
W.E.B. DuBois Memorial House, Accra, Ghana.

Ideologically and personally, W.E.B. DuBois was Garvey’s strongest opponent. While Garvey mobilized Black workers of the Diaspora to rebel against White Supremacy, DuBois’ program contested accommodation, and his constituency was made up by the Black elite. Growing up in a tolerant small town in New England, DuBois was first confronted with racism when he moved south to attend college. DuBois, who disagreed with Booker T. Washington’s conviction to momentarily accept White Supremacy and strive for a peaceful coexistence, demanded equal civil rights to lay the foundation for emancipation. DuBois founded the Niagara Movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which exists until today. He also organized the first Pan-African Congress with the objective to end colonialism in Africa, promoting the Pan-African cause of the unity of all black people across the boarders of the American nation-state. In 1961, at the age of 93, he migrated to West Africa and continued his work as a teacher in Ghana.

DuBois Founder of Pan-Africanism
Memorial Plate on the DuBois Memorial compound.

Pan-Africanism and Black self-determination

During the Cold War, post-colonial independence movements in Africa and the civil rights movement in the US took black internationalism to another level. In 1957, Kwame Nkrumah proclaimed Ghana’s independence, making the former Gold Coast the first independent sub-Saharan state in post-colonial Africa. Nkrumah was deeply inspired by DuBois and his ideals of Pan-Africanism with which he had gotten in touch during his travels to the US and London. He himself became one of his most prominent advocates of Pan-Africanism later on. In Ghana, DuBois is considered the “Founder of Pan-Africanism” until today. His house has been turned into a museum with changing exhibitions and a cultural space, the mausoleum is built on the same compound. Today, the W.E.B. DuBois house is to be found right next to the Garvey Guest house of the African-American Association of Ghana. Prominent African-American personalities have visited this space and honored its transnational importance: from Dr. Julius Garvey and Martin Luther King, Jr., III., to Reverend Jesse Jackson and President Barrack Obama.

Black Star - Arch of Justice
Black Star Monument in Accra, Ghana.

Garvey propagated separatist Pan-African views, prominently the creation of an African-American Nation State in Africa. DuBois represented more of a moderate form of Pan-Africanism, aiming to de-colonize Africa. Yet, both stand for black self-determination. Ghana is a country that overtly pays tribute to their ideological founding fathers. Ghana assumed the black star – the name of Garvey’s shipping enterprise – as a national symbol on the nation flag. Ghana serves as gateway for African-Americans searching for their roots. In 2014, the UN informed that approximately 3.000 African-American had chosen Ghana for their new homeland. Hip-Hop artist Lauryn Hill is one of them.

Garvey never achieved his “Negro nation in Africa”, to the contrary, he immigrated to London where he died in 1940. One has to ask, why he did not move to Africa?! In 1964, Marcus Garvey’s remains were transported back to his homeland Jamaica, where Garvey was posthumously proclaimed the first National Hero of Jamaica. DuBois, on the other hand, spent the last two years of his life in Ghana and even assumed the Ghanaian citizenship. His mausoleum in Accra is now a pilgrimage site for Africans and African-Americans alike.

DuBois Mausoleum
W.E.B. DuBois Mausoleum in Accra, Ghana. The flowers were laid down by African-American visitors.

Pan-Africanism continues to live on

The Pan-Africanist body of thought continues to influence movements and activists in Africa and the United States. Shortly before his death, Malcolm X turned towards a modern Pan-Africanist viewpoint. In its basic program, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (1965) pledges “to join hands and hearts with all people of African origin”, views it “absolutely necessary for the African-American to restore communications with Africa” and encourages studies about and travels to Africa and the Caribbean. Malcolm X realized that “the time is past due for us to internationalize the problems of Afro-Americans. We have been too slow in recognizing the link in the fate of Africans with the fate of Afro-Americans.”

Malxolm X Blvd
Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, New York City.

Author: Dianne Violeta Mausfeld

All photographs are my own.


_African Renewal Online,, April 2015. (last retrieved June 5, 2017)

_DuBois, W.E.B., The Soul of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications, inc., 1994.

_Garvey, Marcus, I, Marcus Garvey. An autobiographical work based upon a document written by Marcus Garvey while in Tombs Prison in NYC. Kingston: West Indies Collection, Pamphlet FI886-G17A125, 1995.

_Organization of Afro-American Unity, “From Basic Unity Program”, in: Van Deburg, William L., Modern Black Nationalism. From Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan. New York/ London: NYU Press, 1996.

_Stewart, Jeffrey C., 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History. New York: Broadway Books, 1996.

_Wilkins, Fanon Che; Martin William G.; West, Michael O., From Toussaint to Tupac. The Black International Since the Age of Revolution. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009, pp. 1-44.


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