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  • Toward the “Higher Type of Womanhood”The Gendered Contours of Garveyism and the Making of Redemptive Geographies in Costa Rica, 1922–1941
  • Asia Leeds (bio)

In her 1922 “Message for the Negro Women of the World” that appeared in Marcus Garvey’s Negro World newspaper, the Lady President of the Philadelphia Division of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)1 declared, “[T]he redemption of Africa depends on the motherhood of black women.”2Redemption, a term central to and often invoked in UNIA rhetoric, functioned as a double critique to black powerlessness in the early twentieth century. For Garveyites, the liberation of both continental Africans from European colonization and persons of African descent in the Americas from disenfranchisement, marginalization, and dehumanization were joint and entangled struggles highly dependent on a particular type of black womanhood. From Harlem to Cuba to Costa Rica, Garveyites located women’s race work both inside and outside of the home. While seemingly transgressing the Victorian model of womanhood and the cult of domesticity, the political philosophy of Garveyism held women’s bodies and behavior under heavy surveillance, and in many ways affirmed dominant framings of black women’s inherent sexual immorality. Garveyite men and women instructed young women to immerse themselves in intellectual pursuits and activities that derailed bodily and sexual deviance, to behave respectably, especially in public spaces, and to mother the race through the biological and cultural reproduction of successful black offspring. As another woman contributor to the Negro World remarked, “To [the black woman] has come the privilege of carving the destiny of a race handicapped and persecuted for generations [and] it is for her to bless or curse the future generations by her conduct.”3 [End Page 1]

By examining the ways that West Indians in the Atlantic coastal region of Limón, Costa Rica, engaged with and contributed to the transnational mediascape4 shaped in the circulation of Garveyite newspapers, this essay interrogates the making of redemptive womanhood in both local and transnational context. I use the term West Indians to refer to English-speaking immigrants of African decent from the British West Indies, primarily Jamaica, and their offspring. In the late nineteenth century, West Indians migrated to varying locations along the Atlantic coast of Central America in response to the labor demand created by railroad and port construction projects. By the turn of the twentieth century, the development of the United Fruit Company (UFCO) and its multinational banana plantation export system in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Cuba, and Costa Rica stimulated even more West Indian movement and relocation in the region. By 1910, the banana business boomed and around twenty thousand West Indians had made their way to Costa Rica. By the late 1920s, however, the population declined as the banana business suffered in the midst of plant disease and economic depression. Those West Indians who stayed in Costa Rica after the collapse of the banana industry desired permanence, but would not obtain citizenship rights until 1949.5 This research, therefore, chronicles a period in flux; when West Indians no longer self-identified fully as subjects of the British crown yet were not legally Costa Rican citizens.

Conditions in Costa Rica made the Garveyite call for unification an appealing one. The UNIA language of racial solidarity and gendered redemption made sense in a hostile atmosphere in which the purported innate immorality of blacks marked all people of African descent as unfit for Costa Rican citizenship. Since West Indians were the face of U.S. imperialism in the banana enclave and the most visible reminders of the dominance of United Fruit, both anti-imperialism and racism underpinned Costa Rican nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s.6 Based on a narrative of history that heralds the Spanish ancestry of Costa Ricans, the idea that white purity and homogeneity existed and should be protected in the nation justified the denial of West Indian citizenship and the enactment of laws of racial segregation.7 Discourses of black savagery and sexual immorality held black women and mothers culpable for the deviance of the race, and this was the trend in Costa Rica and the Americas at...