During African Heritage Month and Emancipation Day celebrations, the red, black, and green Pan-African flag is often seen flying outside of provincial legislatures, municipal town halls, learning institutions, police stations, and during proclamation ceremonies.
But what is lesser known is the history of the flag and what it represents.
A quick Google search reveals the red of the flag represents the blood of people of African descent — both the blood that unites us and the blood shed in the fight for freedom. The black on the flag is a symbolic of Black people themselves, while the green represents land, specifically the land of Africa.
The Pan-African flag, which is also known as the RBG (red, black, and green) flag, symbolizes the solidarity or unity among people of African descent, both living in Africa and throughout the diaspora.
The flag was formally adopted on August 13, 1920 in Madison Square Garden in New York as part of a month-long convention hosted by the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and African Communities League.
The UNIA was lead by the late Marcus Mosiah Garvey, a Jamaican Immigrant living in the US. At the time, much of Africa and its nations as we know them today, were under British colonial rule. Garvey and the UNIA adopted the flag in response to a racist song that was popular at the time, ‘Every Race Has A Flag But The Coon.’
Chike Jeffers is an associate professor in the philosophy department at Dalhousie University who specializes in Africana philosophy and the philosophy of race.
“There’s history in my courses because history’s important to the philosophy. It comes from us, it’s not something anybody else made up for us,” he said about the Pan-African flag during a recent interview with the Halifax Examiner.
“It is specifically Pan-Africanist, so it doesn’t represent one particular part of us it. It doesn’t represent only the Scotians or only the West Indians or only the African Americans or only the people from the continent. It represents all of us.”
“Some people have little experience with ever seeing it. For other people, it’s very familiar to them but they never thought about it. Other people, to them it’s a very important symbol and in some ways more important than any flag of any other nation. So, there’s a range of attitudes people have about it.”
Though Garvey was a controversial figure, Jeffers says it’s hard to take away from him the fact that “there’s never been an organization with the kind of reach that the UNIA had before or after in terms of connecting people across the different parts of the diaspora.”
“And people in Nova Scotia have reason to be proud because there was a significant presence of the UNIA here,” Jeffers said. “When I say Nova Scotia, I’m especially referring to Cape Breton.”
“Just the way things worked out timing-wise is that a lot of the West Indians who were coming up to Cape Breton to work in [mining] in the early 20th century. It was the 1920s when the UNIA really gets big. So, you have an important presence of the UNIA in Cape Breton and to this day there is still a UNIA Hall [in Cape Breton].”
Seventeen years after the creation of the Pan-African flag, Garvey visited Nova Scotia. He gave a lecture in Cape Breton that was later republished in a magazine of his where he was quoted saying: “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind.”
This particular quote was paraphrased and served as inspiration for ‘Redemption Song’ by Bob Marley & the Wailers where Marley famously sang: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.” Rolling Stone Magazine once listed the song as number 66 among the 500 greatest songs of all time.
“I feel like Nova Scotia can feel extra proud of its role in the history of Pan Africanism, that is the history of activity, like the activity of the UNIA and Garvey that was meant to connect, strengthen, and empower Black people all over the world,” said Jeffers.
“I am someone who has an attachment to the flag and so if there is an effort made by a university or a province or by some other kind of entity to acknowledge Black people, and if they choose to do that using the flag, then as someone who’s grown up respecting the flag and thinking of it as representing my identity then it does, to me, feel like a certain kind of important acknowledgment.”