Unraveling Our Past to Make
(In Celebration of Black History Month)
By Siahyonkron Nyanseor
February 28, 2001
Many adjectives have been used by Europeans and people of European descent to describe Africa, which not only carry derogatory connotations, but are also couched in racial undertones. One popular reference to Africa is that it is (or was) a "Dark Continent," which they popularized in their history and their psyche, relegating the continent to one that was barren, lacking in enlightenment and devoid of civilization which other cultures especially Western Europe had experienced.
In spite of Africa's monumental contributions to world civilization, it was evident that there was a deliberate attempt, a conspiracy by Westerners to subjugate the continent to its needs. Never mind Africa's rich tapestry of languages and culture. Never mind Africa's ancient tradition of arts, music and stories. Never mind Africa's long history of power and highly developed empires, the continent still suffers stereotypes and negative images.
But truth needs to be told; the continent has not been immune from its own internal contradictions. While the continent is endowed with enormous wealth, it ranks as the least underdeveloped continent. On the Human Index Scale, in terms of general quality of life, there is still a prevalence of mass poverty, deteriorating health services, poor and inadequate schools and a myriad of other problems that strangulates the continent and its people from achieving their potential capacity. Then, added on that, there is the problem of perennial civil wars fueled by criminally-minded men who now rule Africa and are bent on spreading terror - even if it means making African children expendable in their selfish pursuit of personal wealth and aggrandizement.
But this is not to downplay or reduce the significance of the devastating impact of European colonization on Africa. Europe's colonization of Africa was real, but its cultural influences had an even more profound impact on Africa. The Liberian experience is pretty instructive here in terms of how the "Settlers" freed black slaves from America who established Liberia in 1822 influenced by European cultural hegemony, used the same method, sometimes even more dehumanizing, to conquer and rule the African natives of Liberia. This is indeed a contradiction and one of the saddest commentaries on Africa's history.
But to be able to understand the settlers' mindset and their psychology, one has to understand its origins. Listen to William Lynch, a white slave owner, who delivered a speech on the bank of the James River in 1712, titled "How to Make a Slave." An excerpt from it reads:
"Gentlemen, I greet you here on the bank of the James River in the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and twelve. First, I shall thank you The Gentlemen of the Colony of Virginia for bringing me here. I am here to help you solve some of your problems with slaves. Your invitation reached me on my modest plantation in the West Indies where I have experimented with some of the newest and still oldest methods for control of slaves. Ancient Rome would envy us if my program is implemented. As our boat sailed south on the James River, named for our illustrious King, whose version of the Bible we cherish. I saw enough to know that your problem is not unique. While Rome used cords of wood as crosses for standing human bodies along its highways in great numbers, you are using the tree and the rope on occasion.
"In my bag here, I have a fool proof method for controlling Black Slaves. I guarantee everyone of you that if installed correctly, it will control the slaves for at least 300 years. My method is simple and members of your family and any Overseer can use it.
"Don't forget you must pitch the old black versus the young black and the young black male against the old black male. You must use the dark skin slave versus the light skin slaves and the light skin slaves versus the dark skin slaves. You must also have your white servants and overseers distrust all blacks, but it is necessary that your slaves trust and depend on us. They must love, respect and trust only us.
"Gentlemen, these Kits are the keys to control, use them. Have your wives and children use them, never miss an opportunity. My plan is guaranteed and the good thing about this plan is that if used intensely for one year the slaves themselves will remain perpetually distrustful.
"Thank you, Gentlemen."
If for nothing else, this speech served as the basis for controlling slaves. Slaves owners (masters) of the antebellum plantations in the Southern parts of the United States used William Lynch's method to control their slaves. This method involved the use of extreme forms of torture as a means of breaking the Africans' spirit. But despite the atrocities inflicted on Africans, they retained their proud spirit. Soon, the slave masters realized that Lynch's method alone was useless, that's when they came up with a completely new strategy the use of Christianity and the BIBLE to break the spirit of Africans. The strategy involved the deliberate mis-interpretation of the BIBLE and the Christian religion in perpetuating their religious and cultural conspiracy.
Coming to Africa and establishing the Colony of Cape Mesurado, which later became the Republic of Liberia, the settlers introduced a foreign concept of civilization, religion, considered supreme in their view, which conflicted with the existing indigenous culture. Since then, they have perpetuated this way of thinking, along with the attitude that has brought about a serious division between they and the indigenous inhabitants.
With the passage of time, and based on available evidence regarding civilization, religion, God and man, their descendants have refused to acknowledge the mistakes of their ancestors, instead, they have resolved to imposing similar treatment on the African Liberians. Here lies the age-old conflict! This conflict will remain irreconcilable if it is not addressed and put in the proper historical context, it will continue to divide us; because it is not a simple misunderstanding; it is differences that are based on distortions, which are rooted deep in our history. And it needs to be corrected in order for us to truly become one people, indivisible, with liberty and justice.
For now, let us see how this "cultural conspiracy" has impacted those of us who are referred to as Liberians:
Let us start with issues relating to culture, politics and the general attitude of the settlers towards their African brethren. This exercise is not intended to change what has taken place but rather to change its conclusion as rightly put by the former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev: "History cannot be changed but conclusion can".
In doing so, one needs to find out the reason why the following distinctions got started - the name-calling or how did these words (Americo-Liberian, tribe or native, civilized, uncivilized, country, Congo, inside child or outside child) become part of our national vocabulary?
According Edward Wilmot Blyden, it got started by:
"A group of returned exiles - refugees from the house of bondage settled along a few hundred miles of the coast of their Fatherland, attempting to rule millions of people, their own kith and kin, on a foreign system in which they themselves have been imperfectly trained, while knowing very little of the facts of the history of the people they assume to rule, either social, economic or religious, and taking for granted that the religious and social theories they have brought from across the sea must be adapted to all the need of their unexpatriated brethren.
"Liberia is a little bit of South Carolina, of Georgia, of Virginia that is to say - of the ostracized, suppressed, depressed elements of these states - tacked on to West Africa - a most incongruous combination, with no reasonable prospect of success; and further complicated by additions from other sources. We take a bit from England, a bit from France, a little bit from Germany, and try to compromise with all. We have no definite plan, no dominating race conception, with really nothing to help us from behind the scene whence we came and nothing to guide us from before the goal to which we are tending or should tend. We are severed from the parent stock - the aborigines - who are the root, branch, and flower of Africa and of any Negro State in Africa."
To support Blyden's observation, let's take a look at excerpts from inaugural speeches of a selected few of the Presidents of the Republic of Liberia, starting from Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the father of our nation. In his First Inaugural Address, he made the following remarks:
"At a time, when they were almost without arms, ammunition, discipline, or government - a mere handful of christian (sic) pilgrims, in pursuit of civil and religious liberty, surrounded by savage and warlike tribes bend upon their ruin." (Joseph Jenkins Roberts' First Inaugural Address - January 3, 1848).
Hilary Richard Wright Johnson on the other hand said:
"The government and advancement of the native tribes are subjects of vast importance. Their wars should be discouraged. They should have some share in governing the country under the laws of the Republic, and they should contribute, in a measure, to support of the Government. To accomplish these objects, I am of the opinion that reasonable subsidies should be granted to important native chiefs, who are really capable of governing. Among the well-organized native tribes, from which the Government expects to derive taxes, collection of the taxes might be assigned to the chiefs, who would receive a certain percentage of the amount so collected, as I have already suggested in another connection." (Hilary Richard Wright Johnson's First Inaugural Address - January 7, 1884).
Up to this time, the natives were taxed without true representation nor considered citizens of the Republic.
To say the least, I don't know what William David Coleman was thinking about when he made the following statement under the title:
Our Aboriginal Brethren, the Vastly Preponderating
Portion of the Population of This Republic:
I have not the least doubt that all intelligent citizens are desirous for the elevation of this class into complete citizenship, and as the Christian people generally believe, that the sooner the fall of the superstitious customs that now exist among them, the sooner the object will be attained. Therefore it is quite natural to expect that the effect of our civilization and Christianity has been to break down these greegress and other heathenish beliefs of our native brethren; this effect is just what is rightly to be expected as a result of our contact with them." (William David Coleman's Second Inaugural Address - January 1, 1900).
Garretson Wilmot Gibson made matter worse by adding:
"A Righteous Native policy, or in other words, the application of the golden rule in our dealings with our aboriginal Brethren will prove the most practicable solution of the problem as to how the civilized and semi-civilized elements that compose the population of the Republic can cooperate in the erection of our National fabric." (Garretson Wilmot Gibson's First Inaugural Address - January 6, 1902).
Arthur Barclay attempted to put the issue in the proper perspective, but felt short for being consumed by old habits.
"Our old attitude of indifference toward the native populations must be dropped. A fixed and unwavering policy with respect to the Native, proceeding on lines of interest in their local affairs, protection, civilisation and safeguarding their institutions when not brutal or harmful, should at once be set on foot.
"I urge upon the Legislature, most of whom have been elected by the Whig Party which has received for many years the undeviating support of the farmers, the passage of a bill proving for the appointment of a Commissioner of Agriculture with a committee in each township, Americo-Liberian as well as Native, for the dissemination of agricultural information, the distribution of seeds, and the culture of plants new to the country, economically or commercially valuable." (Arthur Barclay's First Inaugural Address - January 4, 1904).
However, it was Charles Dunbar Burgess King who in my opinion honestly attempted to bring about the discussion as in regard to the heart of the matter, but in the end, his administration was charged with practicing slavery and forced labor by the Christy Commission of the 'League of Nations' (later became the United Nations), which led to his resignation. According to President King:
"There must be a solidifying of our populations into one
compact whole. The various indigenous tribes must be brought
into the body politic, taught the duties and responsibilities
of civilized government. Into them must be infused
or inculcated an appreciative knowledge and understanding of hopes
and aspirations of the Fathers who established this nation. There
should be no words known in our National Vocabulary of Speech
or even of thought as "Americo-Liberian"; "the
country-man"; "the new-comer"; "the Sierra
Leone man"; or such like terms of designating the
various elements of our population." (Charles Dunbar Burgess
King's Third Inaugural Address - January 2, 1928).
Gathering from the inaugural addresses of these former presidents, it is safe to say that it was their general attitude and mindset that set the stage for the socialization and behavior that has been passed onto their descendents. For example, their descendents see themselves as custodians of this tradition. A classic example was the opportunity afforded the Deshield Commission on National Unity. This Commission was established by an Act of the Legislature on July 22, 1974 authorizing the president to set up a commission. The Commission came into existence purposely due to persistent calls from citizens who felt that certain national symbols were divisive, therefore, they needed to be revised in order to include all of the citizens of the Republic of Liberia.
As a result, the president through a proclamation outlined the guidelines by which the Commission was mandated to review the motto, flag, anthem and constitution. The mandate empowered the Commission to review the motto, flag, anthem and constitution "with a view of stamping out every idea that may suggest class distinction, separateness or sectionalism among the people of Liberia."
The fifty-one member Commission was chaired by McKinley A Deshield. The membership consisted of the following: Montserrado County - McKinley A Deshield (Chairman), C. Abayomi Cassell, E. Reginald Townsend, R. I. E. Bright, Luvenia V. Ash Thompson and Nathan C. Ross, Jr.; Grand Bassa County - G Flama Sherman, Lawrence Morgan, Joseph Findley, Martha Dunn and Joseph M. N. Gbadyu; Sinoe County Harrison Grigsby, H. C. Williamson, E. Richmond Draper, Charles A. Minor and Florence Ricks Bing; Grand Cape Mount County - Charles Dunbar Sherman, M. Fahnbulleh Jones, Abeodu B. Jones, Eric David, Evelyn Watson Kandakai; Nimba County - Jackson F. Doe, Michael J. S. Dolo, David M. Toweh, J. Railey Gompah and Phoebe A. Logan; Lofa County - E. Sumo Jones, Milton K. Freeman, Moima K. Morris, William W. Momolu and Robert K. Kennedy; River Cess Territory - John Payne Mitchell; Maryland County - David Hne, J. Daniel Anderson, H. Nyema Prowd, Nathan Barnes, Jr. and Janet . Cooper; Bong County - Harry A. Greaves, Sr., Elizabeth Collins, Melville Harris, Sr., Joseph G. Morris and Bismark N. Kuyon; Grand Gedeh County - Salis Rue, Harry Garngbe, Yancy Peters Flah, E. Yeda Amafili and Albert T. White; Marshall Territory - Emma Campbell; Bomi Territory - C. C. Dennis, Sr.; Sasstown Territory - Joseph S. Nimene; Kru Coast Territory - S. Edgar Sie Badio.
It is doubtful whether the Commission carried out the President's
mandate after it was warned by Chairman Deshield in a national
broadcast announcing its launching. In that broadcast, Deshield
stressed that the President's mandate was "to give consideration
to possible, I repeat changes the Commission does not conceive
neither interpret the President's mandate as an authorization
or directive to necessarily change it is not the intention of
the Commission to merely propose changes apparently to satisfy
the whims and notions of a few purported academic detractors."
Having made such statement, the Commission never got down to actually examining the issues. Since there were those on the Commission who did not care to as he put it "change history," no matter who these symbols offended. Those who held this belief, were the ones who constituted the ruling class. This approach rendered the whole exercise as a sham.
After three and half years (July 22, 1974 - January 24, 1978), the Commission submitted its recommendations. The recommendations did not mention any basic changes to the flag. Regarding the constitution, the Commission "indicated a disposition to certain changes, which were never specified in the report." On the national anthem, it recommended that the word "Benighted" be replaced with "undaunted." It also recommended that the national motto be changed to "Love, Liberty, Justice, Equality," replacing "The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here."
However, none of the changes recommended were ever implemented. One of the reasons it is alleged, was the opposition to changing the motto by Commissioner C. Abayomi Cassell. Commissioner Cassell made his opposition known to the President through a memorandum, after the Commission had submitted its final report (Historical Dictionary of Liberia, 1985).
At the end of the day, the position of the descendents of the settlers prevailed. Secondly, the President's failure to act upon the recommendations tells us that the entire exercise was a waste of taxpayers' money, resources and time. The ruling class refusal to change their attitude as well as make fundamental changes in the way the government was being operated, were some of the factors that led to "the struggle which culminated in the April 12, (1980) coup d' etat that had been long in its gestation. Indeed, the depth of the hostility that lay beneath the surface had been marked to the outside world by the very urbaness and sophistication of these young diplomats and other officials who represented Liberia abroad during the past two or three decades," says the Liberianist, J. Gus Liebenow.
The Americo-Liberians, Liebenow argues, imposed a set of dominant cultural norms for the new state, which were roughly modeled after those of society across the seas that had rejected them. These norms, he explained included "the Christian faith; monogamy; a commitment to private ownership and free enterprise; and increasingly Liberianized version of the English language; a preference for American styles in clothing, food, architecture, literature; and the creation of a political system which superficially resembled that of the United States" ("The Seeds of Discontent," Part I - Liberia: The Dissolution of Privilege, 1980).
In other words, the concentration of political power in the
hands of a few is the fundamental flaw of Liberia's political
culture because it is inconsistent with the nature of modern democracies
and contradicts both the spirit and substance of the principles
of freedom, justice and equality upon which Liberia was founded.
Former Ambassador, H. Boima Fahnbulleh, Sr. puts this problem in the proper perspective, when he explained: "These problems (problems that led to April 12, 1980) pre-date Mr. Tolbert's presidency, he nevertheless made these problems 'more acute rather than seeking to remove them'. "High-sounding talk, lofty and pious rhetoric. "The uniqueness of Tolbert regimeis that it succeeded in the centralization and concentration of corruption" (West Africa No. 3327, May 4, 1981 - "Threshold of a New Liberia").
The truth of the matter is, the inaugural speeches of these former presidents, the refusal by their descendents to face the new reality and Charles Taylor's total disregard for civil discourse has continued the general attitude and mindset that we find dividing us today as a people. And unless we take the advice of Edward Wilmot Blyden serious, we as a people will forever be, at odds with each other due to the mistakes our forefathers made or we could begin anew by embracing what Blyden said on July 26, 1908 for the greater good of our country:
"Our progress will come by connection with the parent stock. The question, therefore, which we should try to study and answer is, What are the underlying principles of African life? Every nation and every tribe has a right to demand freedom of life, and abundance of life, because it has a contribution to make peculiar to itself toward the ultimate welfare of the world. But no nation can have this freedom of life, and make this contribution, which no other nation can make, without connection with its past, of which it must carefully preserve the traditions, if it is to understand the present and have an intelligent and inspiring hope of the future."
Being ahead of his time, Blyden had an enlightened understanding and better grasp of what constituted a nation, or what held the nation together. But he was not alone in his thinking. Albert Porte, Liberia's foremost constitutionalist and prolific writer, was even more forthright. According to Porte:
"Liberians will always be looked down upon, despised by other nations and peoples, unless as a people, we be courageous enough to cry loudly against existing evils, and our leader be tolerate enough to face our problems calmly and dispassionately, and together we have them remedied. We cannot delay and wait for others to do these things for us and still expect to maintain our dignity and self respect as a nation"
In other words, Liberians should deal with the truth, no matter how ugly it may seem. We cannot continue to think like the "founding fathers", individuals who thought of a nation almost entirely in terms of the values and historical interpretations of their slave masters and the antebellum South. In their view, the local inhabitants would be brought together, and national solidarity would be achieved by fitting them to the Americo-Liberian accommodationist mold.
These general attitudes were embedded in a narrow Americo-Liberian interpretation of the republic's history which served more to perpetuate the division between the tribal people and the rest of the population than to bring them together on common ground.
President Tubman who many thought was in a better position, and would have used his Unification policy to improve the situation was himself a dismal failure, enacted into law among other things, his "Operation Production" policy.
In mid-1963 it was announced that a new development program would be the major preoccupation of the administration when it took office in early 1964. The main objectives were to develop self-sufficiency in essential foodstuffs, especially rice, and to build up industries that would not depend entirely on exploitation of wasting asserts such as iron ore.
One of the main purposes of President Tubman's Operation Production was "eliminating idleness and increasing productivity in all sectors of the economy. A significant provision of the program is in strict enforcement of vagrancy laws under which any man who cannot show that he is actively working for his own account or for someone else will be subject to arrest and returned to his home village. The government hopes that implementation of this provision will eliminate the large number of idlers living off their relatives in urban areas and around concession sites and return them to achieve food production in their rural homes" (Area Handbook for Liberia, 1972).
If eliminating "idleness" and "increasing productivity" were the goals of Tubman's Operation Production Program, the rural community was no great beneficiary. To the contrary, the vagrancy laws that were being enforced were only promulgated to ensure that able-bodied men not leave their village, which at the time served as a major reservoir and labor pool for the emerging extractive industries, i.e. iron ore, rubber, etc. The slave nature of these extractive industries was a pull factor contributing to the migration from the rural to the urban areas, and other foreign countries by African Liberians in search of a better life. This development was aptly observed by then Representative of Montserrado, Didwho Twe:
"While I am not today concerned with discussion of the native question, I wish to make this brief observation. We cannot but concede that there is a general dissatisfaction amongst the aboriginal population throughout the Republic. The continual migration of the natives in large numbers into British and French colonies; leaving countless number of broken towns behind, is nothing but passive expression of their disappointment. But it must be clearly understood that the unhappiness of the native population is a legacy handed down by previous administrations. Adding further, he said:
"In 1926 I delivered the Newport Day address for that year right in this very hall, but on that day I went against my conviction. The task was therefore a very uncomfortable one to perform, for I have always felt that the continual celebration of the destruction of men of the Bassa Tribe by Matilda Newport is a short sighted policy to sustain. It invites ill feelings from within and criticism from without. The outside world would feel, and rightly so, that is radically wrong in Liberia where, one brother fires canon in celebrating the day he was successful to kill the brother.
"What sort of unity do we really expect to establish? Nevertheless, I delivered the oration. It was my first public address but it landed me in the National Legislature the following year as member from Montserrado County.
"Unfortunately, I acted very 'unwisely' in the Legislature as I did in 1912, when I was District Commissioner on the Anglo-Liberian border. Instead of dancing to the popular music, I took a position and made a speech that was not acceptable to the powers that be. I was looked upon as a dangerous character and was therefore promptly expelled from the Legislature. I was not disappointed and kept malice against no one for the reprisal. But I never understood the real reason for my expulsion till I read the statement of a distinguished Liberian statesman. On the 25th of January, 1932, the Liberian Secretary of State, the Honorable L. A. Grimes now Chief Justice of the Republic, made the following statement before the Council of the Leagues of Nations, which statement is now a part of the records of that International Body:
"In 1929 the Honorable D. Twe who is a Kruman by birth, and was then a member of the National Legislature, discovered that some laborers were about to be shipped out of the country against their will. He appealed to Mr. Barclay, President Edwin Barclay, who took over from C. D. B. King, who promptly took actions that interrupted the proposed shipment. Mr. Twe was soon expelled from the Legislature under the circumstance which strongly suggested that his expulsion was arranged as a punishment for having been responsible for interrupting the shipment" (July 26, 1944 Independence Day Oration Delivered by Didwho Twe).
On account of the same Fernando Po forced labor issue, Representative Francis W. M. Morais was expelled. Morais was elected a member of the House of Representatives in 1927. In August 1931, both he and Nete Sie Brownell were sent by Krao (Kru) and Grebo leaders to the League of Nations in Geneva to present the African Liberians position regarding the political reprisals in the aftermath of the forced labor scandal. On their return the early part of 1932, Representative Morais was arrested for sedition, deprived of his seat in the Legislature and imprisoned at Belle Yella (Historical Dictionary, 1985).
Chief Seyon Juah Nimley too, had similar experience. He was captured in 1936 and exiled for resisting the inhumane treatment the government imposed on his people. He died a year later in exile (IBID, 1985).
Finally, in search of a lasting solution, those who considered themselves Liberians, today, cannot, when it concerns the mistakes the settlers made in establishing Liberia, claim to have "historical amnesia". In short, we would like for our fellow countrymen and women to know that those of us who continue to push for this dialogue have no intention to change what has already taken place. If we wanted to, we couldn't! But rather it is our desire to correct the mistakes made by the settlers and their descendents, so as to establish genuine relationship and lasting peace amongst the citizens of the Republic of Liberia.
Today, many of the legacies of the past that continue to plague Liberia mirror those of the European contact with Africa. For example, the missionaries' approach to the indigenous Africans' way of life was negative. The African was regarded as a child. He must be nurtured and guided through a process of slow and carefully controlled growth toward a time in the dim future when he would be ready to look after himself (Impact of the African Tradition on African Christianity, 1984).
It is in the same light that it can be said that the settlers, who were victims themselves, were fooled in believing that their ancestors came from an inferior culture, and after several hundred years of William Lynch's indoctrination and false Christian doctrine, their descendents have not comprehended Blyden's warning, They have continued to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors which was based on "pure ignorance".