Former American slaves played oppressive role in Liberia’s past

OPINION - In January 1822, the first group of black American emigrants landed on Providence Island, Liberia...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

On January 7, 1822, a transformational event happened in Liberia that links with African-American history: the first group of black American emigrants landed on Providence Island near what is now the capital city of Monrovia. Remembering Pioneers Day is significant to African-American history for three reasons:

(1) While African-Americans started emigrating in small numbers to Sierra Leone as early as the 1780s, the Providence Island landing marks the first “Back To Africa” critical mass emigration flow from the U.S. Between 10,000-15,000 African-Americans would later emigrate to Liberia.

(2) African-American settlers (with the help of the American Colonization Society, which possessed motives ranging from altruism to wanting to prevent slave revolts) established Africa’s first republic.

(3) This is linked to a little-known historical fact: the short-lived nation called the Republic of Maryland (1854-1857), comprised of black emigrants from the U.S. state of Maryland, before being annexed into the Republic of Liberia.

A national holiday in Liberia, Pioneers Day is controversial because of the historically tense relationship between the so-called “Congoes” (Americo-Liberians, who are 2.5 – 5 percent of Liberia’s total population of 3.5 million) and “country people” (indigenous Liberians). The Americo-Liberian elite’s historical faults are sizeable: denying citizenship to indigenous Liberians until 1904, denying full voting rights until well into the 20th century; one-party oligarchic rule for 133 years; lack of property rights, and forced labor which “prompted a League of Nations investigation”:; and poor leadership focused more on nepotism and kleptocracy than producing wealth to develop the country.

However, the Americo-Liberians also contributed to the end of slave trade undertaken by some local tribes. Pre-1980, their rule also brought relative stability (a level of stability which Liberia has not seen since the 1980 coup, not to mention the 1989-2003 civil war which resulted in a 90 percent decline in the country’s GDP). Most importantly, what often gets overlooked about the Americo-Liberians is that their ancestors had been put on European slave ships for the “New World” – often with African collusion – and they were returning to Africa (and a sizeable percentage of them died from the conditions) to seek freedom from racial harassment.

After the 1980 coup that brought an indigenous Liberian, Samuel Doe, to power, much of the Americo-Liberian population fled to the U.S. and other countries. Many indigenous Liberians also fled to the U.S. during the civil war. Both populations are increasingly returning to Liberia. This has opened a new wave of resentment by people who experienced the civil war firsthand and who worry that the “new Americos” will overwhelm them with money made abroad and their Westernized ways. Yet it is this envied and maligned population, possessing skills learned or honed abroad, who are the new pioneers best positioned to create the job growth that can slash Liberia’s 85 percent unemployment rate and significantly boost its development.

Yet just as the concept of being African-American is changing to represent the diversity of the U.S. black experience, the “new Americos” are changing the concept of being Americo-Liberian. For instance, are individuals born in the U.S. to indigenous Liberian parents Americo-Liberian? What about individuals of indigenous ancestry who were born in Liberia, lived for some years in the U.S. and who’ve returned to Liberia? Is a person of indigenous ancestry who was raised by an Americo-Liberian family an Americo-Liberian? And with increasing intermarriage between Americo-Liberians and indigenous Liberians over recent decades, how Americo-Liberian does one have to be to be considered Americo-Liberian? Such questions are challenging the old “Congo/country people” divide in Liberia and will pioneer new notions of Americo-Liberian identity. Liberians are even increasingly debating the very nature of Liberian itself, debating whether Liberia should maintain its blacks-only citizenship clause in an era when the U.S. has elected its first black president.

As we African-Americans watch Liberia continue its journey of development and cultural identity, people such as businessman Bob Johnson are pioneers of sorts and increasingly investing in Liberia. Johnson believes that African-Americans have a special duty to aid Liberia and urges rank-and-file African-Americans to help usher a modern-day pioneering of launching Liberia into a highly-developed modern state. Whether we will rise to Johnson’s challenge remains to be seen.