MONROVIA — I’m zipping around Liberia in a turbo-charged tour of the West African country, ricocheting from public hospital to presidential digs to rubber plantation to rape clinic, taking it all in: the shell of a skyscraper where snipers once picked off their prey; the sewage-clogged beach; the exuberant billboards of “Mama Ellen” — that would be the president — reminding folks that everyone is connected, all one, and oh yes, don’t forget to pay your taxes. In many ways, Liberia reminds me of Afghanistan circa 2002: war-weary country trying to right itself; bombed-out infrastructure; squabbling ethnic groups; battered women asserting themselves; warlords insisting that they’ve had a change of heart.
Of course, each country is weird in its own way, shaped by shared history, culture, prejudices, group neuroses. And Liberia has its own strange little history, one that is inextricably tied to the U.S.: In 1820, freed American slaves, many of them the mixed-race children of white slave owners, moved to Liberia as part of an abolitionist-sponsored back-to-Africa movement, naming the capital city Monrovia after President James Monroe.
A Racism Created in America’s Image
By 1847 the “settlers,” as they are called to this day, formed the Republic of Liberia, modeling it after American-style politics — and instituting their own form of American-style Jim Crow, too. The lighter-skinned Americo-Liberians, who often sported top hats and tails in the tropical West African heat, lorded their power over the “country people” — darker-skinned indigenous Africans who were not granted Liberian citizenship until 1904. Truly a case of power corrupting the formerly nonpowerful.
And that’s the way things were for a long time. Resentments simmered while the Americo-Liberians, a tiny portion of the population, dominated everything until 1980, when Samuel K. Doe snatched power in a particularly nasty military coup. (The Root‘s own Jack White witnessed the beachside executions of 13 cabinet ministers back then.)
This legacy is visible everywhere in Liberia. You see it in the National Hall, where a parade of presidential portraits illustrates the country’s color complex: The pictures progress through time from light to dark to medium: from Liberia’s first president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who folks here like to say was really Thomas Jefferson’s son; to Doe, the first president of tribal descent; to subsequent dictator Charles Taylor; to the first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Harvard-educated granddaughter of a German immigrant.
You see it in the Liberian Declaration of Independence — and the Liberian flag, which looks an awful lot like Old Glory. You see it in public buildings, where the idyllic painted tableaus and statues of settlers joining forces with the country people are on prominent display. You hear it in a lecture by historian Joseph Saye Guannu, in which he talks about how “octoroon” and “mulatto” Americo-Liberians waged political warfare with the “black” Americo-Liberians, who weren’t the sons of slave owners and, therefore, generally came to Liberia with a lot less money.
“We Liberians are not history-conscious,” Guannu says, and yet history seeps through this country’s pores. For the first-time visitor, it’s a bit unsettling, like looking in a funhouse mirror of the Old South — or watching some whacked-out episode of Star Trek when Capt. Kirk lands on a planet that turns out to be an alternate America.