I have a very common American last name. It just so happens that a former Liberian president has the same last name as me. He was Americo-Liberian, which means he came to Liberia after being enslaved in America before emancipation.
Liberia has been described as America's only outright foray into colonialism. The initial goal was to create a country in Africa of freed American slaves, and this was accomplished through the purchase of land and conquest of the Africans already living in what is Liberia today. The irony doesn't stop there sadly, Americo-Liberians took control of the country, placing themselves in positions of power and excluding native Liberians from many parts of social, economic, and political life. Somewhere in here there must be a lesson about how people who are the victims of abuses of power will come to abuse power, should they be given the chance, rather than treating others as they wish they had been treated.
Americo-Liberians were, and are, lighter skinned than native Liberians, due to generations of coupling between slaves and slave-owners, whether by force or by choice. This was used as a means to measure their superiority, as they went about creating a society in West Africa that closely mirrored America, but with themselves as the dominant group. Many buildings in Monrovia are similar in style to those in the American south. There are similar holidays, laws, and elements of culture. The Liberian flag obviously is based on the American flag.
And so what's in a name? In the United States, when I meet someone who is African American and has the same last name as me, the issue is largely ignored. It may cross my mind that somewhere in far off history someone with the same last name as me owned slaves. Hopefully not my actual ancestors because I think we're exclusively Northerners, but it's hard to be sure. Then if I meet someone in Liberia with the same last name as I do, I know this person most likely Americo-Liberian and is a descendent of American slaves. I can't quite put my finger on the difference between the two experiences, but they certainly exist. Perhaps it is because the identity of ex-slaves in Liberia is in fact one that garners privilege, as they are the relatives of people who are viewed by some to be 'more civilized' because of their time in American, than members of tribes who have always lived in West Africa. I get the impression that in America we are more reticent to point out our likely roles as relatives of ex-slaves and ex-slave owners, we most often talk about slavery in the abstract, as something that happened, not as something in which our ancestors participated. Whereas every time anyone mentions any sort of Liberian history, slavery is mentioned. There is a slavery museum and historical anecdotes about Americo-Liberian ex-slaves are shared with a kind of pride.
I'm still digesting this part of the experience and welcome any thoughts you all have. Here are a couple of my reflections:
1. Liberia has been a place of clashing interests and cultures for over a hundred years now. From clans to politicians to rebel groups, conquest and violence have been the name of the game. This was supposed to be a place where former slaves could be free and start over, forgetting that they had to take land and power from someone to do that. So how can people in a place born of violence stop the cycle of aggression and retaliation while still allowing members of diverse histories and backgrounds to interact and participate in decision-making?
2. Historical memory is an interesting thing, and it is the winners who write the history. This has made being descendants of former slaves a matter of pride in Liberia and what appears to me (as someone who has an admittedly limited peripheral perception) a source of shame and hurt for many African Americans and caucasians alike.
3. Why is people's reaction to being dominated to dominate others in return? It's like paying forward pain and vulnerability in exchange for power. I suppose this is not everyone's reaction, but the people who want to treat others fairly and kindly are rarely the ones pursuing power.