Monday, December 12, 2011

What's in a Name?

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.


  1. Many Americo-Liberians have overall looks that are very close in proximity to the inigenous population. Not all of them have lighter skin tones compared to the indigenous population.

    Many familes intermarried into indigenous families; as well as into other creolized families of Africa such as the Krio and the Sherbro.

    These families also intermarried across the Atlantic over severa generations, mainly into families of affluence. There are many affluent African-American families of the East Coast U.S. that have historic links to Americo-Liberian and other creolized people of Africa. The same goes for many Affluent Afro-Caribbean famlies, as well as Afro-Brazilian families.

    Serveral families from the elite Black classes of colonial Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean are interlinked. It's a stealth history that, in many cases, is hidden.

    Part of the reason for hiding this is the afforded mission of stealth payback. It's was ingrained in the minds of many freed slaves that Africans sold them into slavery. They also felt that whites were indebt to them for taking their ancestors and abusing them.

    It's simply a case of people grabbing what they feel is entitled to them, no matter who gets hurt or destroyed in the process. They and their ancestors had to suffer, so, who cares? No one cared for the 300 years (because waves of repatriated and educated slaves began arriving in Africa during the 1700s) about what was happening to African slaves.

  2. Also, Americo-Liberians owned Indigenous Africans slaves.

  3. There is also an Americo-Liberian historic connection between elite black families in Europe.

  4. Anonymous, many thanks for your comments, I am just beginning to learn about Americo-Liberian history and you seem to be much more knowledgeable on the subject. My question is if it's all about stealth payback because Africans sold them into slavery and whites in the Americas and Europe subjugated and used them, I fail to see the humanity in turning around to abuse others. We all know this happens, one group lacks power or authority, and when the chance comes they grab it, but is there some point at which this ends? Is there a way to convince people that despite the abuse they have suffered, that abusing others will not absolve the sins of the past, but only pave the way for pain and inequality in the future?

    1. That's a good question. But this thing of the abused perpetuating abuse is nothing new. There are parents who were once abused children turn around and abuse other children, even their own. The oppressed Europeans the immigrated and founded American turned around and abused/oppressed people of sub-Saharan African descent via 400 year long system of slavery. Although ethnic Jews took a hit in numbers having been targets of genocide in the 1900s and banishment throughout history Jews have participated in intra-ethnic racism against ethnic Jews of different racial backgrounds. The Creole of colonial era Louisiana descended from slaves, but, (as a social class) participated in enslaving and oppressing other blacks. Poor people become wealthy then develop a disgust for poor people (across all races).

      The issue is on constant repeat.

      I think your answer might be found in 'group psychology' theories.

  5. I agree that it's nothing new, but I think that simply accepting it as something that has happened in the past and continues to happen now doesn't get us anywhere. I understand where group psychology theories could come into play, so I think that the answer may in fact lie in looking at positive deviance within the cycle of abuse or hate or exploitation. When and where are the people who experience those things who do not go on to hate or abuse or exploit? What is different about them and how can we model and promote it? An interesting book related to this is 'The Lucifer Effect' which explore the societal and systematic influences that lead people to do unconscionable things, and what, in contrast, leads people to resist those forces and work against the prevailing mentality. It doesn't hold the answers but it's a very interesting perspective.