A Critical Review of Liberia’s National Symbols

Remarks by Justice Gladys K. Johnson

Independent National Commission on Human Rights of Liberia
Delivered at the Paynesville City Hall, on June 6, 2014
At the Symposium “Reviewing Liberia’s National Symbols To Renew National Identity”

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
Posted June 18, 2014


Justice Gladys Kiawion Johnson
The history of our country began with contradictions of purpose, direction, aims and objectives, and identity, and has continued in that vein for the past 167 years, including the decade that followed the coup d’etat of 1980 and the recent 14 years of anarchy that nearly ended our existence as a sovereign state. It is therefore a welcome decision to have these inconsistences or contradictions removed through this transformational process.

In these brief remarks, I do not intend to repeat what has already been said by others about the process; I will simply breeze through the tangible symbol aspect, then move on to shed light on my opening assertion that our history began with contradictions, and conclude by examining some intangible national characteristics or symbols which we need to revise in order to give our nationhood a complete makeover, a makeover necessary for unity, respect for one another, and love for our country.

Let us begin with a look at our national Motto – “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.” That was the settlers’ reason for coming here, the Love of Liberty. But the immediate question that begs an answer is, where is “Here”? That Motto to me would better suit a group of refugees explaining to immigration officers in a place like Philadelphia, USA why they left Liberia. Refugees usually seek a safe haven anywhere away from their home when conditions become totally unsafe or unbearable.

Were the settlers refugees? On the surface the answer is, no. They were freed slaves, originally Africans taken into slavery and made to suffer one of the most egregious violations of human rights the world has ever known. Now that they were returning to the land of their ancestry, one would expect their purpose for returning to be more succinctly expressed than it currently is. For instance, how about saying “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Home”, not Brought Us Here? After all, “Here” could be anywhere. “Here” lacks conviction, commitment, and attachment, while “Home” says it all.

They were taken forcibly from their home in Africa and carried into slavery in faraway lands and treated most inhumanely. They should have been happy to be returning Home, not “Here”. Were they perhaps nostalgic and not really happy at all to have left America for their ancestral Home, and looked forward to the day conditions would improve for their kind in the United States so that they could return where they were brought from to “Here”? Some soul searching is required in this regard – and should be undertaken individually by all concerned.

Besides that, the Us in the Motto undoubtedly refers to the Settlers, meaning that from the founding of Liberia nearly two centuries ago, to this day, the majority of the Liberian people – the ones who inhabited this land before the settlers came, the 16 tribes – have had no National Motto. How then can we claim to be “one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all” when the national motto does not apply to the vast majority of the population? Was it out of gross ignorance or by intentional design that the settlers sought to build a nation within a nation? The prevailing symbols, conditions, and circumstances suggest the latter deduction.

Let us now revisit the Liberian flag – the only flag in the world that resembles the flag of the United States of America except that the Liberian flag has only one star. The one star according to Liberian Civics represents the only republic on the African Continent at the time. Today there are fifty-plus independent nations in Africa, and most, if not all of them, are more developed than the first. Do we still unfurl our flag with pride, claiming that we are the only republic on the Continent? When concepts become obsolete or irrelevant they should cease to exist. Let us therefore create a new flag of our own that will stand the test of time; a flag not patterned after any other country's flag, but one based on our own history and values; a flag unique to and representative of all Liberia, the Liberia of today, tomorrow and forever.

Let us now consider Names, beginning with that of our Capital City – Monrovia – a derivative of James Monroe, President of the United States at the time the freed slaves began migrating to Liberia. According to a recent Liberian Independence Day Orator, Dr. Sakui Malakpa, the visually-impaired genius, President James Monroe of the United States was no Abraham Lincoln on the issue of slavery. In fact President Monroe wanted those freed slaves, whom he referred to as troublemakers, out of the United States and sent back to Africa. After all, their usefulness had expired and slavery had become illegal. President Monroe might well have said to the Organizers of the American Colonization Society: Why still keep them in our country? Take them back to Africa.

Now, speaking of a history of contradictions, it baffles my mind and maybe the minds of others that, having left the United States because of all the mistreatment they complained about in the Preamble of the 1847 Constitution (as slaves, then as victims of racial discrimination), the freed slaves would actually end up naming the capital of Liberia, their new African nation, after a US president who was so totally unsympathetic to their plight; fashioning their flag after that of the United States – land of their sorrows; and patterning their Constitution after that of the same enslaving country that had excluded them from its body politic and Constitution. Would I be wrong to guess that the settlers did all the above because they placed a higher premium on their American connection, even if through the evil system of slavery, than they did on their own African ancestry? Just why would they or their descendants be so bent on reminding themselves of those terrible days of slavery in America?

History tells us that the slave masters changed their slaves’ African names, thus distorting their African identity forever. Today a Cooper in Liberia could have been a Flomo by genealogy. Because of that terrible practice, we have today in Liberia people, black people, clearly people of the negro or black race, pure Africans, bearing European or Western family names: Cooper, Dennis, Johnson, Williams, Sherman, Dunbar, Mason, Best, Allison, Gibson, Lewis, Howard, Taylor and many more such appellations – all non-African names – given to them for easy identification by their owners – the slave masters. From those days up to the present time Liberians who bear such names have seen themselves as a privileged class; and many thank God they do not have country surnames.

The settlers transplanted the practice to Liberia, changing the names of the native children who lived in their households as wards or servants. Thus a country boy lovingly named “Kobai Tokpa” by his parents received a total name transformation, when taken to Monrovia to be a servant in the household of a settler family surnamed Johnson. He became known as John Johnson. In like manner, a Mamusu Kiawu living in the Cooper household was renamed Mary Cooper, and so forth. Thus those children were detached from their roots, just as the slaves were by their masters.

For many years in Liberia a person’s last name became a determining factor to success or acceptance in social and political circles. African or “country” names served as expired passports for transit. So in order to cope or fit and become accepted in the “civilized” circle, some country surnames in Grand Cape Mount were changed. I do not know how, but these are some examples: Kiahon became Sherman; Kiawu became Cole; Fahnbulleh became Freeman; Kiadii became Gray; Gataweh became Perry; and so forth.

Since the establishment of this nation of contradictions a nagging question remains unanswered: Who are we? Are we Americans transplanted here or Africans who returned to Africa and settled in Liberia? This identity crisis remains a problem. The settlers must make up their minds about this. Too long have they perceived themselves as Americans or Americo-Liberians or Congos, never really acknowledging their African or Liberian roots per se. Are they Americo-Liberians, Children of the Pioneers, Congos, or what? It is high time they decided upon a true identity. This identity crisis is partly responsible for the problems we continue to face as a nation. It stands in the way of unity, nationalism, and self-acceptance.

Frankly speaking the “Country People” have no identity problem of the sort. They know from their names, their huts in the villages, their poverty, way of dressing, their dialects and customs that they are neither Americo-Liberians nor Congos; they know that they are just Africans. The identity crisis lies within the minds and ways of the descendants of the freed slaves that settled in Liberia nearly two centuries ago. These descendants are still unsettled about who they are. In order that they may solve this identity problem, they must begin by acknowledging the fact that they are Africans because that is who they are, and no stretch of the imagination can determine otherwise. Their ancestors who were born on American soil and therefore could have become American citizens, gave up that privilege when they moved back to Africa, and established their own Country on the African Continent – land of their ancestors. They must therefore accept Liberia and take on the Liberian identity because they are Liberians.

To say now that all Liberians who do not belong to any of the 16 tribes are Congos is a distortion of historical fact. We know from our history that the Congos were not freed slaves. The name Congo was assigned to those Africans from the African region called Congo who were en route to slavery but, thanks to the Abolitionist Movement, never reached their destination. The diverted vessels released them on Liberian shores. Those whose ancestors came from slavery in North America and the Caribbean cannot now claim to be Congos. I often wonder why descendants of the freed slaves prefer to be known as Congos – false label – than to be known as one of the 16 original tribes of Liberia. For example, why can’t a person with settler background born in Maryland be a Grebo, or one born in Sinoe, be a Kru, or in Grand Bassa, be a Bassa, or born in Cape Mount, be a Vai or Gola? Why Congo? Is it because it is better to belong to anything but a Liberian (African) tribal grouping? Why must the slavery connection be glamourized, preferred, and sustained even after so many generations of freedom from slavery?

This identity crisis is inimical to our national unity, peace and patriotism. Liberians must be true to themselves and take on their true identity. It is unpatriotic to be a citizen of Liberia on paper and a citizen of another country in mind, heart and soul. If anyone is in doubt about the horrors of slavery, read Fredrick Douglass’ autobiography entitled “The Life and Times of Fredrick Douglass”. Slavery was evil, terrible, inhumane, no doubt about it. So why are people who are many generations removed from slavery still clinging to that connection and referring to other Liberians in a derogatory manner as “country people”. Are we saying that it is better to be an ex-slave of America than an African? Are we not saying then that Abraham Lincoln and the other abolitionists missed the point? These are the inconsistences and contradictions that have characterized our national socio-economic and political systems. This transformation is long overdue.

All this is not to deny the progress we have made in a few areas. For example, we have done away with the top hat and tail coat, for years and years up to the end of the Tubman era the dress code for official functions such as the annual Independence Day celebration and the inaugural and other formal ceremonies. Nowadays also Liberian women, educated or illiterate, can wear the lappa (wrap) suit without fear of being labeled a native or country woman, something that was unheard of in our recent past when “civilized” women dressed like American women. But more needs to be done still, especially in encouraging Liberians to be proud of their native languages and to speak and write those languages as much as possible.

Now that we are in the process of transforming our national symbols, it is my hope that the transformation will take place in our hearts, minds and attitudes toward one another. It is only by such transformation (in our hearts, minds and attitudes) that we will become a nation of one people, Africans, Liberians, in purpose and strength to protect our natural resources, manage our own affairs, and develop our Country for the good of all Liberians.  

Symbols have gravitating powers. They must therefore be carefully designed and made to convey good, positive, uplifting messages; and not crafted to convey such unwholesome, negative messages as exclusion, discrimination, and other divisive ideas inimical to national cohesion. About 40 years ago a Liberian historian, Dr. Abeodu Bowen Jones, in an Independence Day Oration pointed out the divisive ideas that characterize our national symbols, even the anthem. President Tolbert, of sainted memory, set up a Commission to review and remove the objectionable portions. It is known that the Commission did submit a report. But the fact that another Commission has been charged today with the same responsibility is testimony that nothing was done to implement its recommendations. The current Commission knows only too well the need at this time to transform all aspects of our history that are inimical to national unity. They will do everything possible to present a document that will reflect the realities of our times and still be relevant to the needs and aspirations of incoming generations of Liberians.

I feel privileged to have been called upon to contribute to this historic process. 

Guawon Siasia
Your insight into these conditions about Liberia is so true. I remembered in my village in the '60s, one could not be registered to attend school unless you have an English name attached to your surname. This was rediculous. Now that we have learned and know these things, where do we start the changes from?
I think the Motto has been the most devisive. Let's start from this most important piece of identity. I have problem with the flag too from sports point of view. Most country wear national jerseys that is unique to their country. For us, it is problem because any national uniform we create to match our flag may resemble that of the United States. Thanks very much. Let the discussion continue and let action be taken this time.
Guawon Siasia at 01:03PM, 2014/06/20.
Prof. Igolima T. D. Amachree
This is one of the most cogent and persuasive arguments to examine Liberia's soul and identity that I have read. It is presented in a very systematic manner arguing, point by point,why we need to retrieve our real soul and National identity. The argument is simple but forceful. It also presents usable ideas about how to re-configure the flag,the motto, our identity(like settlers assuming the ethnicity of the area in which they settled or indigenous people going back to their indigenous names that have meaning and significance like Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh, Kiahon, Jabaru, Siata, Kamara, Saidu, Gbowee). We need real soul-searching in trying to reclaim ourselves and our identity. I am very much impressed with the simplicity but forcefulness of Justice Gladys Johnson's arguments and the articulation of her ideas.
I would, however, interject a note of caution on how we go about doing this. We should not do it with recrimination in our hearts as to whatever ill we think may have been done to us. We should do it with love for our fellow human beings and the overarching love and respect for and future of our country. What is past is past but we should learn from what is past and it should instruct us as how to construct the future and live in it amicably with one another.
Well done Justice Johnson. I am very proud of you and proud of how you articulated the issues.
Prof. Igolima T. D. Amachree at 01:37PM, 2014/06/22.


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