The Tradition of Uncle Tom’s Relatives – Part 1
By Siahyonkron Nyanseor
During the 95th Convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Color People (NAACP), which was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Julian Bond, Chairman of the NAACP said in his speech to the Convention that, “All history is worth remembering, but not all history is worth repeating”. This reference was directed at “The Ugly America” in which the position of an individual is determined by the color of his/her skin. As part of African Americans’ American experience, their history needs to be told; in the same way the history of Uncle Tom’s Relatives (UTR) needs to be told since it is a part of all Liberians’ ugly experience.
Like Chairman Bond, I too feel, “All history is worth remembering” because if we do not remember history, it is destined to be repeated, as in the case of Taylor, and the rebel factions and those to whom I referred to as “Uncle Tom’s Relatives”, that are bent on carrying on Uncle Tom’s tradition.
I say this to make the point that, shortly after the publication of my autobiographical essay, “My Dilemma with English, Civilized or So-Called Christian Names”, published in the July 10, 2004 edition of The Perspective; I received favorable and unfavorable reviews. Some of the e-mails I received suggested that the timing of my autobiographical essay was not proper since we (Liberians) were in the process of reconciling our differences. One critic, who I presume is a Liberian, referred to me as “primitive”, because he/she disagreed with my views. This person claimed to be an American and chose to remain anonymous; yet had the audacity to refer to me as “primitive”. What is primitive about my autobiographical essay, an experience I bear witness to? I feel sorry for individuals like this person; for only a coward or an individual with limited knowledge of history will write such nonsense about one’s “first hand experience”.
Be that as it may, let me say from the start that, I have no hidden agenda for telling our stories or mine. As a believer in the truth, I honestly believe that my approach serves similar purpose as the Truth Commission of South Africa. For too long the history of Liberia has been one-sided. Others told the history of African Liberians, but now that some of us are in the position to write our stories, I do not think there should be any problem – unless what we are writing is untrue.
Although some individuals might not be comfortable with this approach, but the way Liberian history is written seems as if only those the “Love of Liberty” carried to Africa were the only people that occupied that area. And it is the untold stories of the African Liberians that I write about for posterity. Why? Because as the African proverb says, “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter”.
In this regard, let me focus now on this article.
Liberia as it has been written was established as a home for freed slaves from America. Recaptured slaves believed to have come from the Congo joined them. Later on, immigrants from other parts of Africa and the Caribbean followed. Many of these immigrants made invaluable contributions to the country, while Uncle Tom’s Relatives (UTR) – those who assimilated and acquired the cultural arrogance did not only make invaluable contributions, many of them assisted the ruling elites in oppressing the African inhabitants.
The reference, Uncle Tom’s Relatives, is derived from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-known novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was first published as a series between 1851 and 1852. It became an enormously popular tale of the injustices of slavery. Uncle Tom, an almost Christ-like model of goodness and charity, was a house slave who was reluctantly sold by his first owners. Ultimately, Simon Legree, a tyrannical overseer, beat Uncle Tom to death after he had exemplified many heart-rending examples of generosity and heroism in the community. The novel is believed to have been a major cause of the Civil War. It popularized the abolitionist movement in the United States. Today, the term Uncle Tom is used pejoratively to describe a black American who is too deferential to whites. Unlike the original Uncle Tom, his Relatives in the Liberian experience are a combination of Tom’s tyrannical overseer, Simon Legree and individuals like the Arthur Barclays, the Bill Franks and numerous others who were well socialized and given privileged positions at the expense of the African Liberians. This group and their offspring have an antipathy towards African Liberians.
However, there were some exceptions to this arrangement. One individual that readily comes to mind is Edward Wilmot Blyden. Blyden refused to become Uncle Tom’s Relative. Who was this man called Blyden? He was a true Pan-Africanist; born Edmond Wilmot Blyden on August 3, 1832, in St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, migrated to Liberia in December 1850. He left America for Liberia as a teenager without family or friends. Like Marcus Garvey, Blyden claimed to be of “pure Negro” parentage from the Ibo tribe of Eastern Nigeria. Both of his parents were literate. His mother Judith was a schoolteacher, while his father Romeo was a tailor.
Blyden, unlike other Uncle Tom’s Relatives that became the enforcers of the divisive belief of “Americo-Liberianism” – a belief that everything indigenous, starting from language, dress, religion, and all African cultural institutions in general was inferior and therefore not civilized. Uncle Tom’s Relatives “fitted” right in – they adjusted well, some changed their names, got married into the ruling class families and were given privileged positions and other privileges that were denied to African Liberians.
As for Blyden, the major expeditions commissioned by the British Crown, exposed him to an African religious, political and cultural etiquette which changed his views about the role of the “Christianizing Mission”. From here on, Blyden’s discussions with African Muslim scholars, and his observations of the influence Islam had on the societies in which he found these Africans led to his break away from the Christian framework into a more African oriented view of the role of Africans. In September 1886, he resigned from the Presbyterian Church to become “Minister of Truth”. At this point, Blyden “saw himself and his mission as one of proving the African equal to other races and only lacking the enlightenment of Christianity”. (Eluemuno-Chukuemeka R. Blyden, “Evolution of an Africanist Perspective”, 1995)
Regarding the Americo-Liberian elites and their concept of Americo-Liberianism, Blyden wrote:
"A group of returned exiles - refugees from the house of bondage settled along a few hundred miles of the coast of their Fatherland, attempting to rule millions of people, their own kith and kin, on a foreign system in which they themselves have been imperfectly trained, while knowing very little of the facts of the history of the people they assume to rule, either social, economic or religious, and taking for granted that the religious and social theories they have brought from across the sea must be adapted to all the need of their unexpatriated brethren.
"Liberia is a little bit of South Carolina, of Georgia, of Virginia that is to say - of the ostracized, suppressed, depressed elements of these states - tacked on to West Africa - a most incongruous combination, with no reasonable prospect of success; and further complicated by additions from other sources. We take a bit from England, a bit from France, a little bit from Germany, and try to compromise with all. We have no definite plan, no dominating race conception, with really nothing to help us from behind the scene whence we came and nothing to guide us from before the goal to which we are tending or should tend. We are severed from the parent stock - the aborigines - who are the root, branch, and flower of Africa and of any Negro State in Africa". (Hollis R. Lynch, Black Spokesman, Selected Published Writings of Edward Wilmot Blyden, 1971)
The Willing Participants
In contrast to individual like Blyden, Bill Frank, Afroman Canada, Robert Smith, Doris Banks Henries, et al, assisted in perpetrating the oppressive ideology of Americo-Liberianism. Prominent among this group was President Arthur Barclay (1904–1912), who himself, immigrated to Liberia with his father in 1865 from Barbados. It was Barclay who as President established the criteria for indigenous Africans to become citizens of Liberia. The prerequisite he established were:
“…The willingness of applicants to qualify for Liberian citizen by adopting the Christian faith, Western living conditions, and Western standards of conduct, dress, and general appearance. An African, in effect, would have to detach himself from his own customs by completely accepting the Americo-Liberian set of values. Citizenship and voting rights might then follow”. (Yekutiel Gershoni, Black Colonialism: The Americo-Liberian Scramble for the Hinterland, 1985, pp. 37-38)
It is safe to conclude that the belief espoused by President Barclay derived from the U. S. policy. For example, on September 25, 1843, the U. S. Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur stated that, the primary mission of the settlers to Liberia was to introduce civilization and Christianity in Africa. This belief was then legitimized in the Liberian Supreme Court ruling of 1862 that due to “the inability of the aborigines to understand the working of a civilized government, they were subjects required only to abide by the laws of the State but not entitled to citizenship. In other words, western civilization, which was associated with Christian values, was the basic criteria for citizenship. (Arthur B. Dennis, “Why Mandingoes in Liberia are Labeled ‘Foreigners’”)
Ironically, the settlers were convinced of their superiority to the African inhabitants. They felt that it was their right and duty to “civilize” the African inhabitants. Based on this notion, the settlers felt that the only way African Liberians would “fit in” their so-called civilized scheme was to adopt Western culture. Barclay’s plan included the role the church had to play in order for these objectives to be achieved. Regarding this, he said:
“Seated amid a heathen population of our Race, with whom the work of amalgamation has already commenced, the manner and the direction in which the influence of the church is exercised, and its modes of procedure become, politically, of paramount importance”. (Joseph Saye Guannu, The Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of Liberia, 1980, p. 204)
It is such contempt for the indigenous Africans’ culture and way of life that brought about the division in Liberia, and might have prompted Tarty Teh to write a letter to Mr. Ernst, which I listed as Appendix I. The letter was a feedback from Tarty Teh to Mr. Ernst who had conducted research on the Tubmans of Liberia that he shared with Teh.
Uncle Tom’s Relatives are more than “political prostitutes”; they are like political chameleons that are on stand-by to support a political leader, no matter who the leader is; a case in point is Charles Taylor. In 2001, we witnessed Bill Frank joining Taylor’s hired pens to do damage control when Taylor was in trouble. On October 12, 2001, while paying tribute to the late Bai Tamia Moore, on the anniversary ceremony of the birth, Bill Frank ceased the opportunity to make the statement below, while at same time defending Taylor:
“We need to honor those who molded the minds of our people. But instead we tend to honor those who stole the money than those that build the final part of the human personality.
“…This great man knew everything about Liberian culture and ethnic groups. He was a writer, a poet, an educator, a cultural expert, and an ethnologist. He served the Liberian government for nearly half of his life. So we should be glad to honor people who have contributed towards the development of the intellectual personality of Liberia. Without any one telling us”.
Bai T. was a true African champion! He did not subscribed to the type of writing Bill Frank, Robert Smith, Doris Banks and company were preoccupied with. Bai T. was about his people, whereas Bill Frank was “for himself and God for all”, as we say in Liberia. Bill Frank is no contemporary of Bai T! Bai T. was in league with individuals like Samdu Jangaba Mole (Oldman Jangaba) Johnson, Oscar Seyea Norman, Albert Porte and few others.
Bill Frank’s statement stopped short of naming Charles Taylor, the individual he was working for at the time as one of those who, “We tend to honor (that) stole the money.” Instead, Bill Frank wrote an “An Open Letter to Columnist Colbert King of the Washington Post”, which is sub-titled, “People Against Their Own Nation”. I have included his letter as Appendix II to this article.
To tell the true, I am not a bit surprise that Bill Frank wrote such a letter to Colbert King; for one thing, he should be given the credit for being consistent all these years; he served Tolbert, Doe and Taylor respectively. There is a saying in Liberia that – “Leopard cannot change its spots.” These Uncle Tom’s Relatives are like Leopards, they find it very hard to change their habits.
Stay tune for Part 2 – This part is about my personal encounter with the preferential treatment accorded to those that I referred to in this series as Uncle Tom’s Relatives; and the reason privileges were made available to them as opposed to African Liberians. The series is concluded with suggestions that could help bring about lasting solutions to this divide.
Dear Mr. Ernst:
Thank you for the hardcopies of your study of the Tubmans of Liberia. I have just finished reading the second installment. Between readings I am encouraging some of the critical thinkers I know to go to the Augusta Chronicle site to help themselves to what I consider the most complete treatment on the issue of migration to Liberia I have ever seen.
However, as a context for viewing my comments, let me say that I suffer from prejudice against Liberian history generally as commissioned and taught in Liberian schools, which is why I have not helped myself much to the works available on Liberia, especially the ones that tend to drop in your laps. That is why I grew a bit apprehensive when I saw your reference to Robert Smith as a Tubman biographer.
I was in high school in 1968 when Robert Smith was cranking out volume after volume of the books on Tubman. I did not read one paragraph of any of his books. Maybe I did read more than a paragraph, but not much more, otherwise I would not be so certain about his effusive, gushy writing style, which turned me off even before I finished high school (You called it "not mincing words").
Liberia had a blooming class of political sycophants,
but we still managed to attract some from the neighboring
countries. Robert Smith was a Nigerian (I doubt he was
born Robert Smith in Nigeria) who knew right away that
the best way to curry favors with the ruling class of
Liberia was to retrofit yourself with a name that left
no doubts you harbored no sympathy for local Africans.
Another was Bill Frank (Nigerian or Ghanaian, I could never be sure), who wrote for the William Tolbert government in flowering English and interminable sentences as he now does for Charles Taylor online at the AllAboutLiberia.com Web site. My fear therefore was that you might dwell on the impressions of the likes of Robert Smith who sold his books on Tubman as if they were True Whig Party souvenirs.
In 1969, I was a clerk at the British Petroleum (BP) office in Monrovia, where Robert Smith had to pass through me to reach the British management staff about what appeared as a requirement to buy his books on Tubman on political grounds. I was a receptionist/accounts clerk with a suitably indignant political attitude. I first made sure that the British staff had an opportunity to let me know they didn't want to buy a book. So subsequent volumes rested with me for days until Robert Smith returned to a familiar answer - they would not buy the books.
So the one thing edged in my head about biographer
Smith is a cover picture of one of his books in which
Tubman is dressed in some strange combination of regal
regalia and a headdress that looks like a rooster's
crest. The artwork itself may be judged a success in
that one recognizes the image of; otherwise it looks
like a high school art class unwittingly overindulging
in its fancy with bright colors.
No, Smith and Frank were political prostitutes, but I guess once you have written a book, you are more likely to be quoted than one who has not. To that end, your work has given impetus to my project ‘Uncle Tom's Mansion.
Bill Frank’s Open Letter to Columnist Colbert King of The Washington Post:
Your recent articles on Liberia even though understandably acerbic, possibly because of misinformation, have, nevertheless attracted me to the power of the mind behind them.
I think that powerful black pens like yours on influential news media like the Post should be the pride of black people everywhere. For it is such powerful voices that will change the ways the West looks at Africa when political propaganda and irrational hostility give way to objective reality.
I should not be presumptuous to suggest, even slightly, that you need to be lectured about developments in Liberia for the past several years. But permit me to share with you a particularly disturbing trend to me.
Some Liberians who would ordinarily not qualify for temporary or permanent residence are exploiting the human rights concerns of America to the great detriment of their country's image.
In seeking residence they tell American authorities bizarre and macabre stories of mind-boggling human rights abuses to which they've been subjected, or would be subjected, if they didn't leave the country. Some even abuse their bodies, as in the case of a former security personnel who gashed himself on his arms to breed festering sores which he displayed as evidence of torture. They go to some outrageous extents to manufacture evidence that would sound credulous to Americans already conditioned by a host of prejudices to be gullible to stories of human bestiality from Africa.
Clippings of concocted newspaper stories about government security forces on the hunt for someone who dared to stand up for his/her right; a woman tells a heart-rendering story of rape which never occurred, such as those coming out of this year's fracas between university students and the police - there are thousands of such stories presented to immigration officers, congressmen, lawyers, church leaders, influential media executives and other persons and institutions by spurious asylum seeking Liberians.
If I were to be sitting where you are such stories would outrage me, too. But because they are not true, they do terrible damage to the country's image apart from drawing unnecessary outrage.
It is common knowledge in Liberia that dissidents engaged in the Lofa border war against the government draw some substantial support from Liberians in America who want to continue to justify their asylum status there. The logic makes sense: America cannot afford to send them back to a war-torn country without violating its human rights conscience? American authorities who buy such stories must be thinking that the two million or so Liberians still in the country and a host of aliens from the neighboring states, Middle East and Asia, are crazy to still be here going about their business in a relatively more secure environment than obtains in several other African countries.
Not too long ago American Embassy personnel having a good time out in Monrovia until 3 a.m. crashed through a security checkpoint causing a bit of embarrassment to both governments. Does being out until 3 a.m. sound like being in an insecure environment?
The truth is that the thousands of Liberians enjoying residence in America on the basis of this vicious lying are there on economic asylum. The violence, which this does to the image of the country they call their own, is incredulous. Of the more than 10,000 asylum seekers in America how many of them can anyone calculate President Taylor know? Let's be fair.
A word to America: no one can prevent anyone else from lying; but one would expect any fair-minded person to seek some verification before they believe and act on the story presented. There's an American embassy in Monrovia, with a black American ambassador who is very much in touch with people at all levels in the community. Recently, the Ambassador visited the war front in Lofa County, along with other diplomats. He can tell anyone what he saw.
It should be easy to check the veracity of at least some stories. If someone says that the Pan African Plaza opposite City Hall in Monrovia is being used as a torture base that should be easy to verify from the embassy. How could a looted building with no windows and doors serve such a purpose? Let's be honest.
The point of this letter (sic) is that the Liberians
doing this to their own country are like people sitting
in a tree and thoroughly defecating on the ground on
which they must eventually descend. They will have to
step on the sh…
Bill Frank Enoanyi
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