A Cultural Legacy of False Starts
By Siahyonkron Nyanseor
November 16, 2000

If history is any guide to understanding the genesis of a country and its direction, how it has been able to overcome major national concerns on questions such as ethnicity, reconciliation and national unity, the Liberian experience leaves much to be desired or appreciated.

Since the founding father's original mistakes, succeeding governments of Liberia, continue to make the same mistake by enacting policies that benefit the leadership, instead of the people. For example, Tubman's policy of "Unification and Integration" was nothing more than an extension of the cult of the presidency and Monrovia rule and dominance over the hinterland. Whereas Tolbert's policy of "Total Involvement for Higher Heights" or "Mat-to-Mattress", was mere window dressing, immersed more in rhetoric than in reality. Under Tolbert, the socio-economic gap widened. While he preached "Total Involvement", the country's wealth and power remained concentrated in the hands of a few families, friends, and the Americo-Liberian elite. Samuel Doe's adopted "in the cause of the people" increased the number of counties from nine to thirteen. Now it is Taylor's turn. He is not only following the tradition of his predecessors, but is preoccupied with redrawing the country's socio-political map by creating new counties. Even with the passage of time, it does seem like the country has not broken from the tradition of its ugly past.

The cardinal mistake made by the settlers from North America emanated from not knowing whether to become Africans or see themselves as Americans. The confusion, about who they were, started their identity crisis and the legacy of false starts. In fact, it was the lack of clearly defined goals and objectives for the colony of Liberia that made the settlers to treat their African Liberian brethren in the same way their slave masters treated them in North America.

Acculturated and nurtured in the system of the Antebellum south, the settlers rather than leaving behind the legacy from which they were seeking emancipation, ironically, reintroduced the same master-servant system and its accompanied values into the Liberian society, their newly found home.

This system turned Liberia into a country in which individuals and important places took on American (English) names. Moreover, in their quest to be different from their African brethren, the settlers referred to themselves as Americo-Liberians. As a class, they considered Liberia as a country that was exclusively theirs. "Their concepts of political sovereignty were a legacy from the United States and the Western world Many of them entertained some residue of the once prevailing view that the tribal population, because of their primitive ways, were a people apart, not fitted for the same full citizenship they themselves enjoyed" (Area Handbook for Liberia, 1972).

To show their disregard for African Liberians, the settlers took upon themselves to re-name everything they came across with names of individuals and places in America. For examples, Bushrod Island was named in honor of Bushrod Washington, the first president of the American Colonization (ACS) and the nephew of President George Washington; Clay Ashland was named in honor of Henry Clay of Kentucky, one of the original members of the ACS; Lower and Upper Buchanans were named in honor of Thomas Buchanan one of the governors of the Liberian colony, Careysburg was named in honor of Lott Carey, an early repatriate Liberian and vice agent of the Colony of Liberia; Marshall Territory, which later became part of Margibi County, was named in honor of Chief Justice John Marshall of the United States; Stockton Creek was named in honor of the US Naval Captain called Robert Field Stockton who along with Eli Ayres "allegedly" purchased Cape Mesurado from the natives; Crozierville was named in honor of Samuel A. Crozer, a white agent of the ACS, Mount Cuffee was named in honor of Paul Cuffee, an early supporter of the African colonization movement; Harper City was named in honor of Robert Goodloe Harper, a member of the American Colonization Society's board who suggested the name Monrovia for the Capital; Monrovia was named in honor of President James Monroe of the United States. The list includes Maryland, Virginia, New Georgia, Greenville, Philadelphia, Lexington, Louisiana, Caldwell, Millsburg, Robertsport, Edina, Ashmun, Randall, etc. (Historical Dictionary of Liberia, 1985).

To complete the imposition of their cultural hegemony, the indigenous African names were replaced with so-called "civilized" or "Christian" names. The settlers were of the belief that African Liberian names were not "good" names because they were not "civilized" names, meaning they were not of European origin. According to them, only names of European or biblical origin were considered appropriate or "good" names. Such names were: Joseph, James, Nathaniel, Henry, Benedict, Daniel, Eisenhower, Rockefeller, Richard, Alexander, Romeo, Banks, Abrom, Frederick, Eugene, Richelieu, Johnson, Washington, Hilary, Augustus, Julius, Hitler, Shadrach, Doris, Mary, Sarah, Ann, Annie, Martha, etc. became the acceptable names. Along with the foreign names came their bad attitude, style of dressing and dance. They chose as their official dress, the tailcoat and top hat, and as their national dance, the modified form of the "Dixie Square Dance", which they named Quadrille. This form of dance included the grand march, the strut and "do-si-do". All of which they are very proud of!

Having imposed their North American plantation culture on the local inhabitants, the setters also adopted a negative attitude, which made them to regard themselves superior to the African Liberians. The famous African American actor, Ossie Davis recorded this attitude in the book that he co-authored with his wife, Ruby Dee - "With Ossie & Ruby, In This Life Together".

During World War II, Ossie Davis was assigned to the all-black 25th Station Hospital stationed in Liberia at Robertsfield. According to Mr. Davis:

The Americo-Liberians, black though they were, tended to live like Europeans or Americans, and that surprised me. They had new cars; they regularly sent their children off to Europe or America to college, and they fraternized with their peers at Firestone. They seldom mixed with the natives, with whom I had already bonded, who were authentic Africans and much more fun. I was not only uneasy with the class conflict I felt was brewing in Liberia, I was disturbed by it. But most of the soldiers on the post were not. They, too, quite easily, took to treating all the natives, not as brothers and comrades, but like servants, in much the same way white folks treated black folks down in Georgia.

This arrogance disturbed me, too, and I began to entertain a horrible suspicion. For most of my life, I had believed that black folks were in many ways morally superior to white forks, especially in our dealings with each other. I was profoundly disappointed that the Americo-Liberians, the children of slaves themselves, would come to Africa and behave as if they themselves were the slaveholders now.

Graham Greene documented similar observation when he made his pilgrimage to Liberia in 1935, which he described in "Journey Without Maps." He wrote that he was welcomed in some areas "because I was a white (person), because they (natives) hoped all the time that a white nation would take the country over." Also, the American writer, John Gunther considered the condition he found the indigenous population repulsive when he visited Liberia in the early 1950s. He referred to it as "a kind of perverse advertisement for imperialism."

In point of fact, the Americo-Liberian ruling class had several opportunities to truly understand and unite with their African brethren but chose not to. They had their minds made up from the start to be different from the local inhabitants. They wanted to be seen as Americans! If this was not the case, they would have taken advantage of such opportunities as adopting Vai as the national language, since Vai Alphabet was invented during the same time (1840's) Liberia was evolving. Another case in point is Edward Wilmot Blyden's "Three Needs for Liberia" lecture he delivered in Lower Buchanan, Grand Bassa County on January 26, 1908. In that lecture, Blyden identified the "Three Needs of Liberia" as Emancipation, Illumination and Harmonization. Embedded in Blyden's Three needs was the idea of "the existence of a distinct African personality with its own identity and values, capabilities and accomplishments, history and promise for the future". Perhaps, had the ruling elite adopted Blyden's position, Liberia would have been better off today. Instead, the elite of the time chose to identify with the culture of their former slave masters. It can be said that it was their refusal to break with the past that contributed to most of Liberia's present problem.

In contrast, the great United States that once committed heinous crimes first against Native Americans and then Africans has made it a priority to improve relationship between the races. A recent federal government report released September 21, 2000, is a good example of that. The report states that "The true extent of contemporary racism remains clouded by ignorance as well as differences of perceptions." It went on to say, "No country or society is completely free of racism, discrimination or ethnocentrism." Yet, the US government continues to make every effort to improve relations among its ethnic groups. The government has not done anything to reconcile all Liberians and improve relations between its various ethnic groups. The Americo-Liberians continue to believe that they were chosen by God to rule Liberia.

Frankly, it is clearly apparent that the Taylor government is not serious about promoting peace, reconciliation, and harmony among its people. This is evident by their continued fostering of a policy of divide and rule. If there was a genuine commitment to these principles, the President and Legislators could begin by promoting unity instead of creating new counties. The creation of additional counties - River Gee and soon-to-be, Gbarpolu - will not solve the social, political and economic conditions of our people. There is no clear rationale or logic such as the need for decentralization as a means of promoting local development, which is not taking place in these counties. But it is clear that the government interest is being politically motivated by fostering division and rivalry amongst the ethnic groups in these counties, which it can use to its advantage whenever it finds it convenient.

Moreover, it should be said to those who continue to tell us "to leave the people's thing alone" that the "thing" they are urging us to leave alone also belongs to us. Therefore, "the chips may fall wherever they may". Due to our desire to improve the conditions of the lives of all Liberians, we cannot compromise our position on these social, political and economic issues but rather insists on correcting the wrong that was started at the beginning when the country was founded by the settlers.

Finally, it will serve us well if we begin to think about the implementation of Blyden's "Three Needs for Liberia". The plan calls for all Liberians to maintain their African identity, and to be in compliance with Blyden's plan, we will have to begin the process of renaming those places with names that have no cultural significance to us (Africans) with their original names. We can start with Providence Island by calling it Dozoa, the original name. Next to follow is the renaming of Monrovia to Dukor (Ducor), the name this area was once called. This move is more appropriate than creating additional counties. That's the way things ought to be!