"Liberia: America's Step Child" A Documentary By Nancy Oku Bright
Abdoulaye W. Dukule
Although absent from American collective memory, Liberia is very much part of the African-American experience and history. It is the closest America has ever come to possessing a colony on the African continent. Now, a new PBS documentary by Nancy Oku Bright, "Liberia: America's Stepchild," takes a look at the small republic, founded by freed American slaves on the coast of West Africa.
The 90-minute documentary recounts the history of Liberia, from the landing of freed slaves to the present, taking note of important milestones of the country's development.
The first group of freed slaves, under the tutelage of the American Colonization Society whose membership included among others James Monroe, future American president, arrived on the West Coast of Africa around 1826. From the British colony of Sierra Leone, they moved east and laid the foundation of what would become Liberia. Twenty years later, the country gained sovereignty(1), named its capital Monrovia, after the U.S. President James Monroe, and modeled its constitution on that of the United States. Its currency was the American dollar and still is today. The flag was and still is a replica of the "Star-Spangled Banner" with one star.
Beyond the difficulties of settling in a land infested by malaria, the freed slaves faced the tasking efforts of mixing with the indigenous African population they encountered. Although "they inter-married," as the narrator says, the newcomers at no point tried to assimilate the culture of the "natives."
Dr. Joseph Guannu, a professor at the University of Liberia and former Liberian ambassador to the US and one of many scholars interviewed in the documentary, says: "Of course, the settlers married women from the land, but the offspring from the marriage followed the culture of the settlers, never the other way around." Another scholar in the movie says, "Indeed, the settlers came to bring civilization and Christianity to the people of Africa, they didn't come to learn to be Africans." The newcomers felt superior to their African hosts and acted as colonizers.
The narrative quickens through the formative years of Liberia, using Black and White still photographs and voice-over narration that described conditions faced by the settlers. There is a lengthy discussion of the last four "big men" who dominated the country's evolution. The narrator lingers on the era of President William V.S. Tubman whose leadership made a lasting mark on the country. Tubman had absolute control of the economy and political life and quashed any form of dissent. In the movie, he says that "multi-party democracy could work in Liberia, but Liberians do not want another party because they are happy with what they have." He created a system of cronyism with political informants on state payroll who reported to him daily on everything and anyone that could threaten his reign. Although he financed liberation movements in South Africa, Kenya, Algeria and Ghana, he never allowed any form of dissent in Liberia.
When Tubman died in 1971, William Tolbert, his vice president for 19 years took over. The movie presents Tolbert as a "tragic figure" because he was neither able to escape the trappings of the oligarchy left in place by Tubman, nor accept the new political era into which the country was emerging. This balancing act was also displayed in his foreign policy, when he tried to turn Liberia into a champion of the Non-Aligned movement by establishing relations with Cuba, the Soviet Union and stood against US at the United Nations, calling for a Palestinian State while remaining the US point of entry in Africa.
Tolbert's life ended in a mass grave. Master-Sergeant Samuel Doe, a semi-literate soldier, who, with 16 enlisted men, led a one-night shoot-out that many thought was to end 150 years of Americo-Liberian dominance, assassinated him in 1980. At the beginning of his reign, Doe claimed to have come to redeem "the natives", calling his movement the People's Redemption Council. Very soon however, Doe' s revolution ended up in failure, as he became a corrupt and brutal ruler who terrorized the people of Liberia, killed most of his companions and dissidents who stood in his way.
In 1989, Charles Taylor, a former Doe ally launched an armed uprising, with troops trained in Libya. The rebellion developed into a massive popular movement. Doe was arrested, tortured and killed in 1990. The war continued for another 7 years until Taylor was elected as president in 1997. His rule has been no better, and his "popular uprising" cost the lives of 200,000 people, about 10 percent of the country's population. Under his leadership, a barbaric and corrupt regime emerged that continues to this day to kill Liberians and plunder the country's riches.
Although the movie ends on a hopeful note, showing a wedding in front of a monument dedicated to the "unification," it depicts the sad story of a failed notion: that former slaves could create freedom and equality if given the power to mold a new social order of their own. The subtext of the narrative reveals a country that is just starting to emerge from its infancy to ask questions about itself. Nancy Oku Bright succeeds in pointing to the internal contradictions of Liberia, such as its cultural identity, ethnicity and religious conflict. Liberia's crisis of identity is well documented, with the absolute dominance of a bastardized American culture that engulfed the African soul of the "natives" without giving much in return.
The title of the movie somehow reflects the type of relationships that exists between a stepchild and a stepparent. Successful stepchildren are claimed by the stepparents as "their own" but are rejected in case of failure. And psychologically, a stepchild can spend a lifetime trying to be recognized or loved by the stepparent... And this very much describes the relationship between Liberians (the step children) and the US (the step parent who does not remember having them).
For her first time behind the camera, Nancy Oku Bright, a UN humanitarian worker in the Congo, hits a home run. The Vision Theater in Washington, DC, where the movie had its big screen debut was full beyond capacity and turned many patrons away.
(1). We purposely use of the word "sovereignty" as opposed to "independence." Since Liberia was never a colony of the US in any way, one cannot say it became independent. A country gains independence from a colonial master, like Kenya from England or Cote d'Ivoire from France. One can therefore say that the settlers assigned a legal status to the land they took away from the natives and called it "Liberia." This is just one of the many historical confusions Liberians need to clarify for themselves and future generations.
Another such confusion is to refer to the assassination of President Tolbert by Samuel Doe and his group of enlisted men as a "revolution." The only revolution that was taking place at the time was in the streets, led by Baccus Matthews and in the political arena by the MOJA group led by Dr. Tipoteh and others. Behind those movements, there was a "theory" of liberation, well organized and with a coherent roadmap. They had their own way of attempting to change the status quo, either through the legal system (Sawyer for Mayor campaign for MOJA) or through destabilizing the regime and exposing its weaknesses (the rice riots of the Baccus Matthews group of PAL). The assassination of Tolbert actually ended those revolutionary movements. There is a historical irony here: the real revolutionary movements that could have liberated the minds of Liberians were swept away by the coup, which in reality was an act of vandalism that some "progressist" claimed on hindsight as a culmination of their "struggle" when it had nothing to do with the other. Such an act of recuperation was shown through the slogan of PAL "In the Cause of the People, The Struggle Continues" that became the battle cry of the People's Redemption Council when many on the military junta had no clue as to what those words meant. It didn't take long for MOJA and PAL leaders to find out that they were more conformable with the Tolberts and Tubmans than with Doe and his group.