Monday, March 1, 2010

Our Liberian Kinsmen

Over the weekend, I listened to His Excellency Nathaniel Barnes, Liberia’s Ambassador to the United States, give a keynote address at a conference. It reminded me of the many Liberians I have known during my lifetime. I have been touched by their feeling of connection to the United States and its people and simultaneously saddened by the general lack of indifference with which even African Americans receive Liberians. Actually, Liberians and African Americans have family linkages, but only one side realizes that fact.

Liberia means “the land of the free” because it is a nation founded by free African Americans and freed slaves from America. Initially, 86 immigrants from our shores settled in Christopolis (now the capital city of Monrovia, named for U.S. President James Monroe) in 1820. Thousands of others eventually followed thanks to the assistance of the American Colonization Society, which was an alliance of white clergymen, abolitionists and slave owners who had varying motivations for support of a return to Africa by black people in America. In 1847, the new inhabitants of the land called Liberia declared their independence.

If the returnees to Africa stayed there, the story might hit a dead end. However, Liberians apparently maintained their ties to the land of their captivity and oppression – though not always in a positive sense. The so-called “Americo-Liberians” formed an elite that ran the country as a one-party state from independence until Sergeant Samuel Doe overthrew the government of President William Tolbert, Jr., in 1980. This expatriate elite had excluded indigenous people from citizenship in the land of their birth until 1904. It seems they learned the worst from their American experience.

Things were so good for the Americo-Liberians and at least stable for indigenous Liberians that there was negligible emigration to the United States in the first few decades of their independence. By the first half of the 20th century, though, Liberians started trickling into the United States. For example, in the last half of the 1920s, 27 Liberians came to America, and during the 1930s, another 30 Liberians arrived. In the 1940s, only 28 Liberians were recorded as coming to America, but by the 1950s, the number of Liberian immigrants reached 232. In the 1960s, the number more than doubled to 569 and then jumped to 2,081 in the 1970s before doubling again in the 1980s.

During the 1990s, more than 13,000 Liberians fled to the United States to escape a bloody civil war in their country. Many of the children of these more recent immigrants had their education disrupted so they found themselves behind in school, and it was difficult for them to fit in as older kids in lower grades with what Americans would consider strange accents. Those Liberians you would have noticed, perhaps feeling uncomfortable with their alienness. However, the Liberian elites who emigrated here or maintained dual citizenship were usually professionals or business owners. They could have been your doctor, lawyer, dentist or accountant, and unless you asked where they were from originally, you might never really know they were from Liberia.

But whether the Liberians you met were among the Americo-Liberians or indigenous people, they had a connection to America, and African Americans have a connection to them. Many of the descendants of the early African Americans who remained and the Liberians have blood ties of which many of us are still unaware. Those ties are not limited to the Americo-Liberians; after all, they left Africa and then returned so they were separated from the indigenous people by class and not necessarily by blood.

The sad part for me in all this was that when Liberians appealed to the United States for help during their civil war, African Americans did not respond broadly with the empathy Liberian expected. They felt a kinship to us we didn’t feel for them. Even now, Liberia is considered by many African Americans just another African nation, while Liberians feel they have historic and kinship ties to this country.

African Ancestry, the company that has pioneered DNA testing of African Americans, finds that as high as 10% of the matches are from ethnic groups in Liberia. So of the 500,000 or so Liberians in America, you may have a family member among them you don’t know you have.

Think about that next time you hear some a story about Liberia. Perhaps if you’re African-American, it will matter to you more.

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