Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
In 1840, a group of about 80 African-Americans set sail for the west coast of Africa to establish a new nation based on ideals gleaned from the American experiment. More former slaves and freedmen joined the settlement of “Americoes,” building the first independent nation in sub-Saharan Africa. Liberia nonetheless struggled over the next century and a half to survive hostile neighbors, religious, racial and class conflicts, and corruption. We explore Liberia’s unique history.
- James Ciment Independent scholar; author, "Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves who Ruled It"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn 1840 a group of about 80 African Americans set sail for the west coast of Africa. The goal was to establish a new nation, what would become the first independent republic in sub-Saharan Africa. It's very name, Liberia, meant freedom. The new country would be based on the founding principles of the country they left, America. But just as America, at the time a slave-holding nation, didn't always live up to its founding ideals, Liberia too struggled over the next century-and-a-half against all odds to build a nation of liberty, equality and justice surviving ravaging disease, hostile neighbors, class divisions and eventually a bloody civil war.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd survive, it did, turning to a new and hopeful chapter in recent years. Joining us to discuss the history of Liberia is James Ciment. He is an independent scholar and the author of several nonfiction books. His latest is "Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It." James Ciment joins us from studios at NPR West in Los Angeles. James Ciment, thank you for joining us.
MR. JAMES CIMENTGlad to be on, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou've written books on a number of topics. What drew you to the story of Liberia?
CIMENTWell, at first I was drawn to Liberia by the sheer kind of exoticism of it as a curiosity, this piece of America on the shores of West Africa surviving 150 years. King of what drew me was just this idea there was this little America over there. And as I got into the story, I began to be fascinated by the whole idea of these people who had come from a very oppressed background, ruling over other people and adopting some of the practices of their former oppressors. Not to the same brutal degree of course of the slave owners of the South.
CIMENTAnd -- but as I got into the story even more, it revealed a kind of, you know, aspects of human nature that all of us have in us. And, you know, what it means to have freedom. What it means to, you know, control others and become -- go from being a victim to being a victimizer. And then just sort of the compelling stories over the years. Just Liberia has this, you know, kind of reflection of America. So all of these things drew me to the Liberia story and, as I hope we get into in the show a little bit, just some of the fascinating stories of the people who went back, the so-called America Liberians.
NNAMDIWell, let's get to it because you began to think of Liberia as a noble experiment that ended badly of course. The experiment still hasn't ended and at the moment I guess there's a lot to be hopeful about, even though there are still challenges. But the organization that initiated this noble experiment, the return to Africa, the American Colonization Society was not in fact motivated by noble ideals. The organizations had multiple agendas. Can you talk about the organization?
CIMENTThe organization was the American Colonization Society. It was founded in 1816 largely by white southerners. Some northern whites as well. There were no African Americans involved. And the white southern planters at the time were very concerned about the rapidly growing free black population, particularly in the upper south, the Chesapeake region, Virginia, Maryland, where you are. And, you know, free blacks were seen as a very threatening cohort of the population. They were also seen as a kind of threat to this institution of slavery itself.
CIMENTNow these white southern planters who were, you know, the movers and shakers behind this group, and many of them were very powerful figures in Washington. I mean, Henry Clay who was probably the most powerful man in congress in that time. President of the United States, James Monroe eventually joined the organization. So this was the real power brokers in Washington.
CIMENTAnd they were, by the standards of the day, relatively progressive because they felt that slavery itself may be declining for economic reasons in their area. Many of them were influenced somewhat by the ideals of the revolution and they decided that they -- many of them wanted to emancipate some or all of their slaves, but they did not want them to become free blacks in their area. So they came up with this idea of sending them back to Africa to bolster -- to eliminate this dangerous population as they saw it in their region.
CIMENTJefferson had once -- Jefferson, who was somewhat of a proponent of this idea, had once talked about how, in all other societies slaves once freed, for example in the ancient world in Rome and stuff, could live with their, you know, former masters. But in America, because of the race difference and obviously the intense racism of the day seeing the blacks as inferior, that you would have this group of people who would never be able to assimilate who would always be oppressed. And all the problems that come with it would be forever in our midst. So let's get them out of here.
CIMENTAnd the abolitionists at the time were very much opposed to this organization and this project.
NNAMDINot just the abolitionists but a number of free blacks apparently because some African American leaders did feel strongly about the idea. But they were surprised by the response they got in places like Philadelphia when they heard from ordinary black citizens when the first journey was proposed, correct?
CIMENTAbsolutely. It was general universal distain for the idea. But then of course the big question comes, well why did these thousands and thousands of free blacks and emancipated slaves go -- one can understand why the emancipated slaves go. A lot of times it was a stipulation of their master's will. You know, I'm going to give you freedom and you have to go back to Liberia. Also there were a lot of state laws at the time in the South that once you freed slaves you had to -- they had to leave the state. And no states in any part of the country, with maybe the possible exception of New England, really wanted to see free blacks coming in.
CIMENTSo this was -- the idea was that you send them back. But the established free black population, both in the upper South and in the North, were very much opposed to the vast majority. But there were some who wanted to go and they had their reasons for it of course.
NNAMDIOur guest is James Ciment. He is an independent scholar and the author of several nonfiction books. His latest is called "Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Did you learn about the founding of Liberia and other African nations in history class? What did you learn, 800-433-8850? You can send email to email@example.com or send us a Tweet at kojoshow.
NNAMDIJim Ciment, the ship named the Black Mayflower set sail in 1840 with around 80 passengers, the first of thousands who would make that journey to settle what would come to be known as Liberia. What did you learn about who was onboard that first ship?
CIMENTJust a brief correction. It was 1820 when they actually -- the first settlers went over there. These were largely people from Pennsylvania and New York, so they were kind of an anomaly. Later most of the people would be coming from the upper South. They were a mixed lot. Most of them -- about half of them were farmers. There were some craftsmen. They were all free, either born free or it had been long since they had been emancipated. They were very religious. That was part of the enterprise.
CIMENTMany of them were eager to spread the word of evangelization and civilization to Africa, because they bought into the whole idea of the American Colonization Society's goals, which were to, you know, bring Christianity and western civilization to Africa. Many of them -- some of them were business -- you know, some of them had business interests. They wanted to -- and these are both the people on that first ship, the Black Mayflower which was actually called the Elizabeth -- and, you know, establish economic, you know, businesses over there trying to become traders and so forth. That was one of their goals.
CIMENTAnd the other goal, I think, for a lot of them was just the ability to, you know, break free of the terrible oppression and capriciousness of being a free black in America at the time. You know, having virtually no rights and so forth and being constantly the victims of prejudice. And also I think they -- you know, they were Americans. That's one of the sort of themes of my book. these people were very American. And they wanted to have self rule. They wanted to have their ability to participate in a representative government to run their own affairs.
CIMENTI mean, they saw what white people had in America and they were very much infected with that American ideal. And they wanted it for themselves so that's what motivated a lot of the first settlers, who most of whom were free blacks. Later you had more emancipated slaves coming in who were -- went over there as a stipulation of their release from bondage.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned that they came to Liberia and many of them were drawn by the promise of freedom and self government. But that was not what they found upon arrival. What did the American Colonization Society play -- what role in the early establishment of the government of the new settlement?
CIMENTWell, the American Colonization Society basically had the idea that black people couldn't rule themselves. They were not -- they felt they were not capable of it. And they sent over agents who took -- who were basically in control of the institutions over there, the government and so forth. But that didn't sit too well with the settlers themselves who almost from the beginning, even onboard that first ship, began to agitate for the right to run their own affairs and particularly have control over the resources that the American Colonization Society had.
CIMENTBecause, you know, they were going over there -- many of these people were very poor. Their passage was paid for by the American Colonization Society. Their first supplies were provided by the American Colonization Society and it left them very vulnerable to that kind of control. And almost from the beginning there was a great deal of tension between the agents of the American Colonization society who kind of came and went. Many of them died of the diseases that afflicted the coast of West Africa for outsiders.
CIMENTAnd they wanted to have more control over their own lives. And the agents, you know, who were -- you know, had the attitudes of their day that black people couldn't run their own affairs, particularly as more emancipated slaves came in who were, they felt, even less capable of running their own affairs. So there was this constant tension. And eventually the American Colonization Society conceded power partly because of the agitation by the America Liberians, but also partly because the American Colonization Society was just running out of money.
CIMENTI mean, they were trying to establish a middle ground in a country that was polarizing so rapidly between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery that basically they began to lose support, they began to lose money. This is a very capital-intensive enterprise, you know, sending thousands and thousands of free blacks back to Africa and then supporting them for a time while they establish themselves.
CIMENTSo they kind of conceded power even as the America Liberians were insisting on having more power. And by the 1830s, the country had become a commonwealth. Basically it was self-ruled. And then finally in 1847 it declared itself independent. But it wasn't against the wishes of the American Colonization Society. It was kind of done in cooperation with them.
NNAMDIThere's a story about the founding of Liberia that every Liberian schoolchild apparently learns that has its parallel in the early settlement of this country, Manhattan Island to be exact. Can you tell that story?
CIMENTYeah, the first -- the agents of the American Colonization Society along with agents from the United States government -- the United States government's involvement over there was that we had banned the international slave trade in 1808. And some -- and the U.S. Navy was involved in patrols that would seize smuggled slaves -- slaves being smuggled into the South and needed a place to put them. So they would bring them to Liberia.
CIMENTSo the United States government spent a certain amount of money trying to establish these former -- these captured smuggled slaves in Liberia. In fact, many Liberians -- many of the native Liberians, you know, the native Africans of that region, the idea was that they thought that these people came from Congo. So that became sort of the epithet against all the America Liberians. In Liberia, they're often called Congos.
CIMENTBut anyways, these free blacks and former slaves that were there, they began to establish themselves as this -- you know, the government there. And...
NNAMDIWell, let's talk about that for a while because the African American settlers who came to Liberia were known as Americos (sp?) . You mentioned that term earlier in contrast to the native population. Can you talk about Americos and their role in Liberia's history? You describe the Americos' history as a family saga spanning generations. Can you explain?
CIMENTYeah, I mean, they were a small number of people. I mean, they never numbered more than 20,000. And they ruled over a population of hundreds of thousands of natives. They created a Republic that was basically they kept to themselves. Even in their constitution it declares, you know, we the people of Liberia were formerly inhabitants of North America, completely excluding, you know, the 95 percent of the country that had never been in North America.
CIMENTThey basically, you know, ruled over the place for a long time, essentially excluding the native Africans altogether. They kept to the coastline, a few upriver settlements. Their interaction with the natives was mostly as this master cast, except it wasn't quite like the American South because there was much more integration. Native Africans oftentimes were adopted by Americos families and raised as their own, thought they were never fully accepted into the ruling elite. Certainly not until late in the 20th century.
CIMENTAnd -- but -- so there was a lot more interaction. There was intermarriage, there was a lot of concubinage, you know, taking what they used to call country wives. A lot of the wealthier America Liberians would have, you know, formal families in Monrovia. And then they would have their other sort of Native African families in some of the upriver settlements where they kept their plantations.
CIMENTFor a time they did quite well for themselves. They developed a export economy based on things like coffee and forest products. And for quite a while they did quite well for themselves. And then eventually changes in the 19th century. Global economy kind of left them behind and the country became very impoverished. And they tried to hold onto Liberia any way they can. They, you know, began to develop -- well, they began to try to fight off the European Imperialists who were trying to grab pieces of Liberia. And it's very remarkable...
NNAMDIWell, hold the story there for a second because there are people who'd like to join the conversation about stuff that we've already discussed. So I'll start with Dee in Arlington, Va. Dee, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DEEDee. Thanks Kojo for allowing me to speak. And I want to be grateful to your guest. I have two questions here. The first question is, considering your statement that the relationship between the African-Americans and the (word?) on the ground with like a slave and a master relationship, do we agree today that when given power, the oppressed can sometimes become the West oppressor? That's the first question.
NNAMDIAllow me to have him answer the first question first, Dee. Here is Jim Ciment.
CIMENTYeah. I mean, I think Liberia offers an unfortunate example of that. I mean, you know, one of the questions -- one of the fundamental questions in world history about slavery and racism is, you know, does -- did the power that Europe have create the racism that it eventually succumbed to, or vice versa, was there inherent racism? And in Liberia, you have a situation where the people all look the same. And so race wasn't so much a factor. But there was the attitude that the Americo-Liberians, you know, subscribed to the western notions and American notions of being a superior civilization and they felt they had the right to rule.
CIMENTThey were, you know, they didn't see themselves as oppressors. Oppressors rarely do. They saw themselves as, you know, uplifting these people. The widespread adoption, or what they called the ward system, brought in many Liberians, but it brought them in sort of second-class citizens. They were really never fully afforded full citizenship rights until much later. So, yeah. I mean, to answer your question, yeah, it's a sad fact of human life. That's what I said at the beginning of the broadcast, this is what fascinated me about it, you know, because it's kind of -- is this an interesting example of kind of an experiment in this idea of the human capacity for not treating your fellow human beings well, even with race absent from the equation.
CIMENTSo to answer question in short, yes.
NNAMDIDee, how about the second part of your question?
DEEYeah. The second part of my question for you concerns the establishment of a system. The (word?) African-American who came from here, though most of them came from a county that treated them as second- or third-class citizens. The labels in the system, today if you consider Liberia, after a century and a half, you realize that the country lacks system (unintelligible) considering social political and economic. What do you now say about the issue of giving people power when they are not really prepared to lead?
CIMENTYeah. Well, you know, that's a tough question to answer. I think today Liberia is a very different place. The America Liberians still are a quite powerful force there. They own a lot of property. They have some positions in the Johnson Sirleaf government, but they're no longer this sort of distinct cast. There's been so much intermarriage and intermingling over the last few decades that they really don't -- I don't think really exist quite the same as this distinct entity within Liberia. But, you know, what happened after the coup of 1980 when native Africans rose up against them and took power in the country was not a pretty story.
NNAMDIUnder Sergeant Samuel Doe, right?
CIMENTUnder Sergeant Samuel Doe, you know, a non-commissioned officer who led a group of soldiers who murdered the last Americo-Liberian president, a guy named Will Tolbert in 1980, and then took power in the country and they brought in many of the reformers from the old regime, many of the young radicals, the young Turks who were challenging the system in the 1970s. And it didn't work out too well. I mean, Doe proved himself to be a venal dictator.
CIMENTHis people were -- a lot of them didn't know how to run a government. The Americo-Liberians did, but eventually --- and these young radicals were well educated. Many of them had western, you know, degrees from top American universities. But it just didn't work out. So because of incompetence and corruption and oppression by the Doe government, it eventually resulted in an uprising.
NNAMDIDoe was ousted and then we get to the saga of Charles Taylor and the civil war there. But we've got to take a short break. Dee, thank you very much for your call. If you've called, stay on the line. We will get back to you. If you haven't yet, the number is 800-433-8850, or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What do you think America's relationship with Liberia should be today? Do you think the U.S. owes Liberia or not? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is James Ciment. He is an independent scholar and the author of several non-fiction books. His latest is "Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It." He joins us from the studios of NPR West in Los Angeles. Before I get back to the phones, Jim Ciment, the period that you were about to talk about was the bloodiest and darkest period in Liberia's history. After the 1980 coup by Samuel Doe, then there were 14 years of civil war and the rule of Charles Taylor. Talk a little bit about that.
CIMENTDoe ruled for about 10 years, and then during the uprising was brutally murdered by one of the warlords who had broken away from Taylor. Now, Taylor himself was an interesting character in Liberia, and he is kind of representative of Liberian history. His father was a major person within the Americo-Liberian establishment. He was a judge. His mother was what they call -- in Liberian parlance they call it a tribal. She was a member of a very large tribal group in Liberia, the Gola.
CIMENTAnd he was, you know, raised at the best institutions in Monrovia, went to the finest prep schools, was educated in the United States in Massachusetts, and he became one of these young Turks, these young radicals of the 1970s, influenced by the American Civil Rights movement, by the Black Power movement, by African liberation movements, and saw the system as simply wrong and unfair.
CIMENTI mean, he had certain ideals when he was young. This sclerotic Americo-Liberian establishment that offered, you know, that kept power to themselves and kept the country's wealth to themselves, he felt needed major change and needed to be overthrown. He even -- and then he supported Doe late in the administration, became a head of their equivalent of General Services Administration, and was accused of embezzling a lot of money and...
CIMENT...fled to the United States, was jailed here, broke out of jail, and then fled back to Africa eventually and raised up a small army to help overthrow the Doe regime which by this point he had decided was brutal and oppressive just as everybody else did. And he was helped by Moammar Gadhafi who at that time was kind of trying to create his Libyan-led African empire. And, you know, he led them in from the Ivory Coast.
CIMENTThere were so many people alienated by Doe because Doe had sort of opened up the dangers of inter-tribal conflict in Liberia, and there were a lot of people who had been -- a lot of members of ethnic groups that had been oppressed by the Doe regime, so Taylor gained ground very quickly and almost took over the country. And then some complicated West African politics got involved and he was prevented from taking power, and for the next seven years the two sides fought it out brutally.
CIMENTI mean, the Liberian Civil War was one of those most brutal in post-colonial African history. Tens of thousands died. Estimates were about 100,000 out of a population of about 2.5 million, and eventually...
NNAMDIBecause we're running out of time -- because we're running out of time, and there are a lot of phones, ultimately Charles Taylor does become the president, then becomes the first sitting head of state to be indicted for crimes against humanity, then gets convicted in 2012 and sentenced to 50 years in prison. I offer that summary only because I want to Cia (ph) who is on the phone in Washington D.C. Cia, thank you for waiting. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CIAThank you for the invite, Mr. Nnamdi, and hello to the guest. You asked a question before the break regarding the U.S. relationship with Liberia and you said does the U.S. owe Liberia. And my response is that every country has its national interest and that the U.S. does not owe Liberia, but should allow Liberia to select its leader -- the Liberian people to select their leader so that way the leaders can bring about policies and reforms that will better the lives of the people.
CIABecause when we have a system where our political assistance manipulated from outside and someone is put in place who does not represent the interest of the people, then we have this continuing poverty and discord which is now happening in Liberia.
NNAMDICia, you consider that to be the case with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, that she was put in place by the United States?
CIAWell, the Liberian people voted for her because they felt that she was the lesser of all the evils. However, she did have a role in the conflict with Charles Taylor. She and Taylor were part of the MPSL (sp?) so, I mean, although she has (word?) herself and has been (word?) within the press as being the best for Liberia, at this time we see that it's too much to rebuild a country, and she probably did not envision all the problems that are existing now.
CIAWe have rampant corruption, impunity. I mean, we have freedom of speech to some extent. There isn't murder or anything going on, however, you have massive poverty. Massive poverty.
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have Jim -- James Ciment, we also got an email from Katherine who said, "The woman of Liberia are among my latest heroes. The current president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, wrote an op ed in a major American newspaper about diarrhea and toilets. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the state of a country where the president writes an op ed about diarrhea. May God bless that country." How do you assess the state of Liberia today, Jim Ciment?
CIMENTWell, I think Johnson Sirleaf has done some very good measures for Liberia. She has -- she got their international debt reduced significantly which helped a lot. She had done somewhat to fight corruption, but needs a lot more help. I mean, the country is still very much a matter of, you know, paying for virtually everything under the table. The leadership, the police forces still rule with a certainty amount of impunity. But what's interesting about Johnson Sirleaf is she has kind of opened up an old dichotomy within Liberian society, and that is, she has brought in a lot of foreign investment.
CIAAnd given Liberia's history as a country that was surrounded by white -- you know, white imperialist powers for a lot of its history, constantly being preyed upon by them, constantly fearful of its own sovereignty, it was a number of times tried to swallowed up by European empires. It is very -- it has a very long history of being very nervous about allowing foreign forces, particularly white forces, to come in and sort of steal the country's sovereignty, steal its independence that was very hard fought, very hard defended.
CIMENTAnd so by bringing in all of this foreign investment, bringing in all these foreign corporations in, she's stirring up those old issues that have long divided Liberian sovereignty between those who think that's a good thing and those who fear for Liberia being, you know, swollen up by outside forces.
NNAMDIAllow me to interrupt...
CIMENTIn terms of -- yeah.
NNAMDIAllow me to interrupt again, only because we're running out of time very quickly, and Ben in Washington D.C. has been waiting for quite a while. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENThank you very much for taking my call. I just wanted to briefly think about how the history of Liberia really sets a number of the antecedent factors that lead to the conflicts. And in Liberia today, which still remains deeply divided, a lot of those antecedents persist. And I'm interested to hear, and I think that we all need to discuss the policy status in Liberia itself, trying to find antecedents of peace, how the history can actually be used to bring this deeply divided society together, which is very difficult at this moment.
NNAMDIYes. Jim Ciment?
CIMENTWell, you know, Liberia has long, you know, both pre -- the period before the Americo-Liberians came over, and for much of the period when the Americo-Liberians ran the place, there was long modus vivendium among the various ethnic groups within Liberia. There was a lot of -- you know, there was a certain amount of conflict, particularly as Americo-Liberians moved in and displaced coastal groups and that sent them up river and they began to conflict over land and trade and that sort of thing.
CIMENTBut there was also a long history of trade between these groups. There was a long history of intermarriage within these groups. There's a long history of, you know, diplomacy among these groups. They lived in relative, you know, harmony and peace for both pre-Americo history and during the Americo regime. So I think there's a lot to be built on, and there are very few Liberians who don't have members of their family who are part of other groups -- other ethnic groups.
CIMENTSo there's a lot of built on from Liberian history. It's not a story, you know, if you take, like, Kenya, where the racial divides, you know, the ethic divides are very deep and very strong and really define the politics there. There's a lot more harmony. Also, there's no one group that really dominates, you know. The ethnic groups are all relative, I mean, they're different sizes, but there's no one group that dominates like in a case like Kenya. So there's a lot to be built on from Liberian history. I don't think it's fated to, you know, be at constant war with itself.
NNAMDIBen, thank you very much for your call. Steven in Columbia, Md. Steven, we only have about a minute left, so please make your comment or question brief.
STEVENYes. Thank you very much for taking my call, and thank you to James Ciment. Liberia has a lot to be learned from by the United States of America. (unintelligible) a lot of the history that brought Liberia to where we are today as far as our history is concerned, but one thing that I didn't hear him mention is Liberia did not absolutely go into what (unintelligible) to the civil war internally. There was some external forces, and to go from where we are today and to (unintelligible) we need to….
NNAMDIJim Ciment, we have about 30 seconds left. The external forces he felt, I guess, having too much of an influence on Liberia.
CIMENTYeah. I mean, the main external force in Liberia was Nigeria, and Nigeria kind of ran the local national group called ECOWAS, and Nigeria was very much against Taylor, and it exerted a lot of influence during the civil war, and that continues to be the case. And, of course, as I mentioned, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf bringing in all these foreign corporations and investment money has stirred up old concerns in Liberia about outside interference, and...
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. James Ciment is an independent scholar and the author of several non-fiction books. His latest is "Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It." Jim Ciment, thank you for joining us, and thank you all or listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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