I have been reading a very interesting book by Benjamin Dennis and Anita Dennis called Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia. Professor Dennis was born in Africa, raised in Berlin as a diplomat’s son, and came to the U.S. in 1950, where he marched with Dr. King and was in a debate with Malcolm X. He got a Ph.D. in sociology/anthropology, then taught at several universities, including University of Michigan (Flint) and Michigan State. Anita Dennis, his wife, also has a degree in sociology and anthropology. They have recently summarized Benjamin Dennis’s research and eyewitness account of how white racist framing and action have spread globally, even among those who are not white, thus: (photo: jizagirre)
During the 1800s, the American Colonization Society enticed free Negroes to go to Africa. Slaves were freed on the condition they leave. These two groups that became the “Americo-Liberians” who ruled Liberia, carried with them the evils of racism and the limitations of slavery.
Racism inevitably reproduces itself in the minds of the oppressed in order to rise. In the “Imitation of Supremacy,” as victim becomes victimizer, the Americo-Liberians saw the natives the way whites saw them. Now that the Americo-Liberians were rulers, they mimicked white rule. They justified their exploitation of the natives on the basis of cultural inferiority just as whites used racism to justify slavery. In America, race trumped all other considerations. In Liberia, culture trumped race as the classification of inferiority.
In the “Imitation of Superiority,” [some? many?] Americo-Liberians mimicked and retained the culture of the antebellum South because they derived their cultural superiority from it. The vast majority of the Americo-Liberians were freed slaves, including slaves freed on the high seas. Because of the limitations of slavery, they were image rather than reality. What they evolved was a pseudo culture, a poor replication of what they didn’t really understand. As slaves they had had only a “taste” of Western culture.
Ironically, they replicated what they despised – oppression and discrimination based upon “inferiority.” Natives were disparaged and ridiculed as “country people.” The Americo-Liberians set up all the Jim Crow laws of the South in Liberia. There was social segregation in Monrovia, the capital city. Among other things, natives could not enter through the front door. They could not vote. They could not speak unless spoken to. There were sexual restrictions. No native man could marry or have a sexual relationship with an Americo-Liberian woman. Even when natives became educated, they were restricted from government positions. Only a token few were allowed to participate.
This research and eyewitness account of how U.S. racism affected, and infected, the minds of people of African descent is striking. Even as the racially oppressed, some number of them carried the structures and orientations of aspects of white racial oppression back to Africa. The idea of the white racial frame that we have used on this site, and I have developed in several books, clearly needs to be developed even more aggressively with regard to the international context and impact.
According to Dennis, these (it is unclear whether he means some or many?) Americo-Liberians carried this white racial framing–with its negative view of Africa and other non-Western peoples, and especially its view of white cultural superiority and white supremacy, back to the country of their ancestors. In several important ways, they became substitute or proxy whites in their actions and orientations. The global circulating impact of white racist framing–and of the thinking, ideology, and action that grows out of it—remains one of the world’s most fundamental structural problems.
This sounds a bit condescending. Why is the author an expert on the culture of the antebellum South, more than those who had lived through it? Why is it that slaves only had a “taste” of Western culture; what does the author mean by this?
Well, this is fascinating to learn about. I just saw a compelling documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, about the violent civil war in Liberia (and an uprising of women there to stop it). The film made me curious to know more about the historical background of Liberia and the relationship to white racism in the U.S., so I’ll definitely check this out.
How do you find all of these documentaries?
I’m fortunate to live in a town that’s a hub for a lot of documentary-related activity, so I actually saw that film at the opening here and there was a Q&A afterward with the filmmakers and a couple of people featured in the film (this one was very good and would be great for a women’s studies class). I also regularly scour the catalogs/websites of documentary film distributors like California Newsreel, ICARUS, IFC, and Sundance.
As a teenager who was part of the Americo-Liberian society (as well as the Mende & Gbande tribes) I observed their behavior directly. I was not encased in their viewpoint however, because of my cross-cultural experiences. When I came to America, I studied slavery and racism, which incuded the culture of the antebellum South and I noticed striking similarities.
Slaves had only limited access to Western culture. They were forbidden to read or become educated. They were kept from any significant participation in Western society. As a result, they imitated whites in superficial ways such as dress , mannerisms, and social activities.
As for condescension, those who belong to a society have the liberty to criticize it whereas outsiders do not. I was a part of Americo-Liberian society. The aim of my book was not to criticize but to tell the truth.
I was also part of the Americo-Liberian society and never saw many of the practices you mention. Some of my best friends are of native descent and we all grew up as equals. I also believe your comparison of Liberia to America is in error, unless you can provide evidence of Liberia’s “Jim crow laws”. Perhaps you should be more explicit in your writings by identifying these practices as commonplace amongst some Americo-Liberians.
Daniel Joseph, please check out the book noted, and see how you view his actual data.
I am shocked by the venom and stereotypical hate speech in this book. To characterize an entire group of people in this way staggers the imagination. Too many contradictions. Too many reductive inhumane comparisons. There seems to be something sinister afoot or this author truly personifies the term self hatred. My “Americo Liberian” father as he is characterized married a Kpelle woman, as did his brothers marry Grebo and Mende women respectively. No one I grew up with had a family whose bloodlines were not commingled with indigenous ancestry, and I am 50 years old as on 2009. This book gives no references but instead reads like a Nazi propaganda manual.
What is Dr. Dennis’ purpose for writing this book? To further cleave the Liberian society? To further complicate the delicate socio-cultural environment that exists in our country? A country just now attempting to recover from too many years of war and destruction? Some of what Dr. Dennis presents in his book is true. However, to generalize that this was the way things were across the board in Liberian society is an outright lie! I lived in a family that was a mixture of settlers from Barbados and settlers from Richmond, Virginia. My father worked his way up from poverty to become the President of the University of Liberia and later the Minister of Foreign Affairs (the US equivalent of The Secretary of State). My parents reared two indigenous Liberian children that are, slept and went to school with us. Yes, in the same bedrooms at the same dining room table and at the Methodist Elementary School and later the College of West Africa where we also studied. If we got new shoes so did they. They were treated no different than we were. Of course this is not to say that there were not families that treated their indigenous ward differently from the way they treated their biological children. In any society you will find evil. That does not suggest that that society is evil through and through.
Dr. Dennis will find people on both sides of the discussion (Native Liberians and Settler Liberians) who will vehemently disagree with his thesis.
I am personally saddened by his manuscript and believe it serves no useful purpose.
Well you live after all of this happened supposedly. To blame whites for slavery across the world is a far fetch when ALL nationalities at one point enslaved another nationality for their own just causes. http://www.scaruffi.com/politics/slavetra.html It is stated in this document whether the first encounters or not Africans would trade their enemy tribes to Muslims peacefully. Peacefully as in they saw nothing wrong with enslavement if you were weaker…its not racial its human. For all blacks that want a little justification I believe that the Jewish people have gone through the same but a much higher level. Concentration camps…propaganda and they still have nations that want nothing more than their destruction. Alot of blacks think Nazis are anti-black but really they hated the Jewish the most by far. The point being we were all enslaved at one point its the grace you are supposed to learn from your mistakes and others especially through oppression. I think it is as sick as possible to go through such endeavors and then become the tyrant you supposedly disgust. The only people I wonder if they actually enclaved any was the Jewish….Now the Jewish have all rights to complain. BTW I am Scottish so dont think I was some White oppressor too….I was the white oppressed. (Although just like many of you it is history and not my life).
To Mr. Joseph, Ms. Horton, and Ms. Weeks, I believe that my love for Liberia demands the truth. We Liberians can all learn from our past no matter how painful. Instead of re-inventing or denying it, we must face it in order to heal. Isn’t that what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is all about?
I love Liberia and the Liberian people. What I hate is the effect racism has had upon our society and culture. The purpose of my book was to help us understand racism in order to free us from it. If you think there remain no divisions in our society and hurts from the past, you are in complete denial. If you think sweeping our problems under the rug will solve things, I assure you they will continue to fester.
The focus of Slaves to Racism was upon the larger generalities generated by racism- not the exceptions to the rule. Liberians who have read my book say it is accurate. For those of you who say my book is a lie, even my white American wife who visited Liberian from the 197os on, read about these things and witnessed them. If Liberia did not have any discrimination as I have described, what was the reason for Tubman’s Unification Policy? Liberia became independent on July 26, 1847, and yyet natives did not have the right to vote until the Tubman administration. Those natives employed by the government were no more than three or four. There were restrictions in Careysburg, Bensonville, Crozierville and White Plains that natives (except those living there) could not walk there at night. What motivated this? Nor could they walk in front of the Masonic Lodge on Front Street at night. Americo-Liberian men were free to take any native woman. The Jim Crow laws of the South were not written and yet they were understood by every Negro. It was the same for natives in Liberia. If I have imagined the past, why did such anger and hatred erupt during the Coup of 1980 and thereafter?
Racism in inevitably a painful subject because it induces shame in everyone involved. However, self-criticism is vital if Liberia is to move forward. A fourteen-year civil war can’t be swept under the rug. Denial will never enable healing.
With all due respect Dr. Dennis or Dr. Gongolie, you are reinterpreting and distorting my words to fit your paradigm. You are not the only one here with love for Liberia at heart. I did not say inequalities, injustices, cultural supremacy and political exclusion and social hierarchy did not or do not exist in Liberia, nor do I need the endorsement of an Anglo or Euro perspective to confirm it. I do find it problematic and an illuminating glimpse into your own psychology that you refer to your wife by race and have this compulsion to put people in neat little boxes labeled such and such. You seem to situate yourself in a box that floats above all others, on the one hand crowing about your elitist European upbringing in Nazi Germany, and on the other touting your indigenous heritage. My contention is that your book reads like Hutu hate speech and is a blanket demonization of an entire group of people whose bloodlines are so commingled that the very term you use to describe them is reactionary and backward thinking – simply a regurgitation of extremist white supremacist thought. In the absence of an analysis of colonialism and its impact on the psyches of peoples worldwide, both Africans and all others, your simplistic analysis is nothing more than a series of cartoon sketches of a people, indistinct from Nazi propaganda. I am the editor of an online journal that publishes writings concerned with the Liberian identity, our past and future. I am not inclined to demonize or deify any group of people or nation of people given my understanding of human behavior, human complexity, and my own experience as a racial/cultural hybrid due to historical circumstance. You sir, are the one in denial.
To answer your questions: “Isn’t that what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is all about?” No. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the façade engineered by warlords and white supremacist capitalism to distract the Liberian people from full knowledge of what happened and deny them full justice. It is in the interests of global capitalism to hide behind Americo-Liberianism and inflame divisions to divide and conquer that piece of territory that from its inception has been under attack from external powers. Liberia is now officially neo-colonized vis a vis GEMAP. The coup was CIA engineered with French complicity. This will not come out in the “Truth and Reconciliation” posturing because we only know how to tear each other up. We accept white supremacy as a force of nature that we couldn’t possibly overturn.
“If Liberia did not have any discrimination as I have described, what was the reason for Tubman’s Unification Policy?” To pacify the “natives” who could have been supported by the western powers in their bid for justice were westerners truly concerned about justice, but were not because Tubman was doing exactly what he was installed to do: allow exploitation of Liberia’s resources for foreign consumption and protect western interests.
“The Jim Crow laws of the South were not written and yet they were understood by every Negro.” You are wrong. The states enacted Jim Crow laws which were upheld by the Supreme Court as “separate but equal”. See Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 (1896)
“If I have imagined the past, why did such anger and hatred erupt during the Coup of 1980 and thereafter?” It is the nature of war for anger and hatred to erupt. Look at the war between the British and America prior to the American civil war, the epic European wars, the invasion of Poland by Germany and so on, No atrocity committed in Liberia has not been committed elsewhere and even more heinous. To posit that Liberia exists in a vacuum outside of human history and human behavior is insane.
I have yet to read the Dennis book but am motivated now that I have read the posts, especially those by Julius Weeks and Stephanie Horton. What I can say is that as an African American anthropologist whose dissertation was on the Educational Mission of the AME Church I have spent a consideral amount of time in Liberia. First, I conducted fieldwork from 1975-1977; then, served as the Peace Corps Director from 1981-83 and as the Chief Technical Advisor to a UN-Funded Development Project in Maryland County. And since then have made frequent trips during the war and more recently as a Consultant in evaluating development projects.
To claim that the intergroup tension in Liberia is soley the result of the internalization of White Racism derived from the Settler Experience in America is a bit simplicitc. Intergroup conflict is always more complicated than it seems on the surface. Whatever happened to class and the rural-urban divide? These are categories that need explication to understand what caused the disruptions that led to civil war and more.
The question of American Imperialism beginning with the role of the American Colonization and its “civilizing mission” cannot go unremarked.
In any case, the Liberians on this post who have responded to Dr. Dennis have done so with attention to the details and the ways in which those who have been away from home, who have assimilated elsewhere, can some time miss the mark in spite of good intentions.
In any case I look forward to reading the book in order to respond in a more informed manner at a later date.
Thank you so much Beverlee Bruce for making such a strong point that speaks not only to a tragic continental African reality but a tragic nevertheless worldwide fact:
It is so very painful and wounding to be under constant attack your entire life for a condition that arose out of slavery, and yet the heirs of the enslavers sit in judgment and have created a powerful narrative protraying the worst of us as all of us; those who oppressed and thwarted the aspirations of all of us less powerful are the powerful minority who with US help had a bloodless coup and derailed Liberia from her inception. It is the political and colonial nature of the Liberian experience that begs thought. This is history that one does not learn in Nazi America or in Western school. It is a so called third world condition. And while we all know that America was founded on genocide and slavery, Americans yet love their country and indeed it was the African presence in America that gave America her wealth and the moral impetus from the slaves songs to the blues to the Civil Rights movement to be a more humane nation. May the African presence in Liberia do so for us, and not with hatred and white supremacist venom, but with love…………….
Stephanie your insights are infused with understanding of the world in which we live that includes Liberians and other marginalized populations over time who are blamed for having been victims of a conspiracy so much more powerful than the circumstances in which we grew up, which is why education is so important and why “The Mideducation of the Negro” remains an ever powerful book for those of us of color and of citizen/residents of third world circumstance to understand in all its aspects.
This was a fascinating read, both the post and the subsequent comments. I have often opined on the logic of repatriating to Africa, or a modern ‘back to Africa’ movement, but have been stifled by thoughts of an unfortunately predictable outcome. I have never visited Liberia, but I do know my (Black) people. Dr. Dennis’ observations come as no surprise to me because we separate ourselves by class and culture here and always have since slavery pitted the field Negroes against those of us in the house. American Blacks in Africa today would be no different without massive (re-)brainwashing; we’ve been firmly assimilated into White America. I believe it safe to say that many Black Americans have no ties to Africa, and today, like many whites, look upon the entire continent with more pity than disdain and feel we need to “save” it from itself. Our perception of Africa is out of sync with our perceptions of ourselves…
This is not to say that successful re-integration cannot be achieved. I am aching to visit Liberia and become involved in her development. However, balanced critiqued is necessary for any endeavor to become better. Dr. Dennis is incorrect in his racial analysis, as this is definitely a culture/class phenomenon. Comments seem to want to portray “the truth” by countering with their experiences living in Liberia, but injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere is it not? I am hesitant to take for complete truth some of the comments (Daniel Joseph said he “never saw any of the practices” Dennis mentioned); as middle class Black Americans will tell you today there exist no divisions or prejudice between them and low-income class (originating from either camp) which is a lie. Where there is smoke there is usually fire, Mr. Joseph. Consider the 1960s when privileged White America saw no reason for Blacks to begin a Civil Rights movement because they were physically and mentally insulated from their societal ills by both race and class. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that some Americo-Liberians created a bubble to live in amongst the African ethnic groups just by virtue of history? The freed American slaves perhaps took pity on the “uncivilized” Africans; having spent their lives in America as second-class citizens should trump a first-class African lifestyle should it not?
I am not judging; just observing. I want to return to Africa and be African, as much as I am American. I want to use my knowledge of economics to build my country – my continent even! I want to learn so much more about current relations between Americo-Liberians and the various ethnic populations that round out the balance. But I want the truth about the ugliness that we harbor to set us free from the dangerous precedent laid by colonialism and slavery. I will be on the lookout for Dr. Dennis’ book as well as other resources on the culture and history of Liberia and Africa as a whole.
This is very interesting how Africans would bring the hard struggles they faced in America back to Africa for the naives to face. I understand that the formers slaves only knew the white American way of life but I would think the former slaves would want to have a system totally opposite of what they had experienced as slaves. The slaves wanted to be superior like the white man so they obvious followed their footsteps. White America has so much influence of the rest of the world. Why does the world focus on America’s thoughts and actions after having such an unethical past and present?
To Kimberly Jones, please do not lump all Africans into one homogenous mass. I was taken aback by your statements, among them: “I understand that the formers slaves only knew the white American way of life ….” No, that’s very shortsighted; they also knew what it was to be enslaved. And some of them knew how to work within the racist power structure with their “masters” to gain privilege within the parameters of what was allowed and considered “good ‘negro’ behavior.” One could ask in the same vein as your query, why do so many struggling white blue collar American workers subscribe to a right wing Republican agenda? Liberia’s story is about hierarchies of power and the colonial relationship that supported a local power structure for external interests. Because they were black does not make them automatically Martin Luther Kings, or more exacting, Steve Bikos, Patrice Lumumbas, Amilicar Cabrals . . . the list is endless – the roll call of murdered, martyred resisters long. You also wrote: “The slaves wanted to be superior like the white man so they obvious followed their footsteps.” As Ghandi said when asked what he thought about western civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.” Most “slaves” felt themselves morally superior to their enslavers. This is why there was such sustained resistance to slavery for hundreds of years despite the psychologically poisonous effects of oppression, apartheid and racist violence on the psyches of the enslaved. Oppressed peoples often internalize oppression and demonstrate psychic trauma as is true even in gender power dynamics. You are simplifying some very complex things. You wrote: “White America has so much influence of the rest of the world. Why does the world focus on America’s thoughts and actions after having such an unethical past and present?”” Good question and if you really want to know, you can start understanding why by reading someone like Frantz Fanon. The answers are never easy, simplistic and trite in black and white.
I’ve been researching information to back my defense of Article 27 of the Liberian Constitution that is under attack for being racist and came upon this very enlightening site. I defend that any sovereign nation has the right to self-determination. I also protest at the constant lumping of all those of Americo background into one characterization, and a negative one at that. Those returned to Africa came from varied backgrounds, religions, and experiences. Many retained some knowledge of Africa, esp. through arts and religion. Many settled in different parts of what is now Liberia and interacted with a variety of tribes which held sometimes contrary beliefs of other tribes. Tribalism, which was very much prevalent those days, facilitated the settlers in the unionization of such diverse people. I agree that it is sad record of humanity that many who were victimized became victimizers. All however, did not participate in the cycle. Most often the plight of the returnees is overlooked. Do you believe they were met with peace pipes and open arms? Many came up against cannibalism, ritualistic beliefs, and behaviors contrary to their 400+ years of culturalization. They too were discriminated against and their descendants continue to be discriminated against today as demonstrated by the intense hatred displayed in the 1980’s. The cycle of victimization spins today as most from a traditional setting return from trips abroad to feel themselves more superior than those they left, some even denying their original culture and religion to take on ways of those that they encountered. The church has played its role in this cycle by demonizing most things African. The Pan-African and Afro-centric mind is barely visible here and most Liberian students know nothing of Kemet despite their lineage from the ancient glory. Colorism had its part to play in the disunity of the *Liberian* people then and today. The settlers fell heavy victim to it by both themselves and the Africans of the soil and vice versa. Today bleaching cream is the top grossing cosmetic application in Liberia.
And what of issues of reparation for those sold into slavery for over 400+ years by those who continued to sell them into slavery even when slavery was abolished; even when they knew fully well of the degradation of slavery? Often the excuse is used here that either the people of this territory never were involved in selling of slaves or that if indeed it happened slaves were sold out of ignorance of that institution. Mentioned also is the belief that those sold deserved it because only the outcast of society were captured or acquired through war, that the ancestors solely bare the responsibility and present Liberians bare no guilt, or that those returned to these shores most likely came from other parts of Africa and not here so…. Liberia is a multi-cultural society of Negro people and must be view from a multicultural perspective. I being of mixed heritage (Bassa, Kru, and Afro-Asiatic) am tired of being faced with either a Conga(Americo) or a Native choice. Liberia is made of more than those two categories. When I’m not termed by either name then I’m called Mulatto; another category that points to our lack of self-knowledge. And the Muslim and Christian religions are not the only 2 religions here either but its all that’s acknowledged. Generally, outside of these 2 every other religion is considered witchcraft.
Liberia’s situation is peculiar and has bred a peculiar people. Those giving our history must include the stories of all our people so that a complete and truthful picture is presented. We need to heal from our slaverish past. Currently topping our musical charts is a song called Country Boy. It complains of the discrimination faced by a boy being cared for by a Conga woman. I wish we could hear her song.
Yes the Liberian story is peculiar as stated by post 20. and colonialism did derail Liberia from inception post 14. but the truth Professor’s Dennis book exposes is most significant. If the settlers were not so disgusted by the natives and instead accepted the cultures around them, they would have been more successful. Denouncing the standards and ideals of slavery should have been their first step. Americo-Liberians took re-captures (congos) as slaves, it was part of the deal. And how did the native discriminate against the settlers when they had no real knowledge of who these people were and had no real power over what was transpiring around them. This book is not like “Nazi prapoganda”. If my mother could write her own book, she would write a similar story. The treatment and exclusion of natives is a story that must be told. No Americo-Liberian has apologized yet. The defense to not doing so becomes my father married a Kru woman. but that Kru woman could vote next to her husband for a very long time. Fortunately for me, my Loma culture will never be lost. My mother and grandfather always told stories of life before the settlers came and that is what Liberia is to me. I can not relate to these foolish western views and institutional dogma of what life is suppose to be. “Knowing book” does not give anyone the right to write the history or future of people they don’t care to understand.