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What can today’s repatriates learn from Americo-Liberian history?

July 22, 2019 at 02:44 pm | Opinions & Features

Deidre Gantt

Deidre Gantt | Contributor

July 22, 2019 at 02:44 pm | Opinions & Features

Americo-Liberian president Charles D. B. King with his entourage at the Peace Palace at The Hague, Netherlands

This month makes 172 years since these Americo-Liberians declared their “independence” from the United States of America on July 26, 1847. For thousands of free-born and formerly enslaved descendants of Africans in North America and the Caribbean, it was supposed to be a fresh start with none of the racism or second-class citizenship they had suffered in the West.

For the Africans who survived being illegally transported on the Antelope and other slave ships intercepted after the United States had outlawed the international slave trade, Liberia meant a chance to get back to their continent, although their actual society may have been hundreds of miles away.

Unfortunately, history is not kind to these early repatriates. Liberia’s independence marked the beginning of almost 150 years of ethnocentric minority rule. Rather than collaborate with the Kru, Grebo, and other ethnic groups who had lived in the area for centuries, the Americo-Liberians choose to imitate white settler-colonizers. They dominated and repressed the locals, forcing them to work and redirecting their participation in government while maintaining favorable ties with American interests in spite of their “independence.”

First, it was their white benefactors at the American Colonization Society (ACS), who had orchestrated and financed the entire Liberia project. It seems a few ACS members genuinely wanted to abolish slavery, but many of their fellow abolitionists criticized the Liberia effort as a sham. They knew that many other ACS supporters just wanted to get rid of the free blacks in America so they didn’t influence the enslaved blacks into imagining that they, too, could be free. Some wanted to get rid of the blacks who could openly compete with whites for paid work.

Later the ACS pushed the Americo-Liberians to declare their independence so they could stop supporting Liberia financially. Yet the organization maintained political influence into the 20th century. Firestone Rubber became an economic “ally” of the Americo-Liberian government sound the time of Work to War __, which led to significant development of the country. Like many other corrupt leaders in the second half of the 20th century, however, the Americo-Liberians hoarded that wealth for themselves.

This mistreatment culminated in the bloody coup of 1980 when ironically, an indigenous Liberian backed by the American government ended the Americo-Liberians’ tyranny, followed by two decades of instability, war, and bloodshed. What a wasted opportunity!

Obviously, nothing in the past can be undone, but as more members of the African diaspora seriously consider repatriating to the continent of our ancestors, we would do well to study the history of the Americo-Liberians and apply those lessons to avoid a similar outcome.

Here are four takeaways to get us started:

1. Detox our minds and behaviors

When the Americo-Liberians stepped foot on African soil, most of their families had been living within American society for a hundred years or more. Their minds were bathed in the anti-African rhetoric that government, churches, and other social institutions promoted to justify enslavement and subhuman treatment. What’s more, many of the Americo-Liberians were not coming straight off the plantations; rather, they were “free people of color.” They enjoyed economic and educational privileges compared to the majority of blacks, but racism restricted them from enjoying the full benefits of their privilege. It seems they came to Africa expecting to “civilize and Christianize” the locals and finally live an elite lifestyle like the whites in America.

Fast-forward almost 200 years. A lot of us who explore repatriation may swear we do not harbor negative attitudes about Africa or Africans. We may well have worked hard to overcome those stereotypes. We may have been fortunate enough to grow up in Pro-Black or African-centered homes and social circles that limited the amount of unlearning we had to do.

Even still, we have been socialized, educated, and entertained in a country with a Very Big Ego. We may be carrying some unhealthy attitudes and behaviors that were needed to survive or are the result of traumatic experiences in this often-hostile society, but they could be out of place in our new homes. Many of us who can afford to uproot our lives and start fresh thousands of miles away also have an economic and educational privilege compared to many other black people in the U.S. and on the continent. We may be more accustomed than we think to the creature comforts and modern conveniences that may not be available or affordable elsewhere, even with the favorable exchange rate.

We are who we are. I’m just saying let’s keep it real with ourselves. Let’s thoroughly examine our motives, expectations and how we show up before we go and once we get to whatever countries we decide to call home. Then lather, rinse, and repeat.

2. Learn to adapt and navigate existing cultures

When the Americo-Liberians showed up on the “Pepper Coast” as Liberia was formerly called, they didn’t receive a warm welcome from the ethnic groups who they came to live among. In fact, they were attacked at times. This could be due in part to the tactics the American Colonization Society agents used to secure the territory that became Liberia, including putting a gun to one king’s head so he would sign over the land. The lack of respect or willingness the Americo-Liberians showed to learning how the local societies operated and adapting to their way of life probably had something to do with it, too.

Nowadays, those of us who prefer the term “repatriates” to “immigrants” often have deeply-held beliefs that we are Africans and we have a right to return. In a sense, we are, and in a sense, we do. But the fact is, we are coming back to a home that our known relatives haven’t lived in for centuries. A home that kept changing in our extended absence. We have changed just as much. We are coming back without the benefit of handed down values and practices, identifiable family ties, or many other elements that would make us recognizable as fellow Africans to people whose families have been on the continent for millennia.

It’s not politically correct in a multiethnic country like America (pre-Trump) to say things like “Learn English!” but plenty of people think it. Paradoxically, many Americans expect to be spoken to in our first language anywhere on Earth. Not “British” English, either. I observed that even in countries like Ghana and Tanzania where English is the official language, many local people prefer to speak their mother tongues. I can’t say I blame them, even if it feels isolating to be left out of entire conversations. Learning to speak the dominant language is so useful whether conducting business or socializing. I think it shows the people who have been living there that we respect them.

Language is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cultural adaptation and respecting locals. We certainly have knowledge to offer, but we have so much to learn. We know how we act when people violate our culture. It’s hard to be humble and start fresh like a child, but how else are we going to learn what is expected and accepted, and what is considered rude and punishable? What is the alternative? Trying to takeover the place and marginalizing the people who were there first? We’ve already seen how that turned out for the Americo-Liberians.

3. Protect our health

The Americo-Liberian colonists hold the sad record for the most deaths among any migrating population in recorded history. Yellow fever took them out quickly and in large numbers. For years, their ACS benefactors kept sending them to basically die.

In the 21st century, we have a lot of pharmaceutical and natural options for preventing yellow fever, malaria, and other tropical diseases that we have zero inherited immunity against. Everyone has to follow their own conscience when it comes to vaccinations and pills vs. natural remedies. I’m just saying we have to be aware of the risks and have a plan. Don’t assume your melanin will automatically protect you. Our gut is not the same anymore.

Likewise for following the guidelines for safely eating and drinking. I speak from experience. Being greedy and hardheaded has gotten me sick more times and in more ways than I want to explain. That brings up the third health risk: getting medical treatment.

I’m not here to scare anyone or to bash African doctors, especially when we know that the American medical system has plenty of problems including treating black patients less than professionally at times. Some doctors and nurses in Africa have truly healed me, while others have pushed strong medicines at me with no questions about my allergic history or explanations about their effects. Those fancy-folded prescription inserts we throw away over here were far and few between over there. Bottom line, it’s pointless for us to make it all the way back through the door of no return to be miserably ill or worse.

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