Not a dumb American: Liberia edition

So I knew that Liberia was colonized by free black Americans in the early 1800s, and I knew the name “American Colonization Society,” but I also thought these groups were one and the same. I thought the  American Colonization Society was a free black invention, like a sort of proto-Marcus-Garvey situation.

What a silly, naive bunny I was to think that. The American Colonization Society was a bunch of white guys who came up with the great idea of sending all the free black people to Africa, which would serve the dual purpose of getting rid of black people the American government didn’t want, and maybe converting some heathen Africans to Christianity. So then they want to some black churches all:

“We think that moving thousands of miles away to an unknown and hostile land would be SO FUN FOR YOU GUYS.”

Guess what. It was not that fun.

Guess what else. There were already people living in that land, and they were not as excited about the arrival of a whole bunch of self-righteous Americans as the ACS might have been imagining. Most of the rest of Liberian history is the Americo-Liberians doing whatever they wanted, and the indigenous tribes of Liberia being super disenfranchised, which is one reason for the bloody and horrible coups and civil wars that plagued the nation in the late twentieth century.

My book, James Ciment’s Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It, doesn’t spend a ton of time on Liberia’s modern history. As the title suggests, he’s far more interested in the Americo elite than in the indigenous folks who were there first, which means that I came away from the book without much notion of what Liberian history looked like for 95% of the population.

That’s okay! I’ll try again with another book about Liberia! This one was very much written about the elite populations, and also very much written by a white dude: In the early parts of the book it was all “So-and-so led as good a life as a slave could expect in Kentucky.”

Meanwhile, I’ve decided to start a new feature in my nonfiction reading which I shall entitle Lebanese Diaspora Watch. Because what I have discovered as I’ve read more and more history is that the Lebanese diaspora pops up absolutely everywhere. Apparently during the Tubman presidency, there was a lot hostility towards the Lebanese people who had moved to Liberia and it was like “they come in here and use up all our dollars, these Lebanese interlopers.”

This is interesting to me for two reasons, the first of which obviously is that Liberia does not seem like the most predictable destination for expat Lebanese folks to go. The second is that I was just very recently reading about how there is also a substantial Lebanese population in Brazil. Brazil. Why Brazil? Why Liberia? What’s going on, Lebanon?

AND I WILL LEARN THE ANSWER SOMEDAY.

Let’s close with what, in Liberian history, counts as a delightful anecdote. One time not too long after the ACS had colonized Liberia, the natives of Liberia attacked the colonial settlement, and although the colonists repelled the attack, the natives made off with several American children. But hey! It’s not what you’re thinking! They were totally nice to them:

The children had been turned over to elderly ladies who had been “proverbially tender and indulgent”; they had sent messengers to the colony to inquire “the proper kinds of foods” to which the children were “accustomed.”

Aww. Also, they gave the children back after not too long. So it was okay.

  • Lisa May

    I love a good Luke gif!

    I learned about Liberia from the American end, particularly about Lincoln’s support for colonization, until African Americans convinced him that it was unworkable and unfair and unacceptable. As usual, I will be keeping an eye out for your further recommendations.

    And while I’ve been reading a bit about the Armenian diaspora, I had no idea about the Lebanese. I had the same reaction to Brazil!

    • The Armenian diaspora is also super interesting to me! I read a book about Armenian diaspora things earlier this year and found it fascinating. I definitely want to read more about that history.

  • Charlie

    Interesting post, Jenny. You’ve taught me something today, too. I’d read about Liberia but from what you’ve said, I’ll skip that book. I’m sure it has its moments and the ruling sounds intriguing in context but… yeah.

    • I’ll try to find a better Liberia book hereafter, so you can read that one instead! But honestly I don’t think there’s a hell of a lot of options, right now. :/

  • Alice

    Well why were there so many Nazis in Brazil, Jenny! THERE ARE MANY BRAZIL QUESTIONS.

    Also A+ Kimmy Schmidt gif.

  • What’s the deal with Brazil??? My vote is you take a slight break from your African history project (which I am hugely appreciating) and read some Brazil history.

    • JeanPing

      Hey, why not go to Brazil? It’s got all kinds of good stuff.

      (Actually come to think of it the first boy who kissed me was from Brazil. Rio. Contrary to all hopes and/or stereotypes, he was terrible at it.)

    • Brazil history is coming at some point, I’m sure! But I gotta stick with this Africa project for now. I AM COMMITTED.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Really fascinating about Liberia. Too bad the author left out so much about the people who lived in Liberia already. As for the Lebanese diaspora, I had no idea there was one! Dumb American? Guilty as charged. So I look forward to your search for an answer on the whys.

    • I plan to find out more about the Lebanese diaspora as I go along! Stand by! More information will be forthcoming.

  • My cousin-in-law’s mother left Lebanon for what I’m pretty sure were sad and/or racist reasons, but I’ve never questioned her about them for obvious reasons. (Plus, I don’t know her very well.)

  • Nishita

    Am a bit confused and need to read up more. But America sent back a lot of the freed slaves? Was it voluntary? And how did they convince other governments to just accept mass immigration like that? No wonder there were problems.

    • It was voluntary, yes, as far as I know. There wasn’t a centralized government in Liberia at the time, and because no colonial power “owned” that land, the colonization society considered that it was essentially anyone’s to settle in. But, yeah, it’s very unsurprising that there were problems.

  • Wow, that’s fascinating. Both about Lebanon and Liberia. I didn’t know either about all the freed slaves being sent to Liberia – somehow I never came across that piece of history.

    • It wasn’t all the freed slaves — it was very, very few of them. It was a few free black people in American who the American Colonization Society was able to convince to go to Liberia. It was kind of a catastrophe for them, health-wise, once they got there.

  • Dana Huff

    Very interesting. I knew none of this. Also, I love your blog so much.

  • Wow. I knew about wanting to send former slaves back to Africa. I guess I never put two-and-two together about Liberia. Great fodder.

  • Christy

    That Kimmy Schmidt gif is on point. I think I knew bits and pieces about Liberia but never anything truly coherent, so thanks for making my knowledge a bit more coherent!

  • Interesting, though perhaps sadly predictable, that the book only focused on the American’s rather than the natives. Hopefully there is a book on the history pre and during this time more balanced. – I look forward to your Liberia post part 2

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