The 173rd Independence Day Oration of Liberians in the Diaspora, Delivered by Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Commissioned by Focus on Liberia, USA
Nye-nyue-ah, Ah Bati-Oh, Nyeu-ah, Ah-Bati-Oh! My fellow Liberians, friends of Liberia, ladies and gentlemen: Today marks 173 years since Liberia declared her independence on July 26, 1847. In that Declaration of Independence, remember that there were African people inhabiting these parts of Africa, those who owned the land as the American Colonization Society (ACS) repatriated freed slaves from the United States of America between 1820 and 1847. In that declaration, however, those indigenous ethnicities or our tribal people were not included as citizens of the new republic. It took 99 years before indigenous peoples, or Africans were first allowed to vote in 1946. The founders of Liberia drew up laws and a constitution that prevented native Liberians, the majority, ‘they called “primitive,” from any participation. In 1904, instead of granting full freedom to the African populace, they instituted a kind of “Indirect Rule,” where government appointed officials became enforcers of government policies to control the indigenous people, 57 years after independence, with no rights to citizenship or rights to participation in government.
What I want to conceptualize for you here is that African people who had suffered enslavement at the hands of white racist institutions in the United States, who had been denied any rights to participate as citizens in the United States, having repatriated to the homeland of their ancestors, had just carved out a “little America in Africa,” instead of an African nation. That exclusion of the indigenous Grebos, Krahns, Krus, Bassa, Kpelle, Lorma, Gbandi, Gola, Gio, Mano, Mandingo, Dey, Kissi, Vai, and more, did not end even after 99 years. That discrimination of African peoples, similar to the white supremacy culture they had fled was the foundation of what I call “the Liberian mindset,” that mindset of the colonized African in Africa, that culture of the superior-inferior people, steeped in an identity crisis for these 173 years. With this introduction, please allow me the opportunity to speak to you on the topic, “Decolonizing the Liberian Mindset: Our Roadmap to Finding True Independence After 173 Years.”
By now, you must be wondering where this speech is going, but let me continue to remind you here that in this formation of our country, everything about the new nation was patterned after the United States of America, including our flag, our month of independence, our national holidays, the names of streets and cities, and everything that could be named, and even the capital city, Monrovia, were named in honor of the same old slave-owning nation that had rejected them since their forefathers were forcefully brought into the United States. The colonization of not only a republic, but also the mind of its people was beginning. In other words, an African nation was being created on our continent to be a microcosm of the United States of America, and not of Africa. From the very foundation of our country, here was Liberia, already deep in what I will call an IDENTITY CRISIS. The independence that our brothers and sisters sought by braving the hardship of the unknown, suffering much loss of life in the difficult terrain of these west African coasts was from the beginning, crippled by the question that has plagued Liberians since nearly two centuries ago. That question that continues to haunt us today wherever we go is the question of “who we are as a people and as a nation.” Are we Americans or are we Africans? Are we a colonized people or are we truly independent?
This is why we cannot celebrate milestones of our independence without recalling these ironic twists of fate that have led us to this moment. It is this long ugly history, riddled with discrimination and prejudice, violence and revolts that resulted in many wars between the indigenous peoples, including the Grebo and Kru wars. We must also recall that there was a 139 year-Americo-Liberian-led exclusive governing, and that it took the 1980 bloody, military coup for the first indigenous President to come into power. Those many decades of suppression also culminated in the 14-year-series of civil wars, the bloodiest in our West African region’s history. As we reflect on the tragedies of our history, we must however give credit to the brave settlers or freed slaves who traveled from a land where they were treated as non-citizens, enslaved for their race to these unknown coasts of West Africa, their struggles in wars with the indigenous, and their resolve to form the Liberian nation, despite the many hardships that befell them. We cannot also celebrate them without celebrating the indigenous African people that welcomed the newcomers even in the face of opposition from their own indigenous peoples. Yes, Liberians, ours is a history of contradictions, ironies, pain, and strength, but we have survived thus far, imperfect, but determined to succeed as one nation. But we must face the hard truths of the contradictions of our being, how we were formed as a nation, and we must resolve to change our circumstances, a change, without which we could never move forward.
Yes, we must celebrate us and our nation, but before we celebrate far too much, let us also remember that we now stand again at another crossroads in the world when the ugly symbols of hate and brutality against Africans and other color peoples around the world are being revisited and symbols of repression, suppression, and discrimination are being demolished. We are at a new crossroads where we are accountable not only to revisit how we hope to shape our future, but also to confront the demons of how our past has impeded us as a people. It is about time to tear down all of the barriers erected in our nation’s founding, untruths about our history, who we were and who we want to be as a nation. We must revisit all of those mistruths written in our founding documents and in our history that have divided us as a people.
The refusal of some to face our history with honesty, where to mention the injustices perpetuated by Americo-Liberians against indigenous peoples always results in accusations that you are being divisive, must end. We must face and tear down all of the discriminatory practices and thinking that have marred our minds and our being as Liberians. As we debate tearing down the symbolic images of slavery and discrimination, let me remind you that until we tear down the Liberian mindset, we cannot make progress or develop our country. We must tear down our Liberian mindset that is rooted in our ugly history, that mindset that has given Liberians a confusing identity, and thus, has thrust us into a world where we expect very little of ourselves, believing that we are nothing unless what we are or what we become is achieved by or through government. That mindset teaches the Liberian from generation to generation that someone outside of us, outside of Africa, or that America, or the western world is our redeemer.
Without going into the details of our history of nearly two centuries of discrimination and Americo-Liberian ideology of the right to citizenship, leadership, superiority, and privilege, I must insist in this speech that our biggest problem as Liberians is our MINDSET about our identity as Africans. We have an identity problem. That identity problem is rooted in the colonization of our minds, as I have stated, from the very beginning of our nation’s founding. We may assume that we know that we are Liberians, and that we are West Africans, and thus, Africans, but do most of our educated and literate people believe this? If you doubt me, gather a few Liberians in a room and ask them about their hometowns of origin, their villages, their indigenous languages, and you will see their reactions. We are the only Africans who are afraid to be true to our identity as Africans, afraid to own ourselves, our indigenousness, our languages, and our culture, our indigenous songs and our traditions, our villages, and our very being. Many Liberians even with the most resources do not know their hometowns, have never visited their hometowns or ever cared to know what their hometowns look like. Many Representatives and Senators from far flung counties in our country do not really know their home districts.
We are the only Africans whose founders ingrained in us the fear of being African. If you want to know how true that is, just begin reading about us, our history, or asking your elders, or watching people around you when you speak your indigenous language, and you will understand that Liberians have an identity crisis problem. Identity crisis as a mindset is a grave problem for any nation. This is why when a nation is founded, there is a Declaration of Independence that clearly defines what that nation will be, and in that definition, how its people will carve out not only their nation, but also their being as individuals. That declaration is the mindset of the new country. One of the fathers of Africa who led Ghana to independence in 1957, a visionary for African Unity, Kwame Nkrumah once said, “I am not African because I was born in Africa, but because Africa was born in me.” Who are we? Are we Africans or Americans?
In his fight for his country’s independence, another African leader and the first Prime Minister of the then The Independent Democratic Republic of Congo, Patrice E. Lumumba in his August 25, 1960 address to the All-African Conference in Leopoldville, Congo, once said, “We know that Africa is neither French, nor British, nor American, nor Russian, that it is African. We know the objects of the West. Yesterday they divided us on the level of a tribe, clan and village…They want to create antagonistic blocs, satellites…”
The very idea of independence, of becoming a nation is rooted in the definition of statehood and the idea of belonging to a place, thus, an identity. Here, these leaders in other African countries were establishing the clear fact about their identity, who they would be, the mindset they wanted their people to have. Independence is not a simple word because it symbolizes freedom from being colonized both in body and in the mind. The reason people come together to establish a nation for themselves is not only to protect their borders from outside encroachment or from foreign intervention, but mainly to forge an identity for themselves as a sovereign people in the world. When the beginning of a nation is however, confused, when those forming the nation do not see themselves belonging to the continent of their new homeland, or when they do not bring together all of the diversity of their peoples and include them in every aspect of the new government, that nation is deeply crippled. And if for centuries, the cultures of the majority people are marginalized, the languages shunned, the music, frowned on, shoved aside as western culture is promoted, that confusion about identity will continue to eat into the nation’s strengths and aspiration, into the people’s need to be inspired, or to free themselves of neocolonialism. No nation that is built on two concepts of identity can prosper. A nation, that embraces all of its diversity of cultures, the settler and the indigenous, uniting its people from the very beginning will always prosper even though wars may arise, and centuries may elapse. This problem of identity, the fear of ourselves is the root of why we Liberians continue to struggle with ourselves and with our thinking.
Our mindset has been colonized for 173 years, my people, always wanting to belong to America even before war drove tens of thousands of Liberians into exile in the US. Why do we cling to America if not for what America can do for us, you may ask. That old mindset of belonging to a place other than ours, that refusal to own what we are and have, and to own our homeland is like someone who purchases a house through a bank loan and thinks of the house as belonging to the bank, and therefore does not care for it. Many listening to me today may deny my claims that we are a people afraid of being true to ourselves by pointing to the new fashion to dress and look African, the popular culture among our people today, and for many, only for the purpose of being exotic. Dressing African or looking African is not enough if you are embarrassed to speak your own languages or hate your languages or believe that being from a certain place or tribe makes you inferior. And I know that there are other Liberians who hold on to the new settler culture and some will claim that they have no tribal languages, and I respect that. I do not however, understand the majority of us Liberians, the 98% of us Liberians who are embarrassed by our culture, our languages, our rich cultural traditions, and the beauty and the power of being African. While we’re busy pretending to be something else, our culture and our homelands are dying.
On the other hand, pardon me, my Americo-Liberian friends, but for the sake of scholarship and not prejudice, I want to tell you today that Liberia is the only country in Africa where descendants of freed slaves are proud to call themselves descendants of slavery. They are the only Africans, whose forefathers, having been forcefully uprooted from their beautiful kingdoms and cultures, enslaved for hundreds of years by white American slave traders and slave owners, and repatriated from that country that they helped build with their blood and free labor when freedom for black people was in sight, are proud to call themselves “Americo-Liberians.” Think about it for a moment that the children of Israel who were enslaved in Egypt, after 400 years, their descendants returning to the “Promised Land,” proudly calling themselves, “Egyptian-Israelites.” Let that sink in. I can understand American blacks calling themselves “African-Americans,” because, they are Americans after all, and the fact that they still want to be called “African” should be a teaching lesson for us all. And for the sake of scholarship again, let me also tell you that after nearly two hundred years of intermarriages with indigenous peoples, our sisters and brothers of settler descent must think with me that we are Liberians, all of us, and it behooves us to remove all of the barriers that make us a colonized people. In Sierra Leone, descendants of freed British slaves who were repatriated from the United Kingdom do not call themselves British-Sierra Leoneans even though Britain played a greater role of colonizing and building Sierra Leone far more than the United States that abandoned its freed slaves to fend for themselves in Africa. Remarkably, the US also did not officially recognize Liberia as a sovereign state after independence until 1862, 15 long years later.
These anecdotes, including the ones about indigenous peoples not celebrating the beauty of belonging to their ethnic groups are intended to help you visualize the extent to which our mindset has been deeply crippled by the culture of exclusiveness created at our nation’s founding. Our indigenous forefathers were excluded and treated as less than human beings, were the “slaves” in the households of Americo-Liberians and to a government that learned how to enslave their subjects just as their slave masters taught them in the American South. So, in the establishment of the new nation, they created a system in which our fathers had to renounce our identities, our names, our cultures, in other words, disown ourselves in order to participate in the ruling class of the Americo-Liberian government. That culture of discrimination has shaped our mindset that still haunts our politics, our social lifestyles, our family life, and all that we are as a people today. And until we confront that identity crisis, no changing of symbolic images or even the constitution will unite or redeem us.
What is the Liberian mindset and why do I believe that we have a colonized mindset? The Liberian mindset is that of the “Master–Servant,” “Country–Civilized,” the “Conger–Country,” “Indigenous–Americo-Liberian,” the “Big Government/rich vs. helpless People,” the “I can’t do anything for myself unless government does it for me,” mindset. That mindset is also reflected in the “America-is our savior,” “Foreign Person–Preferable,” “Liberians are useless without outside help,” defeatist mindset that destroys a nation. No nation can develop with this mindset. We must rise above this culture of prejudice and helpless dependency if we must grow.
A couple years ago, some in the Liberian Diaspora community in the US who saw themselves as opponents of President George Weah’s government and sought to rise up against him without giving him even two years to do the job for which he was elected, were seeking various ways of bringing down his newly elected government. Many were calling on the United States to set up a War Crimes Tribunal. The idea of a war crimes tribunal was not a new concept to many of us educated and well-thinking people. What was remarkably wrong about that thinking was that these Liberian born people were asking a foreign government to institute a war crimes tribunal in another sovereign country as a way of disrupting the new government. This was the Liberian mindset at its best, a mindset that resorts to seeking assistance to solve our problems before investigating how we as a people could solve our own problems. The United States may have the word, “United” in its name, but it is not the United Nations or the African Union. Not long after that, I began to read debates about others who were lobbying for US Congress to pass a resolution to make Liberia a “Protectorate of the United States,” and that other idea made me want to cry for my country. Here were we, citizens of an independent African country, basking in the dream and hope that our country would become recolonized by America. Fellow Liberians, here we are today, celebrating our 173rd year of independence, and deep within, we are still searching for our identity, searching for the answers to our problems by turning to colonial powers, dreaming of being recolonized by outsiders.
Many decades ago, as African countries sought independence from the brutality of European colonization, the thinkers of the continent reminded our people over and over about the divisiveness of colonization and its destructive powers. Their words still ring true today. Again, it was Patrice Lumumba, eventually killed before the freedom he fought so hard for was realized, who said that “These divisions, which the colonial powers have always exploited the better to dominate us, have played an important role — and are still playing that role — in the suicide of Africa”, and Kwame Nkrumah, another African liberator put it differently by reminding us in his “Africa Must Unite,” speech in 1963 that: “The forces that unite us are intrinsic and greater than the superimposed influences that keep us apart.” – . “We must unite now or perish”.
I cannot close without mentioning another founding father of African unity, President William V. S. Tubman, Liberia’s 18th President and father of our then Unification Policy , a leader who helped bring together Liberians across the nation. Another president, the dynamic William R. Tolbert had the vision to bring change to our country. A president I met and hoped would have brought us closer as a people, attempted to change our mindset in his “Self-Reliance” policy which was beginning to produce fruits in my generation before he was killed. These two men, though they failed in many ways, were the closest we have ever come to changing the Liberian mindset prior to the civil war. Here we are today, in the 21st century, a people scattered around the world, away from our country where we are most needed, but we continue to see fractions of us attempt to tear us down as a people. There are many who still believe that only a certain group of people can lead our nation. That mindset, deeply rooted in our founding, cannot continue. Are we going to be Africans or Americans? I challenge all of us to return to our very being, what makes us great as Liberians, our true heritage as African, our diversity of purpose, but our unity must find strength in our patriotism, a patriotism that constrains us from selling our birthrights to foreign powers, constrains us against destroying one another. It behooves us to return to our culture, our languages, our literatures, our songs, our indigenous homelands, our country to help rebuild the broken cultures and towns. US President, John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” my people.
We cannot keep on celebrating while destroying ourselves, our unity, our country. We are one people of diverse languages and cultures, and it is in our combine heritage as descendants of freed slaves and indigenous peoples together, as Africans, all of our ethnicities that make us a unique as a nation. We can never succeed if we continue to run away from who we are as Africans, or tear down one another. A beautiful Liberian proverb says to us, “Teeth and Tongue may fight, but they will never stop working together.” One Liberia, one Africa forever!
Thank you. Popowlee-oh, popowlee-oh, popowlee-oh, oh…