COMMENT Dr Cassandra Mark-Thiesen 04 February 2022
Black History Month is undoubtedly a product of the United States, and in particular of Black American struggle in that specific nation. But with an eye on history, we can gain an appreciation for “countless” intersections of Black American and African pasts and presents. From the folds of these entangled histories, we observe unique, but nevertheless related, fights for emancipation and an escape from racial injustice. The founding of the state of Liberia (1822) is just one case in point. Scholars have often negatively framed this West African state in the historiography as an instance of “Black Colonialism”, a narrative which helped to fuel political tensions on the ground. However, the recent (re-)discovery last August of the original deed granting the Black emigrants (via the American Colonization Society) land to what is now the capital city of Monrovia under standard commercial conditions promises to alter this enduring portrayal.
As my research project “African Knowledges and the History Publication,” which I conduct in a collaborative and interdisciplinary manner at the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence, University of Bayreuth, considers relationalities and inequalities between different producers of historical knowledge, in this blog post I ask about the potency of knowledge to create an opening for a reconsideration of a more inclusive past, following decades of civil war and amidst widespread poverty. To what extent can this historic document improve national unification? What role can story-tellers, illustrators, professionals and “homegrown” historians play in giving life to a cosmopolitan and shared past between indigenous Liberians and those who claim roots in the diaspora? How should this information travel in order to have the ultimate impact of societal transformation?
A colony for the former colonized
The colony of Liberia was founded by the American Colonization Society in 1822 as a safe haven for despised free Black Americans. According to a statement by the Historical Society of Liberia: “In March 1820 the initial group of free Black emigrants, some eighty-six, disembarked from the ship Elizabeth and went ashore in Sierra Leone. Those [who] survived unfamiliar diseases, and the result of ill-preparation, waited for about two years to find a permanent place on the African coast.” A slew of Afro-Caribbeans were to follow. Later waves of migration came directly from plantations in the US South. In spite of hardships linked to illness, and to developing a colony with limited access to funds whilst aiding antislavery battles against local rulers, the taste of freedom was just too sweet.
Unfortunately, large parts of the history of the country’s founding, a beacon of Black emancipation and abolition in the eyes of some, has been engulfed in mythology; the kind of mythology that expectedly emerges and crystallizes in the absence of hard evidence. In particular, the unsubstantiated notion of the country’s first lands being acquired at gunpoint has long prevailed. This narrative, which works toward negating any possibility of a shared identity rooted in an inclusive past, has long been promoted in casual conversation and in scholarship. For as scholars such as Chris Lorenz, who has worked extensively on the study of history and historiography, reminds us: postmodernists “have long drawn the conclusion that ‘scientific’ history is not only engaged in ‘myth-breaking’, but also in ‘myth-making.”
Given this backdrop, can pieces of papers from a dusty old archive actually assist in an ongoing process of national healing and reconciliation, following an extensive history of socioeconomic inequality and decades of brutal (un)civil strife?
History for the people from the people
The Liberian historiography stands out somewhat from many other parts of the continent. At the current moment, Liberian history is arguably predominantly being developed outside of the academy. Today, street corners, self-published memoirs, internet forums owned by Facebook or Twitter, and personal websites purchased by Liberians at home or in the diaspora, have become key centers of dialogue and sharing family, community, and national histories. Also fascinating, many of the country’s most prominent historical works, books such as “Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea” and “Liberia and the United States during the Cold War”, have been written by scholars who never formally studied history at a doctoral level. Moreover, when compared with the former European colonies in Africa, Liberian scholars continue to take up a large, if not the largest, space in the historiography.
There is something wonderous and wonderful about such a degree of openness or fragmentation, about the fact that these producers of history are engaging with one another in these different spaces. And if the deed is to have any social impact, the story around it will have to tap into conversations and inspire historical imaginations in all of these different realms. It will certainly not be enough to write about this discovery in high-ranking journals. Rather news of the “good” deed will need to be metaphorically delivered directly to the people: in person, or simply wherever they may gather.
Cassandra Mark-Thiesen is a Junior Research Group Leader at the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence at the University of Bayreuth.