Review- Sundiata, “Brothers and Strangers”

Ibrahim Sundiata, “Brothers and Strangers: Black Zion, Black Slavery 1914-1940” (2004) – I’m fascinated by Liberia and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s a reflection of my fascination with America, Liberia being America’s barely-acknowledged by-blow, in certain respects. A few thousand ex-slaves and free black people were dumped on a shore in West Africa, on the idea that while slavery was either wrong or just not long for this world, black people needed a place to go, as they couldn’t mix with whites… If you ever wondered what sort of thoughts were going on with the people ideologically between the abolitionists and the ardent slaveholders, where the mythical “reasonable middle” was, that was more or less it. It was big in the Upper South, where the largest populations of free blacks were (there’s still a Maryland County in Liberia to this day). And then they were just… left there.

The story in “Brothers and Strangers” takes place around the centennial of Liberia’s settlement. The US had long since disclaimed responsibility for Liberia, though it was associated closely enough with the country that the other imperialist powers in West Africa wouldn’t swallow it up. The Americo-Liberians (as the descendants of the settlers came to be called) formed a tiny elite, five figures worth of people or so, ruling over a small but incredibly diverse body of tribes in their notional national territory. The Americo-Liberians, sadly, reproduced much of the social order they had left behind, complete with vast inequality and an elite that ran plantations based on semi-enslaved local labor. The governing elite also ran up massive debts, mostly to Britain, but to France and the US as well.

Liberia came to the attention of the world due to these debts, and due to their technically joining the Entente during WWI, placing them in the League of Nations. This coincided with the rise of Pan-Africanism as an ideology in the Black Atlantic, from Jamaica to New York and Britain. The increasingly combustible racial situation in the United States and elsewhere encouraged black people to reconsider emigrationism. Pan-Africanism and emigrationism had a peculiar relationship with imperialism. On the one hand, they were opposed to European imperialism in Africa and the West Indies, and were often on the cutting edge of movements protesting white abuses. On the other, they were inspired by imperialist ideas of civilizational uplift and racial solidarity. Africa needed the African diaspora, as far as many Pan-Africanists were concerned, to settle the continent and bring it to it’s true destiny, etc. etc.

The big figure in Pan-Africanism at the time was, of course, Marcus Garvey, leader of the United Negro Improvement Association and a big “Back to Africa” proponent. The Jamaican Garvey looked to Liberia as a logical place to begin a resettlement effort. It should have been a win-win, or anyway a reaffirmation of what Liberia was supposed to be about: a haven for black people, a republic where their voices and talents mattered. Garvey could provide fresh blood and all manner of skilled workers and settlers, Liberia could provide the footprint on the continent.

Alas, the oligarchy in Monrovia had other ideas. To put it bluntly, which Sundiata does a few times, the Americo-Liberians by and large wanted Pan-African money but not Pan-Africans. After encouraging Garvey for a little while, when it looked like he could provide capital, the Liberian government began stonewalling him. Garvey grew suspicious and hostile towards the Liberians, and UNIA became a voice, often a lonely one, for the oppressed native populations of Liberia after the Americo-Liberians spurned them.

Garvey’s arch-rival, W.E.B. DuBois, maintained that American blacks should continue to support Liberia. This became increasingly important as Liberia’s debt crisis worsened. A scandal over labor importation compounded the crisis: Liberian elites were found to be making money by shipping laborers, sometimes at gunpoint, to plantations in neighboring colonial regimes, where they were treated brutally. To complicate matters still further, the Firestone rubber company took over a vast swath of Liberia for rubber planting. The lifeline this extended rapidly became a noose around Liberia’s neck, as the Firestones (father and son) demanded an ever-increasing slice of Liberia’s GDP as “loan” servicing, all while exacerbating the country’s problem with forced labor and generally acting like a miniature imperial in their own right. It began to look like some larger power — the US, Britain, and/or the League of Nations — might take a hand. Sundiata gets into the diplomatic nitty-gritty of what happened across the twenties and thirties, as the Americo-Liberian elite hustled for its life, and won, with at least some help from the African-Americans they generally held at arm’s length. Black pressure on the State Department wasn’t a major force, Sundiata tells us, but given how no one (other than at times Harvey Firestone, Senior or Junior) really wanted the hot potato of the Liberian mess, it was enough. To a certain extent, Liberia was saved by the bell; FDR came in just as the Firestones were ramping up their demands for gunboat diplomacy, and tamped down on that kind of thing. Meanwhile, the League of Nations was a few years away from getting owned by the future Axis powers so they weren’t going to do anything, either.

Was this for the best for Liberia? Probably- it was already a situation of internal imperialism, the Americo-Liberians suppressing the natives. More imperialism is never the solution. But, as Sundiata points out, Liberian history is a brutal, gratuitously cruel lesson in the distance between outsiders conception of Africa and realities on the ground. The original white backers of colonization expected a stable missionary base in Africa and a solution to America’s race problem, and got a black republic instead. The Pan-Africanists envisioned solidarity between black people on the basis of race, and got the cruel realities of class and ethnic division. Various white do-gooders in the early twentieth century expected a pliable regime they could walk over, and got bogged down in the realities of resistance and bureaucratic inertia. Now, when I bring up Liberia, people respond referring to the Vice documentary about how fucked up the civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s were. Is there a lesson here? Ibrahim Sundiata admirably refuses to sermonize and draw some big moral, other than the usual academic thing about how we need a more nuanced understanding of things, and that the Liberians and other peoples of Africa need to work out their own respective destinies. That seems to be a decent place to leave it. ****’

Review- Sundiata, “Brothers and Strangers”

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