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The Price of Liberty
The Price of Liberty
Claude Andrew Clegg III
The University of North Carolina Press, 2004
344 pp., 37.50

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Brothers and Strangers: Black Zion, Black Slavery, 1914–1940
Brothers and Strangers: Black Zion, Black Slavery, 1914–1940
Ibrahim Sundiata
Duke University Press Books, 2004
456 pp., 31.95

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Randal Jelks

The Unmaking of Liberia

How and why the grand experiment failed

The indignities of slavery and racial stigmatizing left many African Americans to cast their nets to the shores of Africa within two generations after their cultural assimilation as Americans. But the dream of an African American political homeland, projected onto the West African coastline in what is today the country of Liberia, was dubious from its inception in the mid-19th century. The first settlers from the United States were ill-prepared for what they found. Many saw their dreams end in economic desperation and premature death; in the long run, the founding vision expired in brutal colonialization. Three recent books explore the disjuncture between West African political realities and African American political aspirations in Liberia.

Claude Clegg writes elegant prose based upon painstaking research. His study is set in North Carolina in Guilford County amid a Quaker settlement. Quakers across the Atlantic world wrestled with the great problem of slavery, which they had vowed to give up by the latter half of the 18th century. Unlike their brethren in Pennsylvania, who had adjudicated the problem of slavery through gradual emancipation, North Carolina Quakers lived in the confines of a growing and entrenched slaveholding state. Their forthright declaration that slavery was a moral evil condemned by God clearly constituted a threat to the economic and political order.

A different perspective on the problem of slavery underwrote the formation of the American Colonialization Society (ACS) in 1818. The ACS took root among the political leadership class and élite religious leaders of the young republic. Clegg argues that the concept of colonialization was hewn out of the dysfunctional Jeffersonian idea that races were "absolutely distinct and dissimilar in nature, interests, and aspirations, and consequently unsuited to exist as equals." The problem of freedom for black slaves, then, was larger than the abolition of institutional slavery. The central issue for figures such as Francis Scott Key, Henry Clay, and John Randolph was that ex-slaves and free-born African Americans had to be removed from the country to absolve the United States from the taint of being a slaveholding society. Discussions about the removal of African Americans to the expanding American west or to Haiti had been discussed by many political and religious leaders as early as the mid-1770s, but the opportunity was seized in West Africa to alleviate the American burden.

But more important than the political machinations of those who were embarrassed by the institution of slavery were the views of African Americans themselves. Paul Cuffe, a Massachusetts-born freeman and sailor and a member of the Society of Friends, began exploring the settlement of Sierra Leone, a British colony designed for black Loyalists and London's black Poor. Cuffe's stature as a profitable merchant gave him a credibility with African Americans that few black leaders had attained. His initiative to explore whether Sierra Leone's colony might be duplicated was respected among his more educated peers in the African American community. Cuffe's enterprise was cut short by his untimely death. Whatever careful plans he might have developed or learned from Sierra Leone—which later turned into a debacle in its own right—were lost. Left in the wake of Cuffe's efforts were Quakers who desired to extricate themselves from the business of human bondage; freed and semi-freed slaves desperate enough to risk their lives in an unknown land for a separate peace; and the ACS, driven by racism and a missionary impulse.

From the beginning the Liberian colony had miserly economic funding from the ACS and no firm backing from the U.S. government. Many of the first settlers died of malaria as quickly as they arrived; those who survived were left weak and vulnerable to attack by unhappy indigenous people who did not welcome the encroachment by foreigners. Indeed, the settlers' relationship with indigenous peoples in the region—the Mandingo, Kru, Vai, and Dei—grew more divisive as the settlers increased in number over the course of the 19th century. As word quickly spread from the first wave of urban expatriates that the situation in Liberia was abysmal, the ACS began to concentrate their recruiting efforts on rural slaves. The chief factors that kept the ACS program going were the fundraising efforts of the Pennsylvania Quakers to hire ships and the constant desperation of black North Carolinians to find freedom—freedom from slavery, until the Civil War; freedom from Jim Crow thereafter.

Alan Huffman's book Mississippi in Africa covers much of the same historical territory that Clegg's better-researched book does. Huffman's assessment is more facile. He tells the story of discovering the legacy of Prospect Hill Plantation in Mississippi, allegedly burned down by slaves because the heirs of plantation owner Isaac Ross refused to honor his will, which required his slaves to be freed and allowed to emigrate to Liberia. Huffman story's, like Edward Ball's Slaves in the Family, confirms for us in a human-interest story how intricately the lives of slave and master were interconnected. Unfortunately, Huffman is too eager to generalize about Americo-Liberians and Afro-Mississippians without substantial historical research about either. He tells us, for instance, us that the Afro-Mississippians who were able to settle in Liberia eventually duplicated the grand homes of Natchez and were as cruel to natives as whites were to them in Mississippi. However, because he has only superficially sketched the circumstances surrounding the formation of Liberia, his summary judgments are often unpersuasive.

The book is at its liveliest and most interesting when Huffman recounts his visit to Liberia in 2001. He hopes to visit the region where settlers from Mississippi gravitated but is unable to do so; the area was the site of some of the worst fighting in the civil war then raging. Here Huffman's journalistic style works well as we get a view of Liberia, especially Monrovia, under siege with streams of people flooding the capital city from the interior and the network of friends he develops, who help him to understand the strain of living in Liberia during the awful years of Charles Taylor's regime.

Ibrahim Sundiata continues this story of African Americans and Americo-Liberians in his erudite, and at times tangential, book Brothers and Strangers. He begins his history with Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which sought to negotiate with Liberian leaders to make an opportunity for trade on Black Star shipping and some emigration by black Americans.

Garvey's plan, like the schemes of the ACS, was ill-fated. It was thwarted not by the indigenous peoples who had frustrated the goals of earlier generations of settlers but by the creolized population of Americo-Liberians. By the late 19th century, this group had extended its influence into the interior of Liberia through intermarriage and military conquest of various indigenous peoples. In the 1920s, the Americo-Liberian political leadership thought that a massive influx of African Americans might tip the political balance away from them toward Garvey's organization. In turn, the reluctance of Liberian government officials to assist the Garvey movement in establishing itself in the country made UNIA leaders suspicious of the Liberian political élite. After numerous broken promises, the UNIA became quite critical of the Liberian government, accusing it of gross abuses—including the use of slave labor or nearly slave labor to undergird its relationship with the Firestone Tire Company and Spanish plantation interests in Fernando Po (today the island of Bioko off the coast of Equatorial Guinea). Even after Garvey himself was convicted of postal fraud and later deported to Jamaica, the outcry against Liberian labor exploitation continued, eventually resulting in a League of Nations investigation.

The generalized racist currents running throughout the centers of European colonial powers and the United States in the 1920s produced an uneasy alliance between Americo-Liberian and African-American leaders. For example, Sundiata cites the pan-African journalist and scholar W.E. B. Du Bois, who offered romanticized accounts of Liberia even though realities in the country, especially its more rurally isolated areas, were truly horrendous. In the mind of Du Bois and many others, if Liberia could not govern itself, what would that say about black Americans being able to attain their civil rights and govern themselves? African American leaders in the corridors of Washington managed to lobby on behalf of Liberia so that it could maintain its independence from European powers and the Firestone Corporation, which entertained ideas of controlling the country via U.S. intervention.

When the League of Nations investigated the human rights abuses in Liberia, black American leaders urged that a black American should be given a significant role on the investigatory team. Charles Johnson, the sociologist and later president of Fisk University, wrote one of the more substantive and scathing reports on Liberia, which substantiated the charges of government corruption and brutality. (It is a shame that more work has not been done on the leadership of schools like Fisk, Howard, and Morehouse in human rights and scholarship.) Despite Johnson's documentation of such abuses, black American leaders still felt themselves to be in a damnable dilemma. Should they, the descendants of American slaves, turn a blind eye on neo-slavery and labor abuse as practiced in Liberia, or should they encourage reform even at the cost of exposing the miserable failures of this exercise in black self-government? Was Liberia, as a country made up of primarily black-skinned, people being judged more harshly than other countries who had well-documented histories of labor exploitation?

Sundiata's book is written as a cautionary tale to help readers understand that no easy alliance can be formed between African political élites and African Americans. Although racism in its many guises affected, and still affects, Africans and African Americans alike, substantive differences remain between the perspectives of African political leaders and African American political and cultural élites.

All three books tell a tale of woe largely derived from the transatlantic slave trade. Although black and white American religious and political leaders tried to find a convenient escape in the 19th century by imagining a country where slavery's burdensome legacy could be unloaded once and for all, there was no escaping the consequences of this profound evil. Even today political struggles on both sides of the Atlantic continue to be scarred by the logic and the rhetoric of slavery and conquest.

Randal Maurice Jelks is associate professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College.

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