American Exceptionalism and Liberian History: The Danger of a Single Story
.... While both the Liberian and American legislative seats are on a ‘Capitol Hill’ and symbols of Liberian statehood, such as the national flag, draw blatant inspiration from the US, a dominant focus on the Liberian replication of American characteristics is a dangerous single story. It is a tendency echoed in the actions of more recent American diplomats to interpret US engagement in Africa primarily as a means to deflect Soviet or Chinese influence.
By Brooks Marmon
On December 2, The Washington Post’s ‘Made by History’ section published an essay entitled ‘Why is Liberia’s President’s Son Playing for the US in the World Cup?’ The subtitle provided the authors’ rough answer: “Liberian history is closely tied to American history.”
The two authors of the piece, Andrew Wegmann and Ben Wright, are professional historians, Associate Professors at Delta State University and the University of Texas at Dallas, respectively. Their essay nominally discusses George and Tim Weah, but the main aim of their historical analysis is to assert the dominant role of “American political and cultural traditions that would go on to define Liberia’s history.”
‘Made by History’ styles itself as a venue that produces “historical analyses to situate the events making headlines in their larger historical context.” The US has certainly played a major role in shaping Liberia’s social and political evolution and the authors duly note both symbolic and tangible links. However, Tim Weah’s World Cup appearance for the US does not provide the most seamless contemporary event with which to launch into an analysis of 200-year-old ties.
The most obvious answer to the question posed by the article’s title is that Tim Weah was born in the US. As world-class soccer players, the Weah’s transatlantic connections are vastly different from the 19th century ties that Wegmann and Wright highlight.
There is a sporadic, albeit recurring interest among American historians and writers in Liberia that is primarily a consequence of these historic ties. These works generally tred the same ground.
American writers seeking to educate an oblivious American audience about US – Liberia connections generally follow a predictable roadmap when writing about the American roots of Liberia. This is the type of stereotypical simplification, ‘the danger of a single story,’ that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned about in her 2009 Ted Talk. A recent representative of this literature, aptly conveyed by its title, is James Ciment’s Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It.
Wegmann and Wright’s historical explainer follows this trajectory. They speak of a class of black American settlers in Liberia that “never forgot” their American connections, embracing “Protestant Christianity, formal ‘settler’ English and aristocratic dress and manners.” They embellish the extent of violence their rule bequeathed, dating Liberia’s civil war back to the 1980 coup and up to the 2006 presidential inauguration, rather than the more accurate timeframe of the December 1989 incursion by Charles Taylor and his 2003 resignation.
While their CVs do not immediately indicate any major publications on Liberia, the two writers apparently have significant ambitions to diffuse their perspective. Wegmann’s academic profile states that he is working on a “book project about the founding of Liberia in an Atlantic context entitled Building the African-American Republic.” Similarly, Wright’s CV notes that he is at work on a study of “how missionary discourse in the United States and Britain led to the colonization of what became Liberia and Sierra Leone.”
While both the Liberian and American legislative seats are on a ‘Capitol Hill’ and symbols of Liberian statehood, such as the national flag, draw blatant inspiration from the US, a dominant focus on the Liberian replication of American characteristics is a dangerous single story. It is a tendency echoed in the actions of more recent American diplomats to interpret US engagement in Africa primarily as a means to deflect Soviet or Chinese influence.
When I conducted my master’s thesis research on Liberia College in the 19th century, unlike Wegmann and Wright, I did not see a settler society ‘defined’ by an unquestioned embrace of American values. This is not the perspective I see in the work of Liberian scholars like Carl Patrick Burrowes or William E. Allen. The letters of the Liberian faculty and administrators to the Massachusetts Colonization Society that I reviewed indicated a deeply fraught relationship between the settlers and their US overlords; their visions often clashed.
Faculty and Liberian politicians alike resisted (unsuccessfully) the College’s US benefactors when they appointed a white American, Orator Cook, to be the school’s president in the 1890s. The pan-African activities and black nationalist worldview of Liberia-based individuals like Edward Blyden (one-time president of the College), Alexander Crummell, Hilary Teague, or John Brown Russwurm did not, as per the single story that Wegmann and Wright assert, simply “[mirror] the standards of 19th-century American values.”
It is difficult to imagine a non-American historian writing about 19th century Liberian history and producing a narrative that so resoundingly foregrounds a dominant American legacy. In fact, a Liberian scholar, the late Clarence Zamba Liberty, penned an entire tract dedicated to promoting a more nuanced view of where the scholarship should be – Growth of the Liberian State: An Analysis of Its Historiography.
Probably the most glaring passage by Wegmann and Wright reads:
“When Liberia declared its independence in 1847, both the newly independent nation and the United States celebrated the extension of American republican values across the Atlantic…Liberia’s independence was seen as fulfilling American values and American governance…”
This simplistic claim is misleading if only for the fact that the United States did not recognize Liberian sovereignty until 1862. Furthermore, Wegmann and Wright misguidedly note that Liberia’s independence declaration was “framed around that of the United States.” While some introductory lines were similar, the Liberian document contained a scathing indictment of American governance and vigorously denounced racial discrimination against blacks in the US. The signers announced that Liberia would be “an asylum from the most grinding oppression.”
Wegmann and Wright accurately diagnose that Liberian governance has exhibited many shortcomings since independence. However, a more perceptive historical analysis would acknowledge Liberia’s monumental pan-African positioning, which in the early 20th century ignited the imaginations of Marcus Garvey and WEB DuBois.
The intentions of the Liberian leadership undoubtedly fell short, but an unrealized ambition can still be revolutionary. The inspirational aspect of Liberia is an equal, if not more remarkable takeaway from this slice of history.
Brooks Marmon is a post-doctoral scholar with the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at The Ohio State University