Liberia: What Are We Celebrating?

H. Augustus Roberts, Jr.

While visiting a friend a few Saturdays ago, he played a video of what seemed to be an interview with the African-American actor, John Amos and one Dr. Allen discussing the celebrations of the upcoming 200th Anniversary of the founding of the Liberian colony.

Then early this morning another friend sent me a link to the same celebration which took place  on January 7, 2022. Actually, she was, I guessed, being a bit cynical, because January 7, which was Pioneers’ Day, a major holiday in Liberia at one time, had been scrapped by the PRC (People's Redemption Council) of Samuel Doe. 

Actually, this article is a take-off on what I said in my response to her comments, “I don’t believe this!! ‘Commencing on JANUARY 7th?? PIONEER’S Day which was scrapped as of 1981 by the SEVENTEEN GALLANT MEN AKA PRC?? PULEEZ STOP IT. Let’s go back to the drawing board.” This is exactly what she wrote and how she wrote it.

Of course, it excited my interest also, because, in my mind, she is absolutely right in raising the question. This was my immediate response: “Big Sis it all sounds nice and dandy. Yes we have a lot to celebrate, but how and with what? We have spent the better part of the last 50 years erasing and denying the very history by dismantling everything associated with it.

We have denigrated the founding fathers and relegated them to the dustbin of history. So, what happened? Is it because Ghana celebrated "The Year of Return?" Wow! All of sudden we are Pan Africanists? Didn't we know that before? So, where are these people who are expected to come here going to visit?

An empty Providence Island? The unkept, dirty JJ Roberts monument? I thought JJ Roberts was a 'warlord' who forced a Western-styled government on the people? Big Sis, I don't want to start. I just wrote an article, which I have sent to one of our newspapers to have it published.” This was exactly my response to her, verbatim.

You know, the old people always say, “Be careful what you do to people because it always have a way of coming back to haunt or hurt you.”  Our history is our history, every part of it- the good and the bad, and the ugly and the pretty You cannot sanitize history. Yes, the settlers came here and established what is today, “Liberia '', but they did not do it in isolation of the people they met here. Everyone contributed to the history of this country including those who resisted and fought against it for whatever reason or reasons.

That is one reason why I like C. Abayomi Cassell’s: Liberia: History of the First African Republic. In Cassell’s account of our country’s history, he starts with the history of slavery and tells us about the horrible and inhumane conditions in which our people were transported across the Atlantic, and their many attempts to resist being enslaved. Unfortunately, our people, themselves, did not and could not tell us about their ordeal.

We have to rely on the accounts of their ordeal on some of the very slavers themselves who were on board these slave ships recording the events that occurred during these notorious journeys. In one of these accounts which Mr. Cassell recounted for us was an incident where one of these recorders noticed a woman looking back towards the fading landmass of Africa as the ship sailed away.

Tears were streaming down her cheeks as milk flowed from her breasts. The chronicler of this event said that  as he was trying to find out what was going on, she kept pointing to her milk-dripping breast.

The writer, not Cassell, surmised that she was a young mother who had been snatched away from her newborn baby or babies. Such was the brutality of slavery. Unfortunately,  for most Liberians, it seems that slavery never happened and those who came back were, somehow, not worthy to come back or just did not belong here, and neither do their descendants (children and grandchildren). So, what are we celebrating?

Please do not get me wrong. I am 100% Liberian and even though I am not a historian, I am quite aware of the history of this tiny country and its contribution to African, Black and World history.

This is something I do not shy away from or compromise on; and I do not believe that we can talk about Black history, African History, or American history without including Liberian history. To me it is impossible. So, as far as I am concerned, we do have a lot to celebrate as we approach the bicentennial of the establishment of this “Land of Liberty’ on these shores. However, I still ask these questions, 1. “What  are we celebrating?” 2. “How are we celebrating it?” and 3. “Are we doing this because of Ghana's Year of the Return’ celebrations?”

I know you must be asking yourself, “How can this guy say we have a lot to celebrate and at the same time ask ‘what are we celebrating’?” That is a great question. My answer is simple.

After destroying everything that represented the accomplishments of these settlers who arrived here 200 years ago, what are you really going to celebrate? I am sorry, but the truth is the truth.

We have destroyed everything and are still calling for more destruction. We have done away with Matilda Newport Day, the celebration of an event that, perhaps, save the Liberia experiment from utter extinction by the collaborators of the slave traders.

Then there are those who want to scrap the holiday celebrating the birthday of our first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts; and the one that celebrates our 18th President, William V.S. Tubman, the architect of modern Liberia and the chief architect and financier of the African Freedom movement. Yes, Liberia, through Tubman and later Tolbert, financed and supported every African Liberation movement, including Mandela’s ANC. 

Still, there are others who want to get rid of our motto, “The Love of Liberty brought us here” So, what do you have to celebrate after you have destroyed, dismantled and marginalized everything that has any connection to the founding fathers and mothers of this country? I do not know about you but what I keep hearing here in Liberia is that, “The Conga people spoiled the country.”

And, “Nothing has happened in the country since 1847.” So, if the Conga People (settlers) spoiled the country and nothing has happened in the country since 1847, then, my question remains, “What are we celebrating?” One commentator,  referred to the settlers as a “bunch of dumb ignoramuses” ex-slaves who knew nothing and too stupid to contribute absolutely anything significant to this country. Recently, a very famous Liberian Gospel singer made similar comments. These are not foreigners making these comments, these are Liberians. 

So, let us agree that we do have much to celebrate, then the question is; “How are we celebrating it?” A Bicentennial Celebration is not a small thing. It is a major event. You are celebrating 200 years of existence. This is  not something you start working on six months or one year from the date. This sort of thing takes years of planning.

New infrastructures have to be built and  old ones rebuilt and refurbished and restored not just in the capital city, but across the country. Take Providence Island, what did it look like in 1822? What kinds of structures did the settlers build there? How did they live there?  People, especially, the descendants of the settlers in the diaspora who  would like to come here to see and experience what their ancestors did here. They do not want to go to Providence Island and just walk around.

The OAU (AU today) was conceived and discussed here first at Sanniquellie, Nimba County, then the charter was written here by Liberian lawyers. What have we built in Sanniquellie to commemorate that most significant event in African history?

Nothing! So, what will a young Liberian or African see when he or she visits the site? Where are those original documents or copies of them? Commemorating one’s history is not an event. It is a process. But you have been telling the young children  and people of this country for years that what the settlers and their children did is insignificant and worthless. Now all of a sudden, you want to celebrate 200 hundred years of history? How about Sao Boso, King Peter, Suakoko, and Bob Gray? Where and how do they fit in these celebrations? They too made very significant  contributions to what is today, Liberia.

So, my last question is, “Are we doing this because of Ghana's successful celebrations of the “Year of Return”  in 2019? Well, for me, I think this is one of the motivating factors. Ghana earned an estimated $1.5bn US dollars during those year-long celebrations, and Ghana is still earning dividends with many African-Americans, ordinary and the well-off, opting to not only invest in Ghana, but make Ghana their home away from home. But unlike us, the Ghanaians have been preparing for this for  a long time. Maybe, they were not thinking of “the Year of Return” as a motivating factor, but they have been building the infrastructure and restoring and maintaining the others.

While we are trying to get rid of  the holiday commemorating our first president,  they were building a mausoleum to honor theirs. While we were denying slavery ever happened, even though, those who established this country, came out of slavery, they were restoring and maintaining the Slaves’ Castles at Cape Coast and Elmina to remind themselves and us in the diaspora of the cruelty and humiliation our people experienced during the slave trade.

While we are building two-lane roadways, they are building six and eight lanes highways. While they were building an airport to handle up to a  half dozen planes at a time,  we were building one just to say that we have a new terminal. I was told how one PRC leader went to Greenville and used a bulldozer to tear down the landing dock and platform commemorating the arrival of the returnees in Sinoe.

The old people always say, “The things you do thinking that you are harming others always come back to haunt you.”  Of course we must celebrate the bicentennial of the actual “Year of Return”. 1822 was the year Africans taken into slavery returned. No, those that came back were not the ones chained together and taken across the Atlantic, like beasts of the field, to work in the cotton and sugarcane plantations of the so-called New World. Those who came back were their descendants who always yearn to return to the land of their ancestors. What they did here and what they went through to build this nation ought to be celebrated. Their desire for freedom is what inspired other Africans to pursue their freedom. That, too, has to be celebrated. 

As we celebrate and celebrate we must, it must be clear and very clear of what we are celebrating and, most importantly, how we celebrate what we celebrate. In our celebrity actions we must also be clear that the settlers did not do it alone. Those who came after them-  the rescued and freed slaves of the Congo Basin, the like-minded Africans from across Africa along the Gulf of Guinea,  those who came from across the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea,   and those they met here, all contributed to this great nation-building effort and they too should be celebrated.

This is what we should be celebrating; and while we celebrate,  let it be clear that their descendants in the Americas, Africa, and across Diaspora need to know not only what they accomplished here, but they must also know of the struggles they went through; and most importantly, that they have a role to play in their ancestors’ vision for this great nation and Africa. I pray that these celebrations are not just for show, but then they lead to renewed efforts towards true reconciliation and unification.

What our people did here has never been done anywhere else in the world. Nowhere in history did people who were taken into slavery in chains ever come back to build a nation in the land from where they were taken. This is the real celebration.