In the year 1816, a group of southern slaveholders led by clergyman and educator, Robert Finley, met with Quaker abolitionists in Virginia to discuss a growing concern for them both, the rising population of freed Black slaves. Following the Haitian Revolution, the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere led by François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, white families flooded the southern coast seeking refuge from violent retribution. As word spread of the atrocities facing the French on the island of Haiti, slaveholders in the South decided the best way to avoid an uprising of their own would be to eliminate the risk altogether by removing freed Blacks from U.S. soil, thereby smothering any talks of collusion with the enslaved. While they disagreed on the practice of possessing people as property, when it came to the physical removal of Black bodies from American soil, the Quakers were in full support. And in spite of fundamental differences, both sides agreed their partnership was not only mutually beneficial but necessary, the will of God, even, an undeniable opportunity to extend the “civilizing” influence of Christianity around the continent of Africa. With prominent Southern figures like Francis Scott Key, composer of the Star spangled Banner, Former U.S. President James Monroe, Former U.S. President Andrew Jackson, and George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, leading the charge, the men formed the American Colonization Society, an organization that would for the first time, permanently introduce freed Black Americans to African soil in large numbers.
Excited about the possibility of an American empire in Africa, the group began sending representatives to negotiate land deals with tribal leaders. At the behest of the American Colonization Society, a group that often used threats of physical violence, intimidation with weapons and excessive force to sway negotiations, local leaders agreed to exchange a 36-mile stretch of coastal land for 500 bars of tobacco, three barrels of rum, five casks of powder, five umbrellas, ten iron posts, and ten pairs of shoes among other items. Now equipped with the land to occupy and Black bodies to occupy the land with, the organization set it’s plan in motion. The first establishment, the Saint Paul River Settlement, was established in 1822 and consisted of 88 freed Black Americans who found themselves in conflict with the native Africans shortly after their arrival. The settlers erected communities that closely resembled the ones they’d left behind in the Antebellum South, indicative of their heavily Western preferences and distrust in “primitive” architecture. They insulated their communities from the sixteen indigenous tribes surrounding them whom they us affectionately referred to as “aborigines”. They adhered religiously to their Christian teachings, and rejected the adoption of any native tongue, asserting that the indigenous teachings, languages, religions and belief systems were primitive and barbaric. They upheld a complexion-based class system and maintained that by intentionally intermarrying with the native African, that they could disseminate colonialism and Christianity throughout the continent by birthing a new African with an American allegiance. Over the next two decades, the American Colonization Society relocated over 12,000 freed Black Americans to the region, recruiting freed Blacks from the Caribbean and South America to join them in building Africa’s first great republic. We now know why that great Republic never came to be.
In reference to the civil government of Liberia, I may here simply state, that it is based on the principles of republicanism; and, in every essential particular, it may be regarded as a miniature representation of the Government of the United States.
-James Washington Lugenbeel, Maryland Colonization Journal, 1850
26 years after emigrating to the area, the citizens of the St. Paul River settlement and the then 10 other surrounding settlements would be forced to declare independence as support for the ACS waned. The citizens of this new republic, which they would name the Republic of Liberia, numbered just under 3,100 people and would adopt the classification of Americo-Liberian. The capital city, Monrovia, they would name after former U.S. President James Monroe. Their constitution, a replica of the United States constitution. The republic’s seal, flag and national anthem, all modeled after their American prototypes. The physical return of the Americo-Liberian to the continent of Africa had no impact on their psychological and cultural conditioning, and despite the undeniable connectedness between the native and foreign-born descendants of Africa, their differences ran far deeper than their complexions implied. Like many Americans, the Americo-Liberians believed in the religious superiority of the Christian faith and the cultural superiority of Western government, albeit oppressive and corrupt. They systemically gained control of the most valuable resources on the land with the support of the United States government and entered into exclusive, “open door” trade deals with American and European companies that monopolized revenue.
While the native African saw the land as a communal resource with no need for a designated owner, the Americo-Liberian occupied communal lands and proclaimed individual and exclusive ownership over them. They refused citizenship to the native population until 1904 and denied them voting rights until the 20th century. They controlled access to food and water, natural resources, primarily the river, higher education, and modern advancements and technology, and instated a system of segregation that mirrored the one that they themselves were all too familiar with. They promoted a form of “racial equality” that required a denial of one’s indigenous culture in order to achieve it and even resorted to kidnapping and enslaving native Africans to satisfy excessive production and trade demands with foreign countries, a practice that lasted well into 1930’s. By all accounts, the Americo-Liberians were the American people of West Africa, oppressing the native African through a one party oligarchy for 133 years. And when their reign finally ended, it would be followed by decades of war, conflict, genocide and civil unrest.
When the Republic of Liberia fell to the tyranny of American educated, Americo-Liberian President Charles Taylor, a regime that cost the country 150,000 lives, the Americo-Liberians believed that what gave them superiority over the native African, their American identity, would also be their saving grace. As Taylor, and his army of child soldiers carried out unimaginable ethnic cleansing across the country, the United States government agreed to intervene but only for the purpose of rescuing American-born American citizens from the region, no one else. The Americo-Liberians would learn then that the designation they held in such high regard was no longer theirs to hold. They may have been African in their flesh but they were fully American in their minds, despite what America had to say about it, and their investment in America, although unspoken, was undeniable, even from 5,000 miles away. In fact, they were so invested in America and their American identities that they forfeited the opportunity to rediscover their true selves, ultimately losing both identities in the process. Today, we find ourselves no less invested. We may not rise for the Pledge of Allegiance or sing along to the National Anthem, but we are undeniably proud to be the bones and broth of this country. We might live in a perpetual state of protest against the government and complain about “the American way” every chance we get, but our communities are riddled with evidence of us embracing these very same poisonous pathologies. We are not as un-American as we think and for the most part that’s by no fault of our own, but it’s important that we acknowledge the conflict in this shared identity of ours, otherwise it becomes difficult to comprehend how that conflict can cloud our collective conscience.
I want one day to own a huge 6 bedroom house situated at the end of a quiet suburban cul-de-sac with a scenic pool in the back and a wraparound porch in the front. And from that wraparound porch I plan to watch my sons go from their first fall formal to their first fall semester, and I hope to send my daughter off from those same porch stairs. I’ll prepare Cameroonian eru with fufu and invite my children to the dinner table using their Igbo (Nigerian) names, I’ll cheer for American athletes during the 2020 Olympics and scoff at American politicians from the comfort of my American-made sofa. My children will FaceTime their grandfather’s relatives back in Nigeria, West Africa, struggling through the obvious language barrier while smiling ear to ear. And their American-born grandmother will enchant them with stories of her hometown, the ‘Steel City’, Pittsburgh, PA., recounting blizzards and nail biting Super Bowl wins from before I was born. This utopian dream of mine, as improbable and inaccessible as it may be, is my American dream. My attachment to this country extends well beyond its’ designation on my passport, as does yours. It’s an energy we carry, an attitude we possess, a vibe, if you will, we couldn’t hide it if we tried (ever traveled abroad?) For that reason, it’s not enough to be against this forced American identity in thought, we have to be vigilant in our behaviors and decisions not to be agents of the very oppressive systems that continue to encumber us.
We don’t have to be proud to be American, it is our birthright. But we do have to be responsible for how that privilege presents itself out in the rest of the world. 2019 marked the Year of the Return for the global Black community as Ghana launched an initiative targeting the descendants of the estimated 12.5 million Africans kidnapped and sold into slavery in the New World between 1525 and 1866. Millions jumped at the opportunity to step foot on the soil of their ancestors, funneling upwards of $1.9 billion into the coastal country alone and invigorating talks of a renewed Back to Africa movement. We’re a ways away from the Saint Paul River Settlement of 1822 but how different in our thinking are we than they, if at all? Who’s to say our American individualism doesn’t lend itself to the same segregated communities the first settlers constructed? Who’s to say our American obsession with money and materials doesn’t lend itself to the same exploitation of the land and it’s natural resources? Who’s to say our American quest for power and dominion doesn’t lend itself to the same oppressive attitudes towards indigenous populations, especially those who reject western religion, culture and language. How American are we? Are we welcoming of foreigners on American soil? Do we recognize the sovereignty of the indigenous people in this country? Do we participate in the desecration of sacred lands and mock sacred ceremony and ritual? Do we embrace and support the physically and intellectually impaired? Do we hoard opportunities from one another? Do we “other” and exclude members of our own communities for trivial things like complexion, features and sexual preference? Do we reject elitist organizations and capitalistic wealth acquisition, or do we all secretly aspire to be the next Black billionaire? Are we that much different from the Americo-Liberian, who despite harboring resentment towards America loved the idea of being American? Would we choose this American affiliation if given the opportunity to define ourselves without it? I, for one, am not confident that we would not. Should we ever decide to go back to Africa, who do we go back as? The sons and daughters of a great people once stolen from their own shores or the informally adopted offspring of the people who enslaved them? History tells us if we’re not mindful of who we are, we lose sight of who we could be. So, truthfully, who we become beyond our borders, both the physical and the mental, is up to us to decide.