Monday, April 25, 2011

"Branches of the tree: African Americans in Liberia, 1950-2010.”

If the title sounds like a scholarly work, so be it. I may be the one to write it, or perhaps I'll just be the person to suggest the title and work on it but I think it needs to be written.

I am not going to get too deep with this but I was interviewed a couple of weeks ago at Chicago State University for the Margaret Burroughs Oral History Series. I spoke to a gathering of faculty and students at the University, they threw me a wonderful reception, and afterwards I sat for a taped interview sharing intimate aspects of my life, primarily the portion of it that culminated in my decision to relocate with my family and work in Liberia, West Africa for eleven years. Our intention was to live in Liberia, but we were forced to flee during the Liberian Civil War. It was really rather challenging, to talk about ones motivations and choices on camera without the luxury of editing your mistakes away. However, I knew I would be vulnerable, when I wrote my memoir, Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot.

I have to acknowledge that whenever anyone comments positively on my book I am humbled, somewhat surprised and I have even come to enjoy the sometimes-veiled criticism of my former life, before I was whoever people think I am today. Recently I have been wishing that I had the time and money to research the stories of African Americans that left the shores of America, after the initial migration to Liberia in 1817. What about people who left in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70, 80’s? We need to preserve those stories. For several years, I awakened at 4am to create the space in my life to write Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot and then forced myself through the final months of focused labor and thousands of dollars of my personal funds happily spent to give birth to the story of our sojourn. My book is my legacy for my family. Presently I am a proud daughter, sister, and grandmother working to bring my “A+ game” to my full time employer while sharing my historical musings in my spare time.

But I realize that there is so much more to the history of African Americans in Liberia that is left on the table. There is the book by my dear friend Diane Jordan Grizzard, Free Soil, which brings the story as a stirring novel of historical fiction; there is Helene Cooper’s wonderful memoir, The House on Sugar Beach, which is written from the perspective of a woman of the lineage of the settlers that left American to settle Liberia. The group that was targeted during the April 12, 1980 coupe. Still there is much more on the table.

I reflect immediately on my good friend Ron Watkins who died several years ago. An African proverb says that so long as someone says your name you live, and so Ron is immortal in the memory of those who love him. He traveled to Liberia, in the 80's to mine diamonds for some very prominent Chicagoans. I was friends with a group of expatriates composed of retired postal clerks and members of the Baha’i faith in Liberia. I recall acquaintances, Ben Kahil and Miriam a couple that left the West Side of Chicago who moved to the West Coast of Africa years before me and owned one of the largest schools in Liberia. The wife remarried a Liberian and still lives in Liberia. I have a friend, a Reverend, who traveled first to Tanzania and stayed until political problems in Tanzania sent him to Liberia, where he opened an elementary school, then a college and he is still living in Liberia. Liberia, because of it's open door policy, was open to immigration by hundreds of African Nationalists and African Hebrew Israelites that settled in Liberia. Many between the early 1970’s in the early 1980’s.

One very poignant story that strikes me as high adventure, is of my friend’s children who were stranded in Liberia during the Civil War. Their father hitched a ride with Charles Taylor’s sister, I am told, and stole into Liberia via the Ivory Coast right into Charles Taylor’s camp to get his children. Now, that is a story waiting to be told!

I was blessed to have the time, talent, fortitude and dollars to publish a portion of my life in Liberia, at the same time it saddens me to know that so much the live of African Americans bold enough to travel and live in Africa that is untold.

My intention is to create at least one other book of the stories about "my tribe" in West Africa, Coal Pot Stories. I find people connect with my book because they see me as somebody like themselves, which is exactly right! My question is finding the means to facilitate the telling of the stories of people who are not and don't intend to become writers. It's an open question. I believe that the Universe rushes to fill a vacuum.