Book review

'Another America': The cautionary tale of Liberia

James Ciment shows the folly of the 19th-century back-to-Africa movement


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Americans should know a lot about the West African state of Liberia, given the important role that the United States has played in its evolution since its creation in the 19th century. It was settled and virtually laid out in its original form by African-Americans, either free or freed and transported there. At the same time, there has always been among Americans a tendency to look away from what was going on in Liberia.

This approach had various geneses. One of them, perhaps the most meritorious, was to encourage Liberia in its independence. A second was to try to avoid responsibility for it and, thus, an obligation to support it financially and otherwise as it stumbled through some of the more difficult moments of its now 166 years of existence.


"ANOTHER AMERICA; THE STORY OF LIBERIA AND THE FORMER SLAVES WHO RULED IT"
By James Ciment
Hill and Wang ($30).

A third reason for Americans to look the other way on Liberia was that some of what took place there was truly appalling. In "Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It," author James Ciment notes that some of the returned slaves kept and traded slaves themselves.

And who can forget the military coup d'etat that took place there in 1980, which included the murder of the then-president and the execution, tied to poles on the beach, of 13 of Liberia's senior officials.

The final reason I would cite is the less-than-comfortable experience of Americans looking at what the Liberians were doing and wondering to what degree the bad parts were a result of the experience of America itself that the African-American settlers had taken with them when they went there.

That is a question that Mr. Ciment does not shy away from addressing. It is ironic that this book comes out as American film audiences are seeking to digest "12 Years a Slave." The film is, in part, a chronicle of the America that the African-Americans who settled Liberia -- ex-slave and free -- would have both left behind and taken with them as they sought to create a new society among the Africans of the West African coast.

The film doesn't really deal with the question of the impact of the heritage of the times on African-Americans today, although that is perhaps too much to ask. "Another America" does deal with the question of what the settlers carried with them in terms of their concept of society and their role in it.

Unfortunately, some of it was not so healthy. The settlers set up a society in Liberia that to a degree replicated the United States they had left. The problem, ultimately catastrophic for them, was that they cast themselves in the role of the oppressing, "superior" whites in the United States, and the Africans who lived in Liberia, as inferior, and, some, even as slaves.

Reading Mr. Ciment's chronicle of Liberian history, one can almost see the end for the settlers when some of their families' prominent members "rent" -- really, sell -- native Liberian Africans to the then-Spanish-ruled island of Fernando Po to work the cocoa plantations there.

Settler family rule ended in Liberia in 1980 when Master Sergeant Samuel Doe of the badly paid, battered, almost entirely native African Armed Forces of Liberia led a coup d'etat which put the settlers, and eventually then President Doe himself, an African, definitively out of business.

Mr. Doe's own end, tortured to death by Prince Johnson, another warlord, made one of the all-time most horrible videos ever. Now, unintentionally, I have made "Another America" seem much grimmer than it is as a book. In fact, it is full of charming vignettes of the cast of characters who constitute the human history of the Republic of Liberia. In the many histories of Liberia, I have read the verbal portraits of these people no place else. Mr. Ciment brings them to life vividly.

Some of them were pure rogues. The men were Masons who smoked cigars, wore top hats, and had plantations and "country women" upriver from the capital, Monrovia, named after American president James Monroe. Their wives, also usually of settler descent, wore Victorian dresses and elaborate hats and were unbelievably status-conscious. They were also willing, however, to adopt their husbands' children from their "country" wives as their own.

Liberia as a country was constantly fending off European and American "protectors" trying to take over the place, with mixed success. The most successful usurper was Harvey Firestone, whose rubber plantations, with iron mines, became the mainstay of a prisoner, virtually single-commodity economy.

Given the closeness of America and Liberia -- they still use the U.S. dollar as currency -- Americans need to know about that country's history. This book is an interesting, relatively painless, frequently entertaining way to learn about "Another America." Suppress the occasional shiver of horror.


Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador who served in African nations, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com).

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