Liberia: 2 New Books Lay Out Its Complex History of Ties to the U.S.

Roundup: Talking About History

Jennifer Jacobson, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (June 11, 2004) (subscribers only):

As rebel forces closed in on Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor, last summer, most newspaper accounts gave Americans in-depth coverage of the fighting -- and only a single sentence or so as to why they should care.

Reporters in Monrovia briefly noted that the United States had historical ties to Liberia dating back to 1822, when the U.S. government and freed American slaves founded the West African nation and named its capital city after the American president James Monroe. Few reporters, however, attempted to explain the complex history of that relationship.

That complicated knot of history is at the center of two new books: Claude A. Clegg III's The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia (University of North Carolina Press) and Ibrahim Sundiata's Brothers and Strangers: Black Zion, Black Slavery, 1914-1940 (Duke University Press). Taken together, these works lay out crucial interactions between America and Liberia in the African nation's first 118 years. In many cases, the interactions led to bitterness and disillusionment. Both Mr. Clegg and Mr. Sundiata reveal how cherished myths about Africa and America ran aground on the shoals of political and cultural realities.

Mr. Clegg, a professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington, traces the journeys of black North Carolinians who settled in Liberia during its first seven decades as a nation, while Mr. Sundiata, a professor of history and African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University, details the stirrings, trials, and eventual collapse of Marcus Garvey's African emigration movement in the early 20th century.

The two narratives observe the history of the U.S.-Liberia relationship with a keen eye. But in the light of last summer's conclusion to a 14-year civil war, the authors point to lessons for the future as well. Because of the global campaign against terrorism being waged by the United States, that relationship may once again take on a significance not seen since the days of the cold war. Mr. Sundiata is among those who argue that the United States would be remiss not to stabilize Liberia and engage its help in the post-September 11 world, as it once did to counter the Soviet threat.

In his introduction, Mr. Sundiata points out significant parallels between the violence and chaos of 2003 and that which existed in Liberia in early 1933, when its greatest natural resource, rubber, was a key concern for American national security.

"Seventy years ago, in the name of human rights, a Republican administration stood on the verge of using military force to secure a material deemed essential to national defense," writes Mr. Sundiata. "Today, amid the slaughter of thousands, another Republican administration is timorous of all but token involvement. Interventions proceed, but perceived national interests have shifted. This is the most cautionary part of the tale."

That is a tale that many Americans would rather not hear. Against the tide of public interest, however, Mr. Clegg and Mr. Sundiata have written books that highlight U.S. indifference to a country it has for the most part deserted....

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