Liberia U.S.A. Ciment's New History Illustrates the Folly of the 19th-Century Back-to-Africa Movement

By Simpson, Dan | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), February 23, 2014 | Go to article overview

Liberia U.S.A. Ciment's New History Illustrates the Folly of the 19th-Century Back-to-Africa Movement


Simpson, Dan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


"ANOTHER AMERICA: THE STORY OF LIBERIA AND THE FORMER SLAVES WHO RULED IT"

By James Ciment.

Hill and Wang ($30).

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.

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. …

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