Thursday, November 19, 2009

Chickens Come Home to Roost

The House at Sugar Beach
by Helene Cooper

Given that several Liberians are members of my congregation, and that the former Liberian ambassador to the United States was a member of E.'s congregation (she passed away a couple of weeks ago after a battle with cancer), I was interested in this memoir as soon as it came out. The more I learn about the strife in Liberia during the last decades, the more I realize that the violence and hatred coulld have been prevented. The seeds were planted in the country's founding. Given that the free blacks and former slaves sent to (the place that became) Liberia were practically given permission by the American Colonization Society (ACS) to displace the indigenous Liberian people and to think of themselves as entitled elites, the country was set up to undergo civil war and ethnic tension for generations.

Helene Cooper is a member of the class of Liberians known as "Congo people" - she is a descendant of the American blacks who were sent there by the ACS to become the ruling class. She had a privileged childhood, and her family was very comfortable materially. The House at Sugar Beach tells the story of her childhood and early adolescence in Liberia, and her emergency move to the United States and separation from her mother that occurred when she was barely a teenager. Although Cooper is now a journalist and makes her home permanently in the US, she has never lost her ties to Liberia. She still grieves about the atrocities that took place during the nightmare years of Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor, the two military dictators who claimed that they were restoring power to the ethnic Liberians, but actually were corrupt monsters who would resort to awful violence to win and keep power for themselves.

What struck me about Cooper's memoir is her 20/20 hindsight about her own naivete as a child. She writes about how it never occurred to her that there was inherent injustice in the fact that her family lived in a beautiful home on the beach, and her parents owned property and had easy access to government jobs, while native Liberians were barely scratching out a living. The schools did not teach the privileged children about how many of their ancestors had moved in a century before and begun treating the native people with the same contempt that white Americans had heaped upon black Americans. When the class and racial tensions finally erupted in the 1980s, many of the "Congo people" had no clue what it was all about.
They too paid a price for an unfair system - some lost their lives, and many lost their homes and ties to their family and country.

I really don't blame Cooper for her cluelessness, and I admire her honesty in acknowledging it. We all have parts of our lives and our collective past that we would rather not think about. Society enables the privileged in our denial of history's tragedies (and our own complicity in those tragedies). Books like The House at Sugar Beach call us to examine our own lives and ask ourselves some hard questions. Upon whose back do we build our comfortable lives? What injustices are lying beneath the surface? Are there things we should see that we make an effort (conscious or unconscious) not to?

This is an engaging read that reminds us of the tragedy that befell Liberia, but also reminds us that we all had a hand in that terrible situation - Liberians did not just wake up one day and decide to start slaughtering each other. There is hope in the book, too - hope that the world can learn from what happened in Liberia take steps to prevent such a thing from happening again. There is a new day dawning there - most Liberians are excited about the democratic election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as their president. I hope US policymakers will support her efforts to restore Liberia to peace and economic viability.

Reverent Reader


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