Jackie N. Sayegh
[After president Weah speech today,] I immediately thought of the Langston Hughes poem “I too sing America.” In it, Langston laments the discrimination faced by African-Americans as he penned the words:
I, too, sing America.
The irony of the Liberian “Negro clause” has never been lost on me. It certainly was there as I marched with other Liberians to petition the US Congress for permanent residency for Liberians on Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Marching for what my father could not obtain in Liberia, asking the US government to grant what we Liberians deny others at home.
As a young university activist, my father fled his native Syria to escape the tyranny of the first President Assad. Penniless and homeless, he came to Liberia as an apprentice to a store owner. After many years of struggles (more than 20 years after his arrival), he opened the National Book Store. Mr Dayoub or Mr. Salim as he was called loved Liberia. He loved the people, he loved sitting and just talking and on Saturdays, his home was filled with the smells of his two favorite food, palmbutter and dumboy. Education, for him, was the most important thing in life (a grade of 97 was not acceptable) and Liberia was where I needed to be. With youthful arrogance I wanted to ask him “but is Liberia where I want to be?”
But I did not dare. My dad was a strict disciplinarian who took an intense interest and participated actively in my upbringing. Returning home after a year on the American Field Service exchange program, I told myself that the US was where I needed to be. There is a saying that “man plans, and God laughs.” In this case, my father was the one who laughed. He took one look at his 17 year old once submissive and quiet daughter now back with short hair, jeans, make-up and a mouth full of cheek, and declared that I would not be returning to the US but would attend the University of Liberia. Supported by my mom and great grand-mother, two very strong-willed women, no amount of crying on my part could convince them otherwise.
Thank God they did! During the years at the University, and evolving into adulthood, there grew within me an intense, encompassing, fierce almost primal love for my country. Love of one’s country is not automatically handed down, passed through DNA at birth. It comes slowly, a realization that this piece of land where you find yourself has taken a hold of your heart and that with each breath you become one with the heartbeat and rhythm of your country. No, it is “not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” This is very true and I believe that had I not remained in Liberia during these formative years, this cultivation of deep love for my country would have eluded me.
I did return to the US after many years, as a Fulbright Scholar at Cornell. Calls from my father always ended with the question of when I would be returning home. Yes, there was a war raging but he always assured me that peace would come one day and that we Liberians would not suffer forever. Who is this “we,” I wondered. During the war, my father was robbed, beaten and tied up to be killed. It was through the intervention of now Senator Prince Johnson that my father lived. As he recounted the story of his ordeal over the phone, my fear for him formed the words “go back home.” His reply was always the same, he was home. What was it with this man that he insisted on staying in a country that clearly after all these years still saw him as an outsider? Liberians themselves had fled the war, what made him so different or special?
With the advent of peace, I promised to “visit” soon. This was not to be. On July 2007, my father died from a massive heart attack. Tears from his Liberian friends enveloped me on my trip home, their comforting stories helping to numb the pain and leaving me in no doubt that he was deeply loved if not by Liberia, then by Liberians. Street sellers, students, friends, all attended his service and I sat dumb as Liberians gave tribute to how he was the one responsible for their tuition, their books, their allowances, how he had served as their surrogate parent and how his small apartment had sheltered them during the war, how they all had slept on the floor to avoid the bullets that flew through the air.
Like my father, many people throughout the world have grown to love their adopted land at times even more so than those born within its borders. Former US Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, (a Czech-born refugee) and Henry Alfred Kissinger (born in Germany) were foreign born but their service and their writings leave no doubt as to where their loyalty and love lie.
There are Liberians who claim that Middle Easterners and others foreigners see Liberia as a goldmine, a place to make money and leave. Well, Lebanese are after all ancient Phoenician traders and commerce is in their blood. Business people are not by nature philanthropists. Are Liberian returnees’ motives any more virtuous because they are black? I have met Liberians who returned home after the war not because of any great love for their homeland but as a way to make a quick buck.
What I do know is that it is not wealthy people that leave their country to seek a better life elsewhere. Such people benefit from the existing system in their countries and do not seek greener pastures. It is the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” that leave familiar lands for the unknown sometimes on a wing and a prayer. Displaced people everywhere have lived the words of Dante’s exile in Paradiso Cantos XV-XXI when he is told “you will lose everything you love most dearly: that is the arrow that Exile’s bow will fire. You will prove how bitter the taste of another man’s bread is, and how hard it is to descend, and climb, another man’s stair.”
I disagree. It is not protectionism in the least! In protectionism, a person safeguards what they own or have from all others; in discrimination, they secure it from certain groups; and, in racism they secure it from a certain group based on color. If I had a bowl of rice and stipulated that anybody can eat from the bowl except a white person what would it be called? The whites-only sign that saturated the US deep south during segregation was not protectionism! It was unadulterated racism. Are we to believe that the freed US slaves, given the chance in Liberia, did not take some perverse pleasure in using turnabout and denying the whites the very same thing they had denied the blacks for so long, ownership of land and citizenship? I believe that they did!
If “Negro descent” is the criterion we have to go on to determining citizenship, then we are in for a protracted battle. The freed slaves did not allow the indigenous Liberian to vote until 1963 and the indigenous were of “Negro descent!” Liberians come in all shades, so who is to determine who is “of negro descent?” There are Liberians who are as white as any European. My two nieces display no visible sign of “negro descent” yet they lay claim to it as they are a quarter Grebo, a quarter Thai, a quarter Middle Eastern and a quarter Asian. Fourteen years of displacement have brought with it travels to distant places, unions with people from different races, and children of all glorious array of shades, colors, and hues. Black or white or red, all united in creating a better life wherever they find themselves.
I believe that we Liberians are a decent and fair people. I have spoken to many Liberians about this and I believe that at the heart of this issue is the fear of what citizenship entails. It bestows certain rights on the citizens, one of which is the right to own land. Currently in Liberia, land ownership is mired in a chaotic web of conflict and insecure tenure. Citizenship, if granted to all, would make it possible for others to own land and understandably, native born Liberian citizens view this with a deep seated fear. Liberia lacks a vibrant middle class and an adequate legal framework to ensure fairness in allocation of resources, and in upholding the rights of all Liberians. In such an environment, those with the most wealth are the ones to benefit and accumulate the most resources. With the right institutions and a corruption-free judiciary and government, this fear would be alleviated. Foreigners do not reside in Liberia alone. They are in Ghana, Nigeria and other African countries where there exist strong national institutions and strict governmental policies to create an enabling environment where all can benefit, not just a few. Kenyans in their 2010 constitution recognizes a “non-racial” society. As early as 1955, in South Africa, the Freedom Charter, adopted in 1955 by the Congress of the People at Kliptown near Johannesburg, was the first systematic statement in the history of the country of the political and constitutional vision of a free, democratic and non-racial South Africa. And this was in South Africa where apartheid was alive and well at the time!
Laws that prohibit full equality whether based on color, gender, or ethnicity are archaic manifestations of bygone eras when international conventions and sovereign rights were not as clearly laid out as today. Not one of the countries of the African Union have this clause. Liberia is a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Convention “solemnly affirms the necessity of speedily eliminating racial discrimination throughout the world in all its forms and manifestations and of securing understanding of and respect for the dignity of the human person; that any doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and that there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere; and, that the existence of racial barriers is repugnant to the ideals of any human society.”
The world is changing rapidly and Liberia must keep pace with the change. If Liberia is to take its rightful place in the world, we need to envision and affirm our core values and identity as a nation. African-American writer Ellison’s description of the American society as “woven of many strands . . . recognize them and let it so remain; our fate is to become one, and yet many. This is not prophecy, but description” could also apply to the Liberian society if we desire. The young Lebanese store merchant, the Guinean tailor, the Sierra Leonean taxi driver, all of them Liberian-born who speak Grebo, Kru, Bassa, Kpelle, like the old Ethiopian I met on Mechlin street who has been in Liberia for more than 20 years and continuously blesses this country, and like a young Syrian activist who fled more than 50 years ago to a welcoming country,
They, too, sing Liberia.
Jackie N. Sayegh is Program Manager of the Institute for African Development at Cornell University. She is an alum of the University of Liberia and Cornell. firstname.lastname@example.org. editor’s note: this article was initially published in 2012, and is republished with minor edits.