A. Doris Bank Henries was born on February 11, 1913, in Live Oak, Florida and died on February 16, 1981, in Middletown, CT. She was married to Richard Abrom Henries, former speaker of the Liberian House of Representative, who was one of the 13 government officials that were executed on firing squad in the wake of the 1980 military coup in Liberia. Doris Banks Henries graduated from Willimantie Normal School (now Eastern Connecticut State University) with BSc in 1920s; She also attended Connecticut State Teachers’ College as well as the Yale University in the 1920s; she attended Hartford Seminary in the 1930s as well as the University of Besancon, France in 1930s. She is said to have earned her MA and PhD from Columbia University and was a Methodist.
Though she was born and educated in the United States, it is in Liberia where she made her marks. It is in Liberia where she is remembered as a writer, educator and government official. It is in Liberia where she impacted lives, molded minds of students directly or indirectly. And it is in Liberia where she will always be remembered. Though she was not a fiction writer, any discussion of Liberian literature will not be complete without mentioning A Doris Banks Henries. She was a prolific writer who wrote many books on Liberia. Among the many books written by A Doris Banks Henries, only three I came across and they were my favorites. Those three books are “Heroes and Heroines of Liberia,” “Civil for Liberian Schools,” and “Africa: Our History.”
I read both of these books in grade school. I wish I have copies of them now so as to understand them from my current adult perspective. I really didn’t know she wrote any other books besides the three mentioned above until recently, upon reflection, I googled her name. That’s how I discovered she wrote other books besides “Heroes and Heroins of Liberia,” “Civil for Liberian Schools” and “Africa: Our History.” According to her bio available on line, she is one of Liberia’s “most prolific authors, having written histories, biographies, essays, and poetry, and produced 27 books on Liberian education. She is said to have “pioneered the collecting of Liberian poetry and folklore.” It is also said that her works “emphasized the role of education in promoting African cultural identity for black people around the world.”
Of these three books, the one that is mentioned more frequently in most Liberian debate or conversation is “Heroes and Heroines of Liberia.” In that book we learnt about the biographical accounts of some of Liberia’s historical figures from both the native and settler backgrounds. Among those historical figures featured in this book are JJ Robert, who was born in Norfolk, Virginia, USA and became the first president of Liberia upon independence in 1847; Wilmot Blyden, born in the West Indie, migrated to Liberia and became one of the great intellectuals of the new nation, often refer to as the “grandfather of Pan Africanism,” John Kizzel who is said to have been an African prince taken into slavery from Shebro Island in what is now Sierra Leone. He is said to have fought on the side of the British during the American fight for independence and later went back to Africa in 1792. He and others that went back to Africa became part of the settlement of Freetown, Sierra Leone. There is also the story of Momolu Duwalu Bukele, the inventor of the Vai Script, King Sao Bosso Kamara, a Mandingo king who helped the settlers to overcome the native resistance to their settlement, Bob Gray the Bassa Chief, who was helpful to the settlers in the establishment of the settlement of Edina in Grand Bassa County, Benjamin Anderson who led the expedition to Musadou, the Western Mandingo country which is located in present day Guinea.
Africa: Our History gives accounts of the pre-colonial and colonial histories of the various countries of Africa as well as the African diasporas of America and the Caribbean. The first time I came across the photos and stories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Toussaint Louverture was through the pages of that book. For me, that book was an eye opener in understanding the history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the European colonization of Africa, the heroism of Toussaint Louverture who defeated the mighty French army to gain independence for his country, Haiti.
These three books were primarily for grade schools. Of all the heroic figures in the “Heroes and Heroines of Liberia,” the character that seems to be a subject of much controversy is Matilda Newport. According to the narrative in the book, Matida Newport is said to have fired the cannon to repel native attacks against the settlers at the settlement of Cape Mesurado. Her “heroic actions that saved the settlements” of free slaves from “native aggression” earned her a holiday in her honor known as Matilda Newport Day. This holiday was celebrated for many years until it was abolished after the April 12, 1980 military coup.
While Doris Banks Henries might have done her best to document the Liberian experience, there are many critics who think she was biased in her writings, always portraying the settlers heroically at the same time painting negative pictures of native Liberians. Her critics say, instead of representing the totality of Liberian experience from both the native and settler backgrounds, she was one-sided, paying glowing tribute to one group and demonizing the other group. Some have even questioned that Matilda Newport even existed, saying she was a fictional character intended to portray the “bravery of the settlers against the cowardice of the native Liberians.”
In a recent Facebook posting, Emmanuel Woods opined that, “Liberian schools were Doris Banks Henries infested. She was biased and not that scholarly. Some folks cry about western scholars on Liberian history but they avoid crying about Doris Banks.” Quite recently I sent out an email on the Liberian group email listing asking of people’s views and opinions of the writer and educator. Not many responded but I got an interesting response from Cletus Nah, a Liberian writer based in Europe.
Cletus was mild in his criticism. Here is what he wrote about A Doris Banks Henries: “The history of Liberia that we read in grade school is similar, but lacking in details, when compared to the same history of Liberia that one would find in the United States Library of Congress. Why? Because some of the men and women that were written about didn’t have the opportunity to tell their versions of the story, or the author decided to omit certain details because, like in the case of John Kezzel was an African, his father was a king,’ the synopsis of that timeline of Liberian history was written for children in Liberian primary schools. Thanks, auntie Doris (Banks-Henries)! At least you told me about uncle John and uncle Bob (Gray), and how uncle Elijah (Johnson) didn’t allow the British to claim our land by hoisting their flag on our soil. I will forever be grateful to uncle Elijah, no matter what!”
That the book Cletus read and many of us read in grade school “lacked details” is understandable because those might have been intended only for grade schools. These might have been done to stimulate the curiosity and interest of young students with the belief that such was just the foundation of understanding the history of our country. As we age along the way, further researches and studies should have led to the writing of books for advanced students that would give further details that were lacking in the books for grade school students.
In another article written by a Liberian political commentator Siahyonkron Nyanseor, A. Doris Banks Henries came under severe criticism for her “biased” portrayer of the Liberian natives. According to Nyaseor, “the story of Matilda Newport was a mixed bag of Americo-Liberian pride, and native-Liberian nightmare, yet successive Americo-Liberian-dominated government found it necessary to honor and celebrate the supposed good deeds of Matilda Newport as a national holiday. And Liberian school children were forced to parade in the streets in celebration of Matilda Newport Day until 1980 when the holiday was abolished by the native-Liberian leaders of the 1980 coup, which displaced the ruling Americo-Liberian leaders of the ruling True Whig Party after 133 years at the helm of power.”
According to Dr. Fred PM Van Der Kraaij, a Dutch government leader who spent some years in Liberia teaching at the University of Liberia in the 1970s, “Many Liberian historians and authors of history books have devoted many pages to Matilda Newport, such as Ernest J. Yancy, Richard A. Henries and A. Doris Banks Henries, C. Abayomi Cassell and Nathaniel R. Richardson. The accounts of the Matilda Newport story vary from author to author but have in common that most references to the ‘natives’ were negative: ‘savage, primitive, belligerent people’ (A. Doris Banks Henries).”
The Matilda Newport story has also grabbed the interest of many foreign scholars. Among them Jane J. Martin and Rodney Carlisle, “who conducted a study, “The Search for Matilda Newport,” published in the Liberian Studies Journal in 1975.” Another foreign scholar, Svend Holsoe, also did a research paper on Matilda Newport which was presented at the Liberian Studies Conference at Indiana University, in 2007. The title of the presentation was, “Matilda Newport: The Power of a Liberian Invented Tradition.” Whatever a writer’s intent may be in his or her writing may differ with how they are interpreted by his or her critics. While many critics have said that her writings celebrated the heroism of the settler class while denigrating the natives, others have said this of her, “Henries’ writing focused on reestablishing Liberian and African cultural and economic identities.”
Accordingly, in an article published in Présence Africaine: Cultural Review of the Negro World in 1977 titled, “Black African Cultural Identity,” she wrote, “the whole continent of Africa has been exploited for centuries to build highly industrialized empires, but enjoys minimal benefits of labor expended in the process of development. Worst of all, the black people of Africa have lost much of their cultural identity through conflicts and domination by outside groups. This has been a dreadful tragedy and handicap to advancement.” She went on to say that “Under the colonizing powers, African culture has been disrupted by the imposition of European ways of life. Thus, much of the rich heritage of black people has been submerged and a pollution of foreign culture has supplanted the best as well as the worst in social foundations.” She then called for “the Africanization of the school curriculum and textbooks…. It should be the policy of African schools to include in all programs as much literature written by Africans as is available.”
The above quote from Ms Henries is in line with the objective of African literature being used as tools to liberate Africa and her people from foreign colonial domination. In this she was certainly in line with her contemporary African writers championing the emancipation of the black race from centuries of lies of European scholars and writers. Why would she be championing the liberation of the black race from European domination while at the same time in Liberia her writing is said to have “portrayed” something negative of native Liberians? If that is a contradiction of A Doris Banks Henries, it is also the contradiction of Liberia as the first black independent republic in Africa.
While Liberia as a nation inspired black people everywhere, especially the help she provided to fellow Africans fighting to get rid of the European colonial regimes, her own dirty secret of segregation against native Liberians was not highlighted. I came across a book many years ago which highlighted this contradiction of Liberia, being a source of pride and inspiration for Africa but at the same time “oppressing its native citizens.” This book was written by a proponent of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Back in those days, no Liberian writer, settlers or natives could write any book, fictional or non-fictional that were critical of the ways things were in Liberia. For Doris, who was married to one of the most powerful men of the regime, one could not have expected her to write any protest novel or collection of poems critical of the system she was part of.
About the author: Nvasekie Konneh is a poet, writer who has written extensively in the Liberian media on art, culture and social political development of Liberia. He’s the author of The Love of Liberty Brought Us Together, The Land of My Father’s Birth, Going to War for America and currently working on a documentary project on ethnic and cultural diversity in Liberia.
Below is the Bibliography of Books Written by A Doris Banks Henries(With Richard Henries) Liberia, the West African Republic, F. R. Bruns, 1950; H. Jaffe, 1968.The Liberian Nation: A Short History, Collier-Macmillan, 1953, rev. ed., 1966.Heroes and Heroines of Liberia, Macmillan, 1962.Development of Unification in Liberia, Department of Education, 1963.(Editor) Poems of Liberia, 1836-1961, Macmillan, 1963.The Life of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, 1809-1876, and His Inaugural Addresses, Macmillan, 1964.(Editor) Liberian Folklore: A Compilation of Ninetynine Folktales with Some Proverbs, Macmillan, 1966.A Biography of President William V. S. Tubman, Macmillan, 1967.Africa: Our History, Collier-Macmillan, 1969.(Editor) Liberia’s Fulfillment: Achievements of the Republic of Liberia During Twenty-five Years Under the Administration of President William V. S. Tubman, 1944-1969, Banks, 1969.Higher Education in Liberia, Department of Education, 1971.The Role of Women in Africa’s Evolution, Henries, 1971.Secondary Education in Liberia, Ministry of Education, 1972.(With James A. Benson, et al.) The Status of Literature in Liberia, Society of Liberian Authors, 1972.The Writings of A. Doris Banks Henries, African Imprint Library Services, 1973.(Editor) Education Laws of Liberia, 1926-1974, Monrovia, 1974.The Educational System of Liberia, Ministry of Education, 1974.Higher Education in Liberia: Retrospect-Present-Prospect, Ministry of Education, 1974.Modern Mathematics in Liberia, 1962-1974, Ministry of Education, 1974.Periodicals“Pageant of Modern Africa” (poetry), Présence Africaine, 1966.“Message from the President of the Society of Liberian Authors,” Kaafa: Journal of the Society of Liberian Authors, 1971, pp. 7-16.“One Hundred and Fifty Years of Liberian Literature,” Kaafa, 1972, pp. 13-21.“Liberian Literature,” Kaafa, 1974, pp. 1-9.“Black African Cultural Identity,” Présence Africaine, 1977, pp. 119-128.