I Married a Black Man and a Liberian Chief
In the 1960’s, as a white college student, I married my anthropology professor, who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. In the course of our 41-year marriage, we made numerous summer trips to Liberia, including a year in the 1980’s in his tribal village of Vahun upcountry in Lofa County.
Anita Katherine Dennis Writes “Slaves to Racism”
My Lifelong Dream – Becoming a Writer
A few early successes had fueled my aspiration of becoming a writer. As a high school freshman, I won a short essay contest. When I was a junior, I was featured as a guest columnist in the Toledo Blade. My childhood dream was about to come true, but not without a cost.
Liberia’s tragedies compelled Ben to explain their underlying causes, comparing it with the effect of racism in America. How does a white woman write a book about racism? What does she know? Well, she doesn’t. But her black husband does.Since he was going blind, I had to help him write his book. We began in 1994, during the first civil war. That epic task ended up taking fourteen years to complete. In fact, I could write a book about writing that book.
We began our long and arduous task with me sitting at our electric typewriter, taking dictation from Ben. I was extremely reluctant. You might say I went into it kicking and screaming. I didn’t want to spend our retirement years sitting at a desk. I initially expected Ben to simply recite it to me. Gradually I came to realize to my horror that it was his ideas, but I’d have to essentially write the book myself. It became another journey of faith since I was woefully unprepared. I had longed to be a writer, but I was hardly up to the task of researching, organizing, and writing a nonfiction book. During our 26 years of marriage, I hadn’t penned anything other than letters and newsletters. I understood what Ben was talking about from my experiences in Liberia, but there was much more about the country I didn’t know. And yet, isn’t that how God works? He gives you a challenging, seemingly impossible task, and your faith grows as He helps you accomplish it.
Ben was adamant that the book be written, so there was no turning back. In time, we purchased a Smith Corona word processor, which could save and print what I typed. From then on, I no longer freely enjoyed visits with our kids or family trips, because the project weighed on my mind. Each time we were away or Ben had medical treatments, I knew I had to return to that seemingly impossible task as soon as I could.
We Needed the Lord’s Help
Early on in my doubts about the book, I asked for a sign. One day, I lost our beginning material. I knelt by our bed and prayed, “Lord, if You want us to write this book, please help me recover what we wrote.” To my amazement, He did. In all the twists and turns that followed, with no guarantee of success, I looked back to that sign.
Ben was retired, but my life was far from carefree. I was taking care of him and my parents, with the book always in the background. He helped around the house as much as he was able, willing to do whatever needed to be done. He loaded and unloaded the dishwasher. Each week, he scrubbed both bathrooms so well we could have eaten off of the floor. He was faithful with the yard work. He swept the driveway and mopped the garage.
At times, I resented his involvement in his two men’s Bible study groups. I was jealous because work on the book kept me from participating in any church activity other than Sunday services. On top of that, he wanted me to host dinners in our home. I had to tell him I couldn’t take on anything else.
After several years on the Smith Corona Word processor, Ben Jr. insisted we buy a computer. I fought it. Writing the book was hard enough without having to learn new technology. However, I’m glad I finally agreed since it sped up the work considerably.
Still, there were times when I simply collapsed from the stress. Ben had to arrange for someone to take us to the hospital emergency room, where I received a sedative to calm my nerves and end my vomiting. The fourth time, the doctor quizzed me, suspecting that Ben was abusing me. I wondered if it was because Ben was black.
The Writing Journey – A Writer’s Club
Our boys refused to get involved in the project even though it consumed all of our time and energy. Ben Jr. encouraged me to find a writer’s group, so I joined the Florida Gulf Coast Writer’s Association when the manuscript was in its early stages. I met interesting people and attended symposiums and workshops on various aspects of writing and marketing. Sometimes the speakers were successful authors in various genres, such as romance writing, technical writing, humor, and poetry. However, the group itself comprised amateurs. We were all in the same boat, learning what we could and encouraging each other.
I wanted a published author who would work with me one-on-one. It was impossible to find since successful authors didn’t belong to writer’s groups. Early on, I paid $600 to a woman who had written a crime biography, to review my work and make suggestions—with little to show for it. After that, I took advice from a woman who had self-published a short novella.
I learned along the way that it’s not easy to learn how to write. I was given books on the subject and instructed to read good writing, but there was no simple class to take, no straightforward rules to follow. In the end, I learned to write by doing it—writing and rewriting, reorganizing and revising, tightening and polishing.
In the meantime, life interrupted. Ben Jr. finished graduate school, and my other two sons graduated from college. I took care of Ben during his two hip replacements, numerous eye surgeries, and radiation for cancer. We told our kids about the book so often that it became a family legend. I’m sure they wondered if it would ever come to fruition.
I Discovered My Husband after Many Years of Marriage
This might sound strange, but after 26 years of marriage and travels to Africa, I learned more about Ben and Liberia than ever before. The truth is that I knew little about his childhood summers in Vahun and Somalahun and about his time in America before we met. The book became his memoir when we decided to use his life as an example to illustrate his points. I spent a year writing down his stories, really beginning to understand his life in an African context, as well as the challenges of racism he faced in America. It drew us closer together than ever before.
On top of that, I had to bone up on Liberia and its history. The library was my second home as I ordered books on slavery, Liberia, and the social psychology of racism. I discovered that racism reproduces itself among people, often unconsciously, since it’s embedded in the culture of a nation. Ben’s unique perspective on the subject made me believe in what we were doing. His insights deserved to be shared; his message spread to the world.
At first the book was a labor of love for him. Then it became “obedience to the Lord.” I began to enjoy the process. Life whirled by, with writing softening the effect of menopause and the empty-nest syndrome when Joe and Peter left home.
Still, it was hard work. Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” That was very true for us. We were a real team—talking about ideas constantly and rejoicing each time something came together. Every time I wrote copy, Ben reviewed it, offering suggestions.
What’s it like being a writer? It’s taking notes—millions of them—in the car or at home. It’s having a notepad on the couch and on the nightstand to write down ideas as they come. It’s sitting in front of the computer for hours on end, oblivious to the world outside. It’s following your editor’s advice even when you don’t want to.
My computer was simultaneously my greatest blessing and my greatest curse. At one point, I got the Blue Screen of Death, losing everything. I was grateful that Ben Jr. had insisted I save everything on floppy disks, which were then downloaded onto computer number two.
Publishing the Book
The second walk of faith was publishing our book after it was completed in a short and long version. We soon discovered it’s one thing to write a book—quite another to get it published. It was grueling to search the latest edition of Writer’s Market for possible publishers, write that all-important query letter, and try to find a literary agent. Fourteen turned us down. I finally decided to contact publishers who didn’t require an agent.
In the meantime, Ben and I prayed for success. When three publishers expressed interest, we felt the Lord honoring our faith. One morning, I couldn’t believe my eyes as I sat down at my computer. There was an e-mail from Algora Publishing in New York, which said, “Enclosed is a contract to publish Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia. Please let us hear from you soon.”
I ran to the sun porch and yelled, “Honey! We have a publisher!”
He calmly replied, “Isn’t that what we’ve been praying for? God is working everything out.”
My Second Book
After he died in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story: Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief. The blog you just read is an excerpt from that book.