I Married a Liberian Chief
As a white college student in the 1960’s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. In Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, which we published in 2009, he shared his experiences growing up in Berlin, Germany (as an African with German parents in the 1930’s). In his words:
My Husband’s Link to Slavery
My last name, “Dennis,” stems from the transatlantic slave trade. My father told me as a boy that some of our Mende people were taken into slavery in America. In Richmond, Virginia, my ancestors, the Dennis brothers, became Free Negroes, each owning three or four slaves themselves. When they went to Liberia during the 1800s, they freed their slaves and took them with them.
One brother remained on the coast in Monrovia as an Americo-Liberian. The other brother, knowing they had come from the Mende tribe, traveled to an area just within Liberia’s northern border with Sierra Leone, where the Mendes in Liberia live. There, he was accepted as a descendant of someone taken into slavery from the line of the great Mende chief, Ngombu Tejjeh.
An African with German Parents
His “German” Father
I knew my father, Ngombu Tejjeh Dennis, as a man who strived to be the best and wanted the best of everything. He grew up during the late 1800s in the British colony of Sierra Leone where the vast majority of Mendes lived. He attended Oxford University Law School and later served as Liberian consul in Berlin, Germany, from the late 1920s to the early 1940s.
My father was always impeccably dressed in European style, whether he was in Berlin or in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. At the consulate in Berlin, he had a barber trim his hair every two weeks even though he was mostly bald. He relaxed in the evenings by playing his violin in his study.
His “German” Mother
My father married my mother, Kpanah Mali, after his first wife, my mother’s older sister, died in childbirth. My mother was from the adjacent Gbande tribe in Liberia. When she was six months pregnant in 1929, he sent her to Liberia so that his child would be born on native soil. She surprised him with twin sons, Joe and me.
My mother wore beautiful African gowns wherever she was. Although she was illiterate, she was loved and revered because of her calm, gracious manner and her wisdom in dealing with people. She was a Muslim. I can still recite Arabic phrases from her prayers.
My father was a Christian. When we were in Berlin, he sent Joe and me to a nearby Lutheran church. He bought us Bible story books. My father wanted the best education for us so he hired private German tutors who taught us in our own classroom at the consulate. He enrolled us in a children’s theatrical group that performed Shakespearean plays. He took the family on trips around Europe.
I grew up in a world of German servants at the consulate. Our governess, Frau Decker, was like a second mother. She made us make our beds, straighten our toys, and scrub between our toes.
My parents hosted many dinners for the Germans. Joe and I would be dressed in identical outfits and the Germans would fuss over us. We didn’t like attending all of these social affairs. Sometimes, Joe made me pretend I was sick so we could go out and play.
In the afternoons after school, we played with our German friends and rode our bikes all over Berlin. One day we wandered so far, we got lost. A policeman took us home. When my father was summoned to the door, the policeman told him, “Mr. Ambassador, here are your children.”
Marching for the Fatherland
One day, our German friends brought Joe and me some khaki shorts and shirts so we could march with them for the “Fatherland.” My sister, Angie Brooks, heard us talking and ran and told our father. He called out of his study window, “You’re not going with them! You are not a German!”
The boys said to me, “You’re a German! Your father must have just gotten up from his nap and he’s not thinking well.”
I yelled back, “But Papa! All my friends say I’m a German!”
He said, “Take one step and you’ll answer to me.”
After our friends left, I went inside and told my mother, “Mama, Papa says I’m not a German.”
She said, “He’s right.”
“But then what am I?”
“You’re an African.”
“You mean the place we go for vacation?”
The Rest of the Story
To learn more of the story, read Slaves to Racism. To learn our love story that I wrote after he died in 2009, read Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.