Anita and Ben Wedding Photo

Wedding photo

I Married a Liberian

In the 1960s, 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 trips to Liberia, including visits to his tribal village of Vahun upcountry in Lofa County. He also had close ties to the Dennis’ of Monrovia.

We Wrote Slaves to Racism Together

After were were married 30 years or so, my husband was losing his eyesight and he really wanted to explain the causes of Liberia’s Coup of 1980 and subsequent civil wars in the 1990s.  By that time, he was retired and for the next 14 years, we worked on that book, Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, which describes the effect of racism on Liberia, comparing it with America. I thought I knew him pretty well, but I learned a lot more about him as he told me stories of his teen years in the 1940s in Liberia.  The following is an excerpt from that book:                                                                                    Slaves to Racism Book Cover

My Americo-Liberian Uncle, C.C. Dennis

My uncle, C.C., published a newspaper in Monrovia that featured President Tubman and the True Whig Party. When I was a boy and even a teenager, he was always checking my clothing. Every time he saw me, he said, “Let me see how you’re dressed.”

“How do I look, C. C.?”

“You have to start over.”

“I’m not going to take my clothes off!”

“You have to do things properly.”

One day I was in a hurry and miss-buttoned the top button of my pull-over shirt. The minute C.C. saw me, he said, “B.G., you can’t do that! You look like you’ve never worn a shirt before. Look at yourself!”

“Why, what’s wrong? I was in a hurry.”

1970's & 1980's Liberia Photo - Two Story BuildingDressing Properly was Very Important – Clothes Make the Man

“You have to dress properly.”

One day he advised me, “B.G., you have to put your belt in the loops before you put on your pants. Otherwise, you’ll miss a loop and people will think you’re a raw countryman. They’ll think you don’t even know how to put a belt on. They won’t say anything to you, but they’ll say to each other, ‘Look at that raw countryman.’

“Country people just wear twine or a piece of cloth for a belt. You have to get a good leather belt with a shiny buckle because girls look at belts too.”

One day, I was in C.C.’s bathroom when he needed to come in quickly. He saw me zipping up my pants and said, “Wait a minute, B.G. There’s a proper way to do that. To save yourself from embarrassment, watch me. There are two basic steps. First, you pull the zipper up and bend the zipper pull down. Then, as you buckle your belt, you check the zipper pull with your finger. That’s the civilized way.

“People aren’t going to tell you your flap is open. Lots of countrymen don’t even know their pants are open but they wear gowns so they don’t have to worry. You’ve got to make sure your zipper’s up because any part of your body that’s open is a disgrace and tells a whole lot about who you are.”

Pajamas were a Status Symbol                                                            Man and woman standing together

Wearing pajamas meant you were civilized. Natives wore nothing to bed. When they got up, they simply wrapped their cover cloth around them. During the 1930s, Americo-Liberian men wore to bed British woolen long underwear, called union jacks or long johns. During the 1940s, they wore pajamas. They even had their pajamas starched.

Many mornings, as a teenager, I walked over to my Aunt Louise’s house. Her next door neighbor was Mr. Stubblefield, the adjutant general to the president. He was usually sitting on his porch in his pajamas. Sometimes he stood up and said, “Hey Benjamin where’re ya goin’?”

“I’m going to see Aunt Louise.”

“Well, I’m lucky today.”

“How come?”

“I called you by your right name instead of calling you Joe. You know how I knew it was you? You visit your Aunt Louise more than Joe. Good for you!”

One day I said to him, “Why are you always sitting on your porch in your pajamas?”

“Don’t you do that?”

“No, I get dressed and hang up my pajamas before I go out.”

“Is that what they do where you came from?”

“Yes, people don’t go outdoors in their pajamas in Germany. The only ones I’ve seen who do it are Liberians.”

A Blessing to Have Night Clothing

“I tell you, little boy. I believe my grandfather, my father, and my brother all do the same thing. It is a blessing to have night clothing and day clothing. Many people go naked and don’t have anything to wear. I wear my day clothing longer than I wear my night clothing. Giving my pajamas a little more wearing in the morning won’t do ‘em any harm.”

The next morning as he greeted me, I teased him, “I just don’t feel comfortable with people wearing their night clothing outside. That’s supposed to be private.”

“You frisky little boy! You don’t know anything! You should listen to your elders and do the same. Don’t talk to me any more about my pajamas!”

“Yes, Sir. I’ll stop talking to you about it when you stop wearing those pajamas outside!”

He yelled good-naturedly, “Get away from here, Ben!” And I ran off.

Dressing in Style During WWII

During World War II, I saw a prominent Americo-Liberian dressed in a zoot suit and I asked him, “What are you wearing that for?”

He said, “That’s the style.”                                                                                                                                                                                 monrovia

This Practice Continued in the 1970s

During the 1970s, when I stayed with my Uncle C.C., he told me, “B.G., remember tomorrow is Sunday. Put your clothes out for pressing or call the girls to look through your things and prepare everything. Are your shoes polished?”

“No.”

“Look what you’re doin’ to me!  Shoe polish can’t be that expensive.”

“I don’t polish my shoes every Saturday in America.”

“This isn’t America. This is Liberia. What’re you gonna wear?  Let me see your ties. We’re goin’ to church. You have to look good. I’ll have Jimmy polish your shoes.”

“Jimmy has his own shoes to polish.”

“You’re a Dennis. You mean you never learned to polish your shoes?”

“I polish my shoes.”

“They don’t look polished.”

“When they get dirty, I polish them.”

“B.G., you never go to church without shinin’ your shoes, dirty or not. You’re goin’ to church. There’ll be a lotta people there. What will people say of us? What’re you gonna wear?  Let me check your suit and shirt. You have to look good.”

Keeping Up Appearances – Americo-Liberian Style

When I was a teenager, C.C. was always trying to teach me proper manners. One day he told me, “B.G., are you going out? Where’s your handkerchief? A gentleman can’t go out without a handkerchief.”

“I don’t need a handkerchief.”

“Even when you’re not sweating, you must wipe your face with it. It’s the proper thing to do.”

Another time he told me, “B.G., leave your napkin in your lap. And each time you take a bite, use it.”

Once I was cleaning my teeth with a toothpick and C.C. said, “You can’t do that, B.G.!  Always cover your mouth with your other hand when you use a toothpick.”

“What for? I wasn’t displaying anything.”

“You can’t do that. It’s not proper. Do like me.”

He looked so ludicrous as he struggled to cover his mouth while using a toothpick, that it would only draw more attention. Years later during the 1970s, it amused me to see President Tolbert doing the same thing.

I Wrote Our Love Story                                                                        Beyond Myself Book Cover by Author Anita Katherine Dennis

After my husband died in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.