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 arrived in America in 1950 attending various colleges. During the 1960s, he taught at Michigan State, where a number of African students had received scholarships, including Liberians. These are some stories about those students which illustrate how they replicated Americo-Liberan bravado. Some of these stories are in Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, which we wrote together and was published in 2009.
An Americo-Liberian Mentality in a Vai Graduate Student
During the 1950s, I became very close to Gus, a Vai graduate student at Michigan State. Gus had worked in the Executive Mansion as a secretary and had gotten an overseas scholarship through his ties to the Americo-Liberian circle of power. While Gus was highly successful academically, at the same time, he was insecure and deeply sensitive. He wanted to succeed and be accepted in all settings, but especially among the Americo-Liberians. They were his complete reference in everything.
I co-signed for a car for Gus. One morning, when it was sleeting in Lansing, he called me at my graduate student office and told me, “I’m in trouble.” When I drove over there, I saw his car in a small ravine by the side of Kalamazoo Street. He was standing by his car, his nose running from the cold.
“Gus, what happened? Did someone hit you or push you off the road?”
“But you’re in the gutter!”
“I was going slow when a little girl passed me like I was standing still – like I was a small boy! When I speeded up to get a good look at her, I suddenly found myself in this mess. Look at my nose.”
“Gus, you can never take your eyes off the road, especially in bad weather like this. That girl’s gone on her merry way. She doesn’t even know you’re sitting here in the gutter.”
“Ben just help me get out of this place.”
After we got some help to push the car back on the street, Gus said, “I’m gonna look for that girl! I’ll put a notice in the paper and pretend to give her something.”
“How will the girl even know she was the one? She simply passed you and never looked back.”
“Ben you think too much, but you’re right. I’d just like to know. Even after that, he watched girls driving on campus to see if he recognized any.
Ridicule to Bolster His Ego
Gus could be incredibly charming in the right social situation. Most of the time, however, he ridiculed others to bolster his ego. In his bitterness, he ridiculed Americo-Liberian bravado. At the same time, he mimicked it. There was a rivalry among Africans educated abroad. Gus liked to pick on other Liberian and African students. He described a dynamic Nigerian doctoral student at MSU by saying, “He’s ugly like an ape but he has a good mind.”
Gus’ particular target was Sumo, a Loma graduate student. One day, Gus said to Sumo, “Look at your pointed head! You look like ‘Yangbai!’(a masked being) You see, Ben? When Sumo gets angry he really looks like Yangbai!”
“Gus, leave Sumo alone. He has a paper due in two days and I’m going to help him.”
“You’re wasting your time, Ben. Sumo says the mole on his head is soft and he can’t think. Sumo? Why don’t you go home and make palm wine? If you fall, your head will stick in the palm branches and hold you up until someone comes to help. Have you ever looked in a mirror at your head?”
“Sumo, I bet your ‘mole’ hurts and you’ve got a headache right now. He can’t take it, Ben! If you help him, you gonna kill him because his brain will bust! When that happens I’m gonna tell everyone it was your fault. You gave him too much book and he couldn’t take it.”
Sumo said, “This half-Vai, half-Bassa has too much mouth!”
“I may be half and half but look at my grades. If it wasn’t for Ben, you’d be buried because you’re academically dead! Ben’s only prolonging your agony.”
A Raucous Laugh and Endless Criticism
Gus created a stir wherever he was with his raucous laugh and endless criticism. He loved to point out inconsistencies in others. Whenever I was around him, I had to smooth ruffled feathers.
Gus didn’t spare white graduate students. One of my good friends was Clint, a white graduate student from South Dakota. One day, Gus and I were eating with Clint in the graduate lounge. Clint said, “When you live in a farm area, you see all kinds of things. Our neighbor’s goat always came and nibbled the flowers in our yard and the vegetables in our garden. When the goat had two kids, the problem got worse. My father threatened the neighbor, ‘If your goats do this anymore, I’m gonna kill ‘em.’
“The neighbor said, ‘You’ll have to deal with me before you do that.’
“My father said, ‘I’ll deal with you right now!’ and he slugged him. My father beat him soft! You can bet those goats never came back in our yard!”
Gus said, “Ha! Ha! Ha! You mean your father beat someone up about a goat eating leaves? Was your father an educated man? Ha! Ha! Ha! Your parents must be barbarians! Our goats in Africa all eat our cassava leaves. The chickens do too. But we don’t fight about that! You live in South Dakota? I don’t wanna go there! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
By this time, everyone in the lounge was staring at us. Gus was oblivious. He went on, “You know, Clint? We’ve got a parable in Africa – ‘A leopard never changes his spots.’ Even though you get your degree, I bet you’ll be just like your father – beating someone up because his goat ate your leaves! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
“Gus, that’s enough, please. Maybe the neighbor thought Clint’s father was a small boy like they do in Liberia. It’s the same thing.”
“Ben, you like to see everything differently.”
“But, Gus, it’s the same thing.”
“You like to dress things up. Let’s call it like it is.”
“That’s the way it is, Gus.”
Clint just sat there looking at us. His face was beet red. From then on, he avoided Gus. Whenever Gus came across Clint on campus, he said to those with him, “Here comes Clint! His father slugged a man because a goat ate his leaves! You gotta watch him. He may be the same way! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
A Doctorate in Meat Cutting
One day, Gus and I were standing in front of Burke Hall waiting for someone, when we saw a group of students walk by. They were wearing overalls and carrying some strange containers. Gus was curious so he said, “Are you goin’ to class dressed like that? What are you carrying?”
One of them said, “These packages are part of our agricultural project.”
“What are you getting your degree in?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“There’s a technique in cutting and packaging meat that preserves it. We’re learning how to package meat in such a way that it keeps fresh even when it’s shipped from one end of the country to the other, even to Canada or Central or South America.”
“Let me get this straight. You’re getting a Ph. D. in learning how to cut and pack meat?”
He shook his head slowly and said to me, “Ben, this is a strange university. The people in my village are one hundred per cent illiterate. And they’ve been cutting up and butchering elephants before my great grandfather was born. And they’re still doing it! I grew up on that meat.”
He said to the graduate student, “And you’re getting a doctorate to cut and package meat? Ha! Ha! Ha! Can you believe that Ben? This is a s-t-r-a-n-g-e country, Ben, I tell you. That’s a lotta money to get the highest academic degree just to cut and pack meat!
“If I didn’t have just a year and a half to go, I wouldn’t even get a degree from this university! If I told anyone in Liberia that people in America can get a Ph.D. from my school to cut and pack meat, they’d send me to Piso Island where they keep the crazy people!”
At first, the doctoral students were puzzled by Gus’ diatribe. Now they were red-faced. Gus went on to demonstrate, saying, “Watch me. For a chicken, we just hold the head and swing. Then we put it in hot water and take the feathers off and cut it up and eat it.”
“Gus, please. Leave them alone.”
“But that’s the truth, Ben! None of us would come here to get a Ph.D. to cut meat! Except these people. Something must be wrong with them! If our lives depended on getting such a degree, we’d all be dead!”
With that, Gus walked away. One of the students asked me, “Where does he come from? Does he talk like that to everyone?”
I said, “I have to apologize for him, gentlemen. He has his own way of thinking and expressing himself. He’s a loudmouth who talks before he thinks. We’re both from Africa but I try to think before I talk.”
Gus Railed Against the Americo-Liberians and at the Same Time, Wanted to Succeed as They Did
My Vai friend, Gus, had observed the Americo-Liberians at close range. At Michigan State, he constantly railed against Americo-Liberian advantage and corruption. Tubman was his particular target. But he said they were all corrupted. Each day, his theme was, “Ben, we have to go and change the government. It’s a disgrace. Liberia has resources but its leaders are completely immoral. Think about it, Ben.”
Gus constantly criticized Americo-Liberian extravagance and excess. At the same time, he was ambitious. He wanted everything they had – their status and wealth. When he returned to Liberia, he followed the national trend. He did what he already knew.
After a stint at a black college in Alabama, Gus returned home and got a high government post. He built a lavish house in Monrovia and built other houses for rental. He ran around with women.
Do What I Say, Not What I Do
During the 1980s, I ran into Gus at Robertsfield International Airport. I said, “Gus, I thought you told me we should come home and reform Liberia. I hear you’ve built all kinds of houses. What’s going on?”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! Ben, when in Rome, do like the Romans! The big people here do nothing. We’re doing all the work. When you’re in government, all these foreigners who do business here, bribe you with money and building materials. You may as well get in on it. Besides, one man can’t make a difference.”
Our Love Story
When my husband died in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.