I Married a Liberian
As a white college student in the 1960s, 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 compared the effect of racism in Liberia with that in America in the 1950s. The indigenous Liberians, when they became Westernized and urbanized replicated Americo-Liberian rascality and this was displayed by Liberian students on American college campuses. Below is an excerpt from that book:
During the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, educated African-Liberians felt justified in using every trick in the book. Sumo, a Loma graduate student at Michigan State, was a classic example. He was well-schooled in Americo-Liberian machinations since he had been given to President Tubman as a boy.
Sumo was very charming. Whenever he had an exam or paper due, he asked my help. He said when he was born, the “mole” (soft spot) on his head never healed properly. It made him dizzy and unable to concentrate.
Sumo told me that the ducks on the banks of the Red Cedar River on campus, made a good Sunday dinner. Every week, he caught one by luring it with a kernel of corn tied on a string. When the duck got close enough, he grabbed it and put it in his coat.
I said, “Where’d you ever get that idea?
“Well, when you pass by the river, you hear them all going, ‘Quack, quack, quack.’ They have lots of babies and no one counts them.” He even tried to steal a goat from the agricultural pens but the students watched him too closely.
A Car With No Money Down
One day, Sumo saw an ad in the newspaper for a car with no money down. So he went and got a car. Two months later, he got a bill for the car. When the salesman called him about it, he told him, “American English is different from Liberian English. Where I come from, when you buy something, you have to pay for it. But you said I could buy with no money. I thought this was American generosity to foreign students. I don’t have any money.”
Later that day, the dealership manager called and told him, “You must bring the car back immediately and pay for the two months you used it. If there’s any damage, you’ll be liable to pay for that too.”
“It’s my car now. It’s too cold. I need it to go to school.”
When the dealership took Sumo to court, he asked the members of the African Student Association to come and back him up. About forty of us showed up. Most were Nigerians. A few were Ghanaians and Liberians. I sat waiting with my Vai friend, Gus, and Emmanuel from Nigeria.
The court session began with the judge explaining the case. Someone in our group said, “Where’s Sumo?”
The Reaction of the Other African Students
Emanuel said, “Who’s that coming!” We all jerked our heads around to see someone in a large African gown, wearing dark sunglasses and a red fez. With his gown trailing behind, he slowly and deliberately marched up the center aisle of the courtroom. Everyone stood, including the judge.
Emanuel elbowed me in the ribs and said, “That’s Sumo!”
Gus said, “Ben,” but I cut him off. Except for us African students nudging each other, the courtroom was quiet in awe.
At the dais, Sumo said slowly, “I am Sumo Jones, a student at Michigan State University from the Republic of Liberia, West Africa. I have held many positions in the Liberian government and I’m on a full scholarship from your country to help me treat Liberians as Americans treat people. This is a good country except for these people bringing this complaint.
“Their advertisement was deceiving. I took them at their word when they said I could get a car with no money. I even took the ad with me and asked the salesman, ‘Is this true?’ He proceeded to show me cars and I got one. Now they’re humbugging me to pay money. That’s the whole truth, your honor.”
The judge said, “Did you fill out any papers, Mr. Jones?”
“Yes, your honor. I gave them my name, address, student ID number, and my phone number. And that’s all. That’s how they found me.”
“Do you have the car here?”
“Yes, your honor, it’s in the parking lot.”
“Do you have a way home without it?”
“Yes, your honor. My countrymen are here. You see all those people? They’re from Africa working on their doctorate degrees. A few of them are working on a bachelor degree. They can all vouch for me.”
Gus was angry. He nudged me and said, “Let me talk.”
“Keep quiet. Let’s not complicate anything.”
Emanuel whispered loudly, “Sumo’s shaming all of us! We ought to beat him up when we get out of here! He’s giving us all a bad name. People will think all Africans are stupid like that. We’ve seen those ads all the time but we don’t go out and get cars. We know it means you just don’t have to pay right away.”
The judge said to Sumo, “Mr. Jones, just give me the car keys. Do you have any personal belongings in the car? Would you like to get them or should I send someone to do it?
The Judge’s Decision and the Consequences
“In a case like this, we’re supposed to go through a trial. Even you probably know, Mr. Jones, that you would have to pay the court costs. I think your friends who are with you, who have been here any length of time, know that this is a common ad that is not a give-away.
“I’m going to assume you’ve newly arrived and you don’t know our customs and culture. I’m going to dismiss the case. We’re very sorry to embarrass you. We respect you, Liberia, and your friends as Africa’s leaders of tomorrow.”
He gave the car keys to the bailiff who handed them to the car dealer’s attorney. He told the attorney, “Here’s your car back.” Then he pounded his gavel and said, “Case dismissed.”
Sumo said, “Thank you, Your Honor,” and he reached up to shake the judge’s hand. The judge stood and said, “Thank you, Sir. This is a classic case of cultural misunderstanding. Things like this can sometimes even cause war.” He slightly bowed to Sumo and said, “Thank you for your understanding.”
The African Student Association called a meeting to deal with Sumo. Emanuel was president at the time. But he was so furious, he asked me to chair the meeting. Sumo was bawled out royally. Everyone wanted to sack him as parliamentarian.
Gus said, “I’m a Liberian, but I’ve never seen such a stupid Liberian! He should be caste out of our group and sent home! The Vai people say, ‘Bullfrogs from the same swamp sound alike.’ When people hear about this case, they’ll think we’re all like that.”
Sumo lost his office but he was permitted to remain a member.
Sumo’s Car Accident on Campus
Several months later, Sumo was back in court. This time, he had bought an old clunker and had gotten into an accident with it. He ran a red light on campus and hit a car. There were plenty of witnesses.
This time, there were only three Liberians to give support. Sumo wasn’t dressed fancy. As an obviously pregnant woman walked up the center aisle, Gus whispered loudly, “So that’s who Sumo hit!”
One witness said, “This woman had the light.” Another witness said, “I couldn’t believe it. I saw this guy coming and he just plowed right into her car.”
Sumo said, “My car’s not damaged. How did her car get so damaged?”
The second witness said, “Because you ran into it!”
“You just don’t like Africans. That’s why you’re saying that.”
“At the time of the accident, I didn’t even know you were an African. I’m just telling the truth. You plowed right into that woman. As a matter of fact, I’m taking a course right now from an African professor and he’s my favorite, so don’t tell me I don’t like Africans!” (She was my student but I didn’t recognize her.)
The pregnant woman stood and said to Sumo, “What did you want to do to me? Look, at me!”
The judge said, “Have you checked with your doctor?”
“Yes, everything’s OK. I’m just glad I wasn’t harmed and my baby wasn’t. I don’t want to go into a lawsuit. I just want him to repair my car. The baby’s due and the quarter’s almost over. I’m preparing for exams.”
The judge told Sumo, “You’re a very lucky man. This woman and her husband should have sued you. You have two weeks to get her car repaired. I’m suspending your license for the next two quarters. I will instruct the campus police to help you with your driving skills. When I receive their report, I’ll decide whether to give you your driver’s license back.”
The African Association had to Bail Him Out
Sumo couldn’t afford to repair the car. The members of the African Student Association had to pool their money to bail him out. He bribed the black officers of the campus police by buying them beer. He showed them his police badge and told them he was a police captain in Liberia. They gave him a good report.
I Wrote our Love Story
After my husband’s death in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.