Caught Between Two Cultures
We live in a multicultural world. Thousands of people across the globe no longer live in the culture they grew up in. At the same time, they no longer fully belong in the new culture. They have acclimated to the new culture but no longer freely belong to either culture. My husband of 40 and a half years was one such person.
Son of a Diplomat
As a privileged African son of a diplomat, he spend his winters in Berlin, Germany and his summers in his tribal homeland of Liberia. As a 16-year-old, he was sent to study pre-law at Oxford University right after World War II. He didn’t return home to his village in Liberia until 23 years later. He no longer knew the complex Mende and Gbandi folklore or proverbs and yet, he was very much a son of the tribe descended from a powerful Mende chief and expected to fulfill his obligations to them. His life was full of great contrast – a college professor in America, a tribal son in a remote village in upcountry Liberia.
The truth is, he never fully belonged in either culture. Below is an except from our love story I wrote after his death in 2009.
Excerpt from Beyond Myself
Ben was a member of different social groups in Liberia and America; he was never completely enveloped or limited by any of them. His training in anthropology and sociology enabled him to step back and understand people from an academic perspective. With his numerous connections, he bridged the gap in so many ways: between Americo-Liberians and tribal people in Liberia; among Africans, Liberians, and Americans; between blacks and whites in the United States; and between foreigners and Americans among the faculty and students. By marrying him, I became part of that world.
In addition to cultural challenges, there were racial realities. This may sound odd, but I first realized I was in an interracial marriage when I cleaned his kinky hair out of the bathtub. I had to buy him skin lotion for his dry “ashy” legs—something I’d never heard of before. When he told me black people could get sunburned, I was astonished. One day, I marveled that the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet weren’t dark-skinned. While he knew otherwise, he told me a parable that had circulated in the Negro community during the 1950s, “When God created man, He told everyone to wash in the river. White people hurried in first. Then came the red- and yellow-skinned folks. Black people were so late that, by the time they arrived, they could only put the soles of their feet and the palms of their hands in the water that was left.”
Arrival in America in 1950
Ben had arrived in 1950, with America on the cusp of the civil rights movement. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, he lived with Martin Luther King Jr. for several weeks, researching that “new social movement in the South” for his master’s degree in sociology. In 1963, he debated Malcolm X at Michigan State University, countering the call for black separatism by arguing for integration, saying blacks had earned full-fledged citizenship. He had me read The Autobiography of Malcom X, and we were both saddened by his assassination in 1965.
Trying to Identify with American Blacks
Ben empathized with American blacks, but they didn’t necessarily identify with him. In April of 1968, I was four months pregnant. We were on the couch, watching the national news, when we heard that Rev. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Ben was speechless, looking like someone had punched him in the stomach. After we listened to the details, he said quickly, “I’ve got to meet with the black students on campus.”
Later that evening, he came back crestfallen, saying, “They told me I didn’t understand. I was a foreigner. I told them I lived with Martin. I marched with him. It didn’t make any difference.” He struggled not to break down.
I didn’t detect racial bitterness in him. He was familiar with colonialism and experienced plenty of racism in the United States. He was hurt by it, but I think he was more objective because of his academic training and the fact that he hadn’t grown up with it. I saw how charming and engaging he was in public, but I also sensed his underlying insecurity as a black man in America’s white world.
Learn the Whole Story
To learn the whole story, read Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.