Tuesday, March 13, 2012


I was working on Governors Island in New York Harbor in the mid-Eighties when I met Christine. A secretary for Coast Guard Intelligence, she was tall and shapely with a head full of beautifully beaded braids, and facial features that were a dead ringer for Whitney Houston. Besides the physical resemblance, they shared the same astrological sun sign, Leo, a similar soulful, fun-loving but regal personality, and tragically, the same personal demons.

Christine and I clicked immediately. We shared the same thoughts sometimes, lunched at the Officers Club, hung out in Brooklyn bars where she knew everybody, and loved the same songs, to which we sang along as we rode in her car. One singer who especially impressed us with the sheer power of her voice, was the lately departed Miss Whitney Houston.

We kicked it for about a year, and then we both left the island and basically went our separate ways. About two years after that, I was walking one night along Rockaway Boulevard in South Ozone Park, Queens where I lived, when someone called out to me. It was a woman I didn't recognize. She was fat, disheveled, and walking with a limp, like she had been shot in the leg or something. I was shocked when I saw that it was Christine. No way could this be the elegant, stylish, runway model-looking Christine from Coast Guard Intelligence. Christine, who had always been loaded with cash, practically begged me to buy a nickel bag of weed from her. Damn. What the hell happened to her, I asked myself. We didn't have the usual catch-up conversation that reunited friends have. I didn't ask what she had been doing with herself for two years or tell her what I had been up to. It was awkward, uncomfortable, and I just wanted to get the hell away from her. I walked on, but have never stopped wondering what happened, how she could have changed so much in just two years. And I thought of her every time I saw Whitney Houston's face on TV or in some magazine.

Subconciously I did know what happened to her. Though we had been really into each other physically, emotionally and sexually, something more powerful than our passion had come between us and robbed me of a woman I really liked, if not loved. That something was the same powdery white substance that heavily contributed to Whitney Houston's downward spiral from the heights of American popular culture, and ultimately her untimely departure from this earth.

The power of cocaine to destroy the lives of even the most gifted, talented, brilliant, and beautiful human beings cannot be overstated. But it is a duplicituous power, for as much as it can destroy, coke can also soothe, comfort, and banish both physical pain and the even more insiduous, emotional pain. The cocaine high is probably the most exquisite, sensual, and confidence-boosting experience one can have, and the crash that follows the soaring flight to Cloud Nine is conversely one of the most depressing experiences one can have. Whoever concocted the recipe for extracting blow from the coca plant should be exhumated, tarred, feathered, quartered, and then shot. Too late the addict realizes that the intense pleasure induced by sniffing or smoking Colombia and Mexico's biggest export is only bait to lure one into a terrible trap, much like the leopard that only notices the steel bars of the cage after he has feasted on the carcass placed in it to get him into a zoo someplace.

Life can be a bitch, to say the least. Worldwide recession, lay-offs, student loan defaults, prolonged unemployment, loss of loved ones, loneliness, despondency, hoplessness, all drive human beings to a need for escape from the harsh realities of life, which, just like cocaine, has the power to inspire, thrill and fill with joy sometimes, and to beat one down to the point where joy and happiness seem meant only for others. Everyone seeks escape in some form or other, whether they would admit it or not. Some seek escape in gambling or prostitutes, illicit affairs, dangerous extreme sports, sexual deviancy, religion, or American Idol. Most people who would condemn a Whitney Houston as a weak, self-indulgent coke head have a well stocked liquor cabinet at home, alcohol being even more insiduous than cocaine. But that's a whole different topic of course, as is the fact that it wasn't cocaine that killed Miss Houston, but prescription drugs, legal and socially acceptable, and far more deadly than any street drug, especially in combination with alcohol.

The power of cocaine to treat emotional pain, however temporaily, is especially relevant to gifted artists who are by necessity, unusually sensitive souls. Everyone deals with emotional trauma in one form or another, sometimes left over from early childhood and though symptom-less, a festering wound more dangerous than a physical one. One may not even be aware of these emotional wounds, or they could be buried deep in the subconscious, but it's still there, with real, lasting psychological effects, though one may not even be aware of how deeply they've been affected by some bad memory they've pushed to the back of their mind. It could be a traumatic childhood experience or simply an absentee parent, or perhaps parents who were physically present but emotionally absent, maybe an impossible-to-please father who heaped scorn and ridicule on everything his son (or daughter) did.

Most people cope successfully without the use of substances like coke and can't understand why someone with the world at their feet would need to indulge. Brilliant or gifted artists are however, not "most people." The average person simply can't understand that the very sensitivity that enables a person to produce great works of art, literature, music or architecture also makes them especially vulnerable to emotional trauma, or that it's emotional pain itself that produces such great works of art. They can't relate to the feeling of being in the world but not of it, that induces a Tupac Shakur to complain that he's "not happy here," despite his phenomenal success as an artist, the sense of frustration with being born with an aristocratic temperament but no money.

I've fought my own battles with my personal demons, and I don't know why I've been more fortunate than Whitney or Michael Jackson or Billie Holiday or Christine. I'm sure they all had somebody praying for them somewhere too, or perhaps deceased ancestors watching over them as well. But I'm quite convinced that the quality of the art that I produce is directly attributable to the emotional trauma that I self-medicated with certain illegal substances. The creative power is also destructive, as demonstrated in volcanic activity which can bring forth terrible death and catastrophe but also create astoundingly beautiful tropical islands.

Those awesome catclysmic forces latent within the very earth itself erupted terrifyingly millions of years ago to give shape and form to the most breathtakingly beautiful planet that we know of, in all the billions of galaxies. That duality is evident in everything around us, in the sun, the sea, the wind, the rivers and mountains, and within us. Who knows why and how creation and destruction, joy and pain are just two sides of the same doggone coin, or why the creative power within us can also destroy us? I'm more and more convinced that those who profess to know why, or to understand the mind of "God," or even if there is such a being as "God," are full of crap.

Goodbye, Whitney. And Michael and Marvin and Edsel, and most especially, Christine.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

SENYON JUAH NIMLEY, Legendary Sasstown Paramount Chief

Sasstown is the largest and most important of the five original Kru towns established on the southeastern coast in the 1500s(?) Its power was built on trade, fishing, seafaring and migrant labor. Designated a territory by early Liberian governments, it is now a district in the county of Grand Kru.

In 1930, long-held resentment over abuse of power by corrupt government officials and the Liberian Frontier Force exploded in all-out war on the Kru Coast, triggered by government reprisals against Kru chiefs and their people who had testified before the League of Nations Commission investigating forced labor practices in that area of the country. At the epicenter was Sasstown and its now legendary leader, Juah Nimley.

The following passage is from HISTORICAL DICTIONARY OF LIBERIA 2nd Edition (Dunn, Beyan, and Burrowes, African Historical Dictionaries Series No. 83, Scarecrow Press Inc. 2001)

The resistance to government authority began in 1931 and effectively continued until 1936 when the "rebel chief" was captured and exiled by the government. The people of Sasstown (a locale from which Liberians were forcibly shipped to Fernando Po) decided on a campaign of systematic non-cooperation with the government. Between July 1930 and October 1931, the District Commissioner of the town abandoned his post and there was no government representative. A government military expedition led by Colonel T. Elwood Davis was unable to restore authority.

There ensued a period of civil strife for which the government blamed Chief Nimley. He was warned, but to no avail. By November 1931, actual hostilities occurred between the Sasstown Kru and government forces. President Edwin J. Barclay decided to send a delegation of lettered Kru to mediate. It was reported that while mediation talks were ongoing between Colonel Davis and Chief Nimley, the Chief's men surrounded the conrence hall in combat attire. Intense hostilities soon resumed.

With the resistance already in an advanced stage, Nimley seemed sustained by the fear that he would be treated by the government as were the rebels of the 1915-16 Kru rebellion. Expressing this fear in 1934, he wrote to Lord Cecil of the League of Nations Liberia committee:

"It is most certain that we will be arrested like the Nana Kru chiefs who are now in custody in Sinoe, and in the end we may be killed like the 75 chiefs who were invited to a "peace conference" at Sinoe but then seized and executed in 1916." 

With failure of the League's plan of assistance largely as a result of the diplomatic skills of President Edwin Barclay and his Secretary of State Louis Arthur Grimes, the rebels of Sasstown took a more pessismistic view of their plight. This was reflected in a renewed correspondence by Nimley with Lord Cecil.

"Disappointment and sorrow ran throughout the whole of Liberia when it was found out that President Barclay alone with his first cousin, Grimes, had turned down the League's plan which all of us wanted." (Sundiata, 1980, 128-43)

Not long afterward the entire rebellion crumbled. By August 1936, Juah Nimley had defied the government for five years. Two months later, he arrived in Monrovia as a prisoner. Barclay subsequently interviewed "Wonderful Nimley," as he had come to be known by some. It was the considered view of the President that Nimley had been led astray by lettered Kru Liberians with Didhwo Twe as the "evil genius" behind the resistance. Chief Nimley was then exiled to Gbarnga for several months and in 1937, he was allowed to return to Sasstown. He died shortly thereafter.

For more on the Kru-Liberian government relations:

Jo Sullivan, CAUSES OF THE 1915-16 KRU REVOLT, Liberian Studies Journal



Anthony Morgan, KRU WARS, Seabreeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings

Thursday, April 28, 2011






You see them laid out neatly on tables at the Harlem Book Fair and similar annual events in all major cities, or lying casually on coffee tables in East Point, Atlanta, Emmerson Village, Baltimore, and Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, right next to the pack of Newports or the ash tray full of blunt clips. Much like the birth of Hip Hop in the early Eigthties, once voiceless people are being given a voice, previously untold stories are being heard, and heretofore untapped markets of new readers created by an ever increasing pool of talented and not-so-talented new writers.

The provocative glossy covers attract the vision from the neat stacks of the sidewalk vendors lining 125th Street, in the hands of young women on the subway engrossed in the tales of grime and grit, and on the shelves of your neighborhood Borders, Barnes and Noble, even the public libraries. The titles are provocative and just as eye-catching as the covers. "Purple Panties." "Thong on Fire." And it's not just young women reading them either. Teri Woods and Deja King are just as popular in the penal institutions filled with African-American and Latino males as they are with young females. More men reportedly read Urban Fiction than any other genre.

Also known as Street Literature, Urban Fiction emerged much for the same reasons "gangsta rap" did. Stories needed to be told. Any writer can attest to the overwhelming need for an outlet to the stories filling the head, screaming to get out onto paper and into the hands of people with an equally overwhelming need to read them. The daily, often life-and-death drama of the streets can induce as much need for therapeutics as the post-traumatic stress of young people returning from combat in Afghanistan. And as Terri Macmillian once said, writing is a whole lot cheaper than pyschotherapy.

Street life stories can often be stranger than fiction, sometimes just too crazy to be true. And they're the same whether in Southeast Atlanta or Chicago's South Side, Flatbush, Brooklyn or Magnolia Projects in New Orleans. Young girl comes home from school and finds her older drug dealing brothers running a train on one of their bourgeois customers who later turns out to be an assistant DA, and video taping it. Young man opens a bedroom window for air, the one year-old girl his mother is babysitting falls out of the window, six stories to her death. Vindictive baby mamas turn in their fugitive boyfriends for a share of the bounty on their heads, fifteen year-old girl inherits her brothers' crack empire after they get sent up north. From the HBO series The wire to the ubiquituous Law and Order TV episodes, street stories are being told mostly for entertainment and a vicarious ghetto experience, but Street Lit lends an added sense of urgency, like gangsta rap's gritty stories warned of the Crown Heights and Los Angeles riots.

Just as major record companies were uninterested and dismissive of the early purveyors of "gangsta rap," established publishing houses had little or no interest in stories from the streets. In the tradition of NWA selling their independently produced rap tapes out of the trunks of their cars, the hustla-authors took their product directly to the streets, like clerical worker Teri Woods reacting to endless rejection letters by self-publishing her Urban Fiction classic "True To The Game." The success of such daring independent ventures inevitably caught the attention of the very same publishing houses that had initially snubbed people like Woods, again much as the major record companies scrambled to capitalize on the do-it-yourself success of groups like NWA.

But Urban Fiction is not really new. On the website Streetfiction.org, a writer named "Daniel" chronicles a history going back to 1722, (Moll Flanders, "Social Reflections of A Prostitute) through the 1800s, (Stagalee Ballads, "Original Gangsta Badass Hustler) to the prolific, popular Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim of the 1960s and 70s. The recent explosion in the market can be attributed to myriad reasons, among which are the 1990s Crack epidemic which swept up untold numbers of young urban people, both as purveyors and victims, the endless and ever expanding "war on drugs" with its own list of casualties, not to mention the current recession, which undoubtedly leads more people to try their hand at writing and selling their stories in lieu of non-existent employment opportunities.

Many of the authors and independent publishers are former players in the lucrative drug game, have relatives or friends in the game, or some other connection to street hustles. In other words the stories are real, which lends irony to the genre's title, as well as a raw power that compensates for the often poorly written and badly edited content. Poorly written and edited might be an understatement in fact. Some of the writing is simply horrible, and what "editing" there is, often downright atrocious. But page after page of pure drama keeps the reader engaged.

Readers accustomed to more professional presentations could be said to make a trade-off, settling for real life grime as opposed to the more polished fantasy of mainstream novelists. Street fiction authors write down the stories told to them by their friends and associates, or in many cases were active participants themselves, which lends an aura of authenticity far less true of more mainstream purveyors of fiction. With the recent entry into the genre of more established publishing houses, the quality of writing and editing promises to be affected in the positive, as G-Unit, Urban Books and Simon & Schuster step the game up.

Like the harder edges of Hip Hop, Urban Fiction draws its share of critics. The genre's raw street language, graphic sex and undiluted violence are controversial in some African-American literary circles and encounters mixed reception among librarians. According to Anne Barnard in the New York Times Oct 22, 2008, critics argue that Street Fiction perpetuates stereotypes, another argument we've heard before in connection with that other popular crossover from the urban subculture, Hip Hop. Long established authors like Toni Morrison and Terri Macmillian don't appreciate the fact that "B More Careful" or "Girlz In Da Hood" are shelved next to their more respectable work. Omar Tyree, himself an early beneficiary of the Street Fiction market explosion, has reportedly decided to withdraw his talents from the genre. Barnard cites Drexel University Assistant Professor Vanessa Morris (Library Sciences) who reveals that some Black librarians loath the genre as a "cultural embarassment."

All of which figures into the larger cultural war between the African-American middle and upper class on one hand and the urban subculture which in recent years has become the nation's popular culture. This cultural battle is exemplified by the uproar over use of the N word, the percieved glorification of the criminal lifestyle and the dysfunctional family, lack of respect for education, and crass materialism. The Black upper classes however, may share some of the blame for this socio-cultural disconnect, as author and social critic Michael Eric Dyson and others have pointed out. The following quote, culled from a nathanielturner.com article on Jamaican dancehall culture, could easily apply to the Street Literature debate, when the genre is seen in the larger context of Hip Hop culture increasingly becoming international youth popular culture:
"It just will not do to embrace 'low life' Jamaican (African- proletarian) culture without sanitizing it and divesting it of its 'unsavory' qualities by scholarly reinterpretation. Weed smoking and misogyny aside, the Jamaican elite has to embrace the Dancehall or find itself left out of the loop of euro-hipness. And, that is the rationale for this reassessment of the gender politics of Dancehall. Co-optation is the name of the game."

An Urban Fiction writer colleague of mine breaks it down this way: "The Black middle class wants nothing to do with the ghetto. They spend their entire lives trying to distance themselves, to prove that they're not like 'those people.' So what do they care what we do, how we express ourselves culturally or what words we use as terms of endearment among ourselves? We're grown folks, they need to stop trying to tell us what to do."

While these socio-cultural issues will perhaps forever be debated by social scientists, the Urban Fiction market continues to grow, partly for the simple reason that people see themselves in those stories, or can identify in some way. Says Shonda Miller, an unofficial Urban Fiction field scout for the Queens Public Library, "I read what I can relate to. They're writing about what I've eperienced. It's easier than reading about Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive."

Public libraries across the country see Urban Fiction as a way to stimulate more interest in reading, spread literacy and more fully engage the public they serve. Lora-Lynn Rice, Collections Director at the Martin Library in York County, Pennsylvania commented in Barnard's article,
"We’ve got people who are reading for the first time. We’ve got people coming into our building who have never come here before. Why would we not embrace this?"
Why not, indeed? In an increasingly cross-cultural world, the more stories that can be told, the better humanity is served in terms of understanding, tolerance and perhaps even the possibility of change. Street Lit stories cover the gamut of urban pathologies and sociocultural issues, from absentee fatherhood and baby mama drama to the growing numbers of young women sexually into each other, from the criminalization of young black and latino men, widespread corruption in the criminal justice system, how law enforcement and the very lucrative prison industry contribute to the continuing mayhem in the ghetto, to the possible implications of the globalization of ghetto criminal subculture.

From strippers, video booty shakers and their effect on young womanhood to "ride or die chicks" doing fifteen year bids for their dope dealing boyfriends, the narratives are all from the perspective not of sociologists but the young people involved themselves. What makes a young woman agree to transport narcotic substances concealed on her person or "hold" a stash of deadly handguns for her boyfriend?
Where else could one gain better insight into the mental process of a teenage girl caught between love for her hustler boyfriend and an attraction to her girlfriend, as in this passage from "Panty Posse."

When she was fourteen, Crystal began to notice some strange feelings she had for other girls, especially Tasha Riley who had just transferred to her school. She told her mother about her confused feelings, being in love with Ricky and secretly attracted to her best friend at the same time. Karen sat her down for a heart-to-heart. That’s when Crystal discovered that both her older sisters, Toni and Michelle, at Spellman College, were gay.
"Don’t be afraid of what’s inside you," Karen advised. "Embrace it. Make it a strength rather than a weakness. Eff what the world thinks or says about it."
Crystal giggled at her mom’s surprising use of profanity. "Ma, you said a bad word."
Karen Freeman smiled. "That’s right, I said it. Eff em!"
They both chuckled, and then mother and daughter hugged, cried and laughed together, all at the same time.

Or into the minds of young men spending their most productive years in the custody of the US Bureau of Prisons? Here's an ecerpt from "When I Hear Drums: Autobiographical Essays."

A UNICORP job is the most coveted among inmates in the prison system. Inmates assemble aircraft parts, military gear and the office furniture used throughout the system and outside of it. It pays two dollars an hour, as compared to the twenty-five cent rate other inmates earn...Without justifying what I did or downplaying my own role in ending up at Danbury, could it be that the billions racked up by UNICORP from cheap inmate labor is the real reason for the "War on Drugs?"

The more people know about corruption in the criminal justice system, the more willing those with the power to make adjustments might be to bring more equity and balance to the system. From correction officers working for the drug kingpins and ganglords they are supposed to be guarding, widespread sex between female guards, staffers and inmates, to COs smuggling in weapons, drugs and cell phones and complicit in inmate beatings and murder, the more these stories are told, the greater the likelihood that perhaps our very concept of justice can be changed.

The more they know about what's really going on in the streets and how lives are impacted by government policies like the war on drugs and crime, the more willing those in power might be to effect change.
And if that still doesn't happen, at least they won't be able to say they didn't know. They'll know because the writers of Street Lit told them so, just like NWA's anti-police rants on wax warned of police corruption and brutality, and foretold the Los Angeles riots. Since President Obama never ever mentions a need for reform of the criminal justice system or repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws, we may assume he is not aware of the dark side of our system of justice. Perhaps the President could use a subscription to DON/DIVA or FEDS magazine, or better yet, a copy of "When I Hear Drums?"

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Matt Jones, who runs the website and blogspot Moved2 Monrovia.com, first alerted me to the loss of the Coleman house at the intersection of Front and Gurley Streets. Matt is an American journalist currently based in Monrovia. (http://movedtomonrovia.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2011-02-21T20%3A22%3A00Z&max-results=400

                                                Photo courtesy of Matt Jones/Moved2Monrovia.com
                                             Photo courtesy of Matt Jones/Moved2Monrovia.com

The house was featured in LAND AND LIFE REMEMBERED: Americo-Liberian Folk Architecture, by Holsoe, Herman and Belcher. Jones worries that more landmarks along Front Street, Broad, Ashmun and other areas are in danger.

While it is nice to see Monrovia undergoing a vibrant post-war construction boom and real estate market as  long-exiled property owners return home and liquidate their family homesteads, we should also remember that these architectural and historical treasures belong collectively to all Liberians. Their historical value translates into tourism potential, and development of historic sites translates into actual jobs for Liberian workers.

Our collective heritage can be a national asset and developmental aid, if proper attention is paid to preservation and restoration. We must act now to ensure the protection of historic buildings and sites. The need for a LANDMARKS PRESERVATION LAW is immediate, pressing and urgent.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission was established in 1965 when Mayor Robert Wagner signed the local law creating the Commission and giving it its power. The Landmarks Law was enacted in response to New Yorkers' growing concern that important physical elements of the City's history were being lost despite the fact that these buildings could be reused. Events like the demolition of the architecturally distinguished Pennsylvania Station in 1963 increased public awareness of the need to protect the city's architectural, historical, and cultural heritage.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission is responsible for identifying and designating the City's landmarks and the buildings in the City's historic districts. The Commission also regulates changes to designated buildings.

HPSOL (Historical Preservation Society of Liberia) is committed to raising awareness of the need to protect Liberia's historical and cultural heritage, and to nominating the country for UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.



                                                     Photo By Ute Klissenbauer and Korto Williams

Monday, April 18, 2011

Morgan Files: MARCUS GARVEY'S U.N.I.A. IN LIBERIAGabriel M. Jo...

Morgan Files: MARCUS GARVEY'S U.N.I.A. IN LIBERIA Gabriel M. Jo...: "MARCUS GARVEY'S U.N.I.A. IN LIBERIA Gabriel M. Johnson, Mayor of Monrovia and High Potentate of the UNIA stands to the right of Marcus Garv..."

Gabriel M. Johnson, Mayor of Monrovia and High Potentate of the UNIA stands to the right of Marcus Garvey, at UNIA convention, Liberty Hall, Harlem, 1922.

Widespread misconceptions surround the aborted plans for a UNIA settlement program in the Republic of Liberia in the 1920s. Chief among these is that the Liberian upper classes were averse to Garvey's plans which would have undermined "Americo-Liberian hegemony" over the country. The more complicated truth has less to do with "Americo-Liberian hegemony" than a curious combination of French, British and American interests in Africa, an all-too-human rivalry between Garvey and African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey's own failure to keep his grandiose plans under the requisite cloak of secrecy.

Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914 and within a span of five years it was a world-wide organization of millions, headquartered in New York City. The UNIA launched the Black Star shipping line among other business ventures and began to look to Liberia, the only continuously independent state in colonial Africa, as the site of a Pan-African empire that would work for the upliftment, redemption and empowerment of people of African descent all over the world in the long term, and the decolonization of Africa in the short term.

In 1920, Garvey launched the Liberian Construction Loan program to raise two million dollars, for the UNIA settlement in Liberia and a sizable loan to the Government of Liberia. The loan was intended as an alternative to a five million dollar loan being offered to the Liberians by the United States Government. Overnight, Garvey's followers bought up nearly 150 thousand dollars worth of bonds to finance the scheme. Untold hundreds of thousands more would be collected in succeeding months from Garvey's mostly working class African-American followers.

Liberians, like Black people everywhere, were fascinated by Garvey's eloquence and appeal to African pride, and the UNIA had a large and growing presence in the African country. Also Like Black people everywhere, they were divided as to the practicality of the UNIA's ambitious schemes and not immune to the controversy surrounding Garvey's own colorful, brash, larger-than- life persona.

High ranking members of government as well as ordinary working people were members of the UNIA or followers of Marcus Garvey, including former presidents Arthur Barclay and Daniel E. Howard, Thomas J.R. Faulkner, the former Mayor of Monrovia, Montserrado County Representative Didhwo Twe, Associate Justice Frederick E.R. Johnson, and his brother Gabriel M. Johnson, then the incumbent Mayor of Liberia's capital city.

On August 1, 1920, the first International Convention of the Negro Peoples of The World opened at the UNIA's Liberty Hall in Harlem. Black New York turned out in full to watch the spectacular parade, twenty-five thousand packed Madison Square Garden that night for a rally at which Garvey spoke, and Gabriel Johnson was elected Supreme Potentate of the UNIA, a rank second only to Provisional President-General Marcus Garvey himself. Johnson was the son of Liberia's eleventh president Hilary R.W. Johnson, and grandson of Elijah Johnson, one of the country's founders.

The UNIA loan came at one of the lowest points in Liberia's history. The lucrative coffee trade had been co-opted by Brazil, revenues were near zero, and foreign loans with exorbitant compound interest were coming due. With the nation's very sovereignty threatened by its indebtedness, Liberia had turned to the United States for a five million dollar loan to rescue her from her dire predicament. President Charles D.B. King was planning to lead a delegation to Washington and New York to plead their case with the American Senate when the UNIA's Elie Garcia, head of the Black Star Line, assured King that the UNIA would "raise subscriptions all over the world" to help Liberia retire its burdensome foreign debt.
Since the American loan came with equally burdensome demands for Liberian fiscal and administrative reform, the UNIA's alternative offer was especially appealing. Liberia's Secretary of State, Edwin Barclay in turn assured the UNIA Executive Council that Liberia stood ready "to afford the Association every facility legally possible in effectuating in Liberia industry, agriculture and business prospects."

When Gabriel Johnson returned to Liberia, A UNIA delegation accompanied him, headed by Cyril Crichlow, the new Resident Commissioner for Liberia.

President Charles D. B. King welcomed the UNIA to Liberia and invited them to establish headquarters.
Cape Mount County was initially considered for the UNIA beachhead, but in the end five thousand square miles was set aside near Harper, Maryland County. Garvey issued a circular letter calling for 250 thousand dollars to secure a ship that would transport workmen and materials to the site. By mid-January 1921, that amount was raised and supplies were landed at Harper, even as President King and his delegation were arriving in New York for talks with US government and banking officials.

At this point Garvey's bold pronouncements of his Liberia scheme had begun to attract the attention of the country's colonial neighbors, France and Britain. As W.E.B. Du Bois put it, "Instead of keeping this plan hidden, Garvey yelled and shouted and telegraphed it all over the world," placing the beleaguered Liberians in a very difficult position.

Edwin Barclay had expressed a similar concern over unwarranted publicity in accepting the UNIA offer:

"It is not always advisable nor politic to openly expose our secret intentions, our secret thoughts. That is the way we do-or rather don't do-in Liberia. We don't tell them what we think; we only tell them what they like to hear."

Compounding matters even further, Cyril Crichlow had a falling out with Supreme Potentate Gabriel Johnson and other members of the UNIA delegation in Monrovia. Crichlow, penniless and stranded, went to the US Ambassador for help in returning home. The Ambassador somehow persuaded him to hand over confidential UNIA documents. These documents included a very unflattering appraisal of Liberian government officials that was published in the London-based AFRICAN WORLD. The UNIA plans had also become a source of friction and division in the True Whig Party halls of power, exacerbated by the fact that Garvey's promises of financial aid to replace that of the United States were not forthcoming; The Black Star Line was in financial trouble as business declined and contributions decreased due to the post World War I economic slump.

Pressure from Britain, France and Washington DC intensified. As Gabriel Johnson made plans to attend the 1921 convention in New York City, the diplomatic wires were already burning up with Washington's concern over the new closeness between the UNIA and America's only ally in Black Africa, a country founded largely as an outpost of American commercial and shipping interests:

From: John C. Wiley
Division of Western European Affairs

To: William C. Hurley
United States Department of State, June 6,

Re: Visit of Gabriel Johnson, High Potentate of
the UNIA and Mayor of Monrovia.

"Gabriel Johnson is a brother of F.E.R. Johnson, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia, now in the US as one of the four members
of the Liberian Plenary Mission to negotiate for the five million dollar loan. F.E.R. Johnson is very anti-American and opposed to the loan. Gabriel Johnson is a member of the UNIA and of course, opposed to the loan. He is probably being brought over by the Garvey people in an endeavor to negative the Department's plans. The Division considers it important that immediate steps be taken to stop Gabriel Johnson's voyage."

Johnson made it to the convention despite the diplomatic intrigue, but another telegram followed him, from Joseph C. Johnson, the US Minister Resident/Consul General in Monrovia, to Charles Evans Hughes at the US State Department, in which the Minister Resident stated, "Don't believe Gabriel Johnson's reasons in America are in the best interests of the United States."

Johnson succeeded in gaining entry into the United States only due to a feud between the State Department and the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The Department had refused to cooperate with the FBI in blocking Marcus Garvey's reentry into the United States after his tour of South America, and Hoover in retaliation refused to cooperate in preventing Gabriel Johnson's entry. Hoover saw that the State Department viewed Gabriel Johnson's UNIA ties and the Liberian construction scheme as a bigger threat than Marcus Garvey himself. Hoover was less concerned with the foreign policy implications than with Garvey's ability to stir up domestic unrest inside the United States.

Into this web of diplomatic intrigue and behind- the-scenes machinations stepped Garvey's old nemesis, W.E.B. Du Bois. A close friend of President C.D.B. King, Du Bois was also a longtime enemy of Marcus Garvey. He was from a socioeconomic class that wasn't as impressed with Garvey as the masses of working people were: the Talented Tenth. This was class struggle in the simplest of terms, as African-Americans, long protected from internal class conflicts by "smaller inequities in wealth and education," in Du Bois' own words, were gradually becoming more divided by affluence and education. According to Du Bois' biographer David Levering Lewis, this feud mirrored Du Bois' earlier battles with Booker T. Washington; mostly southern working people, farmers, domestics and tradesmen represented by Booker T. Washington, against the mostly northern, urban, college-educated, professional and light-skinned upper classes.

This animosity between the two men hadn't always existed; Garvey had sought Du Bois' support for years before he finally dismissed him as a mulatto with divided loyalties who simply could not be trusted. Du Bois had long railed against Garvey as a "demagog" who had come "to mislead, inflame, lie and steal, to gather large followings and then burst and disappear." These sentiments were expressed in articles he wrote for the NEGRO WORLD, the CHICAGO DEFENDER, and the CRISIS, the NAACP magazine that he edited. He had exposed financial improprieties and faulty accounting within the UNIA and in "The Demagog," an article he published in the CRISIS, had managed to persuade readers that Garvey and his movement invited shame and catastrophe. A "Marcus Garvey Must Go" movement arose, fired up by Du Bois' writings and led by A. Philip Randolph, James Weldon Johnson, Carl Murphy, publisher of the BALTIMORE AFRO-AMERICAN, among others. This "Friends of The Negro" movement was instrumental in making the Justice Department's case against Marcus Garvey for mail fraud, and loudly demanded his deportation.

Not all readers of the CRISIS were persuaded that Garvey's movement spelled catastrophe for Black people. In letters to the editor, some expressed displeasure at the NAACP aiding "in sending Mr. Garvey to jail and wrecking the UNIA rather than helping that organization. "

In his reply to those readers, Du Bois sidestepped the question of group loyalty and used his influence with President C.D.B. King to hammer the final nail in the coffin of Garvey's Liberia plan. He met with King while the latter was in New York negotiating for the loan, and persuaded him to publish an open letter in the CRISIS. "Under no circumstances, " C.D.B. King's letter stated, "will Liberia allow her territory to be made a center of aggression or conspiracy against other sovereign states." Note that the "sovereign states" referred to were the colonial territories of France and Britain surrounding Liberia.

Certainly Garvey's garish flamboyance and ostentatiousness also helped to turn public opinion against him, with his "Duke of The Niger" and "Duke of Uganda" titles, imitating the British nobility he was supposed to be against. His flirtations with the Ku Klux Klan, believing their racist ideology to be somehow in line with his philosophy of black separatism, didn't endear him to many black Americans. His well-publicized financial improprieties and pompous authoritarianism, his inability to appreciate the value of discretion and secrecy, all factored into his downfall. Still, Du Bois' obsession with destroying another great Pan-African is difficult for many to understand.

Du Bois may have believed he was acting in the best interests of Liberia. His first visit to Africa was a trip to Liberia in 1923, after he got himself appointed US Special Envoy to the country, just as Harvey S. Firestone was negotiating his rubber concession. Du Bois wrote a letter to Firestone urging fair play for the Liberians, and during the forced labor scandal of 1930, he unwaveringly defended the Republic, publishing his seminal LIBERIA, THE LEAGUE AND THE UNITED STATES.

Some may argue that helping to bring Firestone to Liberia instead of the UNIA was not exactly doing the country a favor, and wonder what the outcome would have been had Du Bois advised President King to let the UNIA in, US and European interests be damned. That may be debatable, but it is difficult to argue that Du Bois, who died in Ghana after years of hard work organizing the Pan African Conferences, did not have the best interests of Africa at heart.

Much easier to understand is the action of the C.D.B. King government in scuttling the Liberian Construction scheme given their precarious position and Garvey's inability to keep his own ship afloat, much less deliver on his promises regarding Liberia's finances.

In 1924 Chief Justice J.J. Dossen wrote a letter to the UNIA reiterating Edwin Barclay's promise to cooperate fully with the Association' s Liberia plan, but two months later, President King unexpectedly ordered all ports to refuse entry to any member of "The Garvey Movement." What the so-called "experts" on Liberian history overlook is that King's action came right after his government signed the Firestone concession agreement. The land set aside for the UNIA became part of the million acres leased to Firestone at six cents an acre for a hundred years, compared to the dollar an acre lease agreement with the UNIA.

And with increased American investment came increased foreign control, and the end of any hope of UNIA settlement or any other form of Pan-African empire. Indeed, President William Tubman years later would impose severe restrictions on the immigration of Black Muslims and other American and Caribbean Nationalists, a manifestation of the dark side of his "Open Door Policy."

In 1949, UNIA President-General James R. Stewart of Ohio moved the Association' s headquarters to Monrovia, where it remained until Stewart's death in 1964, when it was again moved to Youngstown, Ohio. By this time of course the organization was a shadow of its former self, and badly fragmented by opposing ideologies and personality clashes.

With all this information readily available in books and on the internet, one finds it hard to understand why the old myths, distortions and outright lies persist. In analyzing the histories of European peoples, allowance is made for divergence of opinions, attitudes and intentions. In the case of Liberia, it seems much easier to ascribe everything the founders did to sinister group motives.

According to the so-called "experts," the ACS founders had varying motivations; philanthropy, slave-holding interests, anti-slavery interests, the spread of Christianity, etc. Compare that to their description of the immigrants themselves as monolithic; they unanimously "despised and disdained the indigenous people they met," and were as a group disposed to view all Black Nationalist and Pan-African movements with suspicion. Their portrayal of Liberia's indigenous people is just as insulting: They were all ignorant, primitive savages easily manipulated by the American colonists, or willing stooges in "Americo-Liberian" oppression. That some indigenous elements shared common values and interests with the colonists doesn't seem to occur to the so-called "experts."

Such people forget that Pan-African sentiments were a large part of Liberia's founding, at least on the part of some immigrants if not the American Colonization Society. They overlook or dismiss people such as Thomas Faulkner, Arthur Barclay, Gabriel and Frederick Johnson, and one of the greatest Pan-Africans that ever lived, Edward Wilmot Blyden. Liberia's very makeup is Pan-African: local indigenous people, American/Caribbean immigrants, Congolese, Yoruba, Fon and Ibo recaptives, and immigrants from all over Africa.

Whatever the reasons for these misconceptions, while the UNIA itself was not allowed to flourish in Liberia, its principles remained, and they heavily influenced the reform movement of the late 1920s that culminated in the formation of the Peoples Party by former President Daniel E. Howard, who was concerned over C.D.B. King's consolidation of personal power bordering on dictatorship. The Peoples Party was led by Garveyites and challenged King in the 1927 elections. Their candidate, Thomas J.R. Faulkner clearly won that election, though King succeeded in stealing it.

Liberian Garveyites also founded the Citizens Nonpartisan League, in defense and support of Didhwo Twe and TJR Faulkner after they exposed the Fernando Po forced labor shame and suffered severe recriminations from the entrenched King-Yancy, American-Grebo, Monrovia-Cape Palmas power structure. The Citizens Nonpartisan League led by Justice Frederick Johnson and Gabriel Johnson, held huge rallies in the streets of Monrovia and forced the Legislature to compel King and Yancy to resign.

The lasting power and influence of the Garvey name in Liberia was also demonstrated in the overwhelming response to the visit of Garvey's widow during the Tubman administration. Amy Ashwood Garvey was greeted as a hero, warmly and lavishly feted, accorded the country's highest honors, and propositioned by President Tubman who was then a widower. Mrs. Garvey applied for Liberian citizenship, established a residence in Monrovia, and adopted President Tubman's cousin. She was commissioned by the Liberian government as a special representative to the Gold Coast and Nigeria in 1946.

Even then, long after Marcus Garvey was dead and buried, the US State Department was there, watching her every movement and reporting back to Washington on her activities.

David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. DU BOIS

Marcus Garvey/UNIA Papers Project, UCLA


MarcusGarvey. com