- Brothers and Strangers: Black Zion, Black Slavery, 1914–1940 by Ibrahim Sundiata
In the early Nineteenth Century, free blacks and freed slaves from the United States returned to Africa and formed Liberia. Since that time, Liberia has occupied a unique position in the African diasporic imagination. Its ability to remain independent at the height of European colonization held out the promise of return home and appealed to the nation-building aspiration of black activist-intellectuals in the U.S. In practice, however, intraracial/intradiasporic differences of ethnicity, class, and culture produced hierarchical structures that positioned an American descended black elite over a native mass. Ibrahim Sundiata’s Brothers and Strangers unravels this history paying specific attention to how African American elites reconciled their “trans-Atlantic longing” for a black man’s country with the “African sociopolitical reality” of systems of oppression (2).
Liberia’s history cuts across national and continental divides, and Sundiata’s narrative skillfully draws on black intellectual, colonial, business, and diplomatic history to contemplate the politics of Pan-Africanism. Equally concerned with contemporary as with historical issues, he challenges prevailing views of Pan-Africanism as anticolonial ideology by asking whether its ethos of racial solidarity should extend to “unrepresentative present-day African regimes—or the people made to suffer under them” (10). In this way, Brothers and Strangers moves beyond what it sees as a singularly positive treatment of Pan-Africanism and diaspora to address the social fissures that problematize such formations.
Ethnic and class divisions are central to this story. The prime example of how they functioned in Liberia centers on Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s plan to settle a black homeland in Liberia. For Sundiata, Garvey was “the most programmatic of diasporic Pan-Africanists” (15), and his Liberian project is lauded as a modernist response to the limits of the U.S. nation for black people. Still, the UNIA’s plan “always remained sketchy and a bit naïve” (20), and envisioned an authoritarian, capitalist nation opposed to organized labor and radicalism. The UNIA was always “a conservative, antisocialist, and segregationist organization” (23) politically in line with the Americo-Liberian elite. The decision to “betray” the UNIA’s plan, then, stemmed from the elite’s realization that large-scale repatriation might weaken their social position. Liberia, Sundiata tells us, was a case where “the rhetoric of an international black folk community met the reality of an African state ruled by a self-conscious ethnic minority” (49) unwilling to share power with another segment of the diaspora.
Sundiata situates the Americo-Liberian rejection of the UNIA plan within a longer history of internal oppressive social relations. Liberia’s efforts to secure a place in the international coffee market led to a 1914 agreement with the colonial government of Spanish Guinea to supply cheap labor to the island of Fernando Po and the enclave of Rio Muni. Receiving monies for each laborer supplied, the Liberian government soon turned to forced labor practices that resulted in a “traffic in boys” many in the international community viewed as slavery. When the trafficking of laborers became a scandal in the 1930s, the U.S. State Department’s new concern for the Liberian masses was less than genuine. In 1926, soon after expelling the UNIA, the Liberian government leased large tracts of land to the Firestone Rubber Company. Shortly after Firestone began developing its rubber factory in Liberia, it was apparent that the company’s and the country’s interests were at odds. Thus, State Department’s concern with forced labor actually had more to do with protecting Firestone’s financial interests. The specter of slavery placed the Liberian government in a compromised position, which in part led to the redirection of much-needed cheap labor from Spanish colonies to Firestone (107–126).
The labor scandal also opened a political doorway for black intellectuals to intervene on behalf of the Liberian masses. Sundiata is most suggestive for thinking about diaspora in his discussion of the bourgeois elements of Liberia in the diasporic imagination. The Americo...