Sunday, March 09, 2008

Back to Africa; Learning my "Americanness"

Now THIS is the story I started to write for my previous post. At least I hope it will be. Often, I start out intending to write about one thing only to end up writing about something else, so maybe I’ll end up doing that again. Truthfully, I’m never really certain where I’ll end up.

It’s been more than two weeks since the president made his whirlwind visit of Sub-Saharan Africa, including to my old stomping grounds in Monrovia, Liberia. Whenever an American president makes an Africa trip I think back to 1978, when then President Jimmy Carter stopped in to visit Monrovia for a few hours while I happened to be stationed there.

Naturally, the American community in Monrovia was excited that the president chose to stop in. I hadn't voted for him, but at the time he seemed harmless enough as commander in chief. At that point many of us in the military didn’t have the visceral dislike that we felt for President Clinton 20 years later, although some began to look at Carter as a bit of a blundering boob after his wishy-washy inept responses during the Iranian hostage situation.

Before Carter’s visit I had already been in Monrovia for months. Within a short time I had made plenty of friends in the large expat American community. We were a close-knit group and many of us knew each other, or knew of each other, even though we numbered in the hundreds, perhaps thousands.

Liberia had not yet reached the complete basket case status that it soon attained after the indigenous uprising of 1980, an unexpected coup led by a master sergeant in the Liberian army, a power-hungry bloodthirsty fellow named Doe. But while I was there in 1978, even though the country was desperately poor it was still fairly safe and stable under the reign of the “Americos,” the descendents of freed American slaves that had started returning to the “mother land” in the 1820s during the administration of James Monroe; thus the name of their capital, Monrovia.

Being a single lad of 19, I spent many of my evenings at various fellow Americans’ homes. They'd invite me over for dinner or just to visit and have a few drinks and chat. It was during that time that I really began to feel American. It’s hard to explain, but until I was outside of my country as an adult, I took the wonderful uniqueness of my particular citizenship for granted. Being amongst an enclave of fellow citizens outside my country’s boundaries, now that really brought home the feeling of what I like to call my “Americanness.”

Here I go again; I’m about to digress. I’ll try to get back to the intended story in a bit, but I’ll make no promises.

The best way to make my point on the concept of Americanness is from what I observed of the African Americans in our tight community of expat Americans. Almost as soon arriving, usually in spite of themselves, in short order each soon discovered their complete Americanness. In other words, no matter how African they might look outwardly, they quickly found out they were American to the core.

In the States, Black Americans tend to define themselves and each other by skin color or racial features, while as far as the Africans are concerned, those traits are definitely NOT a defining factor, since they all share similar characteristics. No, Liberians, and probably most other Africans, almost exclusively identify themselves by tribe or clan, certainly not by color.

On the other hand, I noticed that Africans tended to lump all of us together; Black, White, Latino, it didn’t matter, because to most Liberians we were just Americans, not Black, not Latino and not White Americans.

And its true, being American marks a person forever, regardless of ethnicity or even original country of origin. I watch a person here in the Philippines or any place else in the world, and I can tell you within 5 minutes whether or not they are a US citizen or have lived there or not. I don’t know, there must be something in our water.

In fact, I learned much of what Africans thought from my literally thousands of hours of conversation with Masa, the Liberian receptionist who sat right next to the Post 1 Marine at the front desk. She made constant observations about us. I remember one she made while observing how we reacted to children:

"You Americans; why is it you all love children so much..."

I often wondered what she meant by that until after decades of world travel I got to see that she was right. Compared to folks from other places, speaking generally, we do seem to love kids, especially those that need help for some reason. For example, if there is an orphanage anywhere near a US military post anywhere in the world, you WILL find American GIs visiting it.

Masa never said, "You White or Black Americans really are a certain way..." That's because she saw that we ALL had the same tendencies, no matter what our ethnicity.

What surprised many of the African Americans is that the Africans exhibited no particular affinity nor felt any special relationship with those of us who were of African descent. Interestingly, on a personal level, many Africans seemed to prefer to make acquaintances among those of us non-Blacks. I don’t know why, perhaps because of some flawed sense of resentment. It was a mystery to me.

Many don’t like to admit it, but there is always some level of tension between Blacks and Whites in the States. As an 8-year-old I learned my wariness after getting slammed to the ground by my blond hair by an angry black mom who had mistakenly thought that I had just harmed her little boy, my playmate. Perhaps my very whiteness brought on her raging over reaction. Regardless of the cause, whether personal, historical or institutional, there is always an underlying uneasiness.

The funny thing is that I felt none of that USA type of black-white awkwardness in Liberia. In fact, at first, I thought these pleasant folk that never glared at my whiteness like I get all the time back home, with their wonderfully lilting accents, were just pulling my leg, like it was all an inside joke on the white guy. Turns out, that was just me and my own American-originated racial baggage.

For instance, we had a staff of three locals in the Marine House where we marine watchstanders lived. One of these Africans was a big guy who did all the heavy lifting jobs. When introduced to the tall heavily muscled fellow I found him gentle as a puppy, totally unintimidating, and in no way did he posture or try to show that he was not to be pushed around. When he called me "boss man," I thought for sure he could not be serious; but no, it was just how they refer to those they see as being in charge.

I felt horrible when Liberia descended into utter violent chaos just over a year after I left it. I had developed quite an affection for the place. I learned so many things there about life and about myself. One of the most noteworthy is the realization that the racial animus so prevalent in American society is completely artificial. Even so, I don’t see the distrust and ambivalence between Americans of different races going away anytime soon. Our history seems to have cursed us with its continuance for at least another couple of generations.

Although, perhaps there is one way of easing the racial edginess in the worst of those suffering from it:

When still young and impressionable send them for a while to a place in Africa like Liberia.Intolerant Whites will learn what it’s like to be the only one of their kind in a sea of Black faces, where not one of those Black faces shows even a hint of displeasure or resentment towards them.

On the other hand, perhaps angry alienated young Blacks will learn how lucky they are to be American despite the troubles they perceive back home; and more importantly, they will see how American they truly are. It can be quite an epiphany for many to learn that they have more in common with a Caucasian kid from Alabama than they do with an African from Kinshasa.

I remember reading a quote by Muhammad Ali while he was in Zaire for his “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman in '74. He appreciated the adulation of the Africans, but he was also struck by the deprivation and injustice he saw around him. I forget his exact words, but he said something like, “I love Africa, but I sure am glad my great great grand pappy got sent over on a slave ship…”

Only a guy like Muhammad Ali could get away with saying something so obtuse, but there is truth in his directness; and I’ll bet every African American who has ever gone over secretly thinks the same thing.

So I did it again. I STILL didn’t tell the story that I originally intended. Okay, next time for sure.


KA said...

lol, i love watching u totally digress off topic.

Either wayyou tell a good story. so what do i care if it's not the one you intended to write?

PhilippinesPhil said...

Yah Kat, looks like I'll be talking about Liberia for another post or two...

The one i want to tell is tragic anyway. Its certainly not a feel good post. Maybe thats why I'm so easily led away from telling it?

Oh, and I enabled comment moderation after getting a really foul comment from some egghead. I hope folks don't mind too much.

Amadeo said...


I find myself concurring with your many observations on racial relations with natives of Africa compared with African-Americans, though I would not generalize either ways.

I, too, have interacted with immigrant Africans from Liberia, Ethiopia, and Nigeria at work, and missing among them are some of the attitudes that probably hamper smoother race relations among different ethnicities here in the US. But the African-Americans I have met who came from the south were much easier to interact and get along with. My own son-in-law who is one came from the south but grew up in the Bronx and spent 20 years in the army. And we share so many things in common.

But here's a thought based on your observations above. Again I state that Liberia started being populated by freed slaves who wanted to go back to the continent, and the present African-Americans are the ones who decided to stay.

Thus, the question: Can we list the critical differences between the two groups then, those who left and those who decided to stay, to account for the differences as you have observed in attitudes between the two present groups? Could it be largely because of the different environments they grew up in?

I noticed that even in a rather homogeneous setting like the Philippines, growing up among different ethnicities, in our case with Chinese and Moslem minorities, provided a score of awkward situations, pressure points, areas of intolerance, etc. that probably shaped our adult attitudes about race.

PhilippinesPhil said...

The Americos were always vastly outnumbered by the indigenous tribesmen that they ruled over. In effect, they had made slaves of the people already living there, at least governmentally(?), economically and socially. They had power and kept it to themselves ruthlessly. That all changed in 1980, when MSgt Doe led a coup, where many of the Americos were slaughtered in a bloodbath of retribution. Most of the rest of them left the country. If you'd like to see some of this "action" filmed live, check out the last 15 minutes of "Faces of Death II." It was taken by a French film crew; however, if you have a weak stomach, don't bother.

Anonymous said...

Phil--you outdid yourself brother. What a great piece. Feel free to deviate from your intended topic again tomorrow. The last one was really good, too. ONe of us needs to link these to the other blog. Good, good writing.

PhilippinesPhil said...

God help me Hope; I LOVE being flattered. Feel free to do it whenever you like!