A Brief Look Back
To understand the “debate” around homosexuality in Liberia today, I must call your attention to a bit of privileged historical knowledge of Liberia’s relationship with media (in this case print media) and religion.
Monrovia, because of the conditions of its inception, had a number of newspapers that were started pretty early in the cities life. One of the earliest was the Liberia Herald, which began in 1826 by Charles Force, an American freed slave. He died some months later, but the title was revived in 1830 by Edward Blyden, the anti-colonial thinker and academic, who moved from the Caribbean island of St. Thomas to Liberia. This is important because it marked the beginning of an African press which was critical of the European presence in Africa .
The Maryland Colonization Journal was another American monthly journal published in Baltimore, Maryland that ran in two series from May 1835 to May 1841 and the New Series from June 1841 to 1861.
The October 1841 volume cites the relationship between the 2,000 or so repatriates in the first couple of years in Liberia and the “Baltimore-American“ home base making provisions to export freed blacks, which were as many as 60,000 people at the time. The journal as a whole showcases three main themes: the first is the importance of establishing agricultural stability for the early colonizers; the second is incorporating a strong religious curriculum; and the third is proliferating science and other educational facilities.
One epic quote that really highlights some of these aspirations is a provocation to the state to allocate more attention to agriculture in the colony:
It is the desire of the Maryland State Society to see agriculture made the object of primary importance-not only as placing the means of their own sustenance in the hands of the colonists, and rendering them independent of remote places or the native inhabitants for food; but because nine-tenths, if not a far greater proportion of the emigrants from this country would make better farmers than traders
…the emigrants, finding employment, in agricultural puruits, from the moment of their arrival, and occupied with healthful labour, would have their minds in the best state to receive and preserve those sentiments of religion and morality, which it was the wish of the state society should form the character of the population. It was believed, also, that an agricultural community, spreading itself to the interior, would not only present better examples to the surrounding heathen, whom it was designed to bring to Gospel light, but would afford greater facilities for a rapidly increasing emigration from this country, than could be afforded by trading towns, however prosperous they might be….” (p. 66)
The tone of this quote really shows the invisible hand of the American Colonization Society at work. The writer seems to be pleadingly making the case for agricultural investment and ever so delicately steering the argument towards what appeared in the journal to be a preconceived mantra of maintaining, within this new colony, a sense of holiness and morality; a mantra that Congress – providing $200,000 a year for the colony – had defined.
Another portion of the journal, written by Jabez A. Burton, accounts the Liberian Mission Conference Seminary’s efforts to establish schools and an observatory at the seminary building at Cape Mesurado. Burton states, “we are doing all we can to spread the light of science in company with ‘Spiritual holiness, over these lands.’” (p. 76)
This point of the undertone of religious enlightenment being coupled with development and financial investment is one that speaks to this notion of Black Christian Republicanism as elucidated by Carl Patrick Burrowes . I’ll have to come back this in a later post but keep that in mind as we enter this discussion on homosexuality in Liberia.
Anti-Gay Sentiments Across Africa Today
In keeping in this question of the foundations of religion in Liberia, I want to call your attention to the a video I watched this weekend about a Kenyan man, David Kuria, who happens to be a gay activist and is running for Senate.
Kuria is running even though homosexuality is criminalized in Kenya. The video captures interviews of people off the street responding to the legitimacy of homosexuality in Kenya, a place where homosexuality is punishable by up to 14 years of imprisonment. Multiple people cite it as immoral and one mans account cites a divergence from sanctity stating, “If we can know what is causing them to be on the other side than we can bring them to Christ.”
Anti-Gay Sentiments in Monrovia Today
Homosexuality is not part of our existence as a people…We have never been like that. -Fox News
This quote comes from Rep. Clarence Massaquoi of the Liberian Senate, front-runner for two new bills being considered to jail homosexuals in Liberia.
The assertive nature of the quote makes me question what Massaquoi believes the Liberian people to be. I’m interested in the legitimacy of the assertion, considering the complex story of the repatriation of Monrovia. Because the story of Monrovia is comprised of such a tenuous agglomeration of the Americo-Liberians and tribal natives, it is worth questioning where the African-American story in Monrovia ends and where the Liberian story begins. This type of interrogation into the degree to which Western culture has penetrated or, dare I say, defined Liberian culture would really help to frame the discussion around homosexuality in Liberia today; and I’ll tell you why.
I draw your attention back to the point made earlier of the Maryland Colonization Journal and how the mantra of holiness and morality was coupled with development and financial investment. Consider now that recently, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a government-wide policy to push for the decriminalization of homosexuality overseas. Also consider that Liberia receives $200 million annually from the US government. The Fox article states:
Liberian media outlets have consistently reported that the policy calls for the revocation of foreign assistance in countries that don’t guarantee gay rights, despite assurances from U.S. officials to the contrary. -Fox News
Could you imagine the backlash that would be incited against the homosexual underground in Liberia if the population was convinced that the U.S. gave Liberia an ultimatum to decriminalize homosexuality? The U.S. knows this.
So here is what I’m saying. It can be said that same Black Christian Republican mantra that was imported from Maryland and was readily on the tongues of Americo-Liberians in the past to be coupled with development and allocation of funds for investment, is still present today and used by Liberian media and politians to legitimize the criminalizing of homosexuality. The Fox article states:
The U.S. Embassy in Monrovia has remained silent on the issue, even as gay rights campaigners have come under attack.
In an interview last week, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said she was concerned that further comment from the Embassy might only inflame anti-gay sentiment, especially in light of “occasionally irresponsible” reporting by local media.
“I can’t be guaranteed that a public statement that we give will be put out in the way that we want the statement put out,” she said. -Fox News
Although Massaquoi confirmed that he had met privately with U.S. officials who stressed that foreign assistance to Liberia would not be conditional on gay rights, the U.S. is short on words and, it would seem, actions to counter Massaquoi’s bill because they must tread lightly for fear of the mutated, re-purposed ghost of its own outdated exported ideologies of “holiness” and “morality.”
Irony much? I’ll continue to follow this story in the weeks and months to come. It’s too tragically comedic not to.
 Burrowes, Carl Patrick. ”Black Christian Republicanism: A Southern Ideology in Early Liberia, 1822 to 1847″ The Journal of Negro History Vol. 86, No. 1 (Winter, 2001), pp. 30-44. Published by: Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1350177
Akpan, M. B. “Liberia and the Universal Negro Improvement Association: The Background to the Abortion of Garvey’s Scheme for African Colonization” The Journal of African History , Vol. 14, No. 1 (1973), pp. 105-127 Published by: Cambridge University Press Article. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/180779