From Under the Cotton Tree
Author, scholar and human rights activist by day. Poet, book collector and lover of the arts, especially live music, after working hours. Son, father and friend around the clock.
Born in Liberia and educated in the United States, my main passion has been exploring the rich and often overlooked culture, arts and humanities of Africa and its Diaspora.
I grew up on Bushrod Island, between Duala and Tweh Rubber Farm. My parents operated a coffee roasting business, so our yard was constantly filled with the distinctive aroma of Liberica coffee.
Our home stood in the shade of an awe-inspiring cotton tree, inhabited by bats and, according to neighborhood lore, a colony of ghosts. I grew up in a yard filled with a variety of fruits, including mango, guava, soursop, breadfruit, pawpaw and banana.
Perhaps that’s why I went on to study journalism in college, and to earn both master’s and doctorate degrees in communications.
The Power of Observation
By nature, I’m am observer, a disposition shared by many writers and other creative people.
I think it goes back to my childhood, which was unique. Most of my schoolmates lived in Central Monrovia and played with each other after school. My afterschool playmates on Bushrod Island attended different schools, so they didn’t know my “school friends.” To make matters more interesting, some parents of my schoolmates were well-to-do and powerful while the parents of some neighborhood friends were fishermen, stevedores and school teachers.
My writing career also grew out of an early love of storytelling and reading. My earliest entertainment consisted of folktales, riddles and eavesdropping on adults telling jokes, some bawdy and off-color. Until television became available in 1960, I listened to radio a lot, mainly ELBC, but also music from Voice of America, stories of Spider the Trickster told by “Aunt Clara” on ELWA, and the newscast from the BBC World Service.
My passion for reading was fueled at home. My parents didn’t attend college, but they believed in the transformative power of education. Although we were Presbyterian, they scraped and sacrificed to send all their children to Catholic schools, given their reputation for high quality and discipline. In addition, they bought magazines like National Geographic and the UNESCO Chronicle, as well as a set of encyclopedia.
Spider and Pan-Africanism
Two books from the period deeply influenced me. One catalyst was a loosely-bound mimeographed book that I read in junior high school. Titled Legends of Liberia, it contained over 100 trickster stories, historical accounts and other folk tales. Although each chapter in the book consisted of stories from a separate “tribe,” I noticed common themes and characters. That insight led to the main thrust of my work today, which is reminding Liberians of our deep and enduring commonalities.
For example, Spider the trickster was not only common to all Liberian groups; stories about him span West Africa and the Caribbean. Funny as it may sound, it was actually Spider who first led me to a pan-African consciousness — the realization that African people, despite their diversity, share certain underlying similarities!
Another important influence from my high school days was a biography of Edward Wilmot Blyden, a Liberian journalist and clergyman who lived about a hundred years before. Blyden argued that Africans share a deep, long and glorious past. At a time when white supremacy was widely accepted, he rejected the idea that blacks were inferior to whites or any other people.
To make a long story short, I think a love of reading and moving between different age-groups and communities nurtured my stance as a “watcher.” That’s not to say I’m introverted, just a keen observer.
A Convoluted Career
Writing history is not something I planned. It’s just the latest stage in a convoluted writing career. What began as a passion for poetry in high school, led to the practice of journalism, then to an interest in historical research.
I started writing for pleasure at St. Patrick’s High School, mainly short stories, brief articles for our mimeographed newsletter and poetry as an exercise in reflection and self-expression. My writing was encouraged by several of my teachers and by my father, who liked poetry.
As much as I enjoyed writing, a creative-writing career seemed far fetched. After all, the Liberian writers I knew– like Bai T. Moore and H. Carey Thomas – wrote on the side while holding down fulltime government jobs. In order to earn a living as a writer, I decided to major in journalism as an undergraduate.
I came to journalism purely by accident. In 1971, when all major media were government-owned, including broadcast and print, some schoolmates at the University of Liberia and I started an off-campus mimeographed magazine called the Revelation. It was Liberia’s first mass-circulating independent publication in almost 20 years and routinely proposed solutions to social problems.
Writing for Audience and Impact
An example is my article “Eyes Right” that called for the Liberian army to be reorganized. The Tolbert administration quickly banned the magazine, and a few years later it was overthrown by the army. That coup began a downward spiral into violence from which Liberia is yet to recover.
Through the Revelation magazine, I had discovered two joys of journalism: my writing had an impact on society, and it generated immediate feedback from an audience.
To study journalism, I wound my way to Howard University, then the most dynamic and prestigious black university in the world. I was fortunate to study writing and investigative reporting under luminaries like Samuel Yette, who had covered the Civil Rights Movement with his camera and pen, and Wallace Terry, a former war correspondent in Vietnam.
There were workshops and interactions with leading black thinkers, including poet Leon Damas (a collaborator with Léopold Senghor in the Negritude Movement that began in the 1930s) and writer Haki Madhubuti (a major contributor to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s). From them I learned that life without myths and music is dry rice without “soup.”
My career as a journalist was short but satisfying. Among other media, I published in West Africa, New African, The New York Times, Essence, the Long Island Newsday and the Milwaukee Journal.
N’mah better dan beg parden.