Time for change: Symbols and mottos matter

By J. Patrick Flomo

“Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first earth and the first heaven had passed away. Also, there was no more sea,” Rev. 21:1

If the Republican-controlled Legislature of the State of Mississippi could vote in 2020 to change the state’s Confederate Flag – a symbol of America’s original sin (slavery) and Jim Crow, then the Liberian legislature can certainly begin a debate on the Liberian Coat of Arms, especially the motto: “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.”

A global social racial awakening and revival have taken on mythic proportions for social justice to eviscerate the symbols of slave legacy — the perpetuation of white race superiority.

This awakening and revival have come about as the result of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the countless numbers of Black men being killed by United States police force.

The fight for the destruction of the symbols that do not fully represent the values, culture, and aspirations of all people in a truly just society is achieving victory across the world.

In this evolutionary struggle for the rights and dignity of black people and the protest against the opposition of equality and social justice, I never dreamed that the state of Mississippi, the bedrock and beacon of American racism, would see its Republican-controlled legislature vote for the taking down of the Confederate Flag – the symbol of slavery, racism, and the denigration and subjugation of Blacks.

The flag’s supporters have resisted efforts to change it for decades. Yet, Mississippi did change it, despite having a long history of systemic racism and seeing more lynching of African-Americans than any other state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The great debate

“It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a solider to fight on a battlefield,” William Butler Yeats.

I think the people of Liberia (especially the descendants of the settlers), a country founded as a refuge for free slaves from the United States and captured slaves on the high seas, can reasonably agree that it is morally revolting and repugnant to display and honor symbols associated with America’s shameful institution – slavery.

The 1847 Constitution, the Flag, and the Coat of Arms were exclusively about the settlers (and rightfully so) with the approval of the American Colonization Society (their sponsors), an organization whose leading members were slave owners.

After 138 years, the 1985 Constitutional Commission had the opportunity to debate these troubling and persistent social and political questions, but failed to do so.

We are now in a period of contemporary classical liberal enlightenment that is propitious for such debate so that we can disabuse the errors of our founding fathers and create a true Republican government of, by, and for the people.

So that five centuries from today, the Liberian people will say our brothers and sisters of 20 decades created a new nation conceived in the verse of Revelation 21:1.

My detractors will be apoplectic at the suggestion of such debate when Liberia is mired in dire social and economic misery under a government that seems at this moment clueless about how to grow the economy, create jobs and improve the prosperity of all the people.

I will contend that Liberia is going through a process of catharsis after the 1990s’ bloody civil wars and that Liberians today are enlightened and have the intellectual capacity to address these social, political, and economic issues in tandem.

And I will remind them of Eleanor Roosevelt’s words: “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.”

With this tidal wave blowing across the globe, clamoring for a change of symbols and statues that denigrate and dehumanize one ethnic group in society, I found it incredulous and astounding that the people of Liberia and the Liberian Legislature seem oblivious to the dynamics at play.

The Liberian Coat of Arms has been a subject of contention among Liberian intellectuals for decades. The Liberian Legislature’s stultified response in this momentous period in the course of human events is an absolute dereliction of duty to the Constitution of Liberia.

This subject has not set fire to the forest to draw the attention it needs (because of its esoteric nature) to revolutionize its struggle. This is due to the failure of Liberian intellectuals to change this esoteric nature so that a larger portion of the population can learn the importance of this debate.

The Liberian Coat of Arms symbolizes the cultural valves of the Americo-Liberians (less than 5 percent of the population), rather than speaking for and representing the values and cultural heritage of all citizens of the Republic.

The Coming of the “Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.” On 15 December 1821, a clash of two cultures took place on Cape Mesurado (present-day Liberia) and the life and culture of the Dei and Bassa tribes were transformed forever. Later, other tribal groups would undergo this transformation.

On this day (15 December 1821), Dr. Eli Ayres and Lieutenant Robert Stockton of the ship Alligator met the Dei and Bassa chiefs on behalf of the American Colonization Society (ACS) to negotiate for a tract of land on the mouth of Cape Mesurado for the “free people of color.”

The protracted negotiation ended when Lieutenant Robert Stockton pointed a gun to one chief’s head. So, at gunpoint, Cape Mesurado was purchased for trinkets: six muskets, one barrel of gunpowder, six iron bars, ten pots, one box of soap, one box of nail, one box of beads, one box of pipes, two casks of tobacco, one dozen knives, forks, and spoons, six pieces of blue Taft, four hats, three coats, three pairs of shoes, twenty mirrors, three handkerchiefs, three pieces of Calico, four umbrellas, one box of soap, and one box of rum.

All of these trinkets were worth about $350.00 ($7,122.06 today). With the purchased tract of land (Providence Island), the ship Nautilus sailed in 1821 from Richmond, Virginia in early winter with 33 “free people of color,” bound for West Africa (present-day Liberia).

The famous person among these immigrants was Hilary Teage, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the 1847 Constitution of Liberia. He is viewed as Liberia’s Thomas Jefferson.

The historical correlation between Teage and Jefferson is mind-boggling. Thomas Jefferson wrote the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …,” African slaves and forebears were considered chattel and 3/5 human.

When Hilary Teage wrote the Liberian Declaration of Independence in 1847: “We the representatives of the people of the Commonwealth of Liberia, in Convention assembled, invested with authority for forming a new government, relying upon the aid the protection of the Great Arbiter of human events, do hereby…. declare the said Commonwealth a FREE, SOVEREIGN, AND INDEPENDENT STATE, by the name and title of the republic OF LIBERIA,” and the 1847 Constitution, the natives or the inhabitants of land for centuries were completely excluded from this newfound republic. They were viewed as primitive or heathen.

How ironic that in the United States, you (Hilary Teage) were considered chattel and 3/5 human, denied the liberty to pursue life and happiness as endowed by your Creator. Yet here in your new Promised Land and a new birth of freedom, you viewed the natives (created by the Great Arbiter) as less equal.

In 1847, Liberia was conceived by Hilary Teage and the founding fathers as a Republic with a caste system of social order. The Americo-Liberians formed the elite and perpetuated a double-tiered social structure in which local African peoples could not achieve full participation in the nation’s social, civic, and political life.

The Americo-Liberians replicated many of the exclusions and social differentiations that had so limited their own lives in the United States.

The social caste system was based on skin color and education.

The Mulattos or light-skinned occupied the top of the caste because most of them were educated and all were favored by the ACS. They became the political elites until the election of E. J. Roye, a dark-skinned free slave from Ohio.

The dark-skinned people were in the middle, and the captured slaves from slave ships on the high seas (the Congos) were at the bottom.

The natives were left on the periphery looking in. They remained so for 117 years. In 1964, they were granted paltry political enfranchisement but continue to be excluded from the bounty of economic wealth.

The Liberian Coat of Arms tells the story of one ethnic group – the Americo-Liberians. But the mosaic and tapestry of Liberian history (from 1822 to the present) are far larger than the story of the Americo-Liberians. Theirs is but one thread woven into the quilt and fabric of Liberia’s past and present.

The exodus from bondage in the search for liberty in the Promised Land of their ancestors by the “free people of color” brought with it all the iniquities that had debased them for two centuries (1620 – 1820).

The “Love of Liberty Brought Us Here” has been an illusion of psychological self-importance and elitism for the Americo-Liberians and a psychosomatic trauma of identity for the indigenous — since the Love of Liberty did not bring me here, where I do fit this realm?

At worst, the Liberia Coat of Arms has been a political, social, and economic fault line between the haves and have-nots, i.e., the Americo-Liberians and the natives prior to 1980.

It did symbolize the right of passage for privilege and entitlement for Americo-Liberians.

In the 1970s, the liberal members of the Americo-Liberia class saw this as an existential threat to the National Security of the Republic and attempted to address the question; however, it died in its embryonic state due to the weight of the conservative class of the Americo-Liberians.

The perceived existential threat (in the 1970s) to the Republic became a reality on 12 April 1980.

With the demise of the True Whig Party after 133 years of rule (not governance), the hope that all the iniquities of the True Whig Party would be washed away and followed by a new birth of freedom and liberty and equality were shattered in the great tempest of the 1990s.

Power was seized from the minority (Americo-Liberians) by the majority (the natives) in a bloodbath in 1980. With the majority occupying the center of political gravity and a new constitution in the making, the advocates for change pinned their hopes on the 1985 Constitutional Commission to consider addressing the long-contentious Liberian SYMBOLS created by the 1847 Constitution.

The advocates for change were disappointed. The 1986 Constitution left intact the National Symbols of Liberia.

For three decades (1950 – 1980), we (the natives) denounced and blamed the minority (the Americo-Liberians) for our dire condition and inferiority.

However, since 1980, the reign of power has been in our hands and we have not governed, but ruled. All governments since 1980 have been far more inept and, at worst, corrupt than pre-1980 governments.

A symbol is an emblem representing an idea, cultural heritage and values. It is an expression of faith, doctrine or creed of a people of a society or a republic. The Liberian Coat of Arms speaks for the Americo-Liberians and excludes the rest of the society. The time is propitious to address these symbolic issues that are potent to our republic.

In the 1960s, when the waves of the Civil Rights Movement were careening across the U.S., we in Liberia failed to adopt such actions to reform our government in a dynamic way.

Six decades later, a similar event is sweeping across the U.S. and the world—and once again, we Liberians at home and in the Diasporas seem oblivious to these social justice events. We must not make this mistake again. We must now begin a conversation on the question of the Liberian Coat of Arms.

J. Patrick Flomo lives in Columbus, Ohio, the USA and can be reached at zamawood@gmail.com