ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Appiah . . . asserts that the American Negro was unable to see
virtue in Africa, despite their need for Africa.
Books by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
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I, Momolu or Liberia in the Bush
A Study in Missionary Persuasion
By Rudolph Lewis
Authoritarians (and conservatives), like colonialists, can satisfy the religious with symbolism. The rock foundation of what it is to be, these “superior” and rational men know they will govern in the long run. I, Momolu, by Lorenz Graham (1902-1989), possesses this ruling certainty of rightness. Its fresh perspective from a tribal view generates the hope of a realistic portrayal of African life. Our disappointment mounts, however, as the plot slowly develops to a climax we find distasteful.
Son of a New Orleans Methodist minister, Dr. Graham was a kindly and good-hearted man, well meaning. The young Lorenz, twenty-four-year-old student at UCLA (in 1926), became fed up with all the myths about Africa and decided to learn about Africa directly and thus he traversed the Atlantic to become enlightened by a spiritual journey in Liberia. There, he taught at Monrovia College, a mission school. And naturally learned considerable from his eager African pupils.
Sickened by malaria, Graham returned to the United States during Harlems Renaissance, which embraced Africa and rocked between romance and skepticism. Langston sang, “I’ve known rivers” and Cullen mused, “What is Africa to me?” Graham worked with W.E.B. Du Bois, and his sister Shirley Graham became Mrs. Du Bois and in 1963 was with the great man when he expired in Ghana. How much Du Bois influenced Lorenz Graham is indefinite and how many Du Boisean ideas are represented in I, Momolu is uncertain. In any event very pot must sit on its own bottom. But Graham, I suspect, represents and characterizes a substantial African American perspective of that era, however shallow. I leave it to fellow researchers to discover Du Bois’ response to this work of his brother-in-law. There may indeed be words in print that will be revealing of the black missionary spirit.
Kwame Anthony Appiah of Princeton has indicted what he calls, the history of Afro-Americas African dream. He attacks and damns American Negroes’ reversal of the Middle Passage. One sympathizes with Appiah’s criticisms in In My Fathers House, and his exposure of our cultural imperial New World attitudes. In his A Long Way from Home, Appiah levels a broadside attack on Negro intellectuals from Alexander Crummell, a black Episcopalian New Yorker of the 19th-century, to the 1950s Richard Wright, Mississippi Negro novelist and atheist.
I, Momolu is further grist for Appiahs Negro criticism.
Such Negro intellectuals, according to Appiah, have left contemporary African cultures with a burdensome legacy. These black men (and maybe their women) inherited a set of conceptual blinders. From whom they inherited these concepts, Appiah skirts, and asserts that the American Negro was unable to see virtue in Africa, despite their need for Africa. Their low opinion of the African results from a low opinion of the Negro, that is, the detribalized New World African. These men, Appiah reminds us, linked tragically race and Pan-Africanism, which he views as a distorted realism.
The UCLA years probably heightened Lorenz Grahams racial consciousness. In close proximity to Americas superior minds he discovers that mainstream ideas about Africans were stereotypical and that few books existed describing Africans realistically. By realism here, Graham also means favorably from a certain racial angle of seeing. And like the Renaissance men he admired (Douglass and Du Bois), Graham was curious, ingenious, skeptical, and daring. In his Africa missionary journey, he dared to redeem the African character by relating his pedagogical experience in his writings of Momolu, the son of Flumbo of Lojay, residing deep in Liberias bush country.
Beneath his cautious critical language, Appiah argues that in its origins Pan-Africanism is a kind of New World Negro intellectual hegemony. As men of science armed with American material progress, these Western-trained Africans believe almost religiously they have evolved beyond the naïve simplicity of the tribal African. This framework indeed dominates I, Momolu, which can be described as an overarching liberal colonial perspective that strives after a humanistic characterization of the pure African. For Graham people are people, however rash, uninformed, and misguided.
I, Momolu, published in 1966, did not suffer the history of the rise and decline of the murderous Sgt. Doe, courted at the White House by Ronald Reagan. This “revolutionary” maniac summarily executed by firing squads Liberias leading government officials, tied to posts on an ocean beach stripped down to their shorts. These Liberian leaders traced their lineage back to Virginia and Maryland. Something terrible and wonderful happened, at once, a tribal man had risen to absolute authority, the presidency of Liberia. And then followed the widely distributed video of Does overthrow, capture, castration, and his captors forcing him to swallow his own member.
I, Momolu fails to examine mindfully its own ideology and anticipate this potential and lurking national tragedy. In his young adult novel Graham, however, centers the conflict of the African tribal man at odds with the Liberian government, but to prove only that people are people. As a religious missionary, Graham sincerely recognized the humanity of the African, his indeed is a far superior characterization than the African racial stereotypes of his own American inheritance. But there remains a difference. Graham views tribal life as a static and restricting social institution, an anachronism that should be shed quickly for African progress.
Learning his novel techniques at Columbia, Graham does well, though I find his pacing rather boring. This lack of excitement results because the events he presents are more symbolical than carefully explored. Graham restricts the tribal eyes to the African boy, Momolu, who is curious and easily influenced by the uniforms and military discipline and literacy of Africans who have adopted the American way. The novel opens with a visit by Liberian soldiers to the Kewpessie town of Lojay. And Flumbo, the father of Momolu, is one of its leading men, who singularly distrusts soldiers.
Unlike other tribes (such as the 1880s Grebo), the Kewpessie people had always wanted to live in peace. Isolated by rows of mountains, their own land was hilly with scarcely enough level valleys for their small farms. Not yet caught up in the American way because, for one, there were no plantations of rubber or coffee; and, two, motor cars could not approach it for there were no roads or bridges and thus the people of Lojay knew little about the outside world and the American way. It seem, from the authors perspective, tribal ignorance and backwardness generate the conflict.
As the plot develops we discover other tribes (like the Bassa and the Kru) have already adopted or been influenced (positively and negatively) by the American way, including members of the Kewpessie tribe. Though none of the soldiers that first entered Lojay were Kewpessie, one may conclude that Chief Logomo, the head of Lojays tribal government (with his eight-room house), was indeed influenced by the American way. This appears also in Chief Logomos verdict at Flumbo’s public hearing.
In his talks with the captain of the soldiers Chief Logomo was assisted by his high priest Bomo-Koko, wearing a carved wooden mask covering his head and a robe of black monkey fur hanging from his shoulders to the ground, and a council of elders. From the elevated palaver house Chief Logomo ceremoniously makes his decisions and pronouncements to which Lojays people give their consent.
For the sake of the novels missionary frame, the seeds of tribal conflict are represented, for such conflicts are both bound and healed by the American way. As we see, because of a lack of understanding Flumbo and the Kimboosie sergeant fought . . . soon all the men of Lojay were fighting against the soldiers. . . . Women screamed. Someone started beating the great drum in the palaver house. It was a call to war.
The slave, whether in Africa or America or Europe, learns quickly that freedom is hard defended especially in the isolated byways of life, the weak fall victim to the strong. The soldiers have guns, the authority of the Liberian government, and the American way. Naturally and instinctively Flumbo views the soldiers behavior as intrusive and fears them as enemies of country people. When Flumbo sees his son in the uniform of the Kimboosie sergeant who knew the American speech, he rips the shirt and pants from Momolu’s body.
In this masquerade, the seeds for conflict between father and son (Flumbo and Momolu) are also sown. The author establishes the widening gulf with Momolu thinking that the soldier had meant no harm. Be careful of the educated fool, Daddy used to remind me, he’ll break your heart.
Because of his lack of understanding and his anger and his tearing of government clothes Flumbo must pay ten bags of rice, and Flumbo with Momolu, his son, must take the rice to Cape Roberts on the coast and stand before the commissioner who is the captains chief.
That was the will of the captain, and the will of Logomo, chief of Lojay. And then the palaver is finished. Obedient to the will of their chief, Flumbo and Momolu and two of their fellow tribesmen load ten bags of rice, half of Flumbos harvest into two canoes, five bags in each. Momolus marvelous adventures thus begin and his “understanding” broadens, though not necessarily deepens.
For his father Flumbo the delivery of rice payment becomes an ordeal and a deeper entanglement in the American way. Because of his gawking at the sights of the Liberian world, Momolu overturns inadvertently the canoe and five bags of rice are lost. When they appear before the commissioner without full payment for the assault on the government Flumbo and Momolu are arrested and tossed in a dirty jail of unwashed bodies and the accumulations of filth on the floor.
A Kewpessie brother married to a Kru woman with a son who can read and lives in Kru Town, Jalla-Malla rescues Flumbo and Momolu by the payment of the additional five bags of rice. The captain of the soldiers however restricts the movement of Flumbo and Momolu to the military barracks. There they are the responsibility of Sergeant Poobak, a “Kewpessie brother,” who heavily influences Momolus rejection of Flumbos truth about soldiers. He explains (removes the magic of) guns, motor cars, and airplanes. The Liberians, whose laws were higher than those of the African tribes, understood many things that were mysteries to the simple people of the African countryside, the narrator intrudes.
Called again to the countryside, the noble captain of the soldiers requires Flumbo and Momolu to join their expedition. Flumbo is honored with the position of headman of the carriers and Momolu with carrying the captains radio. When on the journey Flumbo nearly dies of an infected leg he is healed by the captains magic and allowed to ride in the captains hammock borne by four men. After his miraculous recovery Flumbo says, I would not make a fight against the soldiers again, and now I know they are not the enemies of the country people. These soldiers are my brothers.
With this transformation, the noble captain presses his victory, when the government comes to Lojay to make the road, will the men of Lojay help? Joyously, Flumbo says, they will help, and Flumbo, if he is in Lojay, will be their headman. The noble captain says, Now Flumbo is a free Kewpessie man. The palaver is finished.
And then they return to Lojay and a celebration ensues. Overcome by his Liberian experience, Momolu confesses publicly that he now knows some men understand and someday I, Momolu, will understand. Grahams reforming missionary tale is thus complete. The African becoming or desiring to be African American is reaffirming bliss.
This reader hopes that the real-life Momolus will develop an understanding” with more depth and meaning than this sentimental story with its facile psychology. Graham’s I, Momolu, though deceptive, might still be instructive as a species of colonial missionary literature.
What would Appiah think of this Negro American literary effort? How “burdensome” would Appiah find this young adult novel of divide and conquer, with its African son set against the values of his tribal father? Should we American educators in sympathy with African peoples ban it and toss it in the trashcan of “Afro-Americas African dream”?
Sources: Lorenz Graham. I, Momolu. New York: Thomas T. Crowell Company, 1966; Kwame Anthony Appiah, “A Long Way from Home: Wright in the Gold Coast.” In Richard Wright edited and with an “Introduction” by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987; www.grahambooks.com.
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Nobel Peace Prize Winners are Subjects of Prominent PBS BroadcastsThree womenLiberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, her compatriot Leymah Gbowee, and pro-democracy campaigner Tawakul Karman of Yemen have been named co-recipients of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for their nonviolent role in promoting peace, democracy, and gender equality. Their remarkable stories are part of public medias Women and Girls Lead pipeline of documentaries. Public media leaders from ITVS, PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting joined the rising chorus of voices congratulating Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, her co-patriot Leymah Gbowee, and pro-democracy campaigner Tawakul Karman of Yemen, the three women named co-recipients of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for womens rights to full participation in peace-building work. Pray the Devil Back to Hell / Leymah Gbowee Wins 2011 Nobel Peace Prize
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By Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
In this her fourth volume, I witness Patricia Jabbeh Wesley courageously dipping her pen into her own wound and splashing vivid imagery upon the canvas of her own skin. That is an illusion, for that pen is really a scalpel cutting the gangrenous and the rotten out of her nation’s violated flesh. But that too is an illusion. That scalpel is a steel tongue in a powerful Grebo woman’s mouth weaving a fine gauze from dirges, love songs, praise songs, fragments of aphoristic wisdom, fables, new myths, narrative and lyrical dialogues in order to bind our own wounded psyches.
Proud Grebo women’s voices burst through her mouth to chastise depraved men who harvest babies to stoke diamond wars as they blaze through forests of dry human bones in their imported death chariots. Beyond celebrating these fiery taboo-breaking warrior women who are passionate about peace, justice, their right to forbidden fantasies, she also claims her place, though exiled, in the lineage. Condemned to bear upon her back her home, she is the strong earthen vessel that safeguards the essential spiritual Grebo values bequeathed to her by the village elders in a circle.
Because moving is never a leaving, memories of home constantly surge through the poet’s wry humor and wit that serve as balm for the ever-nagging pain. To honor her ancestors’ memories Wesley has planted these enduring trees whose fruits must nourish us all if we are willing to avail ourselves of her poetic gifts. These are brave and fearless poems in a harsh dark season, yet necessary for the witness they bear to human folly while insisting on our capacity to love. With each new volume, her voice grows stronger as it blends with those of Ama Ata Aidoo, Alda do Espirito Santo, and Jeni Couzyn. She is without doubt among the most powerful of the younger generation of African poets.Frank M. Chipasula, editor, Bending the Bow: An Anthology of African Poetry/ co-editor of The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry
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Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (video)
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A film directed by Gini Reticker
Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a captivating new film by director Gini Reticker. It exposes a different story angle for the largely forgotten recent events of the women of Liberia uniting to bring the end to their nation’s civil war. This film is amazing in the way it captivates your attention from the earliest frames. It doesn’t shy away from showing footage of the violent events that took place during the Liberian civil war. But the main story of the film is that of Leymah Gbowee and the other women uniting, despite their religious differences, to force action on the stalled peace talks in their country. Using entirely nonviolent methods, not only are the peace talks successful, but Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia, is forced into exile leading to the first election of a female head of state in Africa. The women of this film are truly an inspiration and no one can fail to be moved by the message of hope that comes through clearly in this film. These are heroes that deserve to be remembered and with Pray the Devil we are able to do that, gaining both a knowledge of the history we are ignorant of through archival footage and an understanding of the leaders of this movement through close-up interviews with the many women who lead it. The film also offers a great soundtrack & inspirational song- “Djoyigbe” by Angelique Kidjo & Blake Leyh.Amazon Reviewer
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As a young woman, Leymah Gbowee was broken by the Liberian civil war, a brutal conflict that tore apart her life and claimed the lives of countless relatives and friends. Years of fighting destroyed her countryand shattered Gbowees girlhood hopes and dreams. As a young mother trapped in a nightmare of domestic abuse, she found the courage to turn her bitterness into action, propelled by her realization that it is women who suffer most during conflictsand that the power of women working together can create an unstoppable force. In 2003, the passionate and charismatic Gbowee helped organize and then led the Liberian Mass Action for Peace, a coalition of Christian and Muslim women who sat in public protest, confronting Liberias ruthless president and rebel warlords, and even held a sex strike. With an army of women, Gbowee helped lead her nation to peacein the process emerging as an international leader who changed history. Mighty Be Our Powers is the gripping chronicle of a journey from hopelessness to empowerment that will touch all who dream of a better world.Beast Books / Pray the Devil Back to Hell
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 4 October 2008