Shifting Frontiers of Freedom, Citizenship, and Nationhood in Caribbean Post-Emancipation
Following its establishment in the early nineteenth century, Liberian identity would be intimately linked to its African American settlers. This, however, would start to shift in deliberate and meaningful ways by the mid-nineteenth century. In the period following the American Civil war, the locus of Liberian migration shifted away from African Americans to liberated Africans and West Indians. The inflow of the new migrant streams brought together African Americans with Barbadians, liberated Africans, and indigenes creating a black cosmopolitan space with multiple voices and visions, and a new milieu in which intra-racial and ethnic identity would be nurtured. In this paper, I re-imagine this Liberian period largely from the perspective of Caribbean post-emancipation migration to the republic, specifically looking at a group of fifty Afro-Barbadian families who emigrated to Liberia in 1865. I explore the development of the West Indian personality in Liberia in this mid-century period of flux when a recalibration of Liberian identity seemed likely. Furthermore, looking at the migration of Barbadians across the Atlantic not only pushes Caribbean post-emancipation studies out of its insularity and into its transatlantic and diasporic dimensions, but further shows the ways in which Barbadians’ experiences of freedom, citizenship, and nationhood transformed across space and time. Secondly, the paper shows how the complex cross-currents between Africa and the diaspora played out within the crucible of an independent black African nation building project. In asking who was black and African within a black African nation we see how contestations over membership in the black community shaped black identity as well as experiences of citizenship and nationhood. Moving beyond the traditional references in the scholarly literature to migrants to Liberia as undifferentiated blacks and African Americans as a catch-all identifier for all migrants, I instead draw on accounts that highlight the tensions between the various migrant groups as they sought to carve out spheres of influence. This supports my contention that contestations over Liberian identity telegraphed the larger philosophical discussions surrounding what it mean to be black. Never simplistic or unitary, Liberian identity was instead a ritually-conceived ideology articulated through specific practices and references to moments of initiation into the nation. If we take seriously, for instance, the fact that early African American settlers in Liberia and even their descendants today narrate their history and identity largely in relationship to and through the language of the arrival of the ship that carried their ancestors to the republic, then we are forced to search for explanations of Liberian identity that transcend simplistic notions of a homogenous black identity. This can achieved by looking at the ways in which different segments of the diaspora routinely conjured a black identity alongside their activities in the ritual realm upon arrival. For while the assertion of racial rather than ethnic identity functioned to unite blacks in a spirit of pan-African solidarity in diaspora, ethnic qualifiers became a means by which migrants sought to show difference in Liberia. As these processes recreated the fragmentation of diaspora in Africa, they also exposed the vicissitudes of blackness.