Mark a different, West African Thanksgiving tradition

On a pivotal day in July, a nation declared independence. Years later, he set aside a day in November to celebrate Thanksgiving. But w...


On a pivotal day in July, a nation declared independence. Years later, he set aside a day in November to celebrate Thanksgiving.

But while some of the inhabitants of this new republic had ties to the United States, its year of birth was not 1776, but 1847. The country was named Liberia by its founders, once Africans enslaved to the United States. who returned to the continent in the early 19th century.

Today, people of Liberian descent in the United States – which in 2019 numbered around 120,000, according to the Pew Research Center – are among the few immigrant groups to arrive with their own Thanksgiving tradition. Many have come over the past three decades, fleeing the violence and political turmoil that has torn the West African nation apart.

His Thanksgiving holiday, enacted in 1870, was not modeled after the narrative or the food that defines America’s version. But for Liberians in the United States, the day can be as busy as it is for many other Americans.

In interviews, many of those who grew up in Liberia or whose families are originally from that country said they were still grappling with its history, in which settlers from another continent took control of a indigenous population. This tension manifests itself in foods, festivities, and other ways they mark the holidays.

“Thanksgiving, I don’t know, it’s always complicated for me,” said Bilphena Yahwon, freelance archivist in Baltimore. “It provides an opportunity to celebrate and engage in food, and to remember once again the festivities of our culture.”

On the flip side, she said, “I know a lot of Liberians see Thanksgiving as a way to celebrate freedom, and even then I question it because it’s like, ‘You weren’t free. . We are still not free.

In Liberia, Thanksgiving – celebrated on the first Thursday in November – is simply a day off for some. Others observe it as a religious occasion, with fasting and prayer. In the 1950s, a period of greater economic prosperity, food and “showy consumption” became a more prominent part of celebrations, including Thanksgiving, said C. Patrick Burrowes, Liberian history expert and former vice-president. president of university affairs at Cuttington University in Liberia.

In 1980, a violent coup by a group of indigenous Liberians known as the People’s Redemption Council led to the assassination of President William R. Tolbert, a descendant of the founders. After years of civil unrest, the country has stabilized, although struggle economically.

However, its cuisine is rich and varied, like the different groups that have taken up residence in the countryside. It includes West African staples like rice and yams; foods brought from the southern United States by once enslaved Africans, such as collard greens and cornbread; European exports such as dried fish and cassava; and ingredients like breadfruit and ginger beer, brought in by black immigrants from Barbados.

Like some Liberians in the United States, Carleen Goodridge, 43, celebrates Thanksgiving on or around the American date. But it reminds him of civil unrest in Liberia.

His family arrived in the United States in the early 1970s. Then, in 1989, his father returned to Liberia to set up a new home for them and found himself stranded there due to travel restrictions.

Mrs. Goodridge, now a Baltimore chef who owns the beverage company Lemonade and the Liberian food pop-up Cōl Bōl, spent his childhood on Long Island and Staten Island. She remembers two types of Thanksgiving: the one with her mother-in-law, with whom she lived on and off while her father was in Liberia; and the one she started celebrating with him when she returned to the United States in 1992.

Even though her mother-in-law was part Liberian, this Thanksgiving meal consisted entirely of Western dishes: turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole. “I don’t think they wanted to be reminded of” Liberia, Ms. Goodridge said. “All the news coming back from Liberia was just horrible. “

“When my dad came back and I started spending more time with my family, that’s when I started to see African food coming out,” she added. “There was this feeling of, there is hope. There was talk of going back. “

Yet, she added, “Thanksgiving doesn’t mean liberation for me.” There is not enough discussion, she said, about how the liberated blacks who founded Liberia treated the indigenous population as a lower caste. (Mrs. Goodridge is a descendant of Native Liberians of the Kpelle and Congo tribes, Liberated Blacks from Barbados, and Liberated People from the United States, also known as American Liberians.)

“The liberation celebration, I think I personally find it hard to understand as I try to see where Liberia is now,” she said.

Instead, Ms. Goodridge focuses on Thanksgiving as a celebration of family and community. She always makes bast food: chicken with pepper, spicy and loaded with herbs and garlic; jollof rice bast style, with chicken, fish and pork; rice bread; and sweet potato.

Dominique Tolbert, who lives in New Rochelle, NY, is a granddaughter of Mr. Tolbert, the former president, and a descendant of the American Liberians, as well as the Kpelle people, who are indigenous to Liberia, and members of the African diaspora from Barbados. She said celebrating Thanksgiving like her family did in Liberia – with dishes like jollof rice and potato leaves – keeps her connected to her heritage.

After the assassination of her grandfather, “life changed overnight,” she said, “not just for my family, but for the whole country”. His family fled Liberia and settled in New York State and Maryland. Ms. Tolbert, 28, now manages Mesean spices, a range of spice blends inspired by the flavors of the African diaspora. Every Thanksgiving, she and her loved ones come together and give thanks for the life and the opportunities they have.

She grew up seeing images of pumpkin pies and pilgrims in her elementary school, but American Thanksgiving history never resonated with her. “In America, Thanksgiving was a holiday created by whites,” Ms. Tolbert said. “In Liberia, it was a party created by blacks. So it’s different for me.

Princess Wreh associates Thanksgiving with her family’s resilience in the face of upheaval in Liberia. In 1989, they fled the country and lived in a refugee camp in Waterloo, Sierra Leone. Even there, they celebrated Thanksgiving the way they remembered it – with a Baptist church service, followed by a large communal meal that everyone in the area stopped by to enjoy.

People disguised themselves. There was a kickball game. His mother raised chickens and grew sweet potatoes and cassava in a garden so that she could cook Liberian dishes.

When the family sent Ms. Wreh to Utah and then to Dallas as a teenager to attend school, she was surprised to find that the American Thanksgiving was much less lively than the Liberian version. “Everyone was in their house and there was nothing else to do but eat and watch TV,” she said.

Her parents immigrated seven years later, and together they recreated the Thanksgiving of her childhood, making simmered sweet potato veggies with smoked turkey, chicken and shrimp, and liberian butter shortbread. . They organized dance competitions and played board games.

Ms Wreh, 41, whose family is indigenous, from the Krahn and Kru tribes, now heads Monrovia Lounge, a Liberian restaurant in Dallas, and hosts a Thanksgiving celebration for her extended family. He understands all these Liberian traditions and a turkey because his five children want one. But she’s making the bird her own way – seasoned with lots of butter, onions, herbs and Cajun spices.

She sees the Liberian Thanksgiving as an improvement over the American one. “I like when the going for the better, because Thanksgiving has a very bittersweet history” in the United States, she said. “It’s not our story.”

Thalmus Hare always looks forward to the holidays and enjoys traditional Liberian and American fare at his family’s Thanksgiving table in Atlanta. Mashed potatoes and candied yams accompany the palm butter stew and chicken jus.

Being able to celebrate the holiday in the United States “is a blessing because we come from a war-torn country,” said Hare, who immigrated with his family when he was 2 years old. His company, LibFood, ships Liberian dishes around the world and does a booming business around Thanksgiving – especially for collard greens, simmered in a broth of dried fish, ham shanks and smoked Cajun turkey.

“Who we are is shown in the food,” said Mr. Hare, whose family is both indigenous Liberian, Grebo and Bassa tribesmen, and Liberian American. “We are partly Americans, because we were founded by Americans, but we kept our flair. “

But Ms Yahwon, 28, an archivist from Baltimore, believes Liberia’s origin story needs to be questioned further. “The belief is that Liberia and Ethiopia are the only two countries on the continent that have not been colonized,” she said. “It’s a complete lie.”

“Part of the reason we celebrate Thanksgiving is because of colonialism,” she said. “It was also forced on us. “

Liberia was originally a colony of the American Colonization Society, a group formed in 1816 to return former slaves to Africa. The society, which included both slave owners and abolitionists, was driven by the racist belief that blacks could not be integrated into American society.

The Liberians eventually drafted their own constitution and in 1847 declared their independence from society. They played a role in the abolition of slavery in Britain – their militias fought against the slave traffickers who landed in the region. But the American Liberians were the ones in power.

Ms Yahwon, whose family is both Liberian American and Liberian indigenous to the Bassa tribe, recently launched an archival project that focuses, in part, on uncovering the culinary traditions and indigenous festivals that existed before the establishment of Liberia.

Dr Burrowes, the historian, noted that there is a tendency in Liberian studies to highlight the divisions between indigenous and non-indigenous Liberians. But these groups have long shared similarities in their language, dress, and staple foods, like yucca and rice.

Mrs. Yahwon always cooks a Thanksgiving meal using Liberian food. And she understands why some American Liberians love the holidays. “We have to hold on to things that remind us of our home,” she said.

But she hopes more Liberians will think more critically about how and why they celebrate. “It takes a bit of nuance,” she said. “It forces us to tell the truth. “

Receipts: Liberian Chicken Sauce | Seared Green Cabbage



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