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Marking a Different Thanksgiving Tradition, From West Africa

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

But while some of that new republic’s inhabitants had connections to the United States, its birth year wasn’t 1776, but 1847. The country was named Liberia by its founders, formerly enslaved Africans from the United States who returned to the continent in the early 19th century.

Today, people of Liberian descent in the United States — who in 2019 numbered about 120,000, according to the Pew Research Center — are among only a few immigrant groups who arrived with their own Thanksgiving tradition. Many have come in the past three decades, fleeing the violence and political turmoil that have torn the West African nation.

Its Thanksgiving holiday, decreed in 1870, was not patterned after the narrative or the food that define the United States’ version. But for Liberians in the United States, the day can feel just as fraught as it does for many other Americans.

In interviews, many who grew up in Liberia or whose families came from that country said they were still wrestling with its history, in which settlers from another continent established control over an Indigenous population. That tension plays out in the foods, festivities and other ways they mark the holiday.

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

On the other hand, she said, “I know a lot of Liberians see Thanksgiving as a way to celebrate freedom, and even then I question it because it is like, ‘You wasn’t free. We still ain’t free.’”

In Liberia, Thanksgiving — celebrated on the first Thursday of November — is simply a day off from work for some. Others observe it as a religious occasion, with fasting and prayer. In the 1950s, a time of greater economic prosperity, food and “showy consumption” became a bigger part of celebrations, including Thanksgiving, said C. Patrick Burrowes, an expert on Liberian history and the former vice president of academic 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, though it still struggles economically.

Yet its cuisine is rich and many-faceted, reflecting the various groups that have called the country home. It includes West African staples like rice and yams; foods brought from the American South by formerly enslaved Africans, like collard greens and cornbread; European exports like dried fish and cassava; and ingredients like breadfruit and ginger beer, brought 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 her of Liberia’s civil unrest.

Her family came to the United States in the early 1970s. Then, in 1989, her father returned to Liberia to set up a new home for them, and was stranded there because of travel restrictions.

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

Even though her stepmother was part Liberian, that Thanksgiving meal was all Western fare: 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 horrific.”

“When my father came back and I started spending more time with family, that is where I started to see the African food come out,” she added. “There was this sense of, there is hope. There were talks of moving back.”

Still, she added, “Thanksgiving does not mean liberation for me.” There isn’t enough discussion, she said, of how the freed Black people who founded Liberia treated the Indigenous population as a lower caste. (Ms. Goodridge is a descendant of Indigenous Liberians from the Kpelle and Congo tribes, of freed Black people from Barbados and of freed people from the United States, who are also known as Americo Liberians.)

“The celebration of liberation, I think I personally am having a hard time understanding it 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 Liberian food: pepper chicken, spicy and laden with herbs and garlic; jollof rice done the Liberian way, with chicken, fish and pork; rice bread; and sweet potato pone.

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

After her grandfather was assassinated, “life changed overnight,” she said, “not just for my family, but for the entire country.” Her family fled Liberia and settled in New York State and Maryland. Ms. Tolbert, 28, now runs Mesean Spices, a line of spice blends inspired by the flavors of the African diaspora. Every Thanksgiving, she and her relatives gather and give thanks for the life and opportunities they have.

She grew up seeing images of pumpkin pies and pilgrims in her elementary school, but the American Thanksgiving story never resonated with her. “In America, Thanksgiving was a holiday created by white people,” Ms. Tolbert said. “In Liberia, it was a holiday created by Black people. So it is different to me.”

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

People dressed up. There was a kickball game. Her mother raised chickens and grew sweet potatoes and cassava in a garden so she could cook Liberian food.

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 houses, and there was nothing going on but eating and watching TV,” she said.

Her parents immigrated seven years later, and together, they recreated her childhood Thanksgiving, making sweet-potato greens stewed with smoked turkey, chicken and shrimp, and buttery Liberian shortbread. They held dance contests and played board games.

Ms. Wreh, 41, whose family is Indigenous, from the Krahn and Kru tribes, now runs Monrovia Lounge, a Liberian restaurant in Dallas, and hosts a Thanksgiving celebration for her extended family. It includes all of those Liberian traditions, and a turkey because her five children want one. But she makes the bird her way — seasoned with plenty of butter, onions, herbs and Cajun spices.

She sees the Liberian Thanksgiving as an improvement on the American one. “I like when things evolve for the better, because Thanksgiving has a very bittersweet story” in the United States, she said. “That is not our story.”

Thalmus Hare always looks forward to the holiday, and enjoys both traditional Liberian and American dishes at his family’s Thanksgiving table in Atlanta. Mashed potatoes and candied yams are served alongside palm-butter stew and chicken gravy.

Being able to celebrate the holiday in the United States “is a blessing, because we come from a war-torn country,” said Mr. Hare, who immigrated with his family at age 2. His business, LibFood, ships Liberian dishes across the world, and does brisk business around Thanksgiving — particularly for the collard greens, simmered in a stock of dried fish, ham hocks and smoked Cajun turkey.

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

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

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

Liberia was initially a colony of the American Colonization Society, a group created in 1816 to send formerly enslaved people back to Africa. The society, which included both slave owners and abolitionists, was motivated by the racist belief that Black people could not be integrated into American society.

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

Ms. Yahwon, whose family is both Americo Liberian and Indigenous Liberian from the Bassa tribe, recently began an archival project that focuses, in part, on uncovering Indigenous food traditions and holidays that existed before Liberia was established.

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

Ms. Yahwon still prepares a Thanksgiving meal with Liberian food. And she understands why some Liberian Americans love the holiday. “We need to hold onto things that remind us of home,” she said.

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

Recipes: Liberian Chicken Gravy | Pan-Fried Collard Greens

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