Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Liberia and Class Consciousness


BOND: Back to your progress of your academic work, you do your Ph.D. work in Liberia and then later as your career continues on, Cuba and other Afro-Caribbean countries, talk about these. What do you learn -- I don't mean the fieldwork and so on -- what do you learn in Liberia about yourself and your own capabilities, what does that teach you?

COLE: Well it was -- it was another of those important moments along my journey.

BOND: You're married and have children then.

COLE: First of all, I am married, and it's important to say that it is an inter-racial marriage. And so in the early '60s, in fact in 1960, I'm off to Liberia, my -- at that time, my husband, a white graduate student in economics and as well in African studies -- we were a part of a research team that Northwestern University organized in response to a request to do an economic survey of Liberia. But Robert, myself, and a third graduate student, are told, "Look, do the work and you can use some data for your dissertations," and we did. The Liberia experience was startlingly important for me because remember it's 1960 to '62. We know what's happening in the U.S. And I am in a country where for the first time in my life, I am seeing relationships of power, and of oppression, that do not have to do with white folk, in the most immediate sense, oppressing black folk. I am looking at black folk oppressing black folk. Now that's stark language, but it's accurate language. For much of what is going in the relationship between Americo-Liberians, these descendents of slaves in the United States who have come back to Liberia and the indigenous people of Liberia who never had the experience of American slavery.

BOND: Now I'm -- you had some intellectual understanding of this long before you went --

COLE: Of course.

BOND: And when you arrive, does it sort of slap you in the face?

COLE: Because intellectual understanding and experiential understanding are sometimes so radically different. I had read everything I could but to see it, to be in the presence of an Americo-Liberian sitting as close to me as you are and to have a glass of water there, but to have him call for one of the tribal people to fetch his water was -- it was an amazing thing for me to witness. And then because of the nature of the work that I did there, which yes, at a certain point involved the more classic kind of setting -- anthropologists, up country, in my little village. But much of work took me all over the country as I looked at the movement of men out of traditional labor into the wage-earning economy. And so at the same time that I'm seeing these power-privileged relationships of Americo-Liberians with indigenous people, I'm also very, very aware of the presence of international capitalism in the form of Firestone, in the form of European iron-ore corporations, and it's, frankly, mind-boggling. I had lessons in political economy in Liberia that no course could have taught me.

BOND: And how does that inform your world view, how does that shape you as a person? I understand it's important professionally to learn these lessons and to write this thesis, but this larger lesson -- international capitalism, the movement of indigenous peoples from rural to urban, the disruption of society -- what does this --

COLE: I think it had -- I think it had an enormous effect on me. Had I done a different dissertation in a different -- or done different field work in a different part of the world, I may have ended up with a very different world view. In far too simplistic language, let me say that the experience of doing fieldwork in Liberia introduced class into my world view in a way that it had not been there before. Now I had lived class, to the extent that you know now my background as I know yours, and so yes, we knew the nature of class to the extent that one could use that accurately within the black community. But the Liberia experience began to show me class -- chiseled in far more definitive lines than I had ever experienced it before.