Online Videos by Veoh.comAs Helene Cooper–diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times and author of “The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of A Lost African Childhood”–began speaking to a crowd of about 150 people on Tuesday evening, a hush settled over the media center of the North View International Baccalaureate World School in Brooklyn Park. But not for long.
She initially expressed some trepidation at addressing her first mostly-Liberian gathering, since beginning her book tour a week ago. Then, she immediately plunged into reading excerpts from the book interspersed with captivating anecdotes that put her deeply personal stories into context. Similar to how “The House at Sugar Beach” is written in a visceral literary style, Cooper told her story easily and comfortably–at times lapsing into true Liberian-English which generated reactions from bursts of familiar laughter to gasps of horror based on what she shared…
According to Sharon Peters-Harden, Coordinator of the Department of Equity & Integration with Osseo Area Schools, the event was truly an example of collaboration in the community. It brought together several organizations as sponsors including the Osseo Area School District in partnership with the Center for Multicultural Services at Normandale Community College, along with African Women Connect, African Roots Connection, Ajenia Enterprises, ASSA, Inc., Remember Our Children Project, The Liberian Journal, and Liberian Women’s Initiatives of Minnesota. Also, two Liberian students in the High Achievers Program at North View, Ben Folowa and Charles Banks, did a wonderful job of introducing the author.
In addition to administrators and teachers from Osseo Area School District (ISD 279), Brooklyn Park City Council member Mike Trepanier, Publisher Benoni Grimes of PeopletoPeople News, as well as other members of the Liberian community in Minnesota was represented. Members of the Executive Team and Board of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota (OLM), including President Kerper Dwanyen, along with several members of the clergy, were also in attendance.
It was a proud moment for Liberians and women, in particular, to hear how Cooper traversed the difficulties of adjusting to a new life in America after her “world was upended” in 1980 following a bloody coup d’état. She described her heartbreak at being separated from her sister, Eunice, when her family fled the opulence that she was accustomed to in Liberia—moving to an apartment in Tennessee. There, she chose to embellish her letters to Eunice with imagined romance and excitement, while living a lonely existence as an outcast at her high school—but Eunice saw right through her fabrication. Later, she managed to assimilate fully and found great success in college and in her career as a journalist.
As a reality check, she cautioned the younger generation to not loose themselves completely, while trying to fit into the mainstream. That, she said, was the reason it took 23 years for her to face her past and begin to heal from the trauma she experienced.
Cooper divulged her defining moment—lying in the sand in the Iraqi desert, following an accident, while embedded with U.S. troops in 2003—which forced her to dig inside herself to question the realities of her pampered and sheltered existence as a child. She experienced many conflicting emotions, feeling proud of her ancestors for “forging a new country” and at the same time “ashamed of them for the way they treated people and setting up the same antebellum society [that they escaped from].”
It took four years to write “The House at Sugar Beach” and she characterized the process as her “therapy.” As she struggled to find answers, the journey helped her realize, “That’s okay…we’re human beings….none of us are in any shape to be pointing the finger at anybody [else] when we look back in our past.” She was able to finally find peace.
At the end of her time at North View, Cooper expressed great appreciation for the warm reception and compliments about her book. When asked to give an update about her relationship with Eunice, Cooper chuckled and replied, “You have to read the book.”