Shared histories and a shared future: A dialogue

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On Sunday afternoon, January 27, at 2:00 PM, the Minneapolis Urban League, the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, and Jewish Community Action, with the support of many other community-based organizations, will collaborate on an unusual, exciting, and historic project – the staged reading of the first act of a new play, “Tap the Leopard.” Written by Kia Corthron, whose work has been performed on Minneapolis stages from the Children’s Theater Company to the Pillsbury House Theater, “Tap the Leopard” explores the interwovenness of the histories of African Americans and Liberians. Following the reading will be a panel and audience discussion, including Congressman Keith Ellison, which will explore our shared future as well as our shared histories.

Sunday, January 27, 2008; 2:00 – 4:30 PM; Hosted by the Minneapolis Urban League, 2100 Plymouth Avenue; free and open to the public; a staged reading of Kia Corthron’s “Tap the Leopard,” followed by a panel and audience discussion featuring Congressman Keith Ellison. For more information, call (651) 632-2184.

The Twin Cities metro area is home to the largest Liberian immigrant community in the United States, 15,000 to 20,000 women, men, and children. They have come here over the past two decades, seeking the peace and stability that they could not find in their own war-torn country. While they have begun to make new homes here, as families and as a community, their security has been undermined by threats from the U.S. federal government to take away their Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which would require them to return to Liberia, whether they felt it was safe to do so or not.

Their struggle to remain here, or at least to be able to choose if and when to return, has touched the hearts of many of their neighbors. Interestingly, this is not merely a question of sympathy for the plight of others. In the Liberians’ stories, other Minnesotans have recognized elements of their own stories, and it is on the basis of such shared experiences that dialogue and genuine solidarity becomes possible.

The Liberians’ search for peace and stability, for acceptance and welcome, has reminded members of Jewish Community Action (JCA) of the stories of our own forebears who fled exploitation and oppression in Egypt to wander the desert in search of the “promised land.” JCA activists joined with Liberians to circulate petitions, letters, and emails, appeal to other community organizations, and visit Washington, D.C., to lobby Minnesota’s congressional representatives. In the fall of 2007, the delegation scored a remarkable victory, as the Bush Administration committed to extend TPS for another eighteen months.

Listening to the Liberians’ stories and those of other African immigrants and recent immigrants from Southeast Asia, Mexico and Latin America has prompted Jews to revisit our own histories, to reconnect with and celebrate our past (such as the holiday of Passover), and to reach out to our new neighbors based on the shared nature of our experiences. With this new appreciation of the meaningfulness of our commonalities, we have also recognized that, given our longer residency here and our privileges as white American citizens, we have resources, contacts, and connections which we can share with our new neighbors.

The Liberians’ stories have also encouraged African Americans to revisit their own histories, from the struggle against slavery in the early 19th century to movements to create pan-African networks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1820s the first boatload of free Blacks and former slaves landed in what would become Liberia, to be followed over the ensuing decades by thousands more. The descendants of these African American settlers would play a leading role in Liberia’s history, not without controversy and complexity. Many would intermarry with women and men from indigenous ethnic groups, but they would also maintain a specific identity as “Americo-Liberians.” They made a powerful impact on Liberia, from its language and architecture to its political system, economy, and culture.

Over more than a century and a half, the combination of the influence of the U.S. government, the economic agenda of Firestone Rubber, which maintained huge plantations in Liberia, the political calculations of the Cold War, and the self-interest of local elites made for an explosive mix. In the 1980s this mix ignited, with disastrous consequences, including military coups, the impressment of child soldiers, the deaths of civilians, and the devastation of both cities and the countryside. Two-thirds of Liberia’s population would be displaced, a significant cohort fleeing abroad. Some would come to the United States, and some would settle in the Twin Cities.

Four years ago, the Guthrie Theater received a grant from the Bush Foundation to support nine playwrights who might choose to travel anywhere in the world in order to research a new play. Kia Corthron was one of them, and she chose to spend time in Liberia in order to write a play which would explore the interwoven histories of African Americans and Liberians. The result is “Tap the Leopard.” Ms. Corthron has generously offered to allow us to stage a reading of Act One (there are three acts) because she, like many of us, is eager to promote a dialogue between Liberians and African Americans, as well as other interested parties.

In the context of remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and what he has meant to our shared history, this event touches many critical topics. Immigration is one of the key hot button issues of the unfolding presidential campaign, a campaign in which an African American candidate is playing an ever-more-central role. The governor of Minnesota seeks to build his political career on the demonization of “illegal” immigrants, while others of us struggle to find a shared vision of “comprehensive” reform. African Americans are hardly celebrating the “end” of racism in the United States, as the subprime mortgage meltdown has added its weight to those burdens already borne, from the crisis in public education, the persistence of unemployment, and the growth of incarceration, to the exploitation of “Black” representations in popular culture. Tensions between African Americans and new immigrants, Latino and East African as well as Liberian and West African, threaten to keep divided the very people who need to unite to address not only their problems but those which have long plagued our economy, our culture, and our political life.

It is significant that a talented playwright, a dedicated director and cast, and such a range of community-based organizations have come together to stage this reading. Now, for the dialogue this event seeks to promote to happen, you have to come. Please spread the word and plan to come yourselves!

Peter Rachleff is a professor of history at Macalester College.