Association for Africanist Anthropology
Invited - Oral Presentation Session
This paper examines mobility as a type of Black privilege reframed by the events of the Liberian civil war (1989-2003) and the subsequent return to Liberia of Liberians who had fled to the United States. This reframing builds on a long history of migration flows shaping Liberian identities. The arrival of African American settlers in the 1820’s made Liberia a country stratified by class and background. By the twentieth century, a key marker of Americo-Liberian identity, upper class status, and privilege was the ability to travel for education and leisure to places like Europe and the United States, while indigenous Liberians were largely immobile, marginalized, and socially frustrated. Liberia’s unequal social structure remained firmly entrenched until the 1980 coup d’état led by Samuel K. Doe, a soldier who became the first indigenous Liberian president. This regime change led nine years later to a civil war and refugee flight. Liberians who were unable to leave expand the meaning of local terminology developed before the war for Americo-Liberians who traveled frequently (“been-to”) to include all Liberians who escaped to the United States, regardless of ethnic background. In doing so, they deride these returnees for having the privilege to travel and avoid the violence, and then returning to benefit in the post-war economy. Using interviews with returnees in Liberia, this paper seeks to explore how mobility, class, and privilege are reframed within the context of civil war. A brief, focused ethnographic presentation will make room for a moderated discussion.