An interview with Susan Peters about her life as an expatriate in Liberia, her award winning book and her career today.
B.Seed : Thanks for being on bright seed blog Ahnydah, aka Susan, writer, poet, mother. I heard someone who was honoring Bishop Henry McNeil Turner say that god “.. is for the oppressed, or he’s not god at all ..” You made it your priority, once you assessed the need, to improve the life and integrity of the oppressed, the indigenous people of Liberia. Now that you have had some time back in America to live and grow with black folks, see how we think/act today, is your priority, your focus with regards to the disadvantaged still the same?
Ahnydah : Well first I would have to clarify my initial intentions. When I went to Liberia with my family
and the Hebrew Israelites I wanted to be of service. Yes, there is that element of poverty and certainly oppression but I don’t particularly want to single out Liberia as suffering from poverty and oppression. People of color are suffering globally and upon returning, our reality in these United States(Despite an African American president) is still seen through the lens of being oppressed. So my priority has never changed. It’s still helping my people. Only in Africa, Liberia was my community and now it’s pretty much the South Side of Chicago.
B.Seed : Growing up in Chicago as an “emotional child” with a spirit of discovery, and entering high school you weren’t yet a writer, or were you? What was your interest in life/school as a teen?
Ahnydah : As a teen I was painfully shy and desperate to be popular. I, like many teens was a bit estranged from my parents. I was writing, mainly poetry but the seed of reading and writing had been firmly planted.
B.Seed : Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot, your first book. I think in many ways it defined you as a writer, as a person–Liberian life will forever be a part of you. This is not your first. You did some article writing, I believe, before your trip to Africa. What was the subject of your “first published pamphlet”?
Ahnydah : Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot, the memoir of my family’s eleven years in West Africa, was my first published book. That’s true, but I had been writing and performing my poetry around Chicago and in the early 1970’s I had an article on “Early Childhood Education” published in Essence Magazine. They paid me $150. So that was the first money I earned writing! I have for many years been a member of Christ Universal Temple, founded by Rev. Johnnie Coleman and I was for a few years a member of the churches Writer’s Guild. Through that medium I contributed essays to several books published by CUT.
B.Seed : It was foretold that “You will travel abroad and you will stay for a long long time” You were, for a long time, involved with the Institute of Positive Education (IPE), a Southside Chicago organization founded by noted author/poet Haki R. Mahdbuti who had been to Africa. Were you writing poetry by then? Why was this organization important to you?
Ahnydah : You certainly did your research. A fortune teller gave me an extremely accurate reading that said I was going to live abroad for a long time. As for the Institute of Positive Education, I was loosely affiliated with IPE through my former mate. He was deeply involved and IPE of course laid an important foundation in the Black Nationalist community. I have great respect for IPE, Haki, his wife Safisha and others. I was completely inspired by Haki’s poetry, as well as Amiri Baraka and an early mentor, poet, Walter Bradford. The 70’s was a very creative period for me. I was writing poetry, short stories and plays and performing during that period.
B.Seed : You met Hebrew Israelites in Chicago. I met some in Pasadena, CA in the 90’s in the old town area where they preached. They were harassed by people (both black and white). White kids climbed on the rooftop and threw liquid on them but they stood their ground. What was the reception like for Hebrew Israelites coming to Liberia from America? Do you know what it is like now? Did they, your Hebrew friends, survive the civil war?
Ahnydah : There are several Hebrew Israelite groups in Chicago, so I’m not sure about harassment. The group of Hebrews that I left Chicago owns vegetarian restaurants and Soul Vegetarian in Chicago has been a favorite watering hole for Blacks and Whites for many years. Chicagoans are pretty accepting of people with diverse doctrines. Chicago, as many people know is highly segregated. There weren’t any substantial numbers of whites around in our neighborhoods to disrespect the Hebrew Israelites. In my opinion, between the Muslim faith, the Hebrew Israelite faith and the Black Panther Party and the Black Nationalist community in the 70’s I found hope and a lot of information about the value and accomplishments of my race that was stolen, misrepresented or hidden.
When I traveled to Liberia the Hebrews were well received. They owned a construction company that was building bridges in the hinterland and the lifestyle was really pretty good. The abrupt change came in 1980 during the first coupe de tat. After the Tolbert regime was overthrown and Samuel Kanyon Doe took over the country pitched and rolled like many nations after violent leadership change. Eventually in 1989 we got to the beginnings of the Liberian Civil War.
You asked did any Hebrew Israelites die during the Liberian War; I’ve not head of any. Currently, I believe there are Hebrews living and working in Ghana.
B.Seed : The day of Yom le Mokereem. The Hebrew Israelite Mission leader suspended you for seventy days for refusing his sexual advances. You never returned. I am pretty sure that you felt betrayed not only by this leader, and your husband, who you believed was having an affair, but did you feel equally hurt/abandoned by your Hebrew Israelite group, that they, through quiet acquiescence, did not come to your aid with what you felt was the truth?
Ahnydah : I was officially expelled for not being a devoted Hebrew. The truth was that I reported the leader of our Mission to a higher up for some inappropriate behavior. The rest is an opinion.
I did feel betrayed by my husband but the reality was even if he had spoken up, that would have only prolonged the inevitable. I didn’t want to be with the group any longer.
B.Seed : Liberia’s 1865 Ports of Entry Act prohibited foreign commerce with the indigenous inland tribes. Your free child care project for indigenous African market women was canceled by the Liberian Government and re-opened as a pay program that you say only thirty percent of the market women could afford. In retrospect how did this “watered down version” of your plan make you feel?
Ahnydah : I did a free pilot project in the Markets for indigenous women using my existing staff. That pilot was halted by my boss at the Liberian National Red Cross. Subsequently the Market Women got together and brought in a vendor that charged. The Market Day care was never a government project and obviously to feed and care for people someone has to provide funding so it was fee based. I actually participated in initial trainings. I hope there is some kind of childcare for market women now.
B.Seed : It is clear from your book and from other articles (such as http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gmdhtml/libhtml/liberia.html), that the root cause of turmoil in Liberia was the refusal of black people, “repatriating” from America in early and later times, to not just lay roots in Africa the land, but to sow roots, good roots in Africa the people. Am I wrong to think that way?
Ahnydah : I think that’s an oversimplification. The Black settlers had been brutalized and for the most part, acculturated through slavery. All they knew is that they wanted a good life and the good life they remembered had been modeled for them by their white enslavers. To put this in an even broader perspective I would have to say that I don’t see the behavior of the returning settlers as significantly different from persons fleeing Europe to come to American and how they treated the Native Americans. There is also a comparison to be made between how European Jews who replanted themselves in Israel after escaping Nazi Germany continue to find it difficult to properly treat the people of that land. It’s about how damaged psyches operate from fear, “hurt people hurt people.” I’m certainly not making excuses but I like to see things in context of how humans behave generally. The returning settlers should have acted differently but they were damaged and for the most part they created a two tiered society with the indigenous Liberians on the lower tier. The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper is a pretty reasonable account. Liberia is complex and to understand there’s some reading to be done.
B.Seed : Sweet Liberia, received the 2010 Black Excellence Award for Non-Fiction by the African-American Alliance of Chicago. In 2011 the book was awarded a prize for Non-Fiction from the Illinois Press Women’s Association and was included in their May 2014 anthology. In your book’s acknowledgement you give first mention to Dina Elenbogen at the Gleacher Center-University of Chicago who “gave it to me straight between the eyes”. What did she say? Her most important advice to you?
Ahnydah : She told me to trim away a lot of material I thought was important. It’s very difficult not to be married to your words. I probably have enough material for another book.
B.Seed : Jill Zimmerman from the Taylor Institute and UNICEF-Liberia gave an introduction in Sweet Liberia and you refer to her as a colleague. Is this because you both at one time worked in Liberia? How did you become friends?
Ahnydah : In about 2003, I applied for a position in a youth organization where Jill worked. As she looked over resumes she came across mine and the reference to having lived in Liberia. That made my resume stand out to her. She interviewed and subsequently hired me. Jill is a clinical social worker by profession and she’d been sent by UNICEF to Liberia to counsel child soldiers suffering psychological wounds. She found it a dark place, so chaotic and obviously destroyed after the war and when I shared how much I had loved Liberia wanted to know what I could ever see in Liberia. I actually think she suffered a lot while in Liberia, you can’t work in that kind of environment as a caregiver and not be bruised. I think our conversations helped her personally heal. We both have moved on professionally but we are still close friends.
B.Seed : You credit Lisa Woodson with steering you in the direction you needed to go to become the published writer you wanted to be, and her son J.L. Woodson, an accomplished writer himself helped you tighten-up your website. What are you doing now that you weren’t doing before you met them?
Ahnydah : I’m doing more speaking engagements and workshops and writing in other genres.
B.Seed : The Macro Literary All-Stars (M-LAS), an author support group composed of eleven industry professionals and national bestselling authors. How does it feel to be a part of this “dream team”? Do you take part in annual Cavalcade of Authors events in Chicago?
Ahnydah : I enjoy the group support! The M-LAS authors are all wonderful authors in their own right, but we are an unstoppable collective! Each of us multi-talented and we hail from multiple states. Yes, I did participate in the Cavalcade. We blew up Facebook on Monday with posts and photos! It was an amazing event. I’ve signed up for next year. It’s an excellent showcase for authors and readers.
B.Seed : So what does author Susan Peters have planned for 2015, anything special?
Ahnydah : Absolutely, I am currently working on two books. In April 2014 I published a detective novel, Broken Dolls and I’m working on the sequel, The Iron Collar, which will be another thrilling case for Detective Joi Sommers and her partner Russell Wilkerson. I’m also working on a romance novel, which is an expansion of a short story entitled You Can’t Hurry Love, which is previewed in the M-LAS anthology, Signed, Sealed, and Delivered, I’m Yours! I will continue to write monthly articles for an online magazine that celebrates diversity, http://www.gardenspices.org/
B.Seed : Thanks for being here. Anything you would like to say to our readers?
Ahnydah : Yes, I’d love to be in touch with readers and I want to encourage your readers to become my readers too! All my books can be quickly accessed for purchase using this link http://www.amazon.com/author/susandpeters or visit my website http://www.susandpeters.com.