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Inside Blackness

Inside Blackness: Two Coopers, Two Continents

Desiree Cooper

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Helene Cooper
(Leslie Cashen)
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As part of our series Inside Blackness, we explore what it's like to be black in America. The election of Barack Obama is certainly changing perceptions about African-Americans. But some would argue he's not technically African- American. He has African ancestry, but his ancestors were never enslaved in America. According to psychologists, that makes a difference. First and second generation immigrants from the Caribbean, for example, often perform better in higher education than native-born African-Americans. They grow up less stigmatized by race and are treated more favorably in American society. Recently, Desiree Cooper explored the differences between African- Americans and immigrants of African ancestry with New York Times correspondent Helene Cooper. A native of Liberia, Helene Cooper wrote "The House at Sugar Beach" about her family's escape following a bloody coup. Helene is now an American citizen. Together the two Coopers talked about how race affects them differently despite their similar origins.


Desiree Cooper: Now, I want to start with a little conceit. You might have noticed that my last name is Cooper and so is yours.

Helene Cooper: I saw that!

Desiree Cooper: And we both have roots back to Virginia, which you wouldn't know about. I can trace my father's family, the Cooper family, back to a plantation near Richmond in the 1800s. And your ancestors were free blacks living in New York and Norfolk Virginia as well.

Helene Cooper: Yeah, I trace my ancestors back to the five Cooper brothers who got on a ship in Norfolk in 1829.

Desiree Cooper: Well, that's what I want to ask you about. Your ancestors made a choice that mine didn't. Mine stayed in Virginia, and they're there until this day. Tell me about the choice your ancestors made.

Helene Cooper: They decided to get on a ship and go to Africa, to Liberia. They were part of the Back to Africa movement that had been started by the American Colonization Society at the turn of the century. And the American Colonization Society was a group of abolitionists from the North and a lot of slaveowners from the South, who sort of came up with this idea that you couldn't have freed blacks living in the United States at the same time that enslaved blacks were there. A lot of them were mixed-race kids of the Southern plantation owners, and they sort of wanted them out of sight.

Desiree Cooper: And they also wanted free blacks gone because they were out there making a living and living a free lifestyl, and that certainly can't be good for morale!

Helene Cooper: Exactly. Exactly.

Desiree Cooper: Essentially, the freed blacks who left the United States and went to Africa behaved pretty much like the white colonists had behaved.

Helene Cooper: They, in many ways, set up the same Antebellum society that they had fled. And it was kind of humbling to realize how, in many ways, racist they were. It taught me that racism is much more universal than I'd grown up believing it was.

Desiree Cooper: And it's not all about skin color.

Helene Cooper: It's no, it's not. We're all so capable of it.

Desiree Cooper: Well, after the Civil War here in the United States, my set of Coopers continued to sharecrop, and they struggled through Jim Crow. My father had 12 siblings and out of them only three, including him, graduated from high school. And he and his brother were the only two to get graduate degrees. How did your family fare in Liberia?

Helene Cooper: There were four Cooper brothers and one sister that got on board the ship in Norfolk in 1829. They were all educated and they worked for the government. My grandfather was called Radio Cooper because he brought telecommunications to Liberia in the 1940s and 50s. It was a very land rich family. So that by the time I was born, it was assumed that I would go to the best schools, I would go to college. We had a house and a farm and a villa in Spain. We were as well off as very few Africans at the time.

Desiree Cooper: Well, if we fast-forward a couple hundred years, here you and I are. Both Coopers, both journalists.

Helen Cooper: It's so weird!

Desiree Cooper: But I was really struck by a passage in your book that may go to the heart of something that's very, very different about both of us. I would like you to read from page 29 of your book.

Helene Cooper: "When presented a choice between America and Africa, they chose Africa. Because of that choice, I would not grow up 150 years later as an American black girl weighed down by racial stereotypes about welfare queens. Instead, those two men handed me a once-in-a-lifetime lottery ticket. Birthed into the landed gentry, upper class of Africa's first independent country, Liberia. None of that American post- Civil War, post-Civil Rights movement baggage to bog me down with any inferiority complex about whether I was as good as white people. Who needs to struggle for equality? Let everyone else be equal to me."

Desiree Cooper: Is that your point of view, that I've been burdened by a history that you've been free of?

Helene Cooper: There's no question in my mind that I'm an African American woman, and anybody who sees me is immediately going to assume that I come with all of the history. And in many ways I do. But I think I've had an easier time dealing with a lot of racial baggage than perhaps you have because I didn't have to deal with any of that until I was maybe 14. And by then, there was never any question in my mind that I was every bit as good as everybody else. When we first moved to the United States, after we left Liberia when I was 14, I went to college in North Carolina. In my freshman year in college, I had a roommate who was from a small town in North Carolina. She was white. It turns out after a couple months, she asked to be moved because - I found out later - she didn't want to be a roommate with somebody black. And I remember calling my father that night after I found out and I was like, "Daddy, Deanna doesn't want to room with me because I'm black." And he started laughing. And I started laughing, too. It was one of my first experiences with racism. But they seemed so ridiculous, the idea that this girl didn't want to room with me because I was black. And his reaction sort of--

Desiree Cooper: OK, I have to stop you there because of the fact that you're laughing at that. I had many of those kinds of experiences starting at the age of four.

Helene Cooper: That's what I mean. That's my point. It's like having to live through with this, with this nonsense, day after day.

Desiree Cooper: And so you didn't feel hurt by that?

Helene Cooper: No! I felt like, what an idiot, what stupid people! There were later times when I remember dating a white guy when I was in my 20s. This was the love of my life, and his parents freaked out when they realized we weren't just friends, we were actually dating. They'd been fine with me when they thought we were friends, but when they realized we were dating, they didn't like the idea of black grandchildren, or whatever. And that was my realization of just how much easier I'd had it. I didn't live with that at three and four and five or six years old. I had never had anyone implying in any way that there was something less about me because I was black.

Desiree Cooper: I was wondering, Helene, what part of you will always be Liberian, and what part of you is African American?

Helene Cooper: You know, I'm always going to be both. In a lot of ways, I've always been both. Partly because my ancestors came from America. I'm too American at this point to ever be fully Liberian. But the Liberian in me didn't die. It's still there, and it makes me who I am.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Hauschka
    CD: Ferndof (Fat Cat)
More stories from our Inside Blackness series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Walter Sorensen

    From WI, 12/06/2008

    I was raised in a small town in rural Minnesota a long time ago. My parents were tolerant as any people who had no experience with other races beyond the Amos and Andy episodes on my grandfather's tv.
    I was 17 years old when I first saw a live black American. I was with a guy I considered a friend. His immediate response was so hateful and immediate that I was embarrassed and very uncomfortable. I had never seen that side of him. We continued our acquaintance but my feelings toward him were never the same. I am glad that things have improved dramatically.
    I made my first black friend in the military in 1966 and will always be grateful my father taught me that people are not to be judged by color but by the values they hold dear.

    By kathy hood


    I wish people of all ancestry would spend time identifying their own 'inside' self. If we could share our 'burden' history and where we are in relation to it, maybe, just maybe, we can all get along better.

    It's not a case of who had the worst obstacles to overcome or who lucked out.
    Although these things certainly shape us, it's who we are now and how to make a difference that shape the world.

    By A Dennis

    From NC, 12/06/2008

    I will present a portion here:

    I found the comments offered during your 'Inside Blackness' segment(which might also be re-titled 'Inside Whiteness', or, even, 'Inside Madness')by Americo-Liberian Helene Cooper interesting, to say the least.
    Firstly, the foolish prejudicial practices of whites can be quite funny. You do not have to be someone of African descent and from outside the US to find them so. Black folk do, and have, laughed at the silly ways of whites. However, it stops being funny when you or others for whom you care lose their lives, are mistreated-physically or otherwise, when you lose a means to make a livelihood, when you lose your home, when you are run out of town, when people throw abusive words at you or try to assault you or place their hands upon you. As a correspondent for the NY Times, I would think that Helene Cooper is educated enough to be able to understand the experience of Black people in the US within this larger context and reality. Simply said, no one's life is greatly interrupted by the silly and simple-minded notions held by others, as long as they remain just this-notions. But, when violent or destructive actions enforce them, then those attitudes become everyone's issue.
    I would also be interested to know-since Helene Cooper found white prejudice to be so humorous(which it can, alone, be)-if those native Liberians of Liberia found the class divisions opposed upon them by African Americans(her ancestors)-in their own native land-to be quite as amusing. The real issue here for Ms. Cooper may be not so much just the experience of Black people in this country but of the unfair distribution of opportunity and wealth in Liberia. What role have Ms. Cooper's relatives played within the laying out of these social inequalities? And what sort of experience did her ancestors give her exactly in choosing to return to Africa? Did they offer her a unique opportunity to reconnect with her ancestral land in a way that those Africans who remained in the US would not have, or did they, at least ultimately and eventually, set her up to be in a social and political role similar to whites in the US?
    I have found that Africans, though they cannot entirely relate to the social and psychological pressures experienced by African Americans, are not entirely dismissive of the angst of Black people in the US. Perhaps some of this comes from some level of wisdom, but it also has some root in the fact that Africans themselves ached underneath European colonial domination and knew the bitterness and confusion of losing control of their own political and social destiny, of losing their cultural direction, in their own land(not that these had not begun to go astray a good time before). They have known oppression. How much did Ms. Cooper and her father know. And, being as African Americans-from what I understand of Liberia's history-positioned themselves at the top of the socio-economic scale, I would imagine that the both of them had little experience in this area. They knew, though, what it was like to be in power.

    By Tonica Johnson

    From durham, NC, 12/06/2008

    I am a 40 yo Black American woman. I just listened to your discussion between the two Coopers. I have to say that, although I grew up in Atlanta and all of my ancestors as far back as I can discover are from the southeast US, my experience is more like that of the Cooper with Liberian roots than that of the Cooper who grew up in
    Virgina. I grew up surrounded by black neighbors, teachers, doctors, store clerks, churches, etc. I never went to school with anyone but black kids until I was 15 so I had no experience with white-against-black-racism until age 15 (except for through stories my parents told about experiences at work.) I don't have any experience of ever feeling like I was not as good as anyone else based on my skin color. In fact, though it was never said, there was a sense that it was better to be black. We learned black history and sang the black national anthem regularly in my elementary school.
    It wasn't until I got to college that I realized how different my experience was from that of my black friends who grew up being a minority in their environments. I had a beautiful black female friend in college who was convinced that she was unattractive because she was always the only black person and no one appreciated her (obvious to me) beauty. Somehow, by God's grace, I have never, ever, thought that I was inferior to a white person because his/her skin was different from mine. My entire childhood I was been told, and believed that there were no limits for me. I did meet racism after leaving the shelter of my all black world at age 15, but by that time, I already knew that I could do anything anyone else could do and I always expected that I would do it better.

    By Molly Byrd

    From Sacramento, CA, 12/06/2008

    The black community continues to grow and evolve, as explained by this podcast - THE BLACK COMMUNITY: REALITY vs TRUTH



    By Sandy Carver

    From Peoria, IL, 12/06/2008

    Read the book and loved it. Spent two weeks in Liberia in Oct. and will never be the same. Thank you, ladies, for sharing your stories and your differences.

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