How Liberian Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving

Liberian Americans have a complicated relationship with their holiday that plays out in the foods they make and the ways they reflect on a proud and difficult history.

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In an article written by Priya Krishna for The New York Times, she takes us into the Liberian American Thanksgiving tradition.

Liberian Americans have a complicated relationship with their holiday that plays out in the foods they make and the ways they reflect on a proud and difficult history. 

According to The New York Times article, today, people of Liberian descent in the United States — who in 2019 numbered about 120,000, according to the Pew Research Center — are among only a few immigrant groups who arrived with their own Thanksgiving tradition. Many have come in the past three decades, fleeing the violence and political turmoil that have torn the West African nation.

Its Thanksgiving holiday, decreed in 1870, was not patterned after the narrative or the food that defined the United States’ version. But for Liberians in the United States, the day can feel just as fraught as it does for many other Americans.

Through interviews, the NYT writer, Priya Krishna, was able to show how some Liberians feel about celebrating Thanksgiving in the United States:

Bilphena Yahwon: Independent archivist in Baltimore

Image: Bilphena Yahwon with her mother. Credit: Rosem Morton for The New York Times.

“Thanksgiving, I don’t know, it is always complicated for me,” said Bilphena Yahwon. “It gives an opportunity to celebrate and to engage in the food, and be reminded once again of festivities of our culture.” On the other hand, she said, “I know a lot of Liberians see Thanksgiving as a way to celebrate freedom, and even then I question it because it is like, ‘You wasn’t free. We still ain’t free.’”

C. Patrick Burrowes: Expert on Liberian history, former vice president of academic affairs at Cuttington University in Liberia.

In Liberia, Thanksgiving — celebrated on the first Thursday of November — is simply a day off from work for some. Others observe it as a religious occasion, with fasting and prayer. In the 1950s, a time of greater economic prosperity, food and “showy consumption” became a bigger part of celebrations, including Thanksgiving.

Liberia’s cuisine is rich and many-faceted, reflecting the various groups that have called the country home. It includes West African staples like rice and yams; foods brought from the American South by formerly enslaved Africans, like collard greens and cornbread; European exports like dried fish and cassava; and ingredients like breadfruit and ginger beer, brought by Black immigrants from Barbados.

Carleen Goodridge, 43: Baltimore chef, owner of beverage company Le Monade and the Liberian food pop-up Cōl Bōl

Ms. Goodridge’s family came to the United States in the early 1970s. Then, in 1989, her father returned to Liberia to set up a new home for them and was stranded there because of travel restrictions. She spent her childhood on Long Island and Staten Island. She remembers two types of Thanksgiving: the one with her stepmother, whom she lived with on and off while her father was in Liberia; and the one she began celebrating with him when he returned to the United States in 1992.

When my father came back and I started spending more time with family, that is where I started to see the African food come out,” she said. “There was this sense of, there is hope. There were talks of moving back.”

Image: Carleen Goodridge and her family. Credit: Rosem Morton for The New York Times

Still, she added, “Thanksgiving does not mean liberation for me.” There isn’t enough discussion, she said, of how the freed Black people who founded Liberia treated the Indigenous population as a lower caste. (Ms. Goodridge is a descendant of Indigenous Liberians from the Kpelle and Congo tribes, of freed Black people from Barbados, and of freed people from the United States, who are also known as Americo Liberians.)

Ms. Goodridge focuses on Thanksgiving as a celebration of family and community. She always makes Liberian food: pepper chicken, spicy and laden with herbs and garlic; jollof rice done the Liberian way, with chicken, fish, and pork; rice bread; and sweet potato pone.

Image: Rosem Morton for The New York Times

Dominique Tolbert,  28: Founder Mesean Spices, a line of spice blends inspired by the flavors of the African diaspora

She lives in New Rochelle, N.Y., is a granddaughter of Mr. Tolbert, the former president, and a descendant of Americo Liberians, as well as the Kpelle people, who are Indigenous to Liberia, and members of the African diaspora from Barbados.

She said celebrating Thanksgiving the way her family did in Liberia — with dishes like jollof rice and potato greens — keeps her connected to her heritage.

She grew up seeing images of pumpkin pies and pilgrims in her elementary school, but the American Thanksgiving story never resonated with her. “In America, Thanksgiving was a holiday created by white people,” Ms. Tolbert said. “In Liberia, it was a holiday created by Black people. So it is different to me.”

Princess Wreh: runs Monrovia Lounge, a Liberian restaurant in Dallas

She associates Thanksgiving with her family’s resilience in the face of Liberia’s upheaval. In 1989, they fled the country and lived in a refugee camp in Waterloo, Sierra Leone. 

Her parents immigrated seven years later, and together, they recreated her childhood Thanksgiving, making sweet potato greens stewed with smoked turkey, chicken and shrimp, and buttery Liberian shortbread. They held dance contests and played board games.

She sees the Liberian Thanksgiving as an improvement on the American one.

“I like when things evolve for the better, because Thanksgiving has a very bittersweet story” in the United States, she said. “That is not our story.”

Image: Jersean Golatt for The New York Times

Thalmus Hare: His business, LibFood, ships Liberian dishes across the world.

He always looks forward to the holiday and enjoys both traditional Liberian and American dishes at his family’s Thanksgiving table in Atlanta. Mashed potatoes and candied yams are served alongside palm-butter stew and chicken gravy.

Being able to celebrate the holiday in the United States “is a blessing, because we come from a war-torn country,” said Mr. Hare, who immigrated with his family at age 2. His business, LibFood, ships Liberian dishes across the world, and does brisk business around Thanksgiving — particularly for the collard greens, simmered in a stock of dried fish, ham hocks and smoked Cajun turkey.

“Who we are is shown in the food,” said Mr. Hare, whose family is both Indigenous Liberian, from the Grebo and Bassa tribes, and Americo-Liberian. “We are partly American because we were founded by Americans, but we kept our flair.”

The entire article can be read in The New York Times.

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