When Liberia was my home, they called it sweet. Sweet was the word I remembered the most during the war. I was five and my father, two sisters and I fled Monrovia and headed north on foot amidst panicked masses of criers–a journey that ended in a small coastal village where we hid from flying bullets and remains of dead families left on the roads. Every dawn while in hiding, my sisters and I joined my father on a cement floor and covered the pages of his small journal with words, using the lead of pencils he carefully shaved down with stones. My favorite word to write was ‘sweet,’ one that had the power to numb the reality of our 6-month abandonment by peace and civilization.
Eventually, we were considered the lucky ones: part of the wave of refugees who left Liberia in 1990 to settle in America in northeastern states like Maryland, Rhode Island and New York. My mother was a Fulbright scholar at Columbia University Teachers College at the time, and we made our new home in her dorm room while awaiting her graduation. It was not the size of the space or the irremovable stains that swathed the old floor that took adjusting to; it was the realization that a mother we had not seen in almost a year stood over a stove every night holding books with titles like Principles of Education in the Age of Humanism, as three little girls wrestled with the happiness of her presence and the fear that a ghost of her paced before them. It was having a father who left early in the mornings to look for work or news of a possible return to Liberia, only to return home with nothing to give us but new words to write in spiral notebooks.
He quickly found, like most new immigrants to America from third-world countries, that the education that afforded him maids and private schooling for his daughters in Liberia was not good enough for an engineering job in the United States. Instead of succumbing to self-pity or alcohol to deaden the pain of his sudden riches to rags crisis, he took whatever job he could find to make sure we always had food on the table in the evening — and books.
We are the story of the black immigrant family in America. Those shop owners and nannies and security men and taxi drivers and hair braiders and cleaners and doormen–many of these are my father–many were intellectuals, businessmen, teachers and even doctors in their native homes, only to come here to struggle since their “African” degrees were deemed unaccredited by a strict international academic hierarchy. The result is an aggressive pursuit of an American education for their children, something many, like my father, would give anything to see accomplished. As the years passed and I noticed in his sunken eyes that he had lost hope in ever returning home, as the words in my notebooks grew in number from the days my father sat with us and offered all he could give–his mind and stories about men like Steve Biko, Patrice Lumumba, Martin Luther King Jr. and Marcus Garvey and what their educations had afforded them and their people–I made a promise that I would continue in this legacy of sharing words as a means of empowerment, strength and coping.
This January I launched a children’s book publishing company: One Moore Book. One Moore Book provides children’s literature for the children of countries with low literacy rates. Each cycle of books caters to the children of one country, and our first cycle, dedicated to my father, is for the children of Liberia. My four siblings and I research, write and illustrate all books to match the culture, foods and cities of the featured country. My hope is to give children the peace I was granted by the words my father gave me, by allowing them to see themselves in literature. I also think it is important to provide books about foreign countries to children in the United States, to increase the overall awareness of the world outside to those who may never have an opportunity to leave. After this cycle I hope to offer words to the children of places like Haiti, Bolivia and Afghanistan, words similar to those that helped me and my sisters mute the sounds of the war outside.
I will never be able to give my father back the twenty years he spent working to educate us, or the home and life in Liberia he lost. I repay his sacrifice by honoring the education he fought for and offering my art to the world, with stories that make the histories and narratives of my people come alive, with words to live by and a legacy I promise I will not disappoint.