Getting to the Root of It All

Helene Cooper tells the story of her privileged Liberian childhood cut short by a bloody 1980 coup, her family’s escape, and her return to find her sister left behind.

Helene Cooper discusses her new book, <i>The House at Sugar Beach</i>, with Gayle Smith. (CAP)
Helene Cooper discusses her new book, The House at Sugar Beach, with Gayle Smith. (CAP)

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“I think this is a truly scrumptious book,” Gayle Smith, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, expressed as she introduced Helene Cooper, diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times and author of the “beautiful, painful, and exquisite heart-rendering story,” The House at Sugar Beach.

Cooper described her family as descendants of the freed blacks who sailed from New York to West Africa in 1820. “These groups of settlers were very brave and courageous in forging a new country,” she said, “but they also set up the same type of antebellum society that they had fled from in the United States,” revealing the elite class structure the colonists created. According to Cooper, The House at Sugar Beach recounts how a military coup “upended this entire system” in 1980 and separated her and her adopted sister, Eunice, for 23 years until her decision to go back and try to find her.

Sharing a poignant passage from the story, Cooper expressed how central skin complexion was to the class structure of Liberia. “You can’t look at Liberia today without viewing it through the lens of class,” she said, describing it as the underlying reason for the conflicts that afflicted the country in the 1980s and 1990s.

As she discussed the research she performed for the book, Cooper recalled a journal entry by one of Liberia’s first settlers, her great, great, great, great, grandfather, Elijah Johnson, “Today while we were up on deck, John Fischer whipped his wife, I think this is a very dull lamp for me to carry to a very dark continent, but I have not lost confidence in my God.”

“That blew me away,” she said, taking into account that these people saw themselves as missionaries, lending to their superiority complex. Cooper said that this sense of elitism led to conflict with the native Liberians from the start. “In so many ways I’m proud of what they did…but I’m also ashamed that they had replicated the society that they had left.” She revealed that after the military coup, the new leader replaced the same system, “that’s the tragedy.”

Cooper and her family ran away after the attack but Eunice decided to stay in Liberia with her birth mother until she graduated high school. At the time, Cooper assured herself that the separation would be temporary and she would return to Liberia or Eunice would join her in America. “I don’t think I realized when we got on that plane that my life had just split in two.”

Cooper described her early experience in America as a “rude awakening” where she was stripped of her class privileges and had to wash dishes for the first time. This experience, according to Smith, is one that many immigrants share. On the other hand, Cooper said that compared to Liberia, “in America it’s perfectly fine to be poor…you can remake yourself here.”

Cooper spoke about her adolescent years and said she became more American in order to fit in, but at the same time she became less Liberian. Although Cooper became more politically conscious in her years at college, she told the audience that her way of dealing with the escalating conflict in Liberia was to shut it out of her mind. She said “Liberia became to me a place where you died…I told myself that if I killed off everybody who was left,” emotionally, “then it wouldn’t hurt me when they died.”

The catalyst to write the book came in 2003 as Cooper was reporting in Iraq. She explained that as she was thinking “what must it be like to be on the receiving end of this TNT,” her humvee was hit. In a vivid recount of her near death experience, she said Liberia was on her mind. “This is a stupid war to die in,” she said as recalled her thoughts, “If I die in a war I should die in a war in my own country.” She said “At that moment it was clear that I had to go home and I had to look for my sister.”

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