The Obligation to Bear Testimony to Human Rights Abuses
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
The poet Patricia Jabbeh Wesley acknowledged in an interview that her primary goal in poetry was to immortalize the suffering of her people. What exactly does she mean by that? What are the implications of remembering human rights abuses, of keeping sorrows alive, especially in narratives? This chapter examines these questions in light of Primo Levi’s envisaged moral obligation to bear testimony to the victims of the Jewish Holocaust, as well as Giorgio Agamben’s thoughts on the latter. As in the other works discussed thus far, ethics is central to Jabbeh Wesley’s poetics. The difference between Jabbeh Wesley’s and those other works, as I mentioned in the preface, is Jabbeh Wesley’s macro concern with human rights abuses, her record of the history of her people’s pain. The poet has a calling: the moral responsibility to bear testimony to the dead, the dispossessed, and the abused. I will discuss Jabbeh Wesley’s poems as both a tribute to the victims of the Liberian civil wars and as an appeal to the living to change their lives.
Jabbeh Wesley is one of the most prolific African poets of the twenty- first century. With four collections of poetry spanning over 15 years, and having won prestigious awards and garnered rave reviews, she is also one of the most renowned of African women poets. While she is known to many students of African literature, it is a shame that she has not yet
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C. Eze, Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature, Comparative Feminist Studies,
attracted as much scholarly attention as she deserves, especially given the depth of her poetics and the thematic relevance of her works. To my knowledge, the only scholarly article on her works is that of Carol Blessing.1 Jabbeh Wesley occupies a metonymic position in writings about Africa, a continent that has experienced brutal historic traumas, but one that has an abundant will to heal, to live, and to flourish. What is said of Jabbeh Wesley applies in some respects to her native country, Liberia, whose former head of state, Charles Taylor, was convicted of war crimes in 2012 by a special court in The Hague.
Liberia was born of the efforts of an American colonization society, founded in 1816, to resettle freed black slaves. The resettlement took place on a strip of coastal land in Mesurado. The colony was initially called Christopolis but was later rechristened Monrovia, after the American president, James Monroe.2 The colony expanded to become what would later be known as Liberia, a place of freedom. For John-Peter Pham, social divisions “have characterized the complex tapestry of Liberian society from the very beginning.”3 Yekutiel Gershoni states that Liberia’s ruling elites, comprising exclusively the descendants of free slaves, “chose to adopt attitudes and tactics... which were borrowed from the colonial administrators of white powers” towards the “indigenous Africans.”4 The Americo-Liberians, as they were called, were largely “perceived by the Africans as foreign rulers in every sense.”5 George Klay Kieh Jr. rightly argues that while the ethno-cultural antagonisms between and among the various ethnic groups were not what led to the eventual political and social collapse of the country, they certainly did not create political cohesion.6 When Jabbeh Wesley was asked about her references to the conflict between the Americo-Liberians and the indigenous population as “a metaphor for Liberia,” she did not minimize this conflict. She acknowledged that the descendants of freed American slaves “actually did some enslaving of indigenous people—who were my ancestors— similar to what they had suffered in the American South.”7
Though Jabbeh Wesley has addressed the conflict between the Americo-Liberians and the indigenous populations, it is not her intention to revive old identity-based encounters or conflicts; the major goal in her poetry is to bring to discourse the Liberian people’s human condition. She understands that literature involves the experiences of people. “It doesn’t exist in isolation of the experiences of a specific group of people.”8 More specifically, “poetry is an outlet for my grief and a way to immortalize some of the suffering that we’ve endured, my family, my people, Liberia.”9
To immortalize people’s suffering in narratives is to bear testimony to their struggles, to give voice to the voiceless. Her specific intention is to bring about healing by demonstrating that the pain of one is the pain of all. Yet we have to ask if narratives can actually bring about healing. One way to approach this question is from the perspective of Primo Levi, who, having survived Auschwitz, began to give voice to the imperative not to keep silent, to speak. So, why do we tell stories of human tragedies?