The Liberian Literary Tradition

12 July 2009 at 12:01 pm (News, Writings) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Guanya Pau Cover“Hi E.G. I was doing a Google search of Liberian comedians and stumbled across your your name and your pieces. Man, you fascinate me. I am a student of literature and it saddens me everytime I search for liberian literature to find virtually nothing or just mediocrity. I am very excited to find that there is a guy with a liberian background doing such work as yours. I really like your self interview with Sha. keep on the good work. Liberia needs and deserves guys like you.”

I recently received this comment on my Wordlife blog/site. Always a good way to start the day, reinforcing your commitment to the passion you are constantly flaming. I struggled with the same thing when I was a student at Notre Dame University. I was an English and Philosophy major, and constantly scoured the mammoth Notre Dame Library for any evidence of Liberia literature. I coursed through countless African literary anthologies. There was a dearth of Nigerian, South African, Senegalese, Kenyan, and numerous others, but never any Liberian writings. We had to suffice with ‘proverbs’ and ‘folk tales’, of which there would be a smattering, and only at the beginning of the anthologies, as though Liberia did not have any contemporary literature. Or they would anthologize Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. I remembered thinking, “Could they really believe, and be saying, that there was no significant literary output in Liberia beyond the folktales that are hundreds of years old.” Granted Liberia as yet to produce a literary giant such as Achebe or Soyinka or Senghor or Césaire, but there must be some, or at least one, literary figure worthy of consideration, especially if you are anthologizing a cross section of African literature, that even if was not comparable to these esteemed figure, could at least stand out in his or her own country. I refused to believe that none existed, or that such a thing as a Liberian literary tradition was not possible. It is not an easy search because most production of literature related to Liberia is literature about Liberia, as opposed to creative work, or work by Liberians themselves. Also because the discussion on Liberia tends to center on its relation, and relationship, to America, and/or the settlement of freed slaves in the country. Later the discussion would shift almost solely to the coup, and subsequently, the civil war that ravished the country.

But Liberian poets, novelists, and essayists, do exist. In 2000, J. Kpanneh Doe wrote, “The writing of novels is rather new to the Liberian literary genre. Except for Murder in the Cassava Patch, a Liberian literary classic, there aren’t many others that can be grouped or classified as Liberian literature, or for that matter, constituting a literary tradition.” This is simply not true, and one can only assume it’s a lack of knowledge,  perhaps access. One should consider Bai T. Moore, the author of Murder in the Cassava Patch, who also anthologized Liberian poetry, published his own collection, wrote novels and short stories, and contributed to the documentation of Liberian folktales. One should also consider, Wilton Sankawulo, Roland Dempster, Edwin Barclay, and a number of other poets, writers and playwrights. Also, Guanya Pau, the first novel written/published by an African, is by Liberian author, Joseph Walters (pictured above). Their work may not be readily available or easy to find; you may read about them more than you will read their work. That does not take away from their contributions. There are contemporary Liberian writers that are beginning to gain some prominence, such as K. Moses Ngabe, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, and most recently Helene Cooper for her memoir, The House on Sugar Beach. If this stretch of literary output from 1891 to present, spreading across the various disciplines, does not constitute a literary tradition, I don’t know what can. Further, how can the first country to produce the first published African novelist be said not to have a literary tradition?

I sometimes wonder if part of my decision to become an artist, was to contribute to the Liberian literary tradition, and show that such can, and does, exist. It might require something akin to an archeological expedition, or one might have to look to the new generation of Liberian artists scattered across the Diaspora, to bring that tradition to prominence. But it is there, and with the proper resources it could be brought to light. Some might question the validity of any contribution I make to Liberian literature, or literary tradition, due to the fact that I left the country at such a young age, and having grown up in a primarily white middle class background. A telling example of this is an experience I with a University of Minnesota student, who I met by chance at a performance of a visiting, I believe, South African troupe. When she learned I was Liberia, she asked how long I had been in the US. I have become accustomed to these kinds of questions because I do not look or sound like your typical Liberian. And I could have almost guessed what was next. When my answer to her was that I had been in America for over twenty years, she replied, ‘So you’re basically American.’ I told her that I am Liberia, have always been Liberian and will be Liberian until I die. As will my children. You can insert African in here as well. This is not to negate my American heritage, because as I always say, I own that too. Therefore, the East and the West, the African and American, are my domain. They are mine to celebrate and to challenge. I finished the conversation telling her, ‘When you’ve been in America for over 20 year, let me know if you’re still Liberian.’

I cannot even begin to consider myself in the company of African scribes that my taught me, inspired me and secured me, from Achebe to p’Bitek, from Kenyatta to Bessie Head, but I hope that I can at least make some modicum of contribution to the literary works of my people, even if it is just the Mano/Gio people of Liberia. Albeit not all my work is about Liberia, but I am not sure that it needs to be in order to be part of the tradition. We are in a new age, part of a new generation, and many of us are transplanted across the global, and depending on the environment in which we live, our themes cannot always be about home. However, our address is still part of the chorus of voices of our people, no matter where they reside, no matter what age and time they occupy, no matter what struggles they face. Responses like one above give me encouragement that I am making even the slightest difference.

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From Chains to Change: Spokesman Recorder MLK Commerative Issue

22 January 2009 at 9:00 am (Family, Press, Writings) (, , , , , , )

from-chains-to-change-spokesman-recorder-obama-special-600pxlIn the arch of Obama’s journey, unwavering faith
by e.g. bailey

After screams of joy at the news, the first thing I did when the election of President Obama was announced was to call my mother and my brother. They were both in South Dakota, where my brother lay in bed suffering from liver cancer. She had traveled from Atlanta to be by his side.

On this night, I felt a great urge to call my brother. Not to give him hope, because his case was terminal; they projected less than three months to live. On this night, I didn’t want to discuss the gravity of the situation, or medicine, or death. I simply wanted to share with him the overwhelming joy and relief, the poignancy of this moment in the lives of all Americans, but especially in the lives of African Americans, and likewise Africans in America.

In the face of his suffering, I wanted him to feel the pride in knowing the heights that an African had achieved in this country, to know that an African had “reached the mountaintop.” When I told him the news, he released a full-hearted laugh, saying, “Thank God, Brother Eric. This is a great thing. Thank you.”

Four hundred years ago an African would have been in bondage, toiling under slavery, his life and death balanced on the whim of his oppressors. And, less than 50 years ago, the descendants of that African could not vote, could not share the same bathroom, the same drinking fountain, or eat in the same restaurants with their fellow Americans. But here, in this moment, an African had achieved the highest office in this country, perhaps in the world.

And in the arc of that journey was embodied the faith, the determination, the wonder and the achievements of all who had paid the price of the ticket, including our shining princes, Martin and Malcolm.

At the annual Thanksgiving dinner with the Cage family, I was speaking with my young nephew Rashaan after he had recited the dinner grace. I asked him if he was going to be preacher like his father. He replied, without missing a beat, “Yes. And I’m also going to become president.”

I cannot remember the last time a Black child had claimed such a dream for himself or herself and thought it possible, a dream no longer the faith of struggle and imagination, but a dream now feasible and actual. And on January 20, standing in the shadow of not only Lincoln but also Martin, that dream will be commemorated.

published in Minneapolis Spokesman Recorder
22 January 2009

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American Afrikan

7 January 2009 at 8:33 am (Poems, Releases, Spoken Word, Writings) (, , , )

we are the first invention of god/flung like stars across the universe/our histories etched on the wind/blood and soil commingled

the drum beats at dawn for her sons to rise/we travel beyond the mountains of the moon/spread across continents like masks/invisible villages shaped into questions/awaiting answers from ancestors

birthsongs traced with the blood of tears/dark face of the sun where birthed the light of man/we traverse the dark night of motherless songs/only to suffer in the promise land

mine like gold from Berber coasts/memories swallowed by living ghosts/from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli/the halls of independence to the fields of the Indies/in ships on the horizon rests/our future burdens and dreams

we adorn ourselves with the bluest skies/tears beaded like sacred rope/to noose our bodies before our spirit dies/tributaries we flow into the American Nile

soldiers of the seventh cataract/we grow skyward like the roots of the baobab/rewrite the books burned to bone and ash/we raise fists like obelisks/arrows shot into the sun

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‘America’ featured on Rift Magazine’s Daily MP3

4 November 2008 at 9:00 am (Music, News, Poems, Press, Recordings, Releases, Spoken Word, Writings) (, , , , )

america-cover-riftReleased on Election Day, ‘America’ is featured on Rift Magazine’s site: Through spoken word E.G. Bailey explores a post 9/11 America and the many issues confronting us, while looking towards hope and change. The haunting jazzy backing track was scored by Abstrakt Collision who reside in Dubai (United Arab Emirates).

To listen to ‘America‘ link here. ‘America‘ is from the upcoming album, ‘American Afrikan’.

Posted on
November 4th, 2008 by Riftyrich

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Vote America

18 October 2008 at 1:06 am (Poems, Recap, Releases, Spoken Word, Work Notes, Writings) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In 2007, I was asked by friend and collaborator, Assaad Lakkis, to write a few pieces for an upcoming album by his jazz band, Abstrakt Collision, based in Dubai. The album, titled Polidix, was to be all instrumental except for the pieces I would write. Assaad and I worked on a Miles Davis project back in the 90s, and also worked together on god’s pager. It was always a fruitful collaboration, so there was no question of saying yes. He sent me several recordings and I got to work. The piece was finished in June 2007 and recorded shortly there after by one of my favorite collaborators, Ben Durrant. The sessions also produced, The Last Poet, which featured Madame Mimi. After finishing the tracks I wasn’t sure what I would do with it. Assaad and I had agreed that he would release it on their album and I would release it on my end through Tru Ruts. I continued to perform the piece over the next year, and as the election drew closer I decided I would release it on Election Day as a single. I also decide to do my part with the getting out the vote, and created the postcard below. The design of the poem was created by Meleck Davis and the Vote image was created by Karin Odell, from a photo by Julian Murray. You can hear the recordings of both America and The Last Poet here.


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without punctuation

30 May 2008 at 2:33 am (Poems, Recordings, Spoken Word, Writings) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

without-punctuation-poem-page-1one of my Spoken Word pieces by way of an introduction. it’s one of my favorite pieces and one of the first that started to capture the essence of what i define as spoken word. the definition of spoken word i developed from studying the art form over the years is this:

“Spoken Word is an art form which accentuates the rhythmic elements inherent in a poem––thereby expanding the texture, the context, and possibly the meaning of the work. You can accentuate these rhythms either through your verbal delivery or you can add music, or both. The work can be created by the individual poet or with a group of poets, and musicians, either improvisationally or through conscious arrangement.”

that’s the longer definition. the shorter one is basically,

“Spoken Word is accentuating the rhythmic elements inherent within a poem, whether through instrumentation or your own vocal delivery.”

the piece is a tribute to Black Arts Movement writers and their freedom from syntax and standard rules of poetry, fused with the history of Africans in America. the freedom they exhibited on the page, i wanted to figure out how to express that in the oralization, the performance, of the piece.

but at the time i didn’t know that what i was doing was called spoken word. i considered it jazz poetry. this is why on page it’s structured like a jazz poem, which i had been writing for a couple years. but in performance, it’s developed into a spoken word piece, and my development of it paralleled and guided my development as a spoken word artist. once i completed this piece, which i edited over the course of a couple years, i felt like i understood the essence of spoken word and what it aims for. it went on to win the Hughes Diop Poetry Award at the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Conference, along with another poem, ‘letter to lisa’.

Note: Below is a live performance of ‘without punctuation’. It is fused with another piece, ‘diaspora’, and is now called, ‘Blues People’, in reference to the classic book on African American music by Amiri Baraka.

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Begin the Begin

15 March 2008 at 4:45 am (Writings) ()

What will this be? An archive perhaps. Or a repository of dreams and visions. An oral history. Maybe a mythology. A sketch. A monologue. Or a segue. A road map. Instant replays. A never ending term paper. A disheveled briefcase. Rough draft of a pending lecture. Memorabilia. Explanations. Discoveries. Work notes. Home movies. A postmodern documentary. Rants and raves. Freedom papers. Or simply the blues. Whatever it is or becomes, I hope you find it worth your while. And take something with you. Peace.

Home | Wordlife

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‘Afrika’ (Poem) Broadside

1 November 2005 at 9:00 am (Poems, Writings) (, , , , , , , )

Afrika (Poem) Broadside - e.g. bailey (700pxl)

This broadside of my poem, Afrika, was created for the Family Housing Project’s Home Sweet Home Again: An Exhibition of Art and Poetry, a project created to kick off the Family Housing Fund’s 25th Anniversary Year, with a goal to communicate the need for affordable housing in the Twin Cities. The exhibit featured over 100 artworks and poems by Twin Cities artists dealing with issues of homelessness, affordable housing, or the meaning of home. The exhibit was first presented at Intermedia Arts in 2005, and continues to be exhibited throughout the Twin Cities. A calendar, combining the artwork and poems, was also created, of which the broadside above was included. There was an accompanying chapbook which also featured the poems. Other artists featured in the exhibit included Sha Cage, Ta-coumba Aiken, Del Bey, Maya Washington, Frank J. Brown, Bill Cottman and others.

Afrika was written upon my return from a four and a half month journey back home to Afrika, in 1999, which included travels to Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Tanzania, Dubai, Amsterdam and Hong Kong. The poem deals with the displacement, the longing and the responsibilities that one often feels as an Afrikan in the Diaspora. The photograph used in the broadside is by Del Bey, a photographer in the Twin Cities, who captured the image on her journey to Afrika.

For more information on the exhibit, you can link here:

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Final Words: Playwright’s Statement

4 May 2001 at 9:00 am (Family, Shows, Theatre, Work Notes, Writings) (, , , , , )

No Longer At Ease
Final Words: Playwright’s Statement
e.g. bailey

Achebe is our Elder. For many of us, he is the famed griot teaching us our history, while telling us a great story. Nearly every Afrikan I spoke with about the play said they had read Achebe, perhaps not all his works but the least of all Things Fall Apart. For some, he was mandatory reading. And he should be, at least for all of us of Afrikan descent. Achebe’s goal, which he fully accepts, is to help us reclaim our stories, to help us to understand that our history was rich, and our stories beautiful before our subjugation at the hands of Europe. He states, “Here then is an adequate revolution for me to espous–to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement.” But he is fully aware that this reclamation is not simply a glorification of what we were and who we are, and perhaps even who we want to be, but dealing fully with our past, even facing up to our hand in the matter. Earlier in the same essay he says, “What we need to do is to look back and try and find out where we went wrong, where the rain began to beat us.” In his most recent essay, he writes, “I know that such a tremendously potent and complex reinvention of self–calling, as it must do, on every faculty of mind and soul and spirit; drawing as it must, from every resource of memory and imagination and from a familiarity with our history, our arts and culture; but also from an unflinching consciousness of the flaws that blemished our inheritance…” For him the greatest danger is not remembering the agonies of the past but forgetting them. Though he was speaking about Nigeria after the Biafrian War, I think that statement strikes a deep cord in the consciousness of Afrikans and Afrikan Americans alike. In order to accept our selves and our beauty, we must also be able to accept our scars. And the story of Obi Okonkwo not only celebrates our culture but also forces us to face the difficulties our own culture can present us as we try to evolve into the future, as we try to negotiate and synthesize our existence in an everchanging world and yet hold on to our traditions. An epigraph from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, could serve as a apt summary of the conflict in No Longer At Ease, and even a metaphor for the current state of many Afrikan countries: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interrengnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.” Obi’s tragedy is that he finds himself at the epicenter of this rift. And it is these rifts in our history and encounter with Western culture about which Achebe writes: The arrival of Europeans in Things Fall Apart and the dawning of independence in No Longer At Ease. But these are not simply historical and physical rifts, but primarily psychological ones.

The journey of creating this work has been incredible and a blessing, but not without its struggle and at times exasperation. However, within it, I have discovered a great deal about myself and my people. I have felt in many ways like an apprentice in the company of a profound elder. Yet also, I have discovered that Obi’s story is in many ways my own. There is no conflict that Obi deals with that I have not encountered in one form or another in my experiences both in Afrika and here. These are dilemmas that all of us as Afrikans in America must deal with in our prodigal relationship with our home. But it is not our province alone, even my eldest brother residing in Ivory Coast deals with it as he struggles with his acceptance of Christianity and the traditional spiritual beliefs of our Grandfather, who reared him.

In the Igbo culture there is a tradition called the Mbari celebration. With this tradition, representatives from the community are chosen to prepare a festival of images in honor of Ala, the Earth goddess. The chosen representatives, ordinary citizens of the community and artists alike, go off into seclusion to create their works of art, which they present to the community during the ceremony. They are left alone to create, supported and fed by the community, sometimes for two years. That in many ways is what I see as the role of the artists that have come together to create this work, that speaks for and about the community, with its beauty and flaws. We can only hope that you enjoy our “home of images” as much as the villagers enjoy the Mbari ceremony.

Thanks enough cannot be given to Pangea World Theater for this incredible opportunity, for their faith and trust. Abundant thanks to my future wife, Sha Cage, without whose support, love and input this work would not be. And love and thanks to all the artists involved in this project for their brilliant gifts, from crew to cast, to support network to the whole Pangea family. Thanks to Chinua Achebe, for his work and for giving us permission to bring it to stage. To the Igbo community and Ummune Cultural Association. Special thanks to Hannatu Tongrit-Green, Onyebuchi Njaka, Larry Ubani and Flora Okwa. Also to Susan Robeson, Mimi Girma and J. Otis Powell!. The Playwrights’ Center for their development support. To parents: George and Ginny Bailey. To friends and family. I dedicate this work to my grandparents: Vaslekey and Mayamu. And to my mother, Massa Vaslekey Sirleaf. Without “We” I am nothing.

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my children

30 October 1997 at 5:03 am (Poems, Spoken Word, Writings) ()

my children (final)

Begun in 1990 while a student at Notre Dame. Revised sometime between 1993 and 1997.

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