Elevate Difference

The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood

Helene Cooper’s memoir about growing up in Liberia and moving to the United States paints a portrait of a girl trapped between two cultures and countries worlds apart from one another. Cooper is the descendant of freed African American slaves who returned to Africa to found Liberia in the early 1800s. Her upbringing was a privileged one, as a member of the small Liberian upper class composed almost entirely of the descendants of Black American settlers. Sheltered by her family’s wealth and privilege, Cooper grows up relatively oblivious to the growing tensions and inequities in Liberian society. She doesn’t seem to understand how unequal and unfair the distribution of wealth and power was in Liberia.

The contradictions of a small and wealthy elite living within a very poor country are glaringly apparent, especially when her parents decide to “get” a sister for her after she complains of being afraid to sleep alone at night. The “sister” they obtain, Eunice, comes from the poor class of Liberians. A relatively common practice in Liberian society was for poor children to come live as sons and daughters of the upper class. Eunice’s mother sent her to live with another family, as this would give Eunice a better opportunity to succeed in life. Eunice becomes a part of the family, but is never completely embraced as a true daughter. This is particularly the case when they end up leaving her behind when a bloody coup in 1980 forced Helene’s family to flee the country and immigrate to America. Once in the U.S., Cooper avoids talking about her homeland, embarrassed of being associated with a country that the rest of the world saw on the nightly news as being riddled by uncontrolled violence and grisly civil war.

The House at Sugar Beach alternates between tender childhood memories at an idyllic beach house in Liberia to Cooper's life after the coup as she struggles to find her own identity and "make it" in the United States.

Written by: Liz Simmons, November 5th 2009