Firestone in Liberia – this is why critical race theory matters

Re “A rubber empire and shattered dreams of black prosperity in Liberia” (Ideas, May 27): Growing up in Akron, Ohio, we took it for granted that rubber was the economic engine of the city. We did not ask, or learn, where it came from, on whose labor it was grown, or the human cost.

There are many stances on critical race theory. Overlooking these overt and reductive attacks is a missed opportunity to understand economic history so often built on oppression and racism. The alternative is depth and nuance and consideration of paths not taken.

In the article adapted from his book “Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia”, history professor Gregg Mitman writes that rubber did not originate in Liberia, nor was it the prime location of Liberia Firestone, and that WEB Du Bois imagined an alternative, ultimately unsuccessful, route to rubber plantation. The story told by Mitman is far more enlightening and instructive, though far more cruel, than the little we learned in school in Akron.

Mitman’s book, along with Paul Farmer’s “Fievers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History,” tells a story of Liberia, resource extraction, and human cost that we all deserve to learn. Pretending that the story is a simple “hail to the victors” story and attacking the alternative narratives denies so much. This is an example of the complexity of history and how much better it can be understood when we move beyond the mythologies of courage, industry, and the inevitable success of winners.

Jennifer Goldsmith


The author was Director of Programs and Administration for the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, reporting to Paul Farmer. Currently, she is a senior director focused on health equity at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and co-teaches a course on global health at Tufts University.

Sharon D. Cole