Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia

Historian and filmmaker Mitman (Breathing Space) delivers a harrowing and richly detailed account of U.S. tire manufacturer Firestone’s exploitation of Liberian workers in the 20th century. Eager to break the British monopoly on rubber supplies, Firestone secured a concession of one million acres of land from the Liberian government in 1926 and proceeded to build “the world’s largest continuous rubber plantation.” Though Firestone earned the support of African-American leaders including W.E.B. Du Bois by claiming that the project would foster humanitarianism and economic development in one of only two sovereign Black nations in Africa, Mitman documents how the company’s labor system mirrored regressive scientific and medical stereotypes born out of plantation slavery in the American South. Liberians were subject to harsh working conditions, disease outbreaks, and exposure to carcinogenic chemicals. Fears that Firestone’s “racist attitudes and policies” would undermine U.S. foreign policy in Africa led President Truman to increase aid to Liberia, but “continuing racial discrimination and growing wealth inequality” gave rise to political unrest and labor strikes in the 1960s. Mitman marshals a wealth of material to make his case, which encompasses ecological injustice, racial capitalism, and medical racism. The result is a devastating exposé of the tensions between “the interests of white capital and the desire for Black self-determination.” (Oct.)

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin