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A Princess Found: An American Family, an African Chiefdom, and the Daughter Who Connected Them All

A Princess Found: An American Family, an African Chiefdom, and the Daughter Who Connected Them All

by Sarah Culberson, Tracy Trivas

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Sarah Culberson was adopted one year after her birth by a loving, white, West Virginian couple and was raised in the United States with little knowledge of her ancestry. Though raised in a loving family, Sarah wanted to know more about the birth parents that had given her up. In 2004, she hired a private investigator to track down her biological father. When she


Sarah Culberson was adopted one year after her birth by a loving, white, West Virginian couple and was raised in the United States with little knowledge of her ancestry. Though raised in a loving family, Sarah wanted to know more about the birth parents that had given her up. In 2004, she hired a private investigator to track down her biological father. When she began her search, she never imagined what she would discover or where that information would lead her: she was related to African royalty, a ruling Mende family in Sierra Leone and that she is considered a mahaloi, the child of a Paramount Chief, with the status like a princess. What followed was an unforgettably emotional journey of discovery of herself, a father she never knew, and the spirit of a war-torn nation. A Princess Found is a powerful, intimate revelation of her quest across the world to learn of the chiefdom she could one day call her own.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
As a biracial child adopted into a nurturing white middle-class family in West Virginia, Sarah Culberson experienced warmth, stability and personal fulfillment while growing up. Like most adopted children, Culberson had questions about her biological roots, and as a biracial child dealt with the additional emotional burden of negotiating the world of racial identity. After being questioned by a teacher as to why she wore blue contact lenses, a stunned and embarrassed Culberson begins the journey to find-and embrace-her roots. Her story quickly becomes extraordinary, as she discovers her father is not just alive and living in Africa, but is part of African royalty, making her an African princess. This entertaining, informative, inspiring memoir is told through two narratives taken up in alternating chapters: one details Culberson's story of growing up, going off to college, and ultimately establishing a life for herself in the arts; the other recounts her father's incredible story of falling in love with Culberson's American mother, his struggle to keep his family alive during Sierra Leon's brutal civil war, and the remarkable reunion of father and daughter.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School—Popular with her classmates and loved by her adoptive family, African-American Sarah Culberson has never truly felt that she belonged. After graduating from high school and moving away for college, she began to seek the truth about her biological parents. She eventually hired a private investigator and learned that while her mother was a white woman, now deceased, her father is African royalty—the chief of a Mende tribe. She eventually traveled to Sierra Leone and saw firsthand both the poverty and the beauty that exist in the war-torn nation. Interspersed with Culberson's story are chapters chronicling her father's life in a village ravaged by rebels. She describes his years as a refugee in a crowded and unsanitary city and the return and rebuilding of his home and school. This eloquently written memoir covers the isolation an African-American child can feel in a predominantly white environment; the technical aspects and emotional turmoil of a search for biological parents; and the contrast between American wealth and African poverty. The author realizes the high expectations placed on her by her father's tribe, not only because she is an American, but also because she is their princess. Teens will relate to her search for a balance between her ancestry and familial obligations and her life in the United States. The narrative style keeps the memoir moving forward yet the historical and cultural information it imparts is as significant as its entertainment value.—Karen E. Brooks-Reese, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, PA
Kirkus Reviews
A mannered account of a biracial woman raised by a white family in West Virginia who was reunited joyfully with her African family. Culberson and co-author Trivas present a tidy, bifurcated narrative. Culberson-whose birth mother was white and father black-narrates in the first person, telling of her adoption as an infant in 1977 by Jim and Judy Culberson, who happily raised the orphan with their own daughters in the predominantly white community of Morgantown. The other narrative thread is the fictionalized re-creation of the struggle for survival by Culberson's real father, Joe Konia Kposowa, and extended family as they fled the violent insurgency that ripped apart Sierra Leone in the mid-'90s. The juxtaposition of the two narratives is deliberately jarring. While Culberson was being crowned Homecoming Queen, her family and other Mende people faced ambush, amputations-a favorite terror tactic of the rebels-and homelessness. As a girl growing up, Culberson was accused by other blacks of not being "black enough." Gradually she grew more curious about her biological parents and found out that her now-dead mother, Lillian ("Penny"), had been working at a university cafeteria when she met Kposowa, the son of the "Paramount Chief" of his village. After Penny got pregnant, the couple decided to give the baby up for adoption, and Kposowa went back to Africa. Culberson's wrenching coming-of-age tale ably chronicles her love and acceptance by both of her families, but the intermediary of the extra writer dilutes the emotional impact, giving the book a too-eager-to-please spin. An inspiring but flawed autobiography.
From the Publisher

“A mannered account of a biracial woman raised by a white family in West Virginia who was reunited joyfully with her African family . . . The juxtaposition of the two narratives is deliberately jarring. While Culberson was being crowned Homecoming Queen, her family and other Mende people faced ambush, amputations--a favorite terror tactic of the rebels--and homelessness. As a girl growing up, Culberson was accused by other blacks of not being 'black enough' . . . Culberson's wrenching coming-of-age tale ably chronicles her love and acceptance by both of her families . . . Inspiring.” —Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.48(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.22(d)
Age Range:
15 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt


Bumpe, Sierra Leone


Before the rebels attacked Joseph’s village, they first sent in child spies. That was the way it was done—boys, ages 10–14, pretended to be lost, refugees, or orphans, but they were child soldiers with nicknames like "Commander Cut Hands," "Crazy Jungle," or "Captain Bloodie." For simple scout missions, their adult commanders did not waste precious drugs on the children, hallucinogens which revved them into fearless and brutal machines. Only later in the afternoon, when the rebels ordered the child soldiers to kill did they carve slits into the boys’ young temples, pierce holes into their tender veins, and rub cocaine and "brown-brown" heroin into their raw wounds. Scotch tape slapped across the incisions pressed the drugs deeper into their bloodstreams.

The child spies penetrated Bumpe, Joseph’s village, at 1:30 P.M.,right before lunchtime, acting only like boys. First they asked a passing villager, an African woman with a tin bucket on her head, for water.

"Mama, gi me wata," they said in Krio, the common language melded from the centuries of contact between the colonial British, freed slaves, and Africans.

"Ya de wata,"she said, pouring water from her vessel.

"Tenki,"they said.

Spying Joseph’s well-used soccer ball in the yard, they even began a spontaneous game in the red dirt close to his home. A few boys wrestled. But soon the older boys trickled off, no longer soccer players but now morphed into moles, casing available supplies: sacks of rice, drums of water, mangoes, yams, dried fish, palm oil, and cassava leaves ready to be plucked from backyard patches. Next the population needed to be assessed: How many women? How many young girls ripe for sexual slavery—their ebony legs to be roped together at the ankles and gang-raped? How many new child soldiers could be "adopted and drafted" with the help of machetes, AK-47s, handheld RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), and G3 automatic rifles?

On December 31, 1994, Joseph Konia Kposowa, forty-one-years old, a member of a ruling Mende family and the son of a great Paramount Chief, traveled to the neighboring village of Taninahun with his two children, five-year-old Hindogbae, and ten-year-old, Jeneba, for a holiday visit with his mother, Musu.

Although his full Christian name was Joseph, everyone in his village called him Joe, which was most fitting as he was a powerful man, worthy of a swift, one syllable name. Although not tall in stature, his presence was unmistakable as a leader in his village. Everyone in Bumpe considered Joe a "big man," a term villagers spoke in hushed tones about important people. Joe ran the prestigious Bumpe High School and took in seven children, besides his own son and daughter, to support and send to school.

The civil war that ravaged the country had not yet touched Joe’s village or impacted his students. Although he and the village elders held meetings about the rebels, listening in silence around Joe’s portable radio for war updates, no one believed the rebels could be so close—not yet.

When Joe, in his Toyota Hilux truck, left his wife and in-laws behind to continue the simple rituals of everyday life—weaving country cloth, preparing a lunch of rice, okra, and maybe even peanut soup—he had no particular worries. It was a simple day, a day off from teaching at the boarding school where he was the principal, a day not consulting or advising his brother who was campaigning for the position of Paramount Chief. Only royal family members could run for Paramount Chief, a position his grandfather held and his father, Francis Kposowa, held for thirty years, governing thirty-six thousand people.

But it was that afternoon the rebels chose for the first attack.

Joe’s wife, Mary, busy working at home with her mother and younger sister, heard the heavy footsteps of men. A mass of soldiers marched forty feet from her window. Assuming the men were government soldiers, Mary dashed outside to thank them and offer them something to drink.

"Come to my house to drink water," she offered, beckoning with her hand.

The soldiers ignored her and kept on walking.

She returned to the house.

"Man’s work," she assumed.

"Moiyatu!" she called to her beautiful, doe-eyed thirteen-year-old sister. "Run and tell Reverend Morlai the good news. Army men have come to help!"

Moiyatu ran off to the Reverend Morlai’s house to deliver the message.

Minutes later two hundred rebels descended upon Bumpe. Joe’s pet monkey, Little, screeched a shrill alarm. Mary heard the popping gunfire and ghastly screams of the villagers and darted straight out the backdoor into the bush. She left everything behind, including a simmering pot of rice on the fire. She sprinted into the forests; her mother, Kadie, trailed behind her.

Only now, as Mary pushed deeper and deeper into the bush, begging her elderly mother to move faster, did she realize the men she believed to be government soldiers were rebels.

Mary prayed for thirteen-year-old Moiyatu.

Running side-by-side along a bush path, Mary and her mother tore through elephant grasses and overgrown weeds. Snarled vegetation flanked the maze of dirt tributaries that linked many villages. Together they traveled eight miles until they reached the village of Balahun where they split up. Mary’s mother refused to go any farther. Her feet, swollen and bruised from the sharp grasses needed rest. Mary kissed her mother good-bye. Until she reached her two children, Hindogbae and Jeneba, and her husband, she would not stop moving. Alone now with darkness falling, Mary continued the remaining seven miles to Taninahun. Blisters bubbled on her feet and splinters lodged under her toenails.

Breathless, shaking, unsteady from creeping low in the sun-beaten grasses, Mary reached Taninahun at midnight. Bursting through the door of Musu’s home, she collapsed into Joe’s arms. Covered in dust, sliced from the razor-edged weeds, Mary could not stop crying.

Back in Bumpe, two hundred rebels looted homes, probing for new "recruits" and young girls to add to their junta as "rebel wives." The fifteen miles between Joe’s family and the rebels left only a single night to make a decision—if even that much time remained. In Grandmother Musu’s dark mud-brick home, plastered with cement and roofed with sheets of zinc, Joseph huddled with Mary and Musu as the children slept.

Mary begged her husband to go back to the village of Balahun for her mother, Kadie. When the sun rose, he promised he would jump into his truck, drive back to Balahun, and search for Kadie. As for Mary’s younger sister, Moiyatu, there was nothing he could do. Driving to Bumpe under a rebel attack would be suicide. Joe stepped outside onto Musu’s front porch. In the deep African night, listening for gunfire, he swore he could smell Bumpe burning in the distance.

Everyone knew the rebels carried kerosene in gallon cans or even in glass Coca-Cola bottles. That night, in Bumpe, they doused random homes with kerosene. Matches were struck against the houses, which soon blazed in a rapid ring of flames. Burning thatch crackled off the roofs. Forty-seven homes burned to the ground that night.

Joe’s house was one of them.

Across the Atlantic, a lifetime away, Sarah Jane Culberson lay in her white canopy bed in West Virginia, staring up at the metal slats in the frame. Like most people living in America, she did not know about the rebels and their atrocities. In 1994, when she was eighteen years old she did not know her father was fighting to live through the night. In fact, Sarah did not know her father.


Morgantown, West Virginia 1993–1994

Years ago, as a middle-school birthday present I received a mobile—a yellow satin moon with a bear sleeping on a cloud. Slowly it twirled above my head tied to the canopy frame. I never bothered to take it down. "Pleasant Dreams" was embroidered on the cloud. It seemed I should have been having sweet dreams; there would be no reason not to.

After all, it was homecoming weekend.

In Morgantown, a community of around thirty thousand people, homecoming was a town celebration. Parents bundled their children in bulky wool sweaters, twisted on knit scarves, and filled thermoses with hot chocolate—necessary endurance against the falling thirty-degree temperature. The vans, cars, and pickup trucks pulled into the parking lot behind the huge football stadium, and cars lined the neighboring streets as families raced toward the stands.

During University High’s big game against Liberty High School, I shuffled into the high school football stadium with the ten other senior girls who had been elected to the homecoming court. Escorted to center field during half-time, decked in velvet and brocade skirt-suits, one of us would be crowned queen. We all should have been wrapped in jackets that evening, but we braved the weather for the ceremony, our outfits too pretty to cover.

With the cold blasting through our flimsy panty hose, gusts threatening to teeter us from the points of our high heels, we shivered. I was supposed to be wearing my leg brace, having shredded my knee in a varsity basketball scrimmage two months earlier, ripping my ligament in half, but my doctor gave me permission to take it off only for the ceremony.

Finally the band stopped playing. The principal stepped up to the microphone. "The second runner-up is . . . ," "The first runner-up is . . . ," boomed the loudspeaker, "and the new Homecoming Queen is . . . Sarah Culberson!"

My mouth hung open.

The flashbulbs exploded, hundreds of lights blinking from the stands. Friends and family waved, stamping the bleachers; a photographer from the local newspaper, The Dominion Post, bolted onto the field to take pictures.

With a giant bouquet placed in my hands, I hobbled off the field. My white, adoptive parents, Jim and Judy Culberson, rushed to congratulate me with hugs and kisses. Little girls in miniature homecoming dresses slid up to me wanting to have a photograph taken with me. Shocked that I had won instead of the girl who had been expected to win, I smiled at my friends, neighbors, and basketball teammates. Maybe all those years of reaching out and being friendly to my classmates counted for something.

I always made an effort to be kind to everybody because I knew how bad it felt when people were insensitive. Through the applause I scanned the bleachers, waving at my teachers, waving at my classmates, even waving at the woman who refused to let her son go out with me because I was half black. A girl with an unknown black father, a girl with an unknown white mother, adopted by a lovely, respected white family, but still.

In elementary school, I played house with some of my white friends at recess. Ellie wanted to be the mom; Hannah, the sister; Liz, the baby.

"I’ll be Hannah’s twin sister!" I said.

"No," they all replied in unison, "you can’t."

"Why?" I asked confused.

"You don’t match."

"Oh," I said and stopped playing.

In eighth grade, a friend of mine pushed me in front of a boy and said, "Hey, Greg, what did you say about voting for Sarah? Why wouldn’t you vote for her?" Greg, stone-faced, refused to repeat to my face what he said to his friends: "I’m not voting for a black girl for student council president." Thankfully most of the rest of my class was color-blind. But in spite of the majority of friends, family, and community members who accepted me, color kept coming up.

Even as a one-year-old, the day I left foster care and arrived at my new home, a neighborhood child asked my older sister: "Is she black or does she just have a really good tan?"

Instead of black or white I felt like the brown girl who didn’t match. But, I did everything I could to blend in and look like everyone else. My hairdresser spent hours trying to tame my Afro by slopping heavy, thick goops of cream onto my hair to straighten it. If she waited too long to wash the cream out, my scalp would burn. But when she finished, I had straight flowing hair—just like my older sisters and all my other friends. To me, my kinky hair was shameful and ugly.

Most of the time in my classes, I was the only non–white student. Never wanting to disappoint my adopted family, I somehow came to the conclusion that I must be the representative of all biracial and black people in my predominately white town.

Somewhere in another back pocket of memory, or still tingling in my cells from foster care, I knew how good I had it with my adopted family. Whatever happened, I wanted to be good enough so that the Culbersons with their two, older, biological daughters, would never send me back. Make them proud. Prove on the basketball court, on the stage, that I was worth adopting.

When I shared this with my mom, she laughed, hugged me, and said, "Honey, where is back?"

I buried myself in her arms and said, "I don’t know. But I don’t want to go there."

Adopted two days after my first birthday, it might seem strange this fear of going back. How can a one-year-old remember anything, much less the memories of an infant before her first birthday? And maybe children don’t remember things, only feelings—a sensation of safety, or one of dread and abandonment.

I was convinced that people would judge the entire black race and every biracial child based on my behavior. I vowed to be unfailingly excellent and unfailingly likeable. Despite being elected junior class and student body president, I wasn’t unfailingly likeable.

Sophomore year, one of the few black students at my high school spewed to my friends, "Sarah doesn’t even know if she’s black or white."

My anger at his comment only confirmed he was right. I didn’t know.

Excerpted from A Princess Found by Sarah Culberson and Tracy Trivas.

Copyright 2009 by Sarah Culberson and Tracy Trivas.

Published in July 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Meet the Author

SARAH CULBERSON grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia. She attended West Virginia University, where she earned a B.A. in Theatre. She graduated from The American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco with a Masters in Fine Arts and joined the Los Angeles acting community. Sarah has been seen acting on the stage as well as in TV and films. She has also danced with a professional salsa dance company called Conta-Tiempo. As President of the Kposowa Foundation in Los Angeles, she and many others head up fundraising with the goal of improving education for young people and rebuilding Sierra Leone. She lives in Los Angeles.

TRACY TRIVAS, a graduate of Dartmouth College, won a Dartmouth Graduate Fellowship to study Victorian Literature at Oxford University, England. She received her Masters Degree in English from Middlebury College. She is also the author of the middle-grade fiction book, The Wish Stealers. She lives in California with her family.

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