Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa
by Keith B. Richburg
Basic/New Republic. 257 pp. $24.00
Keith Richburg has written a harrowing account of his three-year tour of duty reporting for the Washington Post from Africa. But as the title of his book suggests, his purpose is to tell us something not only about that continent but about ours as well. For the author, as he writes, is himself “a descendant of slaves brought from Africa,” and this means he saw things “a bit differently.” By seeing things more than a bit differently, in fact, he has produced one of those rare works that change the terms of debate on a controversial subject.
When Richburg arrived at his base of operations in Nairobi in 1991, he had reason to believe that Africa was at last on the verge of moving in a new and more hopeful direction. The cold war had just ended, and the superpowers no longer needed to prop up corrupt potentates; the ruinous Marxist model had lost its allure, and failed statist economic strategies were being jettisoned; the 1990’s, Richburg writes, were to be “Africa’s ‘decade of democracy,’ or so I had been told.”
But the story which Richburg was destined to tell was not about a decade of democracy but about a maelstrom of violence which swept across the continent: from ethnic genocide in Rwanda, to a multi-pronged civil war in Somalia, to the absurd but no less bloody struggle for power in Liberia. Over the course of his stay, Richburg saw his share of Africa’s victims: corpses lying in mass graves, on roadsides, even cascading horrifyingly down a waterfall at the rate of “a body or two a minute” for days on end. On more than one occasion his own life was threatened by the omnipresent young men wielding machetes and automatic rifles with the “dried blood stains” of their most recent victims “spattered across their filthy T-shirts.”
Gripping as are Richburg’s descriptions of widespread butchery, it is his observations on the pathology of African politics, and how that pathology intersects with our own racial perplexities, which ultimately make Out of America not only a provocative but an important book. Richburg has a powerful and very American sense of right and wrong, and he is especially sensitive to the cynical and manipulative use of the racial trump card in relations between Africans and Americans. The brazen exploitation of racial guilt by the thieves and murderers who are the continent’s despots especially appalled him. Though they spoke to him, a fellow black, about the West’s responsibility for Africa’s miseries, about neocolonialism and Anglo-European imperialism, the real root of Africa’s problems, he came to believe, lay in the boundless corruption of these very leaders.
Richburg was struck by something else in Africa as well: the unfathomable passivity of ordinary Africans in the face of their leaders’ brutality. In Somalia, he found the victims of horrendous cruelty—those who had lost a spouse or a child—responding with “just a shrug and an In-shallah” (it is God’s will). The same passivity infected the organized political opposition, wherever it could be said to exist. In places like Zaire, opponents of the regime put all their hope in an all-powerful United States, which, they insisted, could create democratic order in their country any time it chose.
To Richburg, however, it is absurd to believe that any outside power can impose order, not to mention democracy, in places where civil society has been effectively destroyed. He came to this position the hard way, having first applauded the United Nations for its “nation-building” effort in Somalia and then watched that effort go awry in a debacle that took the lives not only of nineteen U.S. Rangers but of several of his colleagues and close personal friends.
Is there, then, nothing the West can do? Although Richburg is skeptical about the effectiveness of arms—at least of arms ignorantly or frivolously employed—he has great respect for the power of the word. Indeed, he believes that the general reluctance in the West to speak truthfully about Africa’s failings has done a real disservice to the people who must suffer the consequences of those failings. He also thinks it constitutes a moral disgrace, and he boldly castigates those American civil-rights leaders who waged a relentless campaign against apartheid in South Africa, who today lecture the U.S. government on its obligation to provide aid to the continent’s impoverished states, and who serve up excuse after excuse for the very rulers most complicit in black Africa’s tragedy.
Richburg was present at a 1993 conference in Gabon attended by leading black American civil-rights activists. Among the guests of honor, he reports, was the continent’s youngest dictator, Valentine Strasser of Sierre Leone, a twenty-eight-year-old soldier who had seized power through a coup and proceeded systematically to arrest and execute officials of the previous regime. When Strasser strode into the hall, garbed in the standard-issue outfit of African strongmen—a camouflage uniform and Ray Ban sunglasses—the Americans erupted into cheering and frenzied applause. But even this “disgusting display” was nothing, Richburg writes, in comparison with the soft-pedaling of Africa’s woes he heard from the visiting Americans both at the conference and in his subsequent interviews with them.
From Douglas Wilder, the first black governor of a Southern state, came the observation that “We cannot and should not expect [African governments] to undergo a metamorphosis in seconds . . . our job is not to interfere.” Benjamin Chavis (now Chavis Muhammad), then-director of the NAACP, warned against attempting “to superimpose a Western standard of democracy.” And Jesse Jackson heaped accolades on the ruthless Nigerian dictator Ibrahim Babangida, calling him “one of the great leader-servants of the modern world in our time.” These were but three representatives, by no means the most shameless, of a class of black American political tourists who, as Richburg notes, habitually stay in five-star hotels, adorn themselves in kente cloth, and speak with pride and willful ignorance about their African heritage.
Spending three years in Africa, “watching pretty much the worst that human beings can do to one another,” turned Keith Richburg into a militant supporter of the American melting pot and an equally militant opponent of Afrocentrism. “Thank God,” he writes, “that I am an American,” and “thank God my ancestor survived [the] voyage” which brought him to the United States as a slave:
Talk to me about Africa and my black roots and my kinship with my African brothers, and I’ll throw it back in your face, and then I’ll rub your nose into the images of the rotting flesh.
Out of America is a superbly angry book, a tonic for our hypocritical times. One can only hope that Keith Richburg’s cri de coeur is widely heard.