Richburg's Africa

Out of America:
A Black Man Confronts Africa

By Keith B. Richburg
(Basic Books, 1997)

Reviewed by Wolf Roder

The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 3, September 1997 (pp. 92-93).

© 1997 The Journal of African Travel-Writing

The dust cover of Out of America shows a serious and thoughtful black man, who is quite dark in color. This is important, for it means that, in Africa, Keith B. Richburg is often taken for an African on first view, and subjected to the harassment and indignities which Africans can experience at airports and border crossings and in government offices. Richburg writes of literally waving his passport to impress officials that he is an expatriate and an American. At the same time, we are made to realize how much deference and special treatment white people still receive in Africa, some times and some places.

On the other hand, African leaders confide in Richburg because he is black. Zaire's communications minister allows how the disintegration of his nationŐs economy is a grand conspiracy of the white West. A Sudanese leader explains that there is a British plot to keep his country from too much independence, and he equates this with the condition of blacks in America. Richburg, in turn, can compare these with the sorts of conspiracy theories, widespread among African-Americans in Washington, that "they" are out to eliminate the black man. Over and over again, Richburg's journalistic sense of reality has to reject identification with Africa, and also with many aspects of white and black America.

Richburg is a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. He has won several awards for international reporting and is presently assigned to Hong Kong. He was assigned to Africa and based in Nairobi from 1991-4. In the process of describing what Africa taught him, he tells us much about himself, his growing up black in a working-class neighborhood of Detroit, and what it means to be black in America. Like many African-Americans, he found his first arrival in Africa, the land of his forefathers, filled him with expectations and apprehensions. He was surely predisposed to see much good in Africa, and to ascribe shortcomings to the colonial period and its white masters.

As Richburg covers the coups, the wars, the massacres, from Liberia to Somalia, he comes to cherish his American heritage more and more. Even a visit to the slave dungeons of Goree Island, the historical museum outside Dakar, leaves him without pain or personal connection. As he contemplates the long-ago atrocities of the slave trade, he has to think of what his life might be like if the slave trade had never been. Perhaps he would be one of the many anonymous bodies he has seen dumped into mass graves at Goma, or cascading down the Kagera River, after another mass murder. Eventually, he can only bless those unsung ancestors of his who survived capture, the middle passage, and the auction block to become Americans.

Richburg decries those African-American leaders who, in the name of racial solidarity, cater to some of the worst dictators in Africa and excuse their outrages. The meeting of civil rights and other black leaders with the boy dictator of Sierra Leone at a conference in Libreville is startlingly embarrassing. "These black Americans were obviously more impressed with the macho military image Strasser cut than with the fact that he represents all that is wrong with Africa--military thugs who take power and thwart the continent's fledgling efforts to move toward democracy." In the end, Richburg concludes that "while I know that 'Afrocentrism' has become fashionable for many black Americans searching for identity, I know it cannot work for me. I have been here, I have lived here and seen Africa in all its horror."

I like this book, I found it absorbing, and I think every Africanist and everyone interested in Africa should read it. It is an important document, full of truth and insight, and a good story. But is it the whole story? I don't think this reporter has captured all of Africa. Like the evening news and the television sound-bite, the Washington Post article will focus on violence and trouble. Richburg covered some of the worst stories of atrocity in the years he reported from Africa: the war in Somalia, the murder accompanying the Tutsi and the Hutu exodus from Rwanda, and the bloody civil conflict in Liberia. These are the places where Richburg spent most time and effort, though he visited other parts of Africa. He knows and writes much about the arbitrariness of the Moi government and the corruption in Kinshasa. He comments that Zambia's multi-party democracy under Chiluba is not much better than Kaunda's humanism. Where it isn't violent and bloody, Richburg's Africa is mean and corrupt.

A reporter covering "the news" does not spend much time in peaceful and quiet countries, nor in rural or pastoral backwaters. Where nothing happens, the reporter has no business. No description of peasant farmers or river fisherfolk--not even of their troubles with government--finds a place in Out of America. Other travelers visit Africa for its animals and its scenery, but no lion or leopard can be found in this book. Not only the roots of African-Americans but of all human beings lie in Africa, but it is as if Richburg has never heard of Olduvai Gorge or Lucy or archeology. There is the journalistic reporting of the here and now, which is not to be confused with historical or any other facts. Chewing khat, for instance, will hardly make youngsters "high out of their minds," since the plant contains only caffeine. And in his description of Liberia, Richburg seems oblivious to the history or nature of the American settler aristocracy.

Still, Out of America is a good book and an important book. It emphasizes aspects of Africa that we would like to deny despite their obvious importance.