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A Critique of the book OUT OF AMERICA
By E. Ablorh-Odjidja

Perhaps, it is not by coincidence that this book is titled "Out Of America", and it is equally not by accident that I feel compelled to critique it. The writer, Keith B. Richburg, is African American and I am African. We both shared a common ancestry until this book.

The book is based on Richburg's experience in Africa, between 1991 and 1994, covering the war in Somalia and Rwanda as a reporter for the Washington Post.   
Richburg's account is riveting, provocative and sad. Just as we think we have seen enough carnage in Somalia, we turn a page to meet more in Rwanda. The stories become more depressing even from areas not touched by war. In the end, his travels in Africa become an extraordinary journey of discovery for him. He has come to Africa naive about what to expect, and returns completely disenchanted, at least so he says.

But for the theme of an African American rejecting his ancestry, this book would have stirred modest commercial interest. The stories of Somalia and Rwanda have already gained worldwide press notoriety. And the cyclical epidemics of disease and starvation on the continent have long since become the public face of Africa, years before the publication of this book, and unfortunately may continue to be the case for years to come. The difference, however, is that for the first time in recent memory, and in bold print, an African American turns his back on mother Africa! 

The book "Out of America" is not about journalism. It is about moral judgment. Richburg has seen Africa, and walks away disenchanted: The slaughter of Africans by Africans, the anarchy, the corruption, and the bizarre tribal politics are all too much for him. "Thank God" he concludes "that my nameless ancestor, brought across the ocean in leg irons, made it out alive."   

Richburg must be commended for the brutal honesty of his appraisal. He also deserves an award for the avoidance of the brotherly orthodoxy trap that allows praise for all things African; saints, dictators and miscreants and all.   
True, his insight about the problem in Africa, "what is happening in Africa isn't about food.... it is about power and control in a country where security has broken down" is good and on the mark. His description of military thugs "who take power and thwart the continent's fledging efforts to move towards democracy" cannot be stated better. Absolutely, there is something wrong about governance in Africa. It must be condemned. And Richburg has done that well. But must he reject his ancestry too? Certainly not.

No matter how heavy the burden of life in Africa is today, one must not allow that to give slavery respect. Unfortunately, Richburg jumps over reason to do so.   
The Africa of Richburg's experience is one of turmoil, and the logic of turmoil is chaos. No excuse intended here. But, not to recognize that the continent has also been shaped by other influences, in addition to those of her own, is to over extend the arrant nature of some clowns on the continent. Furthermore, to conclude, as he does, that slavery has proven to be a redeeming factor, because of the mess in Africa now, is despicable.

Why was Richburg asked by the Washington Post to go to Africa? Obviously, he is a competent reporter. But at the time of the offer he seemed very little prepared for Africa. 

For briefing and inspiration for the trip, he had to travel to Thailand to seek out Kevin Cooney, "a big, hard-drinking Irish American reporter ...who had spent several months working in the Reuter office in Nairobi." -- almost like a character conjured up from the movie "African Queen".

The Africanists, whose counsel Richburg sought, were only acknowledged as an after- thought. The opinion of his alma mater, the University of Michigan, "where prominent black professors taught, including Dr. Ali Mazrui, perhaps the best-known African scholar in the West," was never invited. Obviously, Richburg's preliminary preparation does not show much affection for the subject Africa.

In Kenya, Nairobi, when Richburg meets Africa, his first remark is to ask "What's that smell?" Other writers, like Robert Klitzgaard who wrote "Tropical Gangsters" about Equatorial Guinea, have been more circumspect, though equally critical. The wonder is how Richburg can miss all else on a first day in a strange land. The exotic, the new, even the layout of the land from miles up in the sky. For most writers, disenchantment sets in, if at all, only after the new has faded. But it is not to be for Richburg. He gets his right in the nose just moments after arrival.

Richburg's competence as a writer is obvious. Easy style. Strong narrative skills. However, his lack of previous attachment to Africa, emotional or intellectual, is also very evident. 

It is not as if he is a Marcus Garvey or a Dubois before he sets foot in Africa. And on location at Goree, the last port for departing slaves in the past, and perhaps, the most haunting ground in the history of the Diaspora, he finds himself emotionally sterile. What then gives him the moral right to say, "Talk to me about Africa and my black roots and my kinship with my African brothers and I will throw it back in your face, and then I'll rub your nose in the images of the rotting flesh."? This outburst must raise some concern about motive. But note that in America the sensational sells.

This book must have attraction for some readers. To those who see Africa as the sinkhole of human existence, where the exigencies of life have more primordial and sinister meaning than any other place or time in human history, the above outburst gives a lot of comfort. And for this, regretfully, Africa must thank some of her arrant sons and daughters, including Richburg.

Richburg's rejection of his ancestral land confirms in the mind of the skeptic, the hopelessness of the black man's cause. True, there is carnage in Africa. And, there has been carnage in other areas of the world; Bosnia, Belfast, Cambodia, Rosewood, Lebanon, Auschwitz etc.  But, is there another writer, from any part of the world, who has rejected his ancestry in terms more vehement than Richburg?

By the time Richburg finishes his tour, slavery has gained a moral upgrade. "There but for the grace of God go I," he says. Along with the institution of slavery, he is ready to forgive the loss of life in the Second World War, the pogrom against Jews in Germany, and the explosion of the atomic bomb on Japan because of "mankind's ability to make something good arise often in the aftermath of the most horrible evil." But he has no such charity for Africa. He will deny Africa the capacity for self correction. He would strip Africa bare of goodness and leave it as a place where the forces of evil always triumph over those of good.

Richburg's conclusion is divisive. His us (African American) versus them (African) interpretation of the story of the slave trade does not factor in the sense of our shared tragedy, our loss, and what should be our resolve because of this tragic period in our history. And this is wrong.

Collectively, Africans warred, and pillaged against each other, collected prisoners, and, senselessly, allowed many members of the continent to be taken out of Africa; very ignorant about the cruelties that awaited these sons and daughters.   
Slavery was not selective, and not by progeny either as to who went and who was left behind. The fog of war or raid did not allow this luxury. That Richburg is in America and Idi Amin remained in Africa is sheer coincidence. Turn it around, and Idi Amin could have been born in Detroit, worked in an automobile factory as a Union leader, and perhaps, could have sired Richburg.  

The slave trade was the most horrific aspect of our history. We must not be divided by it. Never again.

For those who are ready to rebel against mother Africa because of Richburg's ill advised conclusion, I offer this African proverb: Chasing after a mad man in the streets, butt naked, can only serve as a sufficient commentary on one's own sanity. For myself, I will read Earnest Gaines' "A Lesson Before Dying" again. It will help as a reminder of the obligation we owe each other, and also to help shelter my psyche against this type of assault on our common ancestry. 

E. Ablorh-Odjidja, Washington, D.C.




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