OUT OF AMERICA DENIED
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
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
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
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,
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.