A Black Man Confronts Africa

Thursday, October 30, 1997

"Honest" is the word that best characterizes Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, by Keith Richburg. However, honesty seems like too homely a virtue to stress for a book that offers much knowledge and insight about Africa and about reactions to Africa among both black and white Americans. Unfortunately, just as common sense is not common, so honesty is a rare and startling, almost shocking, quality in a book dealing with race.

Keith Richburg is a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post who spent three years in Africa, covering Somalia, Rwanda, and South Africa, among other places. Beginning his assignment in Africa as someone eager to see his new territory and the lands of his ancestors, Richburg ends up saying, "Frankly, I want no part of it" and "Thank God my ancestor got out, because, now, I am not one of them."

In between are stories of hideous and indiscriminate atrocities, mass starvation, gross inefficiencies, and a pervasive and suffocating fog of lies. Among the cast of characters are African dictators and the thugs who keep them in power, guilty whites in the West who supply foreign aid, and visiting black American "leaders" who fawn over the despots and use double standards in judging black and white governments in Africa.

Running through all this are Richburg's accounts of his own agonizing and changing feelings as a black American. He confesses to being one of those who used their position in the media to propagandize for American intervention in Somalia and who then saw with their own eyes the tragedies that ensued. He ended up, he says, hating the Somalis "because they betrayed me" and hating himself "for having been so wrong, for setting myself up for the betrayal."

If Somalian intervention began with "the upbeat, feel-good atmosphere that surrounded those first days" and ended with soldiers from the U.N. rescuers being killed and their bodies dragged through the streets, Rwanda was a horror from day one. Richburg's initiation included seeing bodies floating down a river at a rate of one every minute or two--some corpses whole, some with missing limbs or missing heads.

"Here the militias wouldn't shoot you in the head, Somalia style," he said. "They would carve off your arm first and watch you bleed and scream in pain. Then, if you didn't pass out, they would chop off your leg, or maybe just a foot. If you were lucky, they might finish you off with a machete blow to the back of the head."

The chronicle of horrors goes on, including the AIDS epidemic and "the relative nonchalance about AIDS across Africa," where more than half the world's cases occur. Then there is the pervasive corruption, seething tribalism, and highly developed excuse-making, which blames all the continent's troubles on long-departed European imperialists, on a lack of natural resources, or on the failure of the outside world to help enough.

Reacting against all of this, Richburg throws the excuses back in the face of Africans and of their apologists in the West. Why has imperialism not stopped Asian nations from rising economically? Why has a lack of natural resources not prevented Singapore from developing?

He reacted especially strongly to a meeting in Africa in which Jesse Jackson and other visiting blacks "heaped a nauseating outpouring of praise on some of Africa's most brutal and corrupt strongmen" in a display of "the complete ignorance about Africa among America's so called black elite." Indeed, he suggests that there is considerable fantasy about America among those blacks who believe increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories and who "labeled me as a traitor, working for the ubiquitous 'Them.'"

That this book comes from a black reporter for the liberal Washington Post is especially surprising and adds to its impact. Moreover, Out of America offers thoughtful insights as well as facts and outrage. Yet, because it represents its author's coverage of horrors, rather than a balanced survey of sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, the overall prospects for Africa may not be as unrelievedly hopeless as what emerges from this book, though even a balanced overall picture would still be appalling enough.

In narrowly economic terms, even though it is true that too many African nations had their standards of living fall below where they had been under European imperialists, still the 1980s and 1990s saw some turnarounds. The economies of Nigeria and Ghana, for example, began to grow after the statist regimes began to allow freer operation of the marketplace, often under heavy pressure from international aid agencies that finally stopped accepting excuses and started insisting on performance.

Comparisons with Asia are less apt than comparisons with the Balkans would be, both historically and currently. The clearest parallels in sickening atrocities and blind ethnic hatreds are those between the Balkan wars and tribal warfare in Africa. But there are other parallels. Historically, both areas have been culturally fragmented by their geography, even though the geographic specifics have been quite different in the two regions. The resulting poverty and disunity of both regions likewise made both vulnerable to the outside world and sources of slaves--the Balkans supplying Europe and the Middle East with slaves for centuries before the first African was taken in bondage to the Western Hemisphere.

Geographic handicaps do not merely limit economic opportunities or inhibit political consolidation, they limit the development of the people themselves by isolating them from one another and from the outside world. Such isolated peoples are almost invariably backward and often brutal, whether they are isolated in mountainous terrain or on small islands scattered across vast reaches of water or--as in sub-Saharan Africa--isolated by a painful combination of geographic handicaps, ranging from a dearth of navigable waterways to debilitating diseases that weakened men and made draft animals virtually impossible to use over large regions.

None of this is an apology for the current behavior of African leaders or African mobs or militias, though it is part of a causal explanation of the background from which such things have arisen. On the contrary, if historic and geographic handicaps are to be overcome, excuses must not be accepted, much less be allowed to guide policies. Above all, the fantasies which play such a large role in racial issues, whether in Africa or America, need to be challenged and realities faced. A book like Out of America can make a contribution to that process.