A while back, my friend at Diversity Chronicle gave me the book “Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa” by Keith B. Richburg. I’ve just finished reading it.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book. It’s entertaining, thought-provoking and informative (even though it was published way back in 1998). Mr. Richburg comes across as a deep-thinking man who is willing to discard the orthodoxies of his day in favor of the conclusions of his hard-earned experiences. It’s one of those books that’s hard to put down once you start reading it. I apologize for the length of this review; there are so many quote-worthy passages in the book, it was hard to pass them up.
A recurring theme, which Richburg repeats several times throughout his book, is that had history transpired a bit differently, he might have been born in Africa, or his life might have turned out this way or that way. Of course, had his ancestors not been brought to America as slaves, he would never have existed at all – but his point is well-taken. As much as his ancestors might have suffered as American slaves, they would have been much worse off had they remained in Africa. Reflecting on the countless bodies floating down the Nile, Richburg writes (prelude xv):
You see, I was seeing all of this horror a bit differently because of the color of my skin. I am an American, but a black man, a descendant of slaves brought from Africa. When I see these nameless, faceless, anonymous bodies washing over a waterfall or piled up on the back of trucks, what I see most is that they look like me.
Sometime, maybe four hundred or so years ago, one of my ancestors was taken from his village…
And so it was that I came to be born in Detroit and that thirty five years later, a black man born in white America, I was in Africa, birthplace of my ancestors, standing at the edge of a river not as an African but as an American journalist – a mere spectator – watching the bloated bodies of black Africans cascading over a waterfall. And that’s when I thought about how, if things had been different, I might have been one of them – or might have met some similarly anonymous fate in one of the countless ongoing civil wars or tribal clashes on this brutal continent. And I thank God my ancestor survived that voyage.
Keith Richburg is not fond of Africa. Much of his book details its unfathomable brutality, corruption, short-sightedness and hypocrisy. Regarding the latter, despite the bitterness over past colonialism, whites actually get preferential treatment in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa. He writes (pg. 7):
Simply put, my colleagues in the foreign press corps – my white colleagues – rarely complained of the same hassles as I routinely faced. A few boasted to me how they typically would just barge right through, maybe with a few gruff words. White people traveling in East Africa are rarely stopped, rarely questioned, rarely instructed to open their bags. They jump to the front of lines, they scream and shout for seats on overbooked flights, they walk around with a kind of built-in immunity, the immunity of their skin color. If you’re black or Indian, you get stopped. You get the once-over. Your bags get searched. And if you’re black, trying to barge your way past an airport customs officer might very well get you a truncheon to the back of your head.
I’ve read this elsewhere, that whites are afforded certain privileges in Africa. This is understandable, due to the fact that so many whites in Africa are tourists or well-healed expats. People with money are usually given deference. Also, being a visible minority in any country gives one some advantages and disadvantages. This “white privilege” didn’t do much to help victims of the recent terrorist attack at a Nairobi mall.
One thing that struck me about this book was the number of times Richburg pointed out that the people of Africa look “just like him.” I’ve already cited one example above. Another is on page 55, where he writes:
… the dead and dying were all around me, and I was looking into their faces.
And my first thought was: They look just like me.
Elsewhere, he tells of Congolese border agents mistaking him for a native, or of Kenyans and Somalis assuming he’s local – and possible of a rival tribe.
Sub-Saharan Africa is a place of great genetic diversity. If a non-black were to insinuate that all black Africans look alike, we’d immediately be accused of racism and ignorance. Even I, much of the time, can distinguish between a Nigerian and a Somali, between a Ugandan and an Angolan. But Richburg repeatedly implies that they all look the same. It seems to me that context is what matters here. Black Africans do not all look the same, but on the local level, people are not accustomed to scrutinizing a stranger’s appearance to try to figure out where he’s from; they assume he’s a local. For example, when we see a swarthy man with a prominent nose in my area, we assume he’s Mexican. But take the same man, and put a veiled woman next to him – and he’s now an Arab.
Another recurring theme is the fate of idealistic non-Africans who come to help. Inevitably they either become cynical, they leave or they’re killed. Richburg writes (pg. 65,66):
It was, I often mused, one of Somalia’s strangest paradoxes. When no one comes to help, they cry that the world is indifferent to their suffering. And when people do come, what do the Somalis do? They shoot them in the back of the head, drag the naked bodies through the streets, beat them to death with bricks.
Richburg experiences his own form of bitterness, having himself been turned, by Africa, from an idealist into a cynic (pg 89):
Then suddenly my friends are dead, some two dozen American soldiers and marines are dead, billions have been spent and wasted, the world has turned out the lights and closed the door, and I’ve got a guy leveling a machine gun at me because I’m black and he thinks I’m an African.
The extreme brutality, that Richburg witnessed in Rwanda, brought him close to questioning the humanity of the perpetrators of this genocide (pg. 91):
To make the clubs more deadly on impact, the Hutu militiamen drove long nails into the end. That’s what Rwanda has become, I thought. The country has reverted to prehistoric times, to a kind of sick version of Bedrock. And could these be fully evolved humans carrying clubs and machetes and panga knives and smashing in their neighbors’ skulls and chopping off their limbs, and piling up the legs in one pile, and the arms in another, and lumping the bodies all together and sometimes forcing new victims to sit atop the heap while they clubbed them to death too? No, I realized, fully evolved human beings in the twentieth century don’t do things like that. Not for any reason, not tribe, not religion, not territory. These must be cavemen.
Even as an outsider, the author couldn’t help but classify Africans according to tribe, and assigning them collective victimhood or guilt. When he encountered throngs of Hutu refugees, fleeing Rwanda at the end of the anti-Tutsi genocide, he found himself wanting sympathy (pp. 101,102):
I walk amid this human torrent and figure, yes, this truly is, at this moment, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But I can’t find any sympathy for the refugees here. I look at them and I think, yes, this is what you deserve. That’s because these are not the victims but the killers. These are the Hutu, forced to flee Rwanda as the Tutsi rebels advanced and as the evidence of the Hutu’s atrocities was revealed. They have fled here to this remote corner of Tanzania because they are escaping whatever justice is in store for them at the hands of the Tutsi army rapidly taking over the country.
Regarding tribalism and multiculturalism, Richburg echoes sentiments we often read in blogs such as this one. He writes (pp. 105, 106):
These things, though, are not too popular to discuss outside of Africa, particularly among the Africanists and Western academics for whom the very term “tribe” is anathema. The preferred term is “ethnic group” because it’s considered less racially laden. But Africans themselves talk of their “tribes,” and they warn of the potential for tribal explosion.
It’s long been the argument of the old African strongman that authoritarian rule is needed to prevent just those types of tribal blowups. Multiparty politics, according to this theory, inevitably leads to tribal violence, because pluralism encourages people to seek protective refuge in their familiar tribal units. It’s virtually inevitable that political parties will be organized along ethnic, meaning tribal, lines. And that’s not too different from tribal voting patterns in American big cities, where you can count on the black vote, the Irish vote, the Polish vote, the Italian vote, the Jewish vote. But in America, we don’t reach for our pangas if our tribe loses the election.
When it comes to standards of feminine beauty, Richburg informs us that this is a source of much hand-wringing in Africa. We read (pg. 106):
But there was a debate raging because the local beauty picked by the judges, a twenty-one-year-old business student named Karimi Nkirote M’Mbijjiwe, was not so local at all; she had light skin, high cheekbones, a narrow straight nose, soft hair, and something approaching a perfect 36-24-26 figure. She was, in fact, more Somali looking than Kenyan. And her crowning ignited a storm of controversy about whether there was such a thing as an “African standard of beauty.”…
“When our African women go into the international arena, because the Western standard is vigorously used, it becomes difficult for them to make an impact,” said Stephen Mwangi, a group manager at Eastman Kodak Co., who was one of that year’s judges…
He added, “There is a saying in this part of the world – a really common saying – that if you really want to see beautiful African women, go to Ethiopia.”
I was reminded of what I, myself, had written a while back about Ethiopian women.
It was particularly interesting for me to read that some of the animosity Africans feel toward non-Africans, is rooted in jealousy, that this same dynamic is at work even between African tribes – when one tribe has more refined (read “less-African) features than another tribe. According to Richburg, this was the case with the Tutsi/Hutu conflict (pg. 109):
But on a deeper level, many Hutu did not need to be egged on too strongly to pick up the machete they normally use for chopping firewood and to cross the road and slash to death the Tutsi family living in the hut across the road. Because the Hutu who participated in the killings were slashing at centuries of stereotypes and discrimination. They were slashing at these images of physical beauty they had affixed in their own mind. They were slashing at their own perceived ugliness, as if destroying this thing of beauty, this thing they could never really attain, removing it from the earth forever.
What Richburg is referring to above is a theme that he revisits a few times in his book. The Tutsi have Nilotic origins, while the Hutu are of Bantu origin. This distinction is partly linguistic and partly racial. The Hutu represent the more classic “Congoid” racial stock, with more blunt and short features, while the Tutsi represent a Horn of Africa type, which is more gracile.
Richburg criticizes Africans for blaming the “Great White Western Conspiracy” for keeping them down. Thus (pg. 126) he cites various African theories on how AIDS is a white conspiracy. Elsewhere he points his finger at African strongmen who blame the West for their countries’ backwardness, while it’s actually their own corruption that stunts growth.
Richburg spares little venom in condemning American black leaders. He’s most generous with them (pg 138) when he calls them “prominent luminaries.” But after that, he has nothing kind to say about them. He writes (ibid.):
When Strasser (military dictator of Sierra Leon) entered the meeting hall, sporting his now-trade-mark glasses and his camouflage battle fatigues, the crowd of mostly middle- and upper-class black Americans went wild with cheering, swooning from the women, some hoots, and frenzied applause. Sitting in that hall, you might be forgiven for thinking Strasser was a music celebrity instead of a puny boy-dictator. 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. The chanting and hooting was a disgusting display, and to me it highlighted the complete ignorance about Africa among America’s so-called black elite.
… I sat there and listened as speaker after speaker heaped a nauseating outpouring of praise on some of Africa’s most brutal and corrupt strongmen and their repressive regimes. An uninitiated listener might not have noticed the farcical nature of Jesse Jackson’s fulsome tribute to Nigerian strongman Ibrahim Babangida. Jackson called Babangida “one of the great leader-servants of the modern world in our time,” proclaiming, “You do not stand alone as you move with a steady beat toward restoring democracy.”
Richburg, instead of holding his silence, chose to call out some of these “luminaries” on their hypocricy. He recounts (pg. 141):
So I was disgusted and angry in Gabon. And to keep from venting my disgust, I decided to have some fun by asking the various black leaders at the summit about the lack of human rights and democracy in black Africa. I enjoyed watching them wrap themselves in their own contradictions when I pointed out their contrasting views on South Africa versus the rest of the continent. I found the whole affair in Gabon o distasteful, I actually liked watching them squirm.
I asked Doug Wilder, Virginia’s first black governor since Reconstruction, about the problem of democracy in black Africa. “We cannot and should not force them to undergo a metamorphosis in seconds,” he replied. “If they are on track and on the path and giving evidence of trying to adjust, then out job is not to interfere, and to understand that there is a difference from what they are accustomed to.”
Interesting. Now imagine the conversation was about South Africa, and the year is, say, 1980, and imagine a white governor of a southern state saying of the apartheid regime, “We cannot and should not force them to undergo a metamorphosis in seconds… Our job is not to interfere.” I can imagine that white politician would immediately be branded a racist or worst, and probably by no less a personage than Doug Wilder.
One thing I like about Richburg is is honest assessment of what it means to be a “black journalist” in America, as opposed to being a journalist who just happens to be black. He complains that he’s expected to be loyal to the black cause – but that this sometimes conflicts with what a good journalist must do. He writes (pg. 144):
Are you black first, or a journalist first?
What the question really asks is, are you supposed to write accurately, and critically, about what you see and hear? Or are you supposed to be silently supportive of a black agenda, protecting prominent blacks from tough scrutiny and ignoring their foibles, while writing and reporting only favorably about issues of concern to America’s black community?
I get the impression that Richburg is one of a small minority, of black journalists, who asks himself these tough questions. He’s one of the few who resents having to choose sides. One of the few who has endured condemnation from other blacks, and been called “a traitor.” He did take some heat, after this book was published, from those above-mentioned “prominent blacks.” He describes this in the afterward.
One of the more interesting questions Richburg explores is the contrast between Southeast Asian countries and African countries. He asks (pp. 170, 171):
Why has East Asia emerged as the model for economic success, while Africa has seen mostly poverty, hunger, and economies propped up by foreign aid? Why are East Asians now expanding their telecommunications capabilities when in most of Africa it’s still hard to make a phone call next door? Why are East Asians now wrestling with ways to control access to the Internet, while African students still must use cardboard drawings of computer keyboards because they don’t have real computers in their classrooms? Why are East Asian airlines upgrading their long-haul fleets, while bankrupt African carriers let planes rust on weed-strewn runways because they can’t afford fuel and repair costs? Why are the leaders of Southeast Asia negotiating ways to ease trade barriers and create a free-trade zone, while Africans still levy some of the most prohibitive tariffs on earth, even for interregional trade?
There was nothing inevitable about Asia’s success and Africa’s despair. Both regions emerged from colonialism at about the same time and faced many of the same obstacles. In 1957, when Ghana gained its independence from Britain, it was one of the brightest hopes of black Africa, with a higher gross national product than South Korea, which was itself still recovering from a destructive civil war, and before that, from thirty-five years as a Japanese colony. Today South Korea is recognized as one of Asia’s “dragons,” and economic powerhouse expanding into new markets throughout the region and the world. Ghana, meanwhile, has slid backward. Its gross national product today is lower than it was at independence. World Bank economists like to point to Ghana as an example of an African country that is “recovering” under a strict fiscal discipline program; what they don’t tell you is that the economy today is propped up by foreign aid.
It’s an ugly truth, but it needs to be laid out here, because for too long now Africa’s failings have been hidden behind a veil of excuses and apologies. I realize that I’m on explosive ground here, and so I’ll tread carefully. It’s all too easy to stumble into the pitfall of old racial stereotypes – that Africans are lazy, that Asians are simply smarter, that blacks still possess a more savage, primitive side. But I am black, though not an African, and so I am going to push ahead here, mindful of the dangers, knowing full well that some will say I am doing a disservice to my race by pointing out these painful realities. But we have come too far now to pull back; the greater disservice now, I think, would be to leave the rest unsaid.
He goes on to detail the economic backwardness of Africa, and to reiterate that all the disadvantages suffered by Africa were also suffered by Asia. In the end, the closest he comes to an answer is when he confronts Ugandan politician Yoweri Museveni (pg. 177):
Museveni considered my question for a long time. He rambled on for a few minutes about how the East Asian countries had received greater assistance from the United States, in aid and “rental” payments for U.S. military bases on their soil. And finally he came around to the thought that I could tell was really on his mind.
“Discipline,” he said at last. “The discipline of the Asians compared to the Africans.” He paused. “I tend to find more discipline among the Ugandan Asians than among the Africans. I am not yet ready to explain this. People who come from an area with a big population, where people are very many and therefore competing for natural resources, may tend to be more disciplined than people who take life for granted.
“Scarcity of resources instills discipline in a people,” he concluded. “Too much competition for resources also instills discipline in a people.”
This comes awfully close to what race-realists say about cold climates and I.Q. To say that “Asians are more disciplined than Africans” doesn’t really provide an answer. Both are highly diverse groups, including many cultures. To truly get to the bottom of this issue, we would have to ask why Asians are more disciplined than Africans, and Richburg is not willing to go there. The theory about resources, taken by itself, would lead us to conclude that poorer people have more discipline than more wealthy people – but the opposite is actually true. I suspect that Richburg fears taking this question any further; he knows where it leads.
Richburg does ask some of the same questions about the black American underclass, and complains that the answers he hears are mere excuses, that they are “backward-looking, not inward-looking (pg. 179).” He compares Africans’ dependence on foreign aid with black Americans’ dependence on government programs (pg. 180).
For all his honesty and open-mindedness, Richburn does have his limits. He accepts the conventional attitude regarding South Africa, calling it a “black and white case” (pg. 190):
South Africa’s black masses showed they were willing to stand up against injustice, on their own with only rocks against automatic weapons, and the odds there seemed far more insurmountable. In South Africa, there were good guys and bad guys, a clear-cut case of black and white. And for once, the good guys finally did win.
Though he does temper this “black and white” perception with his personal encounters with white South Africans, and he does paint them as human, I still find Richburn’s analysis wanting here.
Though he draws parallels between African behavior and black American behavior, regarding excuse-making and poverty, he doesn’t do a very good job of emphasizing the similarities between black African crime and black American crime – or the fact that practically all areas inhabited by blacks are dangerous. In so many words, he describes how white South Africans tried to keep Africa at bay (pg. 207):
But what was new was that South Africa’s violence was spilling over the walls into South Africa’s white community, particularly in Johannesburg’s prosperous northern suburbs. The fear that blacks lived with every day was now entering the once-insulated world of white privilege.
It doesn’t seem to occur to Richburn that this “fear that blacks lived with every day” was almost exclusively a fear of other blacks. It never seems to occur to him that this, in and of itself, might provide justification for apartheid. He just assumes that white South Africans should have sacrificed their livelihoods, and their lives, for the sake of democracy. When there are two populations living side by side, and one of them is much more violence-prone than the other, it’s only reasonable that the more peaceful population would seek to separate itself. Richburn also neglects to even mention that it was white South Africans who built the country from a wasteland into one of the most prosperous nations on Earth.
Still, Richburn does have some kind words for the beneficiaries of apartheid, after having met a few face to face (pg. 212):
And I’m hating the whites – the psychiatrist, the dentist, all those shopkeepers who treated me gingerly – for not hating me, for not giving me an excuse to hate them.
On the matter of South African racial integration, and diversity in general, I think Richburn somewhat contradicts himself. While he makes no suggestion that white and black South Africans should create their own separate countries, he does imply that rival black tribes should do so (pg. 239):
This attitude must change if Africa is to have any chance of surviving. The Africans might want to take a lesson from the former Soviet Union, which did break up into its component parts, or from Czechoslovakia, which split into separate Czech and Slovak republics. Countries can indeed split up and nationalist claims to self-determination can be recognized without the sky falling in.
Richburn’s view of Zimbabwe comes across as far too rosy. I think this is because the worst of Robert Mugabe’s excesses didn’t come to light until after his book was published. He wrote (pg.214):
One of the dirty little secrets of Zimbabwe’s success as an independent black nation is something that most blacks – Americans or Africans – probably would rather not hear. It has something to do with a piece of advice that Mozambican president Samora Machel gave to Robert Mugabe well before independence. Machel told him simply, “Keep your whites.”
Looking back at the last decade of Zimbabwean history, talk of its “success” seems like a cruel joke.
Limitations and all, “Out of America” was a great leap forward for its time. I highly recommend it.